It has been called the Venice of the Pacific, and even Atlantis. Nan Madol, the floating city, was built up from the coral shallows of Temwen, a volcanic islet connected by a promontory to Pohnpei, today home to the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia. Pohnpei has been occupied since around the first century CE, but in the 8th or 9th century Pohnpeians began dumping coral and stone into the Temwen lagoon, raising more than 90 islets from the water, crosscut by the canals that gave the city it’s name: Nan Madol, or “space in-between.”
By the late 12th century, Nan Madol was the site of a sophisticated megalithic terraforming project. Pohnpeians mined columnar basalt from a volcanic plug on the west side of the island, transporting them either by a boat or over land to Temwen’s Eastern shallows, where they were stacked, log-cabin style, and filled with coral. Today, a thousand years later, the mangrove-infested islets are still remarkable for their scale and precision, carefully layering large and small basalt columns into neat latices.
Pohnpeian legend credits the creation of Nan Madol to the twin sorcerers Olosohpa and Olisihpa, who coerced a flying dragon into levitating the stones for a new city honoring their agricultural god Nahnisohn Sahpw. But the rationale behind lifting a city from the ocean was likely political—Nan Madol was the Washington D.C. of its day. 1000 people made their homes on the islands, though some researchers believe the number to be closer to 500, and while many of the inhabitants were lay people who prepared coconut oil or manufactured the sacred kava, the VIPs of Nan Madol were the many chiefs of the Saudeleur dynasty. A canny way to keep the peace, housing competing chiefs in the floating city forced them to live and work together, perform ceremonial tasks together, and prevented them from secretly mobilizing forces against the central authorities.
Got questions, comments or corrections about Nan Madol? Join the conversation in our Discord, and if you enjoy content like this, consider becoming a member for exclusive essays, downloadables, and discounts in the Obelisk Store.
Reed Enger, "Nan Madol," in Obelisk Art History, Published August 14, 2020; last modified July 09, 2023, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/timeline/middle-ages/pacific-oceanic-cultures/nan-madol/.