In the most recent episode of the Archaeological Fantasies podcast we interviewed Chris Begley about the mysterious Ciudad Blanca aka the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God.
Like many fictional places in the world, Ciudad Blanca has quite the history. The first official mention of “The White City” is attributed to Charles Lindbergh, who supposedly reported seeing “an amazing ancient metropolis” while flying over Honduras in 1927. This appears to be a misinterpretation of history as Lindbergh and his fellow pilots called many of the ruins they saw “white” because they were made of limestone and reflected light quite well (Colavito 2013). They were describing their explorations and the term “Ciudad Blanca” became a descriptor of the area, even having a biological preserve named after it (Colavito 2013).
Academically in the same year, “Ciudad Blanca” was used to describe some “important ruins” that had been written about by Eduard Conzemius in his report on the Paya Indians of Honduras. He mentions that the city had been calls thus because the walls of the ruins had been built out of a white stone (Conzemius 1927). Neither Lindbergh nor Conzemius were talking about a mythical city however, they were simply describing what they saw.
In 1933, Honduran president Tiburcio Carías hired George Gustav Heye to perform a study on the native people “before their way of life was disturbed” (Raphael 1934). Captain R. Stuart Murray was hired to lead the expedition and he brought back a few artifacts, and a lot of stories. Including:
“There’s supposedly a lost city… which the Indians call the City of the Monkey God. They are afraid to go near it for they believe that any one who approaches it will, within the month, be killed by the bite of a poisonous snake.”(Raphael 1934).
A second expedition was made to look for this lost city, but it wan’t found. It’s around this time that the “White City” and the “City of the Monkey God” apper to have been blended together. Other than both being ‘lost’ cities, there don’t apper to be a good reason for this, but this blending became permanent fairly quickly.
In 1940, Heye hired another adventurer, Theodore Morde to go on a third expedition, specifically looking for the lost city. Morde took with him Laurence C. Brown, and after about 4 months in the jungles, the two returned with artifacts, and the claim that they had found the Lost City of the Monkey King (Reading 1940). The men also claimed that they had found evidence of gold, silver, and platinum and oil (Reading 1940), but it’s not clear if they were saying that the resources were found associated with the lost city, or were just spotted as the men explored.
Morde wrote vividly of the lost city he had found:
Morde later described travelling for miles up rivers, through swamps and jungle, and over mountains before reaching the ruins. “The City of the Monkey God was walled,” Morde wrote. “We found some of those walls upon which the green magic of the jungle had worked small damages and which had resisted the flood of vegetation. We traced one wall until it vanished under mounds that have all the evidence of once being great buildings.” The jungle was too thick to see much else, but his Indian guides told him that, according to legend, it hid a great temple with a vast staircase leading to “a high stone dais on which was the statue of the Monkey God himself. Before it was the place of sacrifice.” He wrote, “Towering mountains formed the backdrop of the scene. Nearby, a rushing cataract, beautiful as a robe of shimmering jewels, cascaded into the green valley of the ruins.” (Preston 2013).
At the time, the two men refused to give the location of the lost city since they were planning on returning to do a more thorough excavation (Reading 1940). Sadly this would never happen as Morde committed suicide in 1954 (Preston 2013).
Thus we jump forward to 2013 and bring Chris Begley into the story. Begley is a veteran of archaeology in Honduras. He’s spent years exploring and documenting ruins in the area. In 2013 he took novelist Christopher Stewart into the Honduran jungle to retrace Morde’s steps and relocate the fabled City of the Monkey King. We interview Begley about this on the podcast. Predictably, they didn’t find the lost city, but really, how would they know if they did?
Jump forward again to 2015, when an archaeological team lead by Christopher Fisher went into the Honduran jungle to record extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid found by a LiDAR survey done in 2012 (Preston 2015). The LiDAR survey was funded by two documentary film makers, Steve Elkins and Bill Benenson (Preston 2015). Fisher’s team found 52 artifacts, including large stone statues, stone seats, and other ceremonial objects, apparently buried at the foot of the earthen pyramid (Preston 2015). The media surrounding both the LiDAR survey and the archaeological survey constantly threw round the names of White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God, but other than getting eyes on their articles, there’s nothing to support that either place was found.
This is the critical flaw in the story of Ciudad Blanca, there is no way to know if it is ever found. By definition a Lost City is lost. So if someone really did know where it was, and then shared that, then it’s not really lost. Then there is the lack of information about said city. There’s no descriptors of the city other than ‘white walls’, so if a location is suspected of being Ciudad Blanca, there would be no way of telling.
Preston leaves us with a quote from Begley that sums up the search of all such ‘lost cities’:
after a brutal, weeks-long trek, they arrive at a large ruin, which may or may not be Morde’s City of the Monkey God. Begley announces dryly that, by definition, the ruin cannot be the White City, “because the White City must always be lost.” (Preston 2013).
1927 “Los Indios Payas de Honduras, Estudio geografico, historico, etnografico y linguistico” in Journal de la Societé des Americanistes. Tome 19,p. 302. Retrieved 8/1/2016.
2013 On the Development of the Ciudad Blanca Myth. http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/on-the-development-of-the-ciudad-blanca-myth. Retrieved 8/1/2016.
1934 “Explorer Seeks Fabled Lost City; Spurns Weaker Sex Companionship”. Calgary Daily Herald. p. 34. http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=JxpkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=G3sNAAAAIBAJ&pg=1617,5791667 Retrieved 8/1/2016.
2013 “The El Dorado Machine”. The New Yorker: 34–40. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/05/06/130506fa_fact_preston Retrieved 8/1/2016.
2015 Exclusive: Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest. National Geographic http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/03/150302-honduras-lost-city-monkey-god-maya-ancient-archaeology/ Retrieved 8/1/2016.
1940 “Seek Long Lost City of Monkey God”. The Sunday Morning Star. United Press. April 7, 1940. p. 7. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=I9FeAAAAIBAJ&sjid=AQMGAAAAIBAJ&pg=3549,6520116&hl=en Retrieved 8/1/2016..
1940 “Razor Blades Used by Natives In Latin Areas 1,500 Years Ago”. Reading Eagle (New York). August 2, 1940. p. 11. https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1955&dat=19400802&id=k3AhAAAAIBAJ&sjid=G4gFAAAAIBAJ&pg=6153,6150529&hl=en. Retrieved 8/1/2016.
Transylvania University Bio
>National Geographic Bio
Kentucky professor a real-life Indiana Jones
Ewan McGregor: Tested to the limits in Honduras
Finding understanding instead of a ‘lost city.’
“In 1933, Honduran president Tiburcio Carías hired George Gustav Heye to perform a study on the native people “before their way of life was disturbed”
Um, fella, you were about 450 years too late.