Nan Madol’s Mysteries and Cultural Significance
By Lynn Nguyen
Adjacent to the eastern shore of the island of Pohnpei, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, lies over 90 artificial islets, each built from immense basalt rock in crisscross patterns atop a coral reef, connected by canals. This “Venice of the Pacific” harbors the ruins of palaces, temples, and residences of Nan Madol – the relics of the ancient Pohnpeians’ social and religious traditions. Much of Nan Madol remains shrouded in mystery. The very construction of the site, between 1200 and 1500 CE, is perplexing – how did the Pohnpeians, without access to modern architectural tools and metal, manage to assemble the megalithic structures (some of the rocks weigh 80 to 90 tons, and the quarry lies more than 40 km away from the site) with such technical sophistication?
Pohnpeian oral history holds that Nan Madol w as created by two brothers, Olosohpa and Olosihpa, as a place of worship for the farm god Nahnisohn Sapw, using magic to transport the immense basalt rocks from a quarry to the site. One brother died, and the other became king – the first of the ruling Saudeleur dynasty. This site of impressive engineering feat served as a political administrative center and religious capital. Rulers required potential rivals to live at Nan Madol to monitor their activities, thus effectively implementing their power. Sizes of residences represented the social strata, with chief elites owning the largest homes, separate from the general populace (commoners who served the nobles comprised a majority of the city). Moreover, excavations have unearthed beads and such ornaments that mark elite social status; this apparent social stratification is the earliest known instance of centralized power in the western Pacific. With numerous temples and altars, Nan Madol was also a sacred ceremonial site for the Pohnpeians, although specifics of such religious practices remain mostly unknown; many locals today believe that spirits inhabit the site. Oral history alludes to the honoring of sacred eels, entering from the sea through small canals in the islets, with sacrifices of turtles. Recent excavations have actually uncovered traces of such. Today, eels are still held to be sacred creatures in Pohnpei.
Although a significant political, social, and ceremonial site, Nan Madol was eventually abandoned in the 18th century, after the downfall of the Saudaleurs. Over the centuries, waterways have become overly silted, fostering the erosion of edifices. Additionally, mangrove overgrowth has rendered difficult accessibility to many of the buildings. Thus, Nan Madol was named in 2016 a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the first in Micronesia – and inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, highlighting the need to safeguard these astounding structures and promote knowledge about Pohnpei and Micronesia. Nan Madol is not well-known outside of Micronesia; indeed, visitors numbered only 3,000-4,000 per year (calculated in 2015). Nan Madol’s mysteries liken those of the Moai statues on Easter Island – which attract 100,000 visitors annually. Such a difference may be attributed to Nan Madol’s challenging tourist transportation and lack of infrastructure, as it is rather difficult to access since many of the formations can only be viewed along the waterways. Thus, UNESCO’s work aims to facilitate more interaction with Nan Madol but simultaneously preserve these magnificent creations.
In celebration of World Heritage Site recognition, students at the College of Micronesia in Pohnpei have launched the Storytellers project, communicating their own perspectives on Nan Madol and the connection with their heritage. Many of the students reflect on the murky history surrounding the site – and how these mysteries define their excitement in discovering their past. The very makeup of the structures, described by Sasha Santiago, one of the students, as “all patterns…a constant puzzle game with so many missing or hidden pieces” reflects such intrigue. C.H. Rileometo, another storyteller, also expands upon Nan Madol’s significance in her own exploration of her family roots and identity. She remarks, “I cannot help but feel… each of us labeled “Micronesian” is in some way symbolized by Nan Madol. Each individual island created from the sweat and determination of our ancestors to serve a specific purpose. Defined not just by our names and our roles, our sizes, or titles, but also by the spaces that separate us, and how we connect to each other regardless of these spaces.” Respect is the most important shared value at Nan Madol and in Pohnpeian culture, encapsulated by saying the word Ihieng, which Rilometo describes as encompassing “one’s willingness to lower self in front of others…forgiveness for wrong moves, for wrong uttering, and excuses any preconceived misconceptions while in the presence of elders, royalty, sacred grounds.” These students’ stories, illuminating the rich culture of Pohnpei, are very much part of the larger restoration of Nan Madol – through the power of technology and the written word.
Lynn Nguyen ’21 is a prospective English major in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.