Natural disasters have always threatened society. History is full of places that have disappeared and cities that have been wiped off the map. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, fires, and even sandstorms have been responsible for the destruction of cities since human settlement began 10,000 years ago. The ruins of many of the earliest natural disaster sites have not survived to the present. But occasional disasters, like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, have actually preserved some settlements in nearly intact shape. This has allowed modern archaeologists to study them and gain insight into their cultures.
As human society and technology have advanced, it has become less common for a natural disaster to render a city uninhabitable for centuries. But more recently, human-made disasters like wars and nuclear accidents have had similar effects.
Here are some places that were wiped out in an instant.
It's impossible to accurately measure the magnitude of ancient earthquakes, at least directly. But the biggest earthquakes left so much evidence that modern seismologists actually can estimate how big they were. One of these was an earthquake that hit the Mediterranean in 365 CE. While it shook the city of Alexandria, it nearly entirely engulfed the city of Neapolis nearly 1,7000 miles away. Had the Richter scale existed, it's estimated the quake would have registered an eight.
Neapolis, or Nabeul as it's known today, was originally a Greek colony that was a major site for the manufacture of garum, a fermented fish paste and popular condiment of the time. The 365 CE earthquake created a tsunami that totally flooded the city. Its Roman-era ruins remained underwater until it was finally rediscovered in 2017.
Joya De Cerén
Joya de Cerén in modern El Salvador is often called "The Pompeii of the New World." By 590 CE, the Mayan-era farming community was home to about 200 people. That was the same year that the nearby San Salvador Volcano, AKA the Loma Caldera, erupted. The absence of human remains indicates that Joya de Cerén's residents probably had time to flee, but the ensuing ash fall buried the city in 5-7m of ash, or 16-22 feet.
Like Pompeii, Joya de Cerén was preserved by the ash. When it was rediscovered in 1976 CE, it became one of the most important archaeological sites from the still poorly understood Mayan period. Twelve different buildings have been discovered, including dwellings, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, a sauna, and a temple.
While Mother Nature has wiped out countless cities, human beings have done their best to catch up. In 1218 CE, Kunya-Urgench in modern-day Turkmenistan was the capital of the Khwarezmian Empire and a major trading city along the Silk Road. That was the same year that Genghis Khan's Mongol army arrived and made first contact. The Khan claimed he only wanted to establish trade with the Khwarezmians (whether he really did is unknown). But the Khwarezmian ruler, Shah Muhammad II, made the regrettable decision to humiliate and execute the Mongol envoys.
In retaliation, Genghis Khan ordered what's still considered to be among the bloodiest massacres in human history. The Mongols slaughtered entire Khwarezmian populations in Kunya-Urgench and the region. Then they wiped out the city's irrigation system, forcing the remaining residents to relocate the Kunya-Urgench entirely.
Kunya-Urgench's population was devastated much more so than the buildings themselves, and the site remains one of the most well-preserved Islamic cities in the ancient world.
The Indus civilization flourished in the Indian subcontinent from 2500-1700 BCE, and they were responsible for many of the region's first accomplishments. Among these, they were the first urban civilization in India, as well as the first to cultivate rice in Southeast Asia.
But rice cultivation came at a price: the constant risk of flooding. Since the richest soil was situated on riverbanks, many Indus settlements experienced repeated deluges throughout their existence. Archaeological evidence suggests the Indus people built their houses specifically to counter flooding.
Usually, towns could recover from these floods, but that wasn't the case for Lothal, an important Indus port town situated at the mouths of the Sabarmati and Bhogawa rivers. It's the site of the world's first known dock. But its proximity to water meant that one extreme flood was enough to engulf it, which happened around 1900 BCE.