The Mystery of Nan Madol
Who built this ‘Venice of the South Seas’? How did they do it? Why did they abandon it?
DO YOU like a good mystery—one that is spiced with adventure? Then come and investigate the ruins of Nan Madol, a centuries-old enigma that has puzzled many visitors.
Nan Madol is an intriguing maze of man-made islets and canals built a thousand years ago on a shallow reef on the edge of the Micronesian island of Pohnpei.* As we approach by water, mangrove trees and dense tropical vegetation hide the ruins from view. Suddenly, as our boat eases around a bend, we are confronted by these triumphs of engineering.
Massive walls, some as long as a city block, appear first. These great walls, which sweep up to a gentle peak at their corners, were constructed of huge basalt columns stacked in crisscross fashion.
The name Nan Madol means “Places in Between,” and this well describes the network of man-made canals that surrounds the islands. European sailors of the 1800’s were likely the first outsiders to come upon Nan Madol. They were so awestruck by the sight that they dubbed this former political and religious center the Venice of the South Seas. But those sailors never witnessed the full splendor of Nan Madol, for it had been mysteriously abandoned about a century before they arrived.
Our two guides told us that Nan Madol covers about 200 acres. Each of its 92 islets, they explained, had a specific purpose. Some were used as residential centers. Others were set aside for such things as food preparation, canoe making, and ceremonial dancing. While the islands were built in various shapes and sizes, a typical one is rectangular and is about as big as a football field. Most of the islets are overgrown with vegetation, but what can be explored is fascinating.
Fortress of Kings
The imposing fortress called Nan Douwas is the best spot to contemplate the mystery of Nan Madol. Although it is possible to wade through seawater to explore these ruins, it is better to reach them by boat. Nan Madol was designed for water traffic, and its canals are as wide as four-lane highways. They are also quite shallow. At high tide the water is no more than waist deep, which, in centuries gone by, undoubtedly protected Nan Madol from invading ships. Our guides carefully steered through the waterways to avoid damaging boat propellers on the coral bottom.
Once docked at Nan Douwas, we stepped onto stairs leading directly into the ancient sanctuary. This noble entryway took us past walls 10 to 15 feet [3 to 4 m] thick and 25 to 30 feet [8 to 9 m] high. These sturdy towers have withstood tropical storms and even typhoons.
Inside the mammoth walls, a large courtyard guarding a stone vault awaited us. This solemn setting is the royal mortuary, where kings were once mourned. Exploring further, we found what appeared to be an underground passage. Our guides encouraged us to squeeze through the narrow opening in the stones, and soon we were crouched in a small, dark underground chamber. “You are in jail,” one guide explained. “This is where prisoners on Nan Madol were kept.” Imagining how a prisoner must have felt when the jail “door” was sealed with a two-ton stone, we were glad to get back outside.
Unusual Building Blocks
Wandering through the ruins of Nan Madol helped us to appreciate the effort that must have gone into its construction. Coral rubble serves as foundations for the islets. These were designed to bear hefty stacks of long basalt columns. The columns are so striking in appearance that early visitors thought they had been shaped by hand. Later, it was found that they are naturally prismlike, each having between five and eight sides.
Thousands of megalithic columns—some measuring up to 18 feet [5 m] and weighing more than five tons—had to be brought in. One of the foundation cornerstones is estimated to weigh 50 tons! Since in shallow water a raft would sink under such weight, we are forced to wonder, ‘How were these enormous rocks transported to Nan Madol and then lifted into place?’ Why, the nearest source of basalt is miles away—nearly halfway around the island of Pohnpei!
Over the years, the mystery of Nan Madol has spawned some imaginative legends. One has it that many centuries ago two brothers were empowered by the gods with magical ability to “fly” heavy stones to the building site. According to another legend, Pohnpei was once inhabited by an advanced society that knew the secret of controlling sound waves, enabling them to levitate the huge stones into place.
Our guides told us a more plausible explanation—that Nan Madol was built by a large human labor force and took centuries to complete. Most likely the basalt logs were hoisted into position with brute force, using inclined trunks of palm trees as supports. But still we ask, “How were the heavy stones transported to Nan Madol?”
Will the Mystery Be Solved?
No one can say exactly how Nan Madol was built or, perhaps even more intriguing, why it was abandoned. Many claim that Nan Madol was attacked and conquered. Others say that foreigners brought disease to Pohnpei, decimating the population. Another theory is that a strong typhoon destroyed the island’s food supply, forcing evacuation. Whatever the reason, Nan Madol has been deserted for at least 200 years.
Thus, this ancient wonder leaves us with many questions and few answers. As our boat pulled away, we could not help but ponder the question, Will anyone ever solve the mystery of Nan Madol?
Pohnpei is located near the equator, about 3,000 miles [5,000 km] southwest of Hawaii.
[Map on page 16]
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The dock and main entry of the fortress
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The massive outer wall
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The central stone burial vault
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Some of the 200 acres of man-made canals
© 2000 Nik Wheeler