Reef of heaven

Between 1200 and 1500 CE, the city of Nan Madol was built on a series of artificial islands and a coral reef in what is now eastern Micronesia.

Nan Madol
CT Snow from Hsinchu, Taiwan, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m a bit of a fanboy for megalithic archaeological sites. A few years ago I spent a lovely Sunday walking across the farmland of Gozo so that I could check out the megalithic temple Ġgantija. (Why was I walking? I didn’t realise until the ferry landed that Maltese buses didn’t run on Sundays.) So you can imagine my excitement when I learned about Nan Madol, a city constructed across a series of artificial islands off the coast of Pohnpei, an island of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Pohnpei has been occupied for a couple of thousand years, and the artificial islands date back more than a thousand years, but construction of Nan Madol proper probably didn’t begin until around the start of the 13th century CE. A huge stone wall surrounds the islands, and slabs of intricately stacked basalt and coral boulders form a series of houses, temples, palaces, and tombs. Navigable canals separate and connect the various islands, making the city something like a Micronesian Venice.

Nan Madol was the home of the ruling class of Pohnpei – perhaps a thousand people out of the total island population of around 25,000. Local legend has it that two sorcerers founded the city and levitated the huge blocks into place; pseudo-archaeologists have suggested that it was a small part of a lost Atlantis-like continent called Mu (more about that wacky idea another time perhaps). It’s now overgrown with mangroves and sorely in danger of disappearing under the waters because of climate change, but the site is still an impressive testament to the ingenuity and expertise of its builders.

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