Nan Madol

Image: A view of southern Pohnpei, near Nan Madol.

Long ago, nearly a thousand years ago, two brothers, Olsihpa and Olsohpa, came from the west to Pohnpei, hoping to unite the warring clans of Pohnpei under one chief. They began searching for a place to build their fortress. Apparently unsatisfied with all of the actual land in Pohnpei, they decided to build artificial islets from huge basalt boulders and columns. They tried building in many spots around Pohnpei that just wouldn’t work for the construction (or maybe the existing chiefs chased them away…). But finally, they found Madolenihmw, on the southern end of Pohnpei. This spot was perfect. Here, they may have seen an older city under the sea, where the gods dwelled. One of the gods who dwelled nearby was Nan Somohl, an eel god, to whom Olsihpa and Olsohpa were particularly devoted. They fed him turtles every year. Over the course of a couple hundred years, they built their city, Nan Madol, on the edge of the island of Temwen in southern Pohnpei.

Paddling around the outer ring of the ruins.  The mangroves to the left are hiding the ruins of an ancient coconut oil production facility.
Paddling around the outer ring of the ruins. The mangroves to the left are hiding the ruins of an ancient coconut oil production facility.

Some of the fortress walls are built from giant boulders weighing as much as 90 tons. Most are built from huge, hexagonal, basalt columns, quarried from sites all over Pohnpei. But Olsihpa and Olsahpa simply flew the huge boulders across the islands to build their fortress. They constructed over 90 artificial islets, connected by intriguing channels through the mangroves, and stacked columns, Lincoln log style,to build temples, residential quarters, coconut oil production facilities, and bath houses. Olsihpa declared himself the Saudeleur, the ruler of all Pohnpei, and, at his death (a couple hundred years later), Olsohpa became Saudeleur.

For the next 500 years, the Saudeleur dynasty reigned tyrannically over Pohnpei, exacting demanding tributes from all of the Pohnpeian people. But they made a mistake. They grew angry with the thunder god, Nahnsapwe, for bellowing and roaring too much. They imprisoned him, but he escaped and fled to the east, saved by a needlefish when his canoe sank, and landed in what is now Kosrae. There, he fed a fruit to a mortal woman from his own clan, the Under the Breadfruit clan, and she became pregnant. Later, she gave birth to a son, Isokelekel.

The main attraction in Nan Madol.  The main tomb of the Saudeleurs is hidden in the inside.
The main attraction in Nan Madol. The main tomb of the Saudeleurs is hidden in the inside.

Isokelekel heard much of the tyranny of the Saudeleurs as he grew up, and vowed to avenge his father. He took 333 warriors with him and sailed for Nan Madol. War broke out between Isokelekel and the Saudeleurs. The Saudeleurs had the upper hand, but Isokelekel’s men would not give up. One of his fiercest warriors speared his own foot to the ground–retreat was not an option. Isokelekel’s warriers rallied. The slung the 333 slingstones that still lie on the islet of Idehd. They drove off the Saudeleurs, chasing the reigning Saudeleur into the Senpehn River, where he turned into a blue fish.

Isokelekel became the first Nahnmwarki, or paramount chief, of Pohnpei, and set in place the hierarchy that still reigns today.

Paddling the ruinsNan Madol, primarily a place where nobility resided, was inhabited until the early 1800’s. It was abandoned around the time the first Europeans arrived, and no one is sure exactly why, though the difficulty of growing things on artificial coral islets, epidemics, and the arrival of Europeans likely played a role. Early missionaries found people who remembered a time when Han Madol was heavily populated.

Only some of the ruins are maintained today and only 30 islets have been surveyed and mapped in detail by archaeologists. Over the weekend, we sailed around to the south side of Pohnpei to visit the ruins of the ancient fortress, and explored the mysterious mangrove channels by packraft. The photos tell the story best, so here they are!

We’ll likely leave Pohnpei in a few days, so you’ll probably hear from us next when we reach Guam. Unless something really exciting happens before then–you never know.

A close-up look at the basalt columns that are stacked to create the buildings.
A close-up look at the basalt columns that are stacked to create the buildings.
Looking back out from Nan Duwas toward the mangrove moat.
Looking back out from Nan Duwas toward the mangrove moat.
A giant breadfruit tree among the ruins.
A giant breadfruit tree among the ruins.
Snorkeling the outside of the ruins.
Snorkeling the outside of the ruins.