Briefly touched upon in the Game of Thrones series and described further in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, Valyria has both a rich and tragic history. The Valyrian Peninsula, the southern coast of central Essos, was the heartland of the now extinct Valyrian Freehold. Mostly destroyed by "The Doom of Valyria," what was once a booming empire is now a wasteland, with the largest surviving fragment, Valyria, left partially intact - ironically preserved by the very ash that destroyed it.
From the birth of the greatest empire of its time to its overnight decimation, Valyria continues to be shrouded in darkness (likely caused by the ash produced from the sudden and simultaneous eruption of more than a dozen volcanoes.) The Targaryens, who managed to dodge the carnage by holding away on Dragonstone, are the only known survivors - of both the human and dragon variety - from the haunting wasteland, whose rich history and poor outcome serves as a startling warning: the Valyrian Freehold wasn’t built in a day, but it was burned in one.
10 It was built on the backs of sheep herders
When the Old Empire of Ghis was at its full height and expanding in every direction, it overlooked sacking little ole Valyria. Back then, the area was a small town comprised of shepherds and pastoral folk, so why bother, right? Wrong.
These shepherds and pastoral folk discovered dragon lairs in the Fourteen Fires, a circle of large and powerful volcanoes along the neck of the Valyrian Peninsula. After discovering a means of harnessing the winged-beasts, the Valyrians started singeing ass and taking names - starting with the Ghiscaris.
By the time the Ghis realized the mistake they made, it was too late. After five separate invasions and various rebellions, the dragons burned a path to a new dawn, birthing the Valyrian Freehold. The new empire continued to grow as it and sacked city after city after city until it gained a hold over most of southern Essos. Swallowing Myr, Lys, Lorath, Tyrosh, Pentos, Qohor, and Norvos, Volantis built a fortress, Dragonstone, on the Narrow Sea to serve as a trading port with Westeros.
9 The empire was obliterated by the "Doom of Valyria"
Hundreds of years before Aegon the Conqueror invaded Westeros, the Valyrian Freehold, comprised of colonies and vassal states, was torn apart by the "Doom of Valyria." Putting Queen Cersei's Wild Fire attack to shame, the Doom - and its aftermath - literally and figuratively divided the empire. Beginning with eruptions from the Fourteen Fires, as well as hundreds of other eruptions from smaller volcanos, cataclysms were formed.
Not happy with just destroying the city, the Doom’s seismic activity cracked Essos wide open, causing chunks of the Valyrian Freehold to sink into the sea. More destruction rained as the Doom's aftermath caused earthquakes, tsunamis, and firestorms and toppled other cities on Essos, including East of Valyria, Velos, and Ghozai on the Isle of Cedars.
8 Valyrian Freehold is a well-preserved wasteland
The volcanic eruptions propelled ash far and wide, smothering the city, hence using the term “descended” in reference to the Doom. The once-bustling and natural-disaster-free city of Valyria now only exists as ruins. As the largest surviving fragment of the shattered peninsula, Valyria was left partially intact - ironically preserved by the very ash that destroyed it.
Thought to be haunted by angry spirits and protected by the fatally toxic Smoking Sea, the ruined empire is enough to give even the Mountain chills. Remember when Ser Jorah Mormont sailed the terrifying tides with Tyrion Lannister in tow? Relief for surviving the poison misted across the water soon turned to terror when the two heroes encountered Stone Men hell-bent on giving the pair greyscale.
As it turns out, the dreaded Stone Men used to be just that - men. When the scaly sickness broke out over the world, the Eastern cities shipped off their diseased to die on the now-vacated wasteland. Because greyscale essentially turns a person to stone in several painful stages and deteriorates the mind, the Stone Men are said to wander like zombies amongst the towering ruins of old Valyria and attack any who dare approach.
7 The dead empire birthed new cities
In the immediate aftermath of the Doom, the Old Empire of Ghis was first in line to empires vie for control of the now-unprotected vassal people. Though they regained control over their old lands, the empire was too weak to reestablish, which led colonies to break away and become the Free Cities.
6 It’s nearly impossible to visit
As a result of the Doom’s apocalyptic destruction, the seawater around the islands became poisonous. The aptly named "Smoking Sea"— its fatal vapors misting its surface and the monsters it concealed - became a deadly omen amongst sailors, as very few would brave - much less survive - going anywhere near the Valyrian shore. These deadly floating fumes kept every rational person at bay, so naturally, Euron Greyjoy set sail to the deadly isle, where he claimed to have walked amongst the empire's ruins, retrieved a magical Dragon Horn, and found a dragon egg, which he threw into the sea in a fit of rage.
On one hand, Euron could be making the whole thing up. The ruthless ironborn is not exactly known to be an honest man and none of his crew members can contradict the tale (he removes their tongues). On the other hand, the Iron King is absolutely insane. If anyone managed to navigate the Smoking Sea, stroll the ruins of the once-great empire, and be stupid enough to drop a dragon egg into the sea, it’s Euron.
5 The Doom's wake triggered the Bleeding Years
Named for the chaos left in the Doom’s wake, the Bleeding Years refers to the century-long battle between the vassal states and the ensuing fight for power. Without the Valyrian Freehold’s protection, native tribes grew more powerful - namely the khalasars. Riding from the east and the grasslands of central Essos, the hoards of Dothraki horse-riders road straight into battle, arakhs raised - only sparing cities like Meereen in exchange for tributes
4 Dragonlords Ruled The Valyrian Freehold
During the imperialistic reign, dragonlords, with their sorcery, spells, and ability to tame dragons, made them the most powerful people in the empire. The Valyrian Freehold colonized islands of Blackwater Bay were given as fiefs to Dragonlords—most notably Dragonstone, the lands gained by the Targaryen family.
3 The Valyrian people were all about magic
Obviously, with all of these dragons around there’s bound to be plenty of magic and, in the case of the Valyrian Freehold, was some seriously dark magic.
Practicing blood magic, delving into the earth for sinister monsters and secrets, and mixing beasts with men to create terrifying unnatural creatures like chimeras—you know, the fire-breathing female monsters with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail—many believe that the prideful empire paid handsomely for their love of Frankensteining and that for these sins the gods in their wroth struck Valyria down.
2 Balerion the Black Dread is the only known dragon to survive the Doom
Back in the day, there were hundreds of dragons roaming about and living their best lives. “Were” being the operative word. The demise of their lairs caused by the Doom's volcanic eruptions and subsequent annihilation during the Bleeding Years claimed the lives of all but one known dragon, Balerion the Black Dread, who, you guessed it, belonged to House Targaryen. Two additional dragon eggs were found on Dragonstone and birthed Vhagar and Meraxes, making House Targaryen the only living Dragonlords.
Fun fact: Vhagar was one of the largest dragons in existence, comparable only to Balerion the Black Dread, and was known for her ferocity. Her roar alone was said to shake the entire island of Storm’s End and her flames could melt a knight’s armor. After 181 years of hard-fought battles, Vhagar drowned and her skull was placed in the Red Keep.
1 House Targaryen rose from the Valyrian Freehold’s ashes
Deemed a coward because his daughter prophesied the Doom of Valyria 12 years in advance, Aenar bounced and took his family and five dragons, opting for self-imposed exile on his fiefdom of Dragonstone. The Doom wiped out every last known Dragonlord and family, consumed whole cities, and turned the Valyrian Freehold to dust, with the exception of the Targaryens.