Street in Old Town of Ghadames

Ghost towns – top five abandoned habitations

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There’s nothing quite as atmospheric as a deserted but once inhabited place. Here’s five of our top picks for any ghost town hunter. This article was originally published in November 2010.

Ghadames, Libya

The houses in Ghadames, a pastel-coloured town in the Sahara Desert, are as dense as honeycomb – it’s possible for the women to travel about town by walking on the rooftops (keeping separate from the men) – and its covered alleyways are like an underground maze. One can imagine the inhabitants milling about in dark corners, but now Ghadames belongs to ghosts: government handouts enticed its former 6000 Berber inhabitants to modern houses outside the old town.

Vila do Ibo, Mozambique

An old door of a deserted house on Ibo Island, Quirimbas archipelago, Mozambique

Strangler figs wrap their fingers around once-elegant doorways, lofty ceilings gape at the sky and ornamental balconies rust in the sun. The grand mansions of Vila do Ibo in northern Mozambique’s Quirimbas Archipelgo are earmarked for World Heritage status, but their coral-stone facades are in such an advanced state of disrepair that you’d be forgiven for thinking its already too late to save them. The remains of the town are highly atmospheric, nonetheless. Exploring on foot, you can almost picture the scene two or three hundred years ago, when the air was full of the scent of spices and the yells of visiting seafarers.

Gholan Heights, Syria

A destroyed building and the tower of a mosque in the crumbling town of Quneitra, Syria

One of the most contentious spots on Earth, the mountains on Syria’s southern border have been occupied by Israel for forty years. The hilltop town of Quneitra was evacuated in 1973, and the Syrians refused to rebuild it, leaving it as a permanent monument to Israeli action. Almost every single building was flattened by the departing Israeli army, giving the streets an eerie feel. The grey concrete roofs of the small houses still lie flat on the ground, around the occasional larger building, left standing, but gutted internally.

Djado, Niger

The ancient and mysterious city of Djado, once a fortified citadel on the slave traders route to Libya, is now a haunting jumble of decaying mud architecture.

Timbuktu? Forget it. A far more intriguing mystery lies hidden on the far side of Niger’s Tenere Desert; here, among vast plains, abandonded villages and intriguing cave art, the mud-brick citadel of Djado rises from palm-fringed pools crammed with bright-green reeds, like some unworldly goblin’s castle. When was Djado built? Why was it abandoned? The hot wind stirs the palms but keeps its secrets.

The hanging village of Habalah, Saudi Arabia

Appearing to dangle from a 250m cliff face over a deep valley, the deserted village of Habalah is a truly unique settlement. It takes its name from “habi” meaning “rope” – a reference to the ladders that the long-gone inhabitants used to descend to their dwellings from the plateau above. Built out of the rock on which they stand, the houses offer a fascinating insight into traditional Saudi life, and give a whole new meaning to the phrase “living on the edge”.

NB: The FCO currently advises against all travel to Syria, and parts of Libya and Niger - be sure to check your local embassy before travelling to any country.