Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are often thought of as ordered places for organised religion.
But cultures and beliefs can change and congregations ebb away.
New book Abandoned Sacred Places, by Lawrence Joffe, shows what that can mean for the buildings. It contains haunting, yet fascinating, images of once-holy sites left to crumble – and tells their intriguing stories.
It examines a crumbling church in Indiana, Mayan pyramids in Mexico, forgotten Hindu temples in India, a Gothic abbey in Yorkshire and more.
Lawrence wrote: ‘Images like these are bound to make us wonder. Who built these places? What were their beliefs? And how did such beautiful edifices fall into ruin?’
Scroll down to see MailOnline Travel’s pick of the 170 stunning images that appear in the book, with captions courtesy of the author…
Cross-Arabian camel-borne commerce in frankincense, myrrh and spices turned Mada’in Saleh into a thriving metropolis. But it became a desert ghost town after Rome conquered the region in 104 CE and switched trade routes. Located today in south-western Saudi Arabia, Mada’in was the second great Nabatean city after Petra. The city’s 131 giant tombs were carved out of sandstone around the first century CE, blending Arabian, Hellenistic, Phoenician, Assyrian and Egyptian aesthetics. But how did the Nabateans manage to build on such a scale? They certainly knew how to source and store water. Mada’in survived its arid surroundings because of man-made, underground wells
Sliced in half by a storm in 1955, and already deserted by the 18th century CE, the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Ani tells a fascinating story. It was built in 1035 CE when Ani was the capital of an Armenian Christian kingdom. However, both church and city changed hands repeatedly over the ages. In 1064, Seljuk Turks conquered the city, after which it passed hands between Georgians, Byzantines and Armenians, Kurds, Persians, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians, before being abandoned. The church now lies on Turkey’s border with modern Armenia
Not every sacred site is man-made. Some are dramatic natural formations, like Guatapé in Colombia. Smooth of surface and 200 metres high (656ft), this granite rock was forged by tectonic upheavals 70 million years ago. Indigenous pre-Colombian Tahami agriculturalists worshipped Guatapé as a divine presence until Spanish conquistadors displaced them in the 16th century CE
Cliff Palace in Colorado, USA, looks like a quaint residential complex. Yet the multi-storeyed Ancestral Pueblo structure, hewn out of living rock between around 1190–1260 CE, also has spiritual aspects. Those circular sunken rooms are kivas, where devotees held ceremonies to honour the Puebloan kachina spirits. Many clans lived at this, the largest cliff dwelling in North America, each with its own kiva, before a drought around 1300 apparently decimated the community
Frozen in time, a bust of a youth stares past a 4th century BCE Lycian necropolis of Myra. Its tombs were excavated out of the mountainside above a Greco-Roman amphitheatre near modern Demre on Turkey’s southern coast. Many distinctive house-type tombs contain entire families. Elaborate reliefs show mythical, banqueting and hunting scenes, or visual snapshots of the lives of the deceased. Lycians lived on the seam-line between the Greek and Persian worlds, and their vivid art reflects hybrid influences. Myra cherished its democratic freedoms within the Lycian Federation, though seldom challenged stronger powers, whether Greek or Persian, Roman or Byzantine. St Nicholas – the original Santa Claus and bishop of Myra – demolished Myra’s Temple of Artemis and inspired a still standing 6th century CE church in his name. Arab and Seljuk Turk conquests, as well as bubonic plague in 542–543, reduced the city, which was finally abandoned in the 11th century
The only substantial building left in Dooley, Montana, Rocky Valley Church was built in 1915 and deserted 30 years later. Dooley’s economy collapsed after repeated crop failures, a rash of fires, armyworm infestations and cold winters that froze railway lines. Ultimately Dooley became a ghost town – a sad yet not uncommon counter-narrative to the American dream
Daniel Alamsjah says that he was working in Jakarta when a heavenly voice told him to create a sanctuary for all – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, even atheist. The location for his prayer house would be 550km (342 miles) away in a plot in Java’s Magelang Hills. And, despite the nickname ‘Chicken Church’ (Gereja Ayam), it was meant to resemble a dove, not a fowl. Construction began in 1992 with the help of 30 villagers, but stopped eight years later when funds ran out and rumours spread that a Christian wanted to convert Muslims. The building barely survived, but tourists flocked in when news about the fantastical project went viral in 2015. Takings from Alamsjah’s museum and café are now funding renovations
Lit by a Sahara sundown, these extraordinary eroded sandstone outcrops at Tassili still have the power to awe. Little wonder that early prehistoric nomads gravitated to the Tassili n’Ajjer plain, whose 72,000-square-kilometre (27,800-square-mile) footprint extends over present-day Algeria, Libya, Niger and Mali. Visitors or residents also left behind some 15,000 remarkable rock art drawings and engravings. The earliest date to c.6000 BCE and some suggest magic-religious rites involving shamanic masked dancers from the Round Heads Period, c.8000 BCE. One school says celebrants are holding magic mushrooms to represent drug-fuelled devotional trances. More prosaically, other etchings show daily social life, the taming of animals and teeming wildlife (the Sahara was not always a bone-dry desert)
Little survives of the original old part of the town of Kalyazin in Russia apart from the tower of its otherwise submerged Saint Nicholas Cathedral. It rises above the Uglich reservoir, created when a hydroelectric plant was built across the Volga River in 1939–1940. Before the flooding, the cathedral was dismantled, the tower severed, emptied of its 12 bells and ‘floated’ on an artificial island. Today some Orthodox believers still cross to the tower and hold unofficial services in the belfry
King Krishna I built Kailasa Temple in Maharashtra in India in around 760 CE to emulate Mount Kailash, the Himalayan abode of the Hindu deity Shiva. Pillars support carved chambers once used by Hindu, Jain and Buddhist worshippers. Cut from a single rock, the three-storey temple is a marvel of engineering. It covers twice the area of the Parthenon in Athens and is 50 per cent higher. Over 100 years some 200,000 tons of rock were moved by hammer and chisel to accommodate the edifice and craft its lavish decorations. Scenes from the Hindu epic the Ramayana adorn its surface. Inside are panels evoking the Mahabharata saga and adventures of Krishna
Looking like a charming piece of Normandy transplanted to the Vietnamese seaside, Trai Tim Catholic Church was built in 1927 when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. It still just about stands, but lost its last congregants in 1996. Like many churches and villages in Nam Dinh province, it has been the victim of coastal erosion. Yet its frame survives, as does a bell tower that once also served as a lighthouse
Nature triumphed over politicians in Potosi, Venezuela, but not by enough to get congregants back to their church pews. In 1985, President Carlos Andres Perez ordered Potosi’s 1,200 residents to leave and make way for a huge hydroelectric dam. The town disappeared underwater. All that peeped above the waterline was the colonial era church’s steeple. Then in 2010 Potosi spookily re-emerged after drought reduced Uribante Reservoir’s water levels. What we see, however, is a facade – the church interior is totally gutted
Some of the most exquisite sculptures honouring the Hindu deity Shiva are found in a cluster of caves on Elephanta Island, 10km (six miles) off the coast of Mumbai (Bombay). Bas-reliefs show mounted gods, including Indra on his cloud-elephant, Brahma on a lotus and Vishnu on his winged manservant Garuda. Artwork on Elephanta coincides with the decline of Buddhism and revival of Brahmanic Hinduism in the period from around 450–750 CE. Scholars believe that the sculptures were mostly funded by merchant guilds, Mumbai being a major ancient trading gateway. All chambers at Elephanta show signs of looting and defacement by soldiers from Portugal – which ruled Bombay from 1534 to 1661 – and later by British explorers
The Maya quite reasonably venerated Ik-Kil’s cenote – a groundwater-rich natural sunken well – in the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. Yet its placidity is deceptive. Skeletons discovered in the depths, along with jade and gold objects, speak of human sacrifices to the rain god Chaac. Nearby lies the city of Chichen Itzá, founded by the Maya in the 6th century CE and conquered by Toltecs in the 10th century CE. Chichen Itzá contains more fearsome cultural clues: a Temple of the Jaguars, fanged rattlesnake sculptures, ceremonial pyramids and a court for tlachtli, a sacred ball game where losing teams literally lost their heads
The Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico is the largest pyramid in the Americas, and only surpassed by two in Egypt. Built between 100-200 CE, the pyramid towers above the four-kilometre (2.5-mile) Avenue of the Dead, which also boasts a Pyramid of the Moon, temples and ceremonial slope-and-panel platforms. In the background looms Cerro Gordo (Fat Mountain), reputedly home to the Great Goddess. No wonder later Aztecs called this city Teotihuacán – ‘the place where gods were born’
The abandoned structure that we see today is Whitby Abbey’s third incarnation, a handsome Gothic church first begun around 1225, but, due to lack of funds, only completed two centuries later. The abbey was suppressed in 1539 after Henry VIII’s rift with Rome, which led to many associated buildings being destroyed. Later, wind and rain eroded parts of the building, before the German navy caused further damage by shelling the abbey during World War I
Dug out in horseshoe formation above the Waghora River in Maharashtra in India, the Ajanta Caves of Buddhist monuments were probably created in two phases: from the 2nd century BCE and then c.400–650 CE. Devotees left the caverns around 650 CE for unknown reasons. A British tiger-hunting party ‘rediscovered’ the caves in 1819
The City Methodist Church was a hub of 1950s urban life in Gary, Indiana. Its congregation exceeded 3,000 and its surrounding nine-storey complex had a theatre, gymnasium and university annexe. The church’s vaulted ceiling and massive internal columns express the confidence of its founder, Methodist minister and social activist William Grant Seaman. In the 1920s, he persuaded US Steel to bequeath inner city land for a church to improve the morals of residents who lived near brothels and speakeasies. To an extent he succeeded – until the church closed in 1974. So what caused its demise? In a nutshell, de-industrialization: Gary, 64km (40 miles) from Chicago, was renowned for its steel mills and associated businesses. Then economic malaise destroyed jobs and churches like City lost their congregants, who fled to the suburbs
A double victim of World War II, Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Church was hit twice by Allied air raids. Only the ‘hollow tooth’ of its west tower remained. Today the church, built in 1891–1895, survives as a memorial to the war. The adjacent belfry, along with a new church, was completed in 1963
Persia’s greatest ruler, Darius I (d. 486 BCE), is buried with three successors at Naqsh-e-Rustam in Iran. Here, above cross-shaped openings to the rock-hewn tombs, bas-reliefs show gods consorting with late royals, while nearby Zoroastrian priests would have conducted fire rituals. The kings belonged to the Achaemenid dynasty (550–330 BCE) and this complex stood 5km (three miles) north of their capital, Persepolis. Around 330 BCE, Alexander the Great vanquished the Achaemenids, yet the later Sassanian dynasty (205–651 CE) held ceremonies at Naqsh-e-Rustam up to the 7th century, until the Muslim conquest of Persia abruptly ended both the dynasty and their faith
All images taken from the book Abandoned Sacred Places by Lawrence Joffe (ISBN 978-1-78274-769-7), published byAmber Books Ltd and available from bookshops and online booksellers (RRP £19.99)