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)

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The Nahnmwarki agrees to see us and we walk back to the other end of the building so we can make our entry from the visitors’ side. Mauricio, who earned a PhD from the University of Oregon with a thesis on Nan Madol, kneels. He addresses the chief, a former teacher and school bus driver, who finishes buttoning up a russet aloha shirt and tan shorts and sits at the head of a small staircase. He has short, thick hair and, like most people in Pohnpei, his teeth are stained by betel nut, which he chews during out meeting, occasionally walking over to the door to spit.

Through Mauricio, who translates, I inquire: Would the Nahnmwarki be interested in setting aside old grievances and cooperating with the state and other stakeholders in order to take advantage of this opportunity?

“I would love to see Nan Madol rehabilitated, but it has to be under my supervision,” he replies, later adding, “All funding should go through the Madolenihmw municipal government, not the Pohnpei state government.” The municipal government is the heir to the Nahnmwarki’s rule.

On the way back, Mauricio, who is director of the national archives, says thoughtfully, “It’s a reasonable request. Certainly, the national government [of the Federated States of Micronesia] would have no objection.”

Back on the skiff, Augustine Kohler, the state historical preservation officer and himself the son of another of Pohnpei’s five Nahnmwarkis, says, “It could work.”

We head for the ruins in the boat to take a look at what kind of rehabilitation would be appropriate. On the way, Mauricio explains that Nan Madol is composed of 92 artificial islands spread over 200 acres abutting Pohnpei’s mangrove-covered shore. Most of it was built from the 13th to the 17th centuries by the Saudeleurs, descendants of two brothers of unknown provenance who founded a religious community in the sixth century focused on the adoration of the sea. On their third attempt to build their political, religious and residential center, they settled on this patch of coral flats. They and their successors brought from the other side of the island columns of black lava rock up to 20 feet long that are naturally pentagonal or hexagonal and straight. They used them in a log cabin formation to build outer walls as well as foundations filled in with lumps of coral to create elevated platforms where traditional thatched structures were used as lodgings. Even with all the sunshine in the world washing over the thick green jungle and aquamarine water beyond, the unadorned black architecture is intimidating.

The tyrannical last Saudeleur ruler was overthrown by an outsider named Isohkelekel who instituted the system of multiple chiefs that remains today. The Nahnmwarki of Madolenihmw is directly descended from him. Because of this bloodline, most Pohnpeians feel he is the legitimate supervisor of the ruins.

As we approach the first building, Mauricio observes, “We don’t know how they brought the columns here and we don’t know how they lifted them up to build the walls. Most Pohnpeians are content to believe they used magic to fly them.”

The easiest way to see Nan Madol is to take a cab from Kolonia, the little capital of Pohnpei, park on an unmarked spot and walk for nearly a mile through a primitive jungle path. When you arrive, only a channel separates you from the main building, the Nandawas. Representatives of the Nahnmwarki with a boat are on hand to collect $3 and take you across. The odds are good that you will have the place to yourself.

Having your own boat at high tide allows you to go much farther. We glide though the channel, the outboard purring. The islands are covered with almost impenetrable jungle. A large component of the rehabilitation effort, if it happens, will be to clear brush to make the buildings accessible. The other component would be dredging the main channels so the ruins are accessible to boats at all times.

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