At the far edge of the habitable zone, where scrub and stunted pines give way to a desert of sand and bare rock, lies the ruin of a city. Lost for centuries, possibly older than Jericho, at least as impressive as Palmyra and Petra, it appears on no map. No ancient text refers to the place. Alexander failed to conquer it during his Persian expedition. Marco Polo omits it from his endless descriptions of cities in Asia. Sir John Mandeville and Ibn Battuta pass over it in silence. Caravans on the fabled Silk Road, if they knew it existed, never rested within its walls.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, a stray European stumbled on the forgotten city, whose original name is unknown. This self-styled explorer was a louche character with no credentials, English only by courtesy, a soldier of fortune to Turk and Christian, an apostate from at least two religions, a probable thief, a man with a smattering of classical education who went by various pseudonyms, including Captain Courage. Lysander Podge, as he appears in one court record, invented the name of Megalotaphos, which means “large tomb” in Greek, to evoke a necropolis or city of the dead.
His report published in Amsterdam and titled The Lost City of Megalotaphos Described in All Its Particulars excited curiosity among intellectuals, the philosophes of Paris and correspondents abroad. Some suspected a hoax, but later reports confirmed the find. Podge (or Courage) wrote of his first view:
I heard in market places, taverns, and stews, which is to say low houses, much talk of a marvelous great city built of fine stone and utterly deserted, and lying at the edge of a barren land. Thinking the talk to be rumor and persiflage by Oriental idlers with no better occupation than to tease a Western ear, for what city could rise in a waste unless by optical fantasy, I rounded a hill and beheld such a metropolis. Gilded by the sun in his setting, of vast extent, it was a brave sight. Yet did I perceive no plume of smoke, no ripple of a banner, no movement of persons. Dead quiet it was and awful.
In New York in the early 1800s, the newly constituted Geosophical Club sponsored John Mackenzie, an eager young scientist fresh from Scotland, to visit the ruins. Mackenzie chose six men to accompany him into uncharted territory: Joseph Hendrix, an American army lieutenant, with two soldiers on detail; Karl Pfifferling, a German botanist; Walter Mills, an English artist; and Ernesto Calogero, an Italian linguist and polymath. Calogero would help to interpret, it was hoped, while all three experts would record the customs and natural wonders of the country through which they passed. Hendrix and his men would attend to daily affairs—transport, food, making and breaking camp, and the physical safety of all.
Distinctions unraveled and tensions arose as the party traveled. Mackenzie had to improvise. His journal, filled with mishaps and feats of endurance, may be compared to that of Lewis and Clark, who explored the Louisiana Purchase about this time. Hampered by harsh weather and misunderstandings with government officials who had never seen the place, but who scorned inquisitive foreigners, banned the removal of items found there, and prohibited a survey or accurate measurement, the Mackenzie Party nevertheless gleaned valuable knowledge of a site that poses insoluble questions.
Was Megalotaphos once a living city? The dense walled center with a palace-temple precinct, the ceremonial plaza, main roads that radiate to monumental gates—this layout recalls the typical urban plan from ancient times to the Industrial Revolution. Was there formerly more rainfall, a moister climate that sustained agriculture? Irrigation ditches are visible, as are cisterns and collection basins, field enclosures, pens for flocks, and an array of pits that may have been dug for the roots of trees. Podge called this the remains of an orchard. Did the city suffer a shift in trade routes or a failure of markets? Mackenzie discerned no rise and decline, no sequence of styles, no passage of eras. Was Megalotaphos overwhelmed by disaster? The region is not prone to storms, convulsions, earthquakes, or floods, though plague and drought may have played a role. Wholesale destruction by fire is absent, the sack of the city by a wartime foe.
Centuries indeed have taken a toll. The city built entirely of stone—the yellow sandstone, lavender marble, and pale gray limestone of the surrounding region—lies in partial ruin. Heaps of rubbish are everywhere, the remains of walls less solidly constructed, of roofs that collapsed from the sheer weight of time. Damage came from the practice of robbing clamps from the walls, metal frames and hinges from doors, and carved stones that the vandals found attractive. Houses in a nearby village contain stones like those in Megalotaphos. It is also possible that the builders of tombs and memorial chapels reused material from structures that have vanished, just as the villagers did.
Mackenzie speculated that the ruins were those of a cemetery that served some larger and more vital city that has left no trace. This hypothetical city was built of lighter materials, thin poles and awnings easily dismantled, wattle and thatch consumed by the elements, or mud brick walls that crumbled away. Perhaps the inhabitants cared for the hereafter more than the here-and-now, the everlasting more than the every-day. Perhaps they lavished their labor and wealth on piles of solid stone while they lived in fragile huts.
Podge, on the other hand, noted that large tombs suggest substantial merchant houses, with shops at street level and residential stories above. Barred openings and panels pierced like screens have the look of windows. In what he described as a warehouse district, narrow buildings in monotonous rows extend for blocks along barren alleys, with hundreds of identical blank doors. By contrast, the mausoleums of great families have distinctive facades that proudly bear their names. Or so he assumed.
Inscriptions are carved all over the city in an unknown language whose alphabet has not been deciphered. The characters, of which Mackenzie counted over one hundred before he abandoned the effort, are are unlike hieroglyphics, ideograms, cuneiform, and other ancient scripts which began as picture-symbols. They offer no clue to pronunciation. While strings of characters are repeated like words or phrases, no one has yet been able to make sense of them. Megalotaphos has so far withheld a Rosetta Stone like the one found in Egypt in 1799, a dual or triple language inscription, a key to unlock the mystery. Podge asserted that the strange writing resembles an early form of Hebrew. Scholars today discard this idea.
What is clear on the ground is that there are districts, neighborhoods, and quarters based on wealth and occupation. Perhaps there are ethnic enclaves, but since we know nothing about the people, such an assumption is rash. By social class, at least, the dead are exclusive. Permanent residents prefer their own kind. Based on carvings of shoes and sandals, or what he took to be footwear, on every tomb in a certain street, Podge called this the Street of the Cobblers. Another street shows reliefs of wheels and carts—Carter Lane. Yet another depicts objects that radiate thin straight lines. Believing the objects to be bright gems and items made of gold and silver, Podge named this street Jewelers’ Row.
The city straggles into the desert. Some stretches have the look of garden suburbs, though devoid of leaves and grass. Here tombs resemble detached villas, with porches and terraces, and urns that held flowers instead of dust. Other outlying suburbs are dreary heaps for the poorest class. Here the graves are simple, often no more than a slab laid flat on the ground. A low wall or curb defines a plot, and here and there a round vault rises like a bump. Some rectangular bumps look like tables and benches. Podge supposed that on holidays people visited deceased relatives, laid wreaths on the graves, sat down among the austere stones, and ate picnic lunches unpacked from wicker hampers. Mackenzie found this imaginary scene grotesque.
Square platforms that may be altars occur throughout the city. They bear carved reliefs of offerings, unburnt sacrifices awaiting the torch, and unknown objects that may be sacred. Strange plants and animals appear, especially a type of gazelle which may have gone extinct, or which lived only in the mind as a magical beast.
As Podge observed, the reliefs refrain from portraiture. No men and women appear in the thousands of images. No statues or busts remain on the site, if they ever existed. Even in the so-called palace-temple precinct, no kings are represented, no priests engaged in ritual. The gods, if the people believed in gods, lacked anthropomorphic representation. To Podge, this absence was surely a hint of religious taboo, like the Hebrew prohibition of graven images. Mackenzie saw no reason to drag the Bible in, yet he too remarked on the lack of human faces and forms.
What is yet more puzzling, no bodies have been recovered, no bones that might be analyzed. Podge made no attempt to excavate. Mackenzie only scratched the surface, as he admitted. Later visitors lacked time and resources, as well as government sanction, but something should have surfaced by now, whether stolen and smuggled out of the country, or exposed by the accidents of weather and decay.
This lack of evidence inhibits our understanding of the people who created Megalotaphos. They slip our grasp. They elude us like ghosts. The city is vacant in a double sense, since even the remains of the dead are gone. Or were they never buried here? Perhaps the whole place is an empty tomb or cenotaph, a façade built of stone to baffle and perplex us.
We visit in space and time as though to a foreign planet. The strangeness leads stargazers to ask if a race of extraterrestrials settled here briefly, built the city, and rocketed away. In his journal, Mackenzie offers a calmer perspective.
While the city is built to human scale, and much about it suggests human habitation, there is in fact a dearth of evidence for the presence of homo sapiens. We searched in vain for a scrap of clothing, furniture, tools, and items of personal use, anything that would infer a wearer or user. Organic materials are long since consumed by natural agents. Metals, which it is reasonable to assume were used in daily life and the construction of the city, have all been robbed. Armor and weapons are absent, and the images do not show them.
Podge and Mackenzie did not stop to notice, since neither was trained to investigate a site, but even that staple of archeological research, pots are missing. Without ceramic clues, pottery and potshards to link to other sites, no date can be established, and no sequence of dates. Scholars today advance the hypothesis that skins were used to store liquids and baskets to store dry goods, materials that have vanished. Wooden bowls and barrels seem unlikely, given the scarcity of trees, though lumber might well have been acquired through trade. Relinquish the assumption that the city was inhabited by live persons, however, and pottery looks superfluous.
As a scientist and member of the Geosophical Club, Mackenzie was a lover of reason, as up-to-date as any in the early 1800s, and practical. Yet he records this note in his journal:
We pitched our camp some distance from the ruins, to take advantage of the shelter of an outcrop, and as well to avoid undue damage to the structures. Some of the party also felt a superstitious dread of falling asleep in a cemetery, as they conceived it. During the night, Calogero told me, an eerie lament arose from the city, a keening or banshee wail. I stayed awake the next night to hear it for myself. The wail commenced after sunset and diminished toward dawn. The chill of night was enough to make a man shiver. Was the sound produced by an animal, the wind, or the change in temperature among the stones? We could not discover its source.
Without ceramics, metal tools, and a firm date, the sophisticated stonework inspires wonder. Could it have been wrought by a culture restricted to stone and innocent of warfare? The reliefs omit battles, armies, sieges, triumphs, and loot, things commonly shown in ancient art. Was the culture composed of recognizable men and women, greedy and aggressive, who despoil nature and prey on each other? Many consider a primitive humanity devoted to peace and the arts as untenable, the stuff of myth, a ridiculous Golden Age.
Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, after Mackenzie could have considered the theory of evolution. Today we may ask if the Megalotaphites were a biological precursor to ourselves or a dead end. Perhaps they evolved on a separate line as an anthropoid species, or a creature more distantly related, one that does not appear in the fossil record, or one that has so far escaped detection. Perhaps they were the first inhabitants, the original earthling civilization, and we are the alien human race.