POHNPEI, Micronesia—They call it "the lost city of the Pacific," but in truth Nan Madol has never been "lost" in the sense of having been hidden from European eyes.
Whereas places like Chichen Itza in Mexico and Machu Picchu in Peru deserve the description, not having been discovered by Old World explorers until long after they'd arrived in the New World, Nan Madol was located almost as soon as whalers began visiting Pohnpei in the 1820s.
It wasn't hard to find: Nan Madol, 92 man-made islets topped by buildings in various stages of ruin, stands in the tidal flats just off tiny Temwen Island, on the edge of the reef that surrounds Pohnpei a few kilometres from shore. Narrow stretches of water separate the islets, giving rise to the description of the place as "the Venice of the Pacific."
Like most visitors I took a boat ride to Nan Madol from one of the lagoon-side resorts on Pohnpei, stopping for some snorkelling in the gin-clear water along the way.
As we negotiated the islets' "canals" prior to landing we saw that the city was built behind walls of naturally formed, hexagonal basalt pillars (weighing, we were told, up to five tonnes each) that had been stacked horizontally, log-cabin style.
After the walls were built, explained Philip, our guide, the space inside was filled with coral rubble to bring it above water level and thus create the islets.
"This all took place, archeologists believe, between the ninth and the 15th centuries," he said, adding that local legend has it that the massive stones were flown, as if by some sort of magic, from the quarries on Pohnpei. The more mundane explanation is that they were floated over, and indeed divers have found some stone "logs" in the lagoon between Nan Madol and the mainland...stones, they say, that must have fallen off of rafts.
In its heyday Nan Madol was the royal and religious headquarters of the Saudeleurs, the tyrannical dynasty that ruled Pohnpei. "They were overthrown by the Nahmwarkis, probably in the 16th century," said Philip. "After that, Nan Madol went into decline."
From here the royals and priests — estimated to number about 1,000 — ruled the 30,000 inhabitants of Pohnpei. Several islets, known collectively as Madol Powe or the mortuary sector, are given over to burial tombs. Other islets had special purposes, such as canoe building on Dapahu, and central kitchens on Usennamw.
It was a pleasant way to spend a few hours, walking the ruined streets and sailing the "canals," but everyone leaves by dusk. Our guide explained, "There's a legend that you'll die if you spend the night here." He added, philosophically, "But it doesn't say when you'll die, and I suppose everybody dies sometime..."