Real Sunken Cities

These five sunken cities testify to the risks of coastal life.

Published January 11, 2016

From the sunken island of Atlantis to the legendary drowned French city of Ys, our myths and folklore are filled with stories of metropolises swallowed by the sea. But even more fascinating than these fictional submerged cities are the real ones that dot coastlines around the world. These five underwater cities remind us that building a life on the coast can be a precarious undertaking.

Pavlopetri, Greece

In 1967, British scientist Nicholas Flemming identified the sunken remains of a city near the islet of Pavlopetri off the south coast of Laconia, Greece and uncovered 15 houses, 37 graves, a tangle of streets, and fragments of pottery. In 2009, a team of archaeologists dated a pottery shard from the site to about 3000 BCE, making Pavlopetri the world’s oldest-known underwater city. The Minoan and Mycenaean people likely occupied the city through the Bronze Age until roughly 1000 BCE, when a series of earthquakes sent the city into the sea.

Phanagoria, Russia

Phanagoria, one of the largest colonies in ancient Greece, was founded circa 540 BCE on the shore of the Black Sea. Its powerful and notorious king, Mithridates VI, ruled Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) from 119 to 63 BCE. The king and his wife Hypsikratia both had fearsome reputations: he as “Rome’s greatest enemy” and she as a woman with “the spirit of a man.” Mithridates waged three wars on Rome, but he couldn’t fight sea level rise. Centuries later the city’s legacy is preserved underwater. Archaeologist Vladimir Kuznetsov has recovered coins depicting Mithridates and a marble gravestone bearing Hypsikratia’s name.

Baiae, Italy

The luxurious Roman resort town of Baiae, whose thermal springs were first used therapeutically in 176 BCE, was alternately described in literature as either an earthly paradise or a den of iniquity. But while Baiae’s location in a volcanically active region gave it its famous hot springs, it also led to its ruin. In what is called a bradyseismic event, a magma chamber beneath Baiae and the surrounding area gradually drained, causing the land above it to sink. Today, Baiae exists half on land, half in the sea.

Port Royal, Jamaica

With a centralized location ideal for trade between Britain and the Caribbean, Port Royal’s population boomed in the late 1600s. In 1662, it had only 740 inhabitants, but by the end of the century the population had jumped to 7,000, half of which were pirates or privateers. With its taverns, brothels, and carousing population, it’s no wonder that Port Royal was often referred to as the wickedest city on Earth. But on June 7, 1692, the hedonism was interrupted when a violent earthquake tore the town apart, sending two-thirds of it underwater and killing 2,000 people. Sickness and injury killed another 3,000 in the quake’s aftermath. The “wicked city” remained a British port, but never regained its unruly reputation.

Point Fermin, Los Angeles

Prospective homeowners in the 1920s flocked to picturesque San Pedro, a Los Angeles neighborhood, to view newly built bungalows, some of which were perched near the cliff edge at Point Fermin. Unfortunately, the developer underestimated the strength of the waves that battered and weakened the clay under some of the homes. In 1929, the cliff started to slide in slow motion, shifting buildings within one section of the neighborhood (about the size of four and a half city blocks) as much as 28 centimeters a day. This slow-moving landslide gave most of the residents enough time to move their homes to a new location, but two houses close to the cliff edge ended up in the ocean. Today, a few graffiti-marred slabs of concrete—fragments of roads and house foundations—are all that remain above water.