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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Many of the outer walls, usually just a few feet high, are intact. Mauricio points out the little island of Idehd, where priests fed turtle innards to an eel, the sea deity, kept in a well, before sharing among themselves the rest of the turtle as a sacrament. To this day eels are considered holy and never eaten. Then we pass Peikapw, where Isohkelekel resided after he overthrew the last Saudeleur. He eventually committed suicide there after discovering how old he looked when he saw his reflection in a pool, according to the oral history. After he died, Nan Madol was largely abandoned, though religious ceremonies were occasionally held there until the late 19th century.

As we continue, the channel gets narrower and shallower. We turn back to explore the city’s outer walls, still strong, and continue to the islet of Pahnwi, whose wall of huge, flat-sided stone rises 58 feet and encloses a tomb.

Our final stop is Nandowas, by far the most elaborate building. It’s the royal mortuary, with two sets of 25-foot-high walls whose gracefully up-swept corners cover an area greater than a football field. One cornerstone is estimated to weigh 50 tons. I step down into the moss-encrusted tomb. Eight columns form the basis of a roof that lets in shards of sunlight. I’m glad I’m not alone. The bodies of kings were placed here and later buried elsewhere.

On the way back, Mauricio remarks that, given Pohnpei’s population at the time was less than 30,000, the building of Nan Madol represented a much larger effort than the pyramids were for the Egyptians. The total weight of the black rocks moved is estimated at 750,000 metric tons, an average of 1,850 tons a year over four centuries. “Not bad for people who had no pulleys, no levers and no metal,” said Mauricio. Waving at the brush, he adds, “We need to clear all this out in at least some of the islands so we can appreciate the extraordinary effort that was put into this construction.”

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