The Curse of the Ruins of Nan Madol

01.08.2009 22:21


Were Nan Madol within easy reach, it would be a paradise of mystery buffs and adventurers. Legend has it that the ruins of an ancient town of a mysterious civilization abound with uncharted underground corridors, tombs cradling the relics of giants, and dead kings' spirits. As it is, a precious few have ever set out for this jungle-covered little island in the midst of the Pacific Ocean.


            To find the Pohnpei Island on the map is tricky. It lies at the very edge, where the cartographers had divided the globe to fit it onto a single sheet of paper, near 160 degrees longitude, on the open ocean, among several uninteresting islands of Micronesia. But are they really uninteresting? 

            It is hard to believe that this God forsaken land harbors a monumental structure dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" or "Venice of the Pacific". Daniken's books prepared me for mighty stone fortifications of an old deserted town lush with mangroves and wild tropical flora, but as I faced and fingered the hexagonal shaped basalt logs I felt the chill of a direct confrontation with the unknown. The building panels create an austere, rough and menacing edifice, without the ornaments, embossments or statues typical of ancient buildings. Heavy silence broods over the dead city, disturbed only by the distant echo of the ocean surf. A first glance reveals ruins that are under a spell, just as the local myths claim.


The Stone Mystery

The technologies of ancient civilizations continue to amaze us. Like the pyramids and other megalithic constructions, building Nan Madol required a tremendous effort and expertise so that the great number of boulders, weighing anywhere from five to fifty tons, could be moved and raised to where they were needed. To erect walls three meters (10 feet) wide and up to eleven meters (37 feet) tall, 250 million pieces of rock had to be logged in from the quarry on the opposite side of the island. The locals say that the ancient builders used magic. With "sounds of varying pitch" they made basalt logs fly through the air like birds and settle down in their appointed places. Nobody believes in magic today but the scientific theory about lugging the stones by water on bamboo rafts has fallen through. While making a documentary movie about Nan Madol for the Discovery Channel in 1995, all attempts to transport panels weighing over a one ton failed.

            The peculiar location of the city raises another baffling question. Why was it raised in the ocean waters and not on land? Each structure had to be built on a specially constructed artificial rectangle in the water, edged by long basalt boulders and filled with coral granules. 92 such artificial islets cover the area of 2,5 square kilometers. Why did the early builders come up with this insane idea, demanding the grueling labor of building artificial sea islands when there were so many natural coral reef islands here, or when they could simply clear the shore of a few palm trees?  


   The Curious Will be Punished by Death

            No written records on the island's history exist. Its myths and legends live through the oral tradition only. The local practice of "keeping secrets" is another stumbling block to solving the Nan Madol mystery. The natives believe that tattlers and explorers of the ruins will perish. The local king, the nahnmwarki, decreed that to disturb the holly ground that once belonged to the old rulers with supernatural powers meant a legal breach. He threatened the English archeologist, F. W. Christian with capital punishment should he disobey and dig. In the early twentieth century, when the island was under German rule, Governor Victor Berg defied the royal ban, entered the sealed tomb of Nan Mandol and opened the coffin of the ancient island rulers. He found skeletons of giants two to three meters tall. A wild storm ensued, lightning flashed through the sky and torrential rains whipped the black fortification walls. The next morning, on April 30, 1907, after a delirious night, Governor Berg died. The German physician serving on the island could not determine the cause of death. The natives, certain it was a curse, recount the story to prove that supernatural powers guard the city of the dead. Today's rationale tells us he must have died of sunstroke and heat exhaustion contracted while surveying the ruins.  


   The Platinum Coffins of the Kings

Who were the giants who built Nan Mandol and mysteriously vanished? Archeologists have not yet answered this question and their interest seems to have withered. The Pohnpei people believe them to be the natives of the vanished continent of MU, sunk into the Pacific Ocean during a great calamity 12,000 years ago. Myths have evolved over time about the tenants of Nan Matol and three distinct races of giants: a human-like species, capable of flight; a simian race of giants who could fly and live under the sea; and a third strain of "megagiants", best described as worker-drones who labored beneath the sea. In the early nineteen hundreds, researchers recorded a popular legend about the Kona, a cannibalistic race of giants. Today that legend has become scaled down, a well-known tale of Ohlosihpa and Ohlosohpa, brothers possessed of magic powers, founders of a dynasty called the Saudeleurs, and cruel tyrants who fed on their island subjects.

            The Nan Madol skeletons possibly held a clue to the mystery of the giants' ethnic origin but the Japanese hauled away the tombs in nineteen twenty eight when they controlled the island. They carried off the platinum caskets from the House of the Dead under the sea. That's where the second, mirror part of the city stands. The divers smashed the coffins under water and brought up pieces of platinum. Suddenly the main export of the island to Japan, vanilla, copra, sago and mother of pearl was supplanted by platinum. And then one day two members of the blasphemous mission to the House of the Dead vanished. No one knew what happened. Soon WW II broke out and the Japanese had plenty of distractions. The platinum coffins were forgotten. Neither the caskets nor records of them survived the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Yet couldn't the ruins of Nan Madol hold still other bones of the early inhabitants?

 "A few years back my friend found a human femur in the jungle by the ruins," recalled our native friend, Walter Ringlen. "Lying among the boulders, it was twice the size of that of a normal human." Typically, though, he didn't grasp the significance of his discovery and it has since been lost. They say there are more unopened and sealed tombs there.  


    Mysterious "Dead-end" Tunnels

Erich von Däniken learned about the platinum caskets from the book of German explorer, Herbert Rittlinger, and in the Seventies came to look for the entrance to the House of the Dead. He had no diving gear and searched only on dry land. A local guide claimed there was a well with a tunnel leading to a second underwater city. Unexplored tunnels connecting the islands, going past the cliff to the open sea are a part of the general lore. Many a small island has a walled up opening that points underground. But nobody explores them. The locals avoid the ruins in superstitious fear.

            That was precisely why we wanted to go to Nan Madol. We were excited about making grand discoveries. Old spells didn't frighten us; geared up to our teeth we obtained a study permit from the nahnmwarki, the king of the southern part of the island. Daniken's well was on the island of Darong. But the mountain-climbing rope we brought along was unnecessary. Not a perpendicular well, it was an entryway to an underground passage. There was about a foot (30 centimeters) of water. We removed the basalt logs from the entrance and one man from our group, Danny squeezed through a black hole. The corridor was narrow and Danny had to crawl through the water on his stomach. The passage was square, built of large boulders. Unfortunately it didn't lead to the House of the Dead. Its mere 6 meters didn't end in an embankment (which we could have dealt with) but a steep stone wall. The purpose of this short canal remained a mystery to us.      

            There were more such entryways leading below the ground on Nan Madol. The little islands were said to be linked by underground tunnels but we didn't find any. All the corridors ran abruptly into stone walls or small empty cells. In vain we searched for camouflaged secret entries to connecting tunnels; in vain we inserted a probe with a tiny TV camera in the nooks between the stones. No rooms or caskets with skeletons came up.

            The tourist brochure we bought at the airport claimed that one tunnel led from the artificial Lehnkai Pool 70 by 56 meters, depth unknown, to the open sea past the cliff's edge. We dived at low tide when the water from the lake should have flown into the ocean but saw no undercurrent or a black hole. We measured its depth. It was only 3 meters.      

            "No, I never heard of any platinum caskets," said our native guide Walter, who has lived here his whole life since his birth in nineteen forty, "but there is an underwater city here." Then he recalled his parents telling him that his great-grandfather had seen such a city. While fishing, his harpoon hit a turtle that dragged him to the bay floor. There he saw stone buildings, streets and pillars, overrun by coral and shells. When he came up, his nose, ears and eyes were bleeding and he couldn't speak. After one week his speech returned but when he described what he saw under water, he died. The natives concluded the city was cursed.    


    Nothing but Pillars

            The only place that could possibly have more underwater buildings was a 100 meters stretch past Nan Douwas. There was a wall there, petering out into the sea, the only spot where the mysterious city met the open ocean. The shore fell deep quickly 30 meters, but large waves made underwater visibility poor. Although everyone warned us of sharks and a giant man-eating grouper, Danny, Jirka and Jarda set out to explore the ocean floor. It was sandy and bare, save for a few lonely basalt blocs. The air in the divers' tanks started to run out and they were almost ready to give up and leave when they saw a pillar jut out from the murky water. It was about 4 meters high, and overgrown by coral. While Jirka examined the pillar's core for the presence of basalt, Jarda found another pillar and then another, standing in a straight line. Could it be a street of an underwater city? But what about buildings? The men swam around, fruitlessly seeking a dark silhouette of the House of the Dead with platinum caskets until the air pressure gauge told them it was high time to leave.   



            "Mean spirits guard the hidden treasures and bodies of old kings," Stewo Gallen shook his head gravely the night we visited him, partook in the ritual of drinking sakao (a sacred narcotic drink of the Indian Ocean) and discussed the island's mysteries. "At night they appear as balls of light at the fortifications, and wander along the canals."

            We knew that Nan Madol was haunted. Even serious tourist books said so. Natives avoided it, especially at night. That's why we couldn't understand how they knew about ghoulish lights and moans issuing from the long-sealed tombs. Since we failed to find the giants' skeletons, we might fail to discover what shone and whined in the night. Ignoring the warning that we'd either die or go insane with fear, we packed our night vision scope, microphone, video camera and a large reflector, and before sunset broke our tent by the crypt entrance on the biggest island. The heavy silence hanging over the dead city was broken only by the boom of the surf and the hum of mosquitoes. Darkness fell and the moon sailed over the tops of coconut palms. The night was peaceful and bright. Luck was with us, for storms and torrential rains are a daily occurrence here. The Pohnpei Island is one of the rainiest spots on earth. After cooking and eating our dinner, we withdrew to the inner courtyard by the open tomb and laid down on our carry-mats. We talked and listened to the silence but our eyes kept wishfully checking the dark citadel for a light ball. Suddenly we heard in the distance a weak metal clink. It was coming from the water channel staircase where we left our cooking stove and empty mess tin. Our flashlights were on instantly. The mess tin was on the stone were we left it and no one was there. Could it be the natives, trying to scare us? Our carefree mood was gone. We shut off our flashlights and Danny unpacked the night vision scope. He used it to scan the staircase while we strained to hear a sound.

            "I know," said Danny after a while. "You know what it is? Rats!"    

            Indeed. It was rats, emerging from the overgrown piles of boulders, squabbling over our dinner leftovers and bumping into the tin. They weren't afraid of us in the least and even the strong reflector light didn't send them running. Could it explain why the natives believed the place haunted? Hardly. They couldn't be that naïve. Regrettably, nothing else that night scared or confused us.   


            "Well, did you get rich over there?" our friends welcomed us back, with some irony. When we nodded full of zeal, they asked doubtfully, "Did you really find platinum?" How could we explain to them that wealth cannot be measured in precious stones only?


Ivan Mackerle



Danny Mackerle

Běchorská 2231, Praha 9, 193 00, Czech Republic, EU.

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