Fatehpur Sikri: UNESCO’s Ghost Town

Like many fellow travellers, I like to explore UNESCO World Heritage sites. There’s just something about a place that has been deemed so important it requires special protection for the future, for my children to experience, for their children again, and for generations long after I’m gone.

I got into a discussion a few days ago, on whether these sites should be considered mainstream attractions and thus not as interesting for those who prefer going way off the beaten path.

I think not! The Tower of London, the Banks of the Seine, or the Historic Centre of Florence may not be off the beaten track, but what about the ancient kingdom of Dilmun? The dead monks in Kiev? The Stone Age rock carvings far above the Arctic Circle? The Hanseatic city of Visby or the Forest Cemetery in Stockholm?

In fact, glancing at the list of the ever increasing number of UNESCO properties (962 in 2012), I’d say the majority are rarely to be found on any grand tour. Mainstream or not, though, I’ll happily continue to explore the protected sites, both the obvious, easily accessible ones – and the more curious ones. There’s plenty to choose from. Here’s one:

Fatehpur Sikri

Fatehpur Sikri

Many years ago, in New Delhi, a friend and I decided to splurge on a car and driver to take us to Agra to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. A gorgeous experience! On the way back to Delhi, the driver suggested we stop in Fatehpur Sikri. Why not, we said. It was a gruelling hot day, the car’s fan wasn’t working properly; we welcomed a chance to get out for a bit. Neither of us had any idea where – or even what – Fatehpur Sikri was.

Turns out, it’s a ghost town. And not just any ghost town: for a brief time, Fatehpur Sikri was the capital of the Mughal Empire.

The English spelling of the name may be more familiar. Even today, a mogul signifies a person of power, like a media mogul. Well, this is where it comes from. The Mughal emperors were direct descendants of the fearsome Gengis Khan and of Tamerlane – powerful indeed.

Emperor Akbar, builder of Fatehpur Sikri, intended it to be the most beautiful city ever built. And for a while it was. But style must have won over substance. Beautiful yes, but no easy access to water. A few years after it was completed, the town was abandoned and the capital moved to Lahore in present day Pakistan.

One of the world’s most famous buildings, the very essence of romance, Taj Mahal, was built by the Mughals. And here – only 40 kilometers away – is Fatehpur Sikri, obscure, lost, a perfectly preserved ghost town.

Queen's Palace, Fatehpur Sikri

It’s rare to be alone most anywhere in India. That day, we had the complex practically to ourselves – just a few Indian tourists and the usual gang of young local boys running around us offering to be our guides.

I love wandering about abandoned cities, trying to picture those that were once here: sounds of chatter, children laughing, a dog barking in the distance. It’s meditative, in a peculiar way. Fatehpur Sikri was no different. For a few minutes that day, I forgot all about the Indian midday heat, the merciless sun bearing down on my pale Scandinavian skin. For a few minutes that day, I was deliciously lost in the 16th century,

Sadly, the photos don’t do this town justice – scanned prints, very few of them, and taken in the noon day sun with a mediocre camera. I’ve learned a thing or two about photography since. However, I wanted to turn your attention to this unsung UNESCO site for a minute, so middling photos will have to do. (I’ve used Flickr’s simple editing tool Aviary to add a vintage touch. Just because I liked it.)

When you visit Taj Mahal, I hope you’ll make a little detour to have a look at Fatehpur Sikri.

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Have you visited a ghost town? Where was it – and how did it feel?

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Fatehpur Sikri is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.

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49 Comments

  1. ItalianNotes 9 October 2012 at 0916 - Reply

    I loved Fatehpur Sikri and especially the story of the rogue elephant. Raading about it afterwards in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’ has not lessen the fascination.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 9 October 2012 at 1117 - Reply

      Oh, interesting. Getting that book now.

  2. Janice Mucalov 9 October 2012 at 1010 - Reply

    Wonderful post on this unsung UNESCO site… The faded photos give it an even more mystical air…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 9 October 2012 at 1118 - Reply

      Thank you 🙂

  3. Ishwinder 9 October 2012 at 1329 - Reply

    Fatehpur Sikhri is far from a ghost town…it is medieval fort still visited and thriving. Many people make a living offering tours of the fort. It is my most favorite monument in the world. There is something in it that talks to you. Enjoyed your post! will follow you!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 October 2012 at 1159 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Ishwinder 🙂

  4. Leigh 9 October 2012 at 2250 - Reply

    I love visiting UNESCO sites – and went out of my way to see Dinosaur Provincial Park last week in Alberta just because it’s got the UNESCO designation. I was definitely worth the visit.
    I love your vintage look. You and I both seem to have lots of old traditional photos…and if I could get mine to look as good digitally as they do in the album I’d be happy.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 October 2012 at 1202 - Reply

      Dinosaur Prrovincial Park – yet another UNESCO site not on most’s people’s radar, I’ll wager. Putting it on the Alberta list for sure.

  5. Ana O 10 October 2012 at 0028 - Reply

    I visited a ghost town in Texas called Thurber. It was rather disappointing, really. Only a couple of buildings left.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 October 2012 at 1204 - Reply

      Sorry to hear that, Ana. It isn’t the same if one can’t get a sense of the past, I think.

  6. Vera Marie Badertscher 10 October 2012 at 0138 - Reply

    We have ghost towns aplenty in Arizona, but nothing as fully preserved as this. Definitely love the scanned and browned photos!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 October 2012 at 1205 - Reply

      Thanks, Vera. Arizona ghost towns would be interesting, I think – that cowboy past…

  7. [email protected] 10 October 2012 at 1052 - Reply

    I loved my visit to Fatehpur Sikri . As I wandered around the complex absorbing the history of the day, I too was transported back to a time when there was life here. It is a fabulous place to visit.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 10 October 2012 at 1206 - Reply

      So glad you enjoyed it, too, Jenny 🙂

  8. Shing @ The Culture Map 10 October 2012 at 1759 - Reply

    I agree, all you need is a little imagination to really appreciate a place that can be forgotten after most of the people have left. Recently I went to Little Petra, it was completely deserted in comparison to it’s big brother – Petra – my friends and I had the place completely to ourselves which made the experience even more treasured. Abandoned caves, empty water cisterns and well preserved tombs showed so richly how the Nabateans lived.

    I’m dying to go to India, and this place is a another reason why…

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 October 2012 at 1135 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Shing. Both Petra and Little Petra – and all of Wadi Musa – are on my list 🙂

  9. Ankita 11 October 2012 at 0927 - Reply

    Lovely article, really enjoyed your post. Most monuments in Agra get overshadowed by the popularity of Taj Mahal. But I do agree, when making a trip to the city, the detour to Fatehpur is a must.

    You might be interested in checking out the monumental agra app – it has lovely interactive maps, audio walkthrough and photographs of Fatehpur too.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/monumental-agra-tour-guide/id521037028?mt=8

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 October 2012 at 1136 - Reply

      Thanks, Ankita. Had a look at the app, looks like a really great resource for visiting Agra.

  10. Angela 11 October 2012 at 1604 - Reply

    I’ve been there too, and there were very few tourists, I almost visited undisturbed with my guide! I liked it, very peaceful, and loved its warm red hues.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 October 2012 at 1138 - Reply

      It really is a very peaceful place, isn’t it – a nice little oasis of quiet.

  11. Sziszi 15 October 2012 at 1631 - Reply

    As a huge fan of indian architecture, I’m amazed and I also feel a little shame because I haven’t heard about this building before. Thanks for sharing this beauty, I think I1m going to do some research about this one on my own as well, I just got totally interested. Like I’ve discovered something new.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 16 October 2012 at 1226 - Reply

      Happy to contribute 🙂

  12. Natasha von Geldern 18 October 2012 at 1114 - Reply

    I completely agree about the Unesco sites. I didn’t get to Fatehpur Sikri when I went to the Taj but we’re going to Delhi in January for a wedding so maybe I’ll make it this time. Sounds fascinating. I visited a ghost town last month actually – in Outback Australia (more on that anon).

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0035 - Reply

      Looking forward to reading about it. Haven’t visited any Australian ghosts towns yet.

  13. Andrea 21 October 2012 at 1534 - Reply

    I couldn’t imagine that there would ever be such a thing as a ghost town in India – really interesting

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0036 - Reply

      I know what you mean. Seems there are people everywhere. Oddly, not here. Not then anyway.

  14. Laurence 21 October 2012 at 1821 - Reply

    Whilst I’m not a fan of getting off the beaten track just for the sake of it, this looks like an incredible find – amazing that it’s not swarming with tourists 😀

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0037 - Reply

      Not sure how it is today.

  15. Jade - OurOyster.com 22 October 2012 at 0528 - Reply

    I love UNESCO sites… I try to visit them whenever I can… thanks for the great photos!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0037 - Reply

      Thanks, Jade.

  16. Adela @FourJandals 7 November 2012 at 1749 - Reply

    We visited a ghost town in turkey and it was creepy but beautiful. I love trying to picture how people would have lived. Great article

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0038 - Reply

      Creepy but beautiful is an interesting summary, I think.

  17. mridul gogoi 8 November 2012 at 0820 - Reply

    This heritage site is a bonus for travelers visiting the Taj Mahal. However, it is also a breathtaking tourist site by itself. Indeed a good write_up!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 8 November 2012 at 1200 - Reply

      Thank you! Fatehpur Sikri was very interesting to see – a bonus indeed.

  18. Victor Tribunsky 10 November 2012 at 1832 - Reply

    I adore abandoned cities too , had visited some of them and written

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0038 - Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Victor.

  19. Sherry 1 December 2012 at 2249 - Reply

    I’m always intrigued by the things I learn from all my traveling friends. I like the way you made the photos match your article. India is a country I am still a bit weary to land on. But perhaps, I’m getting closer to the possibility with every post like this one. I myself have never been to a ghost town.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 December 2012 at 0039 - Reply

      Thanks, Sherry. India is demanding, but absolutely worth the effort.

  20. Alexandra 11 December 2012 at 2357 - Reply

    I’ve never heard of this place before. I am going to India next year so I will be adding this to my list of things to see!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 15 December 2012 at 1020 - Reply

      It’s not nearly as famous as its sister UNESCO site nearby – but very much worth a visit.

  21. Suzzane from Travel Universally 28 December 2012 at 1401 - Reply

    I was unaware about the great background past of Fatehpur Sikri. It’s so authentic and it makes me feel so strange when I got to know that the whole city was abandoned!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 at 2051 - Reply

      I’m weirdly drawn to ghost towns and abandoned places.

  22. Suchit Mangal 2 January 2014 at 1354 - Reply

    I have never been to Fatehpur Sikri. After going through this post, I think I need to pay a visit to this places. Looks good in the photographs.

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 19 January 2014 at 2052 - Reply

      Well, looks like you’re from India. Hope you’ll get there 🙂

  23. Sourav Agarwal 30 March 2015 at 2211 - Reply

    Nice to see that you have visited Fatehpur Sikri & some other tourist places in India. I would like to share with you a brief about this ghost town. Of the many age-old stories of Fatehpur Sikri monument built by Akbar, one is the story of the escape of Anarkali who Akbar’s son Jahangir (aka. Salim) was madly in love with. Akbar did not let his son marry Anarkali, a courtesan. Hope, you like to explore this story!

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 2 April 2015 at 1519 - Reply

      Thanks for the added info, Sourav. Always interesting to hear local legends.

  24. Swastik 12 March 2017 at 1620 - Reply

    I don’t know why it is called ghost town.

  25. Swastik 12 March 2017 at 1627 - Reply

    please can you answer me the question?

    • Anne-Sophie Redisch 12 March 2017 at 1643 - Reply

      Because it was abandoned.

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