The places where nature rules

From prehistoric settlements and wonders of the ancient world to classical palaces and entire cities, some of the planet’s most amazing sights haven fallen victim to the forces of nature. Some were beaten into oblivion by severe weather, and others were simply abandoned by their human inhabitants, allowing nature to run its course. We pick some of the world's most fascinating spots all but forgotten by mankind, but ravaged by Mother Nature.

Ross Island, India

Part of India’s remote Andaman archipelago, Ross Island became a colonial British settlement in the 18th century. But, due to the intense heat and changeable weather, these settlers soon left. The British returned again in 1857, when they turned the jungle-clad island into a penal colony for Indian revolters. As the prison expanded to the other Andaman isles, Ross Island became its administrative headquarters.

Ross Island, India

As the Indian rebels suffered in makeshift barracks, the British ensured the rest of Ross Island was transformed into their own lavish base. Comfortable houses and a grand church were built by the prisoners for the colonizers. But, by the early 1940s, the prison had ceased operation. Once India gained independence in 1947, Ross Island was altogether abandoned once more. Today curious tourists come to see the crumbling buildings wound with vines and dwarfed by trees.

SS Ayrfield, Australia

Often dubbed a “floating forest”, the shipwreck of SS Ayrfield in Sydney’s Homebush Bay is so overgrown with mangrove trees that only its bow is visible. The area was once a busy port, and trading boats would frequently pass through the waters here, carrying war supplies and other freight. But when trading slowed after WWII, many ships were decommissioned and simply left in the bay.

SS Ayrfield, Australia

Many of these once-mighty freighters lie wrecked beneath the water’s surface, but the SS Ayrfield, first commissioned in 1911, miraculously stayed afloat. Though its stern is red with rust and near busted by tree trunks, the ship remains above water today.

North Brother Island, USA

North Brother Island, an eerie plot in New York City’s East River, has a tumultuous past. It was ravaged by a fire in 1905, leading to the loss of hundreds of lives – but it’s most well known as the place where so-called “Typhoid Mary” was held. Mary Mallon, an immigrant cook living in the city in the early 1900s, was the first presumed carrier of bacteria linked to typhoid, after several of her co-workers contracted the disease.

North Brother Island, USA

Mallon never showed symptoms, but was nonetheless confined to the Riverside Hospital, which was built in 1885 on the otherwise empty island. She attempted escape several times to no avail, and died on the island in 1938, along with many other patients quarantined on account of their infectious diseases. The island, off limits to visitors, is still the site of the corroding, now-vacant hospital, as well as clumps of wild woodland – it also acts as a bird sanctuary run by New York City Parks.

St Dunstan's in the East, England

This once ornate church in London, originally built around 1100, was nearly razed to the ground during the Blitz. The bombing campaign on the city during WWII left the church almost entirely in ruins – but several of the walls and the soaring tower and steeple (added between 1695-1701 by Christopher Wren) remained intact. The church had previously been rebuilt following the Great Fire of London in 1666.

St Dunstan's in the East, England

St Dunstan's remained tattered until the 1960s, when the city council decided to convert it into a public garden. Now the church is dotted with benches, trees and fountains, and acts as a serene bolthole away from the bustle of the city.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

Desert sand seeps into every crevice of Kolmanskop, a ghost town in the Namib. It covers the floors of now derelict houses, forcing doors off their hinges as it reclaims the space. A mere century ago, Kolmanskop was a thriving miners’ town. In 1908, a local railway worker stumbled across what he thought was a diamond in the area. Once his find was verified, miners, predominantly German, rushed here in the hope of making their fortune.

Kolmanskop, Namibia

The community thrived for several decades, but the diamond boom was ultimately short-lived. Following the war, the trade plummeted dramatically. By 1954, there was no longer any mining activity in Kolmanskop, and the final inhabitants soon moved on. Save from tourists weaving between the sand-filled properties and the occasional film crew, the town has remained abandoned ever since. Check out more ghost towns here.

Pompeii, Italy

This bustling Roman city in southern Italy was famously destroyed and buried beneath ash in AD 79 when Mount Vesuvius erupted spectacularly on August 24. Around 2,000 people perished within the city and it remained buried under tons of ash, rock and pumice until its sprawling ruins were rediscovered in 1748. It’s Europe’s richest archaeological site.

Pompeii, Italy

Preserved by the volcanic ash and debris, the city remained incredibly intact and has helped archaeologists learn a great deal about Roman society and everyday life. The site is enormous – you could spend days exploring its streets and buildings (villas, baths, gardens, temples, brothels and amphitheaters) – and the wealth of artifacts, mosaics, statues and frescoes that survived despite the cataclysmic event is astounding. It's thought between 12,000 and 15,000 people lived here.

Herculaneum, Italy

The brooding form of Mount Vesuvius looms over the Bay of Naples and has erupted many times since AD 79. But it was the AD 79 eruption that was the most disastrous. As well as Pompeii, it also completely decimated the small coastal town of Herculaneum, which was discovered buried under layers of rock at the western base of the mountain.

Herculaneum, Italy

The people of Herculaneum suffered a similar dreadful fate to Pompeii but they faced a massive pyroclastic surge that cascaded down Vesuvius’s slopes. As the town was entombed beneath a layer of lava it was better preserved than Pompeii and its compact size makes it easier to explore in a day. The eerie feeling is inescapable as you wander its ancient streets and wonder at the fate of those who left it too late to flee.

Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece

Another natural disaster that became infamous in ancient times happened around 3,600 years ago in the Cyclades archipelago. A massive volcanic eruption obliterated Santorini (Thera) and totally eradicated Akrotiri, one of the Bronze Age’s most thriving settlements. The city was buried under ash and pumice until the 19th century. Mysteriously no human remains were found so either the inhabitants fled before the eruption or their skeletons remain undiscovered.

Akrotiri, Santorini, Greece

The well-preserved ruins of this prosperous Minoan city (Akrotiri was an outpost of Crete) can be found on the southern tip of Santorini and have provided a fascinating insight into prehistoric civilizations. Some believe Akrotiri's disappearance inspired the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, Plato’s story of the cataclysmic destruction of an ancient civilization.

Knossos, Crete, Greece

It’s thought Thera’s colossal eruption may have played a part in destroying the entire Minoan civilization too, which came to an end around 50 years later. The remains of the ancient Minoan palace of Knossos – the vast and elaborate home of King Minos of the labyrinth and Minotaur fame – have given some clues to the cause of the Minoans' demise.

Knossos, Crete, Greece

Debate rages as to whether it was earthquakes, a tsunami or climate change brought about by Thera's eruption, fire, or simply invading Mycenaeans (who later ruled Minoan sites) that eventually undid the Minoans. Theories abound but the evocative ruins of the elaborate Minoan palace show it was destroyed and rebuilt at least twice during the several thousand years it was occupied due to numerous earthquakes. It was completely abandoned in 1375 BC.

Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland

Theories rage around what caused Skara Brae to disappear, including one that a huge sandstorm engulfed this neolithic settlement in the Orkney Islands around 2500 BC. It was uncovered by forces of nature too – in 1850 a violent storm stripped away grass and sand to reveal the well-preserved ancient stone houses that had been lost beneath a vast sand dune.

Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland

Today these structures are considered the best-preserved group of prehistoric houses in western Europe. They give a fascinating insight into the everyday lives of the farmers, fishermen and hunters who lived in this once thriving village. Remarkably you can still see their stone dressers and beds while the visitor center has an amazing collection of artifacts including gaming dice, hand tools, pottery, jewelry and carved stone objects probably used in religious rituals.

Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland

Sadly, there are fears that Skara Brae could once again be lost to us as climate change threatens more severe and frequent storms and rising sea levels that could damage the subterranean site.

Petra, Jordan

Capital of a once powerful trading empire, the rock city of Petra was home to the Nabateans between 400 BC and AD 106. In AD 363 a massive earthquake and aftershocks destroyed many of its buildings and crippled its essential water supply system. Despite this, Petra remained inhabited in parts for a further 300 years until it was finally abandoned and lost for centuries amid the rugged desert canyons and mountains of Jordan.

Petra, Jordan

The towering structures carved into the rose-colored sandstone cliffs have made this lost city one of the world’s most intriguing archaeological sites. Entrance is via the awe-inspiring Siq – a mile-long narrow gorge that emerges onto the Treasury, the city’s most famous monument. Petra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and also named as one of the "New7Wonders" of the world. It’s thought much of the city is yet to be excavated.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt

One of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse of Alexandria was severely damaged by earthquakes between the 10th and 14th centuries. The impressive construction sat on the small island of Pharos outside of the Egyptian harbor and was the tallest building in the world for many years. It was built between 280 and 247 BC by Ptolemy I.

The Lighthouse of Alexandria, Egypt

It dominated the Mediterranean coast for centuries until it was damaged irreparably by earthquakes. It was then totally demolished in 1480 to make way for the Citadel of Qaitbay. Some stones from the lighthouse were used in the construction of the medieval fort, which still stands on the site. Further remains have since been discovered on the floor of Alexandria’s harbor, along with other remains of the ancient metropolis.

The Colossus of Rhodes, Greece

Created and erected by Chares of Lindos in 280 BC to celebrate Rhodes' victory over Cyprus, the awe-inspiring bronze statue of the sun god Helios was another of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It stood guard at the entrance to the island's port city of Rhodes. But its glory was short lived: only 50-something years later the statue was toppled over by an almighty earthquake, which snapped the statue at its knees and devastated the island.

The Colossus of Rhodes, Greece

Worried that they may have angered Helios by building his replica, the people of Rhodes never rebuilt or re-erected the statue. Instead it remained on the ground until the city’s capture by Arab forces in AD 653, who then sold off the bronze. Plans were announced several years ago, however, to crowdfund the build of a new colossus of Rhodes. So the great god may tower over the harbor entrance once again.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Turkey

This melancholy site was yet another wonder of the ancient world that fell victim to a series of earthquakes between the 12th and 15th centuries. The large and elaborate tomb was built for King Maussollos of Karia between 353 and 350 BC in what is now Bodrum in southwest Turkey. It’s where the term mausoleum is derived from.

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Turkey

Some remains of the mausoleum can be seen in the British Museum, including free-standing statues, marble relief slabs and fragments of the huge marble four-horse chariot that once crowned the pyramid roof of the tomb. In it sat figures of Maussollos and his wife (and sister) Artemisia, who is thought to have ordered the construction of the opulent tomb. After the earthquakes took their toll, the remainder of the structure was used by the Knights of St John to fortify their castle at Bodrum.

Arg-e-Bam, Iran

A devastating earthquake in 2003 hit the Iranian city of Bam and killed tens of thousands of people elsewhere in the region. The ancient city at its heart was almost lost forever too. After the rescue efforts, the site was simultaneously inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2004. It has since been extensively restored and remains one of Iran’s most treasured historical sites.

Arg-e-Bam, Iran

Built from mud layers and sun-dried mud bricks between the 4th and 6th centuries AD, the intricate citadel in the desert of Iran’s Kerman province was thought to be the largest adobe structure in the world before it largely crumbled during the quake. Once a flourishing city on the Silk Road, Bam was renowned for its production of fine silks and cottons as well as the delicious dates grown on its prolific palm trees.

Port Royal, Jamaica

It’s hard to believe that small and insignificant Port Royal at the mouth of Kingston Harbour was once the largest city in the Caribbean. In fact the bustling port was renowned as a center of piracy and prostitution. Until that is it was destroyed by an almighty earthquake in 1692. Much of the town, including several forts, sank into the sea never to be seen again. It’s thought around 2,000 people, half of the town’s population, perished.

Port Royal, Jamaica

The port never regained its status, becoming a British naval station then slipping into life as a sleepy fishing village. In 1969 underwater archaeology pioneer Edwin Link discovered a pocket watch which revealed the exact time the city was sent to its watery death – it had stopped at exactly 11:43. Many of the 17th-century buildings remain intact underneath the waves. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Port Royal's lost city is considered one of the world’s most important underwater sites.

Phnom Kulen, Cambodia

The ruinous medieval city of Mahendraparvata was recently rediscovered buried beneath the dense vegetation of the jungle-clad plateau of Phnom Kulen, the most sacred mountain in Cambodia. The extensive remains were unearthed in 2012 by Australian archaeologists who undertook airborne laser scanner surveys on the area.

Phnom Kulen, Cambodia

Subsequent surveys on the national park identified the remains of an almighty city comparable to Angkor Wat – a vast network of temples, palaces, dwellings and waterworks infrastructure. Archaeologists had long sought the rumored lost hilltop capital Mahendraparvata (which means "the mountain of the great Indra, king of the gods") that was founded in AD 802 and was the birthplace of the great Khmer civilization. When the city was abandoned the tropical forest reclaimed its land.

Beng Mealea, Cambodia

Nature has run riot in many of Cambodia’s other jungle ruins, including the large and enigmatic temple of Beng Mealea that has been dramatically devoured by the surrounding forest. Clambering around these remote and overgrown ruins, where crumbling blocks are covered in lush vegetation and seemingly suffocated by strangler figs, is a reminder of the force and endurance of nature.

Ani, Turkey

The eerie ruins of this once almighty capital of the Armenian Bagratid dynasty sit in the remote highlands of northeast Turkey near the Armenian border. The imposing walled city and cultural hub of medieval times (it was said to rival Constantinople) was devastated by a massive earthquake in 1319 and faced subsequent earthquakes, invaders, wars and vandalism later in history.

Ani, Turkey

Known as the ghost city of Ani, its crumbling ruins sit abandoned and little visited. They include churches, palaces, city walls and an intriguing Zoroastrian fire temple. The imposing remains of the Cathedral of Ani can still be seen, although its dome collapsed in the earthquake.

Sabratha, Libya

Founded by the Phoenicians on Libya’s Mediterranean coastline around the 4th century BC, this ancient trading post later fell under Roman rule. Sabratha's stunning seaside amphitheater, with its grand three-story backdrop, is a legacy of this. It’s remarkably well preserved considering the city has been struck with several earthquakes – the most devastating one in AD 365.

Sabratha, Libya

After the earthquake the city was rebuilt by its Byzantine governors but it never regained its magnificence. Today the site, which includes a Roman forum, baths and temples, is threatened once again by nature – coastal erosion is an ongoing problem, as is mankind. Sadly, Sabratha was one of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Libya placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger because of damage caused by conflict and the further threat posed.