Going, going, gone? A look at the Atlas of Vanishing Places

Maps aren’t just about getting from A to B. One new tome takes a slightly different approach by showing us the places slipping off the radar.

By Sarah Barrell, Connor McGovern
Published 8 Sept 2019, 06:00 BST
Photograph by Getty Images

The latest in a series of unexpected atlases by Quarto offers up places that were once the centre of our human worlds but have now disappeared under the sands of time (or, in some cases, literal sand). Written by pop cultural historian Travis Elborough, this book delves into the faded fortunes of legendary cities, examines rivers and seas whose changing forms have reshaped the human settlements around them, and digs up the dirt on ancient civilisations that have vanished without a trace. We take a look at four destinations fading out of sight.

Mahabalipuram, India
The ever-changing oceans have the power to unearth ancient wonders as well as wipe them away. After the 2004 tsunami, the retreating sea around the Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram on the Bay of Bengal scoured centuries of grit from the site and uncovered several granite sculptures buried beneath layers of sand. Figures of elegant beasts now bask in the sunshine after centuries of obscurity — lending weight to the myth that Mahabalipuram had once been a powerful port. Its survival offers insight into how our coastal relics might be preserved.

River Fleet, London
The only clue that Angler’s Lane — a street off Kentish Town Road in north London — has a watery past is its name. This was the erstwhile haunt of fishermen who worked on the River Fleet, a waterway that once ran from the boggy uplands of Hampstead south towards the Thames. However, by the 1300s the waterway had become an open sewer and was entirely blocked by the 1600s. An expensive scheme was devised to widen the river for commerce, but the project never proved economically viable and by the 1800s the river had been driven underground.

Dead Sea, Israel/Jordan
This Middle Eastern sea is an eerie place that earned its lifeless epithet from its high levels of salinity (more than seven times saltier than the ocean), meaning neither flora nor fauna can thrive in its waters. Since the 1970s, neighbouring countries have diverted water from its tributaries, so it’s shrunk from 50 miles long to barely 30 miles, with water levels plummeting at an alarmingly fast rate. Initiatives are in place to impede its recession, but without drastic action, the Dead Sea may well soon be dead.

Congo Basin Rainforest
Spanning central Africa, from the border of Uganda-Democratic Republic of the Congo across to Cameroon, the basin lost around 64,000sq miles between 2000 and 2014 due to extensive logging. The need to protect the forest is now greater than ever; more than 10,000 species of plants and 400 mammals call its swamps, rivers, canopies and savannah home, including scores of great apes.

Atlas of Vanishing Places by Travis Elborough is published by White Lion Publishing. RRP: £22

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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