Nan Madol: Venice of the Pacific | History Hit

Nan Madol: Venice of the Pacific

Aerial shot of Nan Madol today, now largely obscured by mangroves.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

It is one of the most enigmatic and unique ancient sites in the world, and yet most people have never heard the name Nan Madol.

Situated in Eastern Micronesia off the island of Pohnpei, at its height this ancient floating citadel was the seat of the Saudeleur Dynasty, a powerful kingdom that had connections far and wide across the Pacific Ocean.

The site’s history is shrouded in mystery, but archaeology combined with later literary accounts and oral histories have allowed some to piece together information about this ancient citadel.

An ancient wonder

The first extraordinary aspect to highlight about Nan Madol is its location. The ancient site was constructed on a raised reef platform, located in an intertidal zone off the island of Temwen, itself off the island of Pohnpei in Eastern Micronesia.

Human activity at this offshore site stretches back almost 2 millennia, archaeologists having discovered and dated charcoal dating to times contemporary with the Roman Empire thousands of miles to the west. It is likely that the first settlers at Nan Madol lived in raised pole buildings, as it was only in the c.12th century that construction of monumental Nan Madol commenced.

Building a citadel on the sea

The citadel seems to have been constructed in stages. First and foremost they had to build a strong sea wall around the site, designed to protect Nan Madol from the tides. This large structure, the remains you can still see today, was made out of coral and columnar basalt walls and was anchored by two massive islets.

Once the sea wall was completed, construction of the off-shore city itself commenced. Artificial islets were erected out of corals, on top of which was placed monumental architecture largely made out of basalt. These islets, in turn, were connected via canals – so much so that from the city has been labelled the ‘Venice of the Pacific’.

The first area of Nan Madol believed to have been constructed was Lower Nan Madol, Madol Powe. This area consisted mostly of larger islets, with a main function of this section of the city being administration. The key administrative islet was Pahn Kedira, and it was here that the rulers of Nan Madol, the Saudeleur Dynasty, lived.

The ruins of Nan Madol, Pohnpei, photographed in the 21st century.

Image Credit: Patrick Nunn / CC

Life in Nan Madol

Pahn Kedira contained the Saudeleur palace. ‘Guest house’ islets surrounded it, for guests or dignitaries who had business with the Saudeleur ruler.

The second main sector of Nan Madol was Madol Pah, Lower Nan Madol. Believed to have been constructed after Upper Nan Madol, this area of the city consisted of smaller, closer together islets. The functions of buildings in this area seem to have varied from islet to islet (one islet, for instance has been labelled as a hospital), but a central purpose of some of the most prominent islets seems to have been for ritual and burial.

The most monumental of these islets is that of Nandauwas, on which was a central tomb that housed the crypt of the paramount chiefs of Nan Madol. Full of grave goods, this tomb was designed to impress. The basalt used to construct it came from Pwisehn Malek, a basalt hill situated on the far side of Pohnpei. Getting this basalt to Nan Madol would have been a huge logistical challenge and may have been floated to the site on logs, via water.

Local oral histories claim that the materials were transported to Nan Madol with magic.

Crumbling into ruin

Construction at Nan Madol seems to have ended in the c.17th century, after the Saudeleur Dynasty had been overthrown by the Nahnmwarkis.

Today much of the site has been taken over by mangroves; silt has taken over many of the canals that once dominated the site. Nevertheless the ruins remain a must see attraction for anyone visiting Pohnpei. An exceptional microcosm for the extraordinary ancient history of the communities that survived, and thrived, in the Pacific.

In 2016 Nan Madol was placed on the World Heritage list. At the same time, however, it was also placed on the World Heritage’s endangered list, due to rising sea levels and an increased chance of destructive tidal surges.

Nan Madol. Labelled the ‘Venice of the Pacific’ by US aviators during the Second World War, this Micronesian metropolis is one of the most enigmatic ancient sites in the world.
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Tristan Hughes