Nan Madol: The City Built on Coral Reefs

One of the oldest archaeological sites not on a heritage list, this Pacific state, like Easter Island, is an engineering marvel

Nan Madol is located near the southern side of the Federated States of Micronesia. It is the only ancient city ever built atop a coral reef. (Christopher Pala)

We zigzag slowly in our skiff around the shallow coral heads surrounding Pohnpei. The island, a little smaller than New York City, is part of the Federated States of Micronesia. It is nestled in a vast tapestry of coral reefs. Beyond the breakers, the Pacific stretches 5,578 miles to California. A stingray dashes in front of us, flying underwater like a butterfly alongside our bow.

Our destination is Nan Madol, near the southern side of the island, the only ancient city ever built atop of a coral reef. Its imposing yet graceful ruins are made of stones and columns so heavy that no one has figured out how it was built. Besides the elegance of the walls and platforms, there is no carving, no art – nothing except legend to remember the people, called the Saudeleur, who ruled the island for more than a millennium. They were deeply religious and sometimes cruel, and modern Pohnpeians view the ruins as a sacred and scary place where spirits own the night.

Abandoned centuries ago and now mostly covered with jungle, Nan Madol may soon be getting a makeover. Before I explore it, I stop to discuss its future with the man who holds sway over this part of Pohnpei.

We nuzzle up to land and jump onto the remnants of a sea wall. I follow Rufino Mauricio, Pohnpei’s only archaeologist, along a path and up a hill to what appears to be a warehouse, painted white with a corrugated metal roof. It’s known here as the Tin Palace. There is a small house tacked on the end, with flowering bushes here and there. A gaggle of dogs welcome us noisily. This is the residence of the Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw, the primus inter pares among the five traditional paramount chiefs who preside over a delightfully complex social structure that underpins Pohnpei's vibrant native culture.

Aside from Easter Island, Nan Madol is the main archaeological site in Oceania that is made up of huge rocks. But while Easter Island gets 50,000 visitors a year, Nan Madol sees fewer than 1,000. Before I left on this trip, Jeff Morgan, director of the Global Heritage Fund of Palo Alto, California, had told me he wanted to fund a rehabilitation program. But before anything can be done, ownership issues that blocked previous rehabilitation efforts would have to be resolved—the state government and the Nahnmwarki both claim sovereignty over the ruins. A resolution would pave the way for Nan Madol to become a Unesco World Heritage site, increasing the flow of visitors and grants.

“Nan Madol is one of the most significant sites not yet on the World Heritage List,” says Richard Engelhart, an archaeologist and former Unesco adviser for Asia and the Pacific.

Mauricio and I are a bit nervous: an audience with the Nahnmwarki is best arranged through Pohnpei’s governor, John Ehsa. A day earlier, Ehsa had pledged to support the Global Heritage Fund’s idea and promised to arrange an audience with the Nahnmwarki so that I could interview him about the plan—but then Ehsa didn’t come through on his promise. Ehsa had noted that a previous attempt to clean up the ruins had foundered because the Japanese donors had not followed proper protocol with the Nahnmwarki.

Sadly, neither do I. It’s unthinkable to arrive without a tribute, but the bottle of Tasmanian wine I brought for the occasion slipped out of my hand and shattered on the rocks as I got off the boat. Mauricio, who holds a lesser traditional title, is mortified: he didn’t know we were stopping to see the chief on our way to the ruins, so he is empty-handed too.

Arriving empty-handed without an appointment is the height of rudeness, he grumbles.

Mauricio, who, as I am, is dripping with sweat in Ponhpei’s steamy equatorial heat, informs the chief’s wife of our arrival.

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