Ancient History

Lost City of Alexander the Great Discovered on Declassified Satellite Photos

Do you lose things a lot? Sometimes we have to leave the house five or six times before we have everything we need to go about our day. But when you're Alexander the Great, you don't just lose car keys and phone chargers. You lose entire cities. And they stay lost.

Looking Back in Time

What's really wild about this story is the long and winding road the city took from "lost" to "found". It all started sometime around 331 B.C.E., when Alexander was well into the first leg of his army-crushing world tour. King Darius III of the Persians was on the ropes and retreating, and Alexander was on the hunt. He followed his quarry into Mesopotamia and, as was his wont, he built cities along the way. And that's how Qalatga Darband ended up on Lake Dokan, on the eastern side of Iraq.

And then it disappeared.

We're not sure exactly why Qalatga Darband didn't make it into the history books, but we know for a fact how it elbowed its way back in. In the 1960s, the biggest geopolitical powers were wrapped up in the Cold War, and a big part of that little kerfuffle was an obsession with up-to-the-minute surveillance. So, sometime in that decade, an American spy satellite happened to pass directly overhead Qalatga Darband and snapped a photo showing exactly what was lying beneath those fields of wheat and barley. But although that was first image of Qalatga Darband, it wouldn't actually be noticed until 1996, when those photos were all declassified.

Even then, it took awhile before modern experts could confirm that the city was really there. First, the problem was Saddam Hussein, who wasn't too excited about anyone coming to dig anything up in the country. Finally, archaeologists from the British Museum were able to send in a flock of drones to take some pictures, and eventually, a full-fledged dig began pulling up all kinds of fascinating information about life 2,350 years ago.

The lost city was found near the rocky Darband-i Rania pass in the Zagros Mountains of Iraq.

The Napa of Ancient Iraq

Once the archaeologists were able to start pulling up artifacts from the ground, they began to put together an accurate picture of what Qalatga Darband was actually like. For one thing, it was party central. The bustling little city would have been a natural stopping point for soldiers traveling from Iran to Iraq or vice versa, and it would have been equipped to entertain them as well. The researchers have been able to find ample evidence of once-thriving vineyards, and found the remains of stone presses that would have been used for making wine.

They also found a pair of statues that seem to represent Persephone and Adonis, further cementing the claim that this was a city of Greeks far from home. The only way to be more sure would be if we found the giant wooden horse that ancient Greeks all traveled around in.

Want to read more about Alexander's history-making conquest from the Mediterranean to the Indian subcontinent? Check out Robin Lane Fox's biography of the world's most successful military leader.

Alexander the Great

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 5, 2017

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