Structurally, the complex spans some 100 artificially created islets made up of platforms of basalt rock built atop the reef. Its lofty walls enclose the Atlantis-like marine ruins of palaces, mortuaries, workers’ residences, altars and temples within 60 hectares. These islets are divided by sea-filled waterways, so would have been navigable by boat. Western observers naturally lent it the sobriquet the ‘Venice of the Pacific’; in Micronesian parlance, Nan Madol rather prosaically translates as ‘within the intervals’, which also defines the city by its intricate web of canals.
UNESCO lists Nan Madol as the earliest example in the Pacific of a huge-scale megalithic structure. Its design reflects the complex religious and social practices that operated within a system of paramount chiefs (known as Nahmwarki). It is speculated that, during the city’s heyday, up to 1,000 people may have inhabited its walls, including local chiefs and priests as well as all of their servants. Historians believe the Saudeleur rulers probably used it as a form of social control, keeping potential enemy chiefs across Pohnpei beneath their wing by housing them within the walls of the city.
It’s the air of mystery surrounding this civilisation that excites the few travellers that make it here. Getting to explore Nan Madol isn’t easy, and whether taking a boat or taxi from the main town of Kolonia, only a limited amount of the ruins are visitable amid the coastal mangroves. If a drone would be the best way to truly appreciate its scale and layout, a local guide is essential to help navigate, not least when wading or taking little canoes across the waterways.