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Federated States of Micronesia: Nan Madol

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Nan Madol | Federated States of Micronesia | Oceania

[Visited: February 2016]

When our guide drives us out of the city towards the east coast of Pohnpei, we are very excited. We watch the landscape with the incredibly green hills pass by, and look over the sea towards the horizon when the road hits the coastline. I also keep a look on the weather: it is greyish today, and we just hope the rains will wait until nightfall. When we arrive at our destination, we meet the prince of the local land. Our guide talks to him about the conditions of the sea, which surprises us. The question is: do we walk, or do we take a boat? Not surprisingly, even though the tide is low and falling, we take a boat. The going is not easy as we glide over the plants. Ahead of us: the ruins of Nan Madol, important religious and political centre in the Saudeleur dynasty, almost 1000 years old. The prince steers us through the channels of what is dubbed the Venice of the Pacific, and means spaces between, referring to the canals running between the islets, until we reach Nan Douwas where he docks the boat and we get off.

Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): The Fortress of Kings, Nan Douwas, seen from a canal

We have arrived at the best preserved building of Nan Madol, which probably also was the most important building at its heyday: the Fortress of Kings. The walls are massive: they were built using naturally shaped basalt columns, which have between 5 and 8 sides - at first, I thought they were all shaped by men by the clean carving of the edges. Much of the construction used for making Nan Madol is still a mystery to this very day. The basalt columns were quarried from various parts of Pohnpei - but how were they taken to Nan Madol? How were they able to stack these heavy blocks of basalt, weighing over 5 tons each, to form these vast walls? Another question: how could they make a foundation for these man-made islets using coral, so strong and durable, that they withstood the enormous weight of the buildings on top of them for such a long time? We wander around the ruins, listen to our guide explaining about the crypts, the tombs, the prison, the absolute power of the rulers of the Saudeleurs, of the German governor who died the day after he excavated a tomb at Nan Madol. Why was Nan Madol abandoned - it already was when the first Europeans arrived in the early 19th century? What seems certain is that, not only did Nan Douwas provide a great defence against invaders since it could not easily be attacked from either sea or land, but it also separated the elite of the dynasty and the religious functionaries from the common people who lived on the island itself.

Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Sturdy wall of Nan Douwas with the basalt columns clearly visible

With so many mysteries around, it is to be expected that there are the legends to explain. Two brothers with supernatural powers given by their gods, would have been able to fly the basalt blocks into place; or they used a dragon which helped them with the building process. Another one says that the advanced society that built Nan Madol was able to control sound waves, and used them to move the blocks into place. A more down to earth explanation would be that it just took a lot of workforce to build these structures. On the neighbouring islets, there are other structures: in all, Nan Madol consists of just short of 100 such islets with various functions: ritual activities, homes for royalty and their servants. Humans have lived in this area since almost 2000 years, constructed the islets from the 8th century over an area some 1.5km wide and 0.5 long, but construction of the structures only started in the 12th century. I wade through the shallow waters off Nan Douwas, towards Nan Mwoluhsei, a wall protecting the islets from the ocean. When I turn around, Nan Douwas rises proudly from the sea, and I see other nearby islets, too. Together with one of the guides, I cross the water to the islet of Dau, from where we walk back past several other Nan Madol structures, until we reach the mainland of Temwen Island. We leave behind the ruined city of Nan Madol, but take the mysteries surrounding it with us, and wonder: will they ever be solved?

Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Nan Douwas seen from the sea
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Corner view of the Fortress of Kings - Nan Douwas
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Sea-side view of Nan Douwas
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Outer wall of Nan Douwas, which withstood tropical storms and typhoons for almost 1000 years
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Interior of the Nan Douwas building with stone vaulted of basalt columns
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Nan Douwas on the right, Dau in the left and one of the many canals running in between at Nan Madol
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Inside the Nan Douwas building, this crypt is one of the sights
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Basalt columns still define the massive walls of Nan Douwas
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Impressive construction with basalt columns covered by moss at Nan Madol
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Looking across the sea from Nan Douwas towards Nan Mwoluhsei, the border of the ancient city
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Nan Douwas is the best preserved building of Nan Madol, and was the Fortress of Kings
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): Basalt columns laid out horizontally to construct a wall at Nan Douwas
Picture of Nan Madol (Federated States of Micronesia): View of one of the man-made islets of Nan Madol

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