Still, the search goes on for the lost kingdom of Atlantis
It was a rich land, blessed with lush vegetation and mines of valuable minerals, including silver and gold. Its people were cultured and scientifically advanced. At the center of the island kingdom, on top of a small hill, was a palace and a temple, the hub of a vast city, 12 miles from end to end. Around the hill was a moat – indeed, more a canal – packed with sailing ships. Around that, in concentric circles, were more canals. These waterways were linked by yet further canals to the open sea via an extensive system of docks and harbors by which the nation’s valuable produce was exported to the rest of the known world. It was a prosperous kingdom and a famous one. For, although it vanished from the face of the earth many centuries before Christ, its name is today still better known than those of many of the surviving nations of the globe. The name of that fabled kingdom and its great city . . . Atlantis.
The only description left to us of Atlantis was written by the Greek philosopher Plato in about 347 BC. And even he was not speaking of it first-hand. He was repeating stories written down by the Athenian Traveler Solon who, in turn, had heard them from Egyptian priests. The story Plato passed on was that Atlantis was a great nation in decline. Its people had fallen into corrupt ways – and they earned a dreadful punishment. ‘In one day and one night’ the entire island, 350 miles across, was overtaken by a catastrophe of unsurpassed magnitude. Atlantis was rent by a volcanic explosion, followed by a tidal wave, and within 24 hours had vanished beneath the sea.
Plato puts the tragic fate of Atlantis at a period we would now date as 9600 BC. And the place? ‘Beyond the Pillars of Hercules’ – what we now call the Straits of Gibraltar. That puts Atlantis somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a theory which, as geologists tell us, cannot be correct. For there is no major subterranean land mass on the bed of the Atlantic to justify Plato’s story. So, did the celebrated philosopher get his facts wrong? Or did he simply make up the whole story as a cautionary tale? The answer, in all likelihood, is that Plato’s epic tale is based firmly on fact – although both his date and his geography are badly out. The result has been a riddle that has puzzled man for centuries. These are some of the areas suggested over the years as the site of the lost civilization.
Mid-Atlantic. A vast ridge runs in the shape of the letter S along the seabed the entire length of the North and South Atlantic, from Iceland to Tristan da Cunha. It has been suggested that the highest region of this mountain range, around the area of the Azores, was once all above sea level, forming the land of Atlantis. Until the present century, this was the most popular theory. But it has now been debunked by scientists who point out that the Atlantic Ridge is – and has been for thousands of years – slowly rising from the depths, not sinking.
North America. As soon as Christopher Columbus returned to Europe with his tales of lands across the ocean, interest in the lost kingdom of Atlantis was revived. English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon firmly linked legend and fact in his work The New Atlantis. And historian John Swain wrote: “It may be supposed that America was one-time part of that great land which Plato calleth the Atlantic Island and that the kings of that island had some intercourse between the people of Europe and Africa.’ Such a theory must be discounted, however. The North American races never achieved a level of civilization equal even to that which existed in Plato’s time.
The Land Bridge. Various theories have been put forward about land bridges
which may at one time have linked Africa with South America, or have joined Europe — via Britain, Iceland, and Greenland — to North America. But geologists now know that no such bridge could have existed within the last 50 million years.
The Sargasso Sea. Sargasso is the Portuguese word for floating seaweed, and the Sargasso Sea is just that. It is a 1.5 -million-square-mile mass of weed that drifts off the Florida coast. Mariners once thought that it covered vast shallows beneath which may have been a sunken Atlantis. In fact, the sea is up to 1,500 ft deep.
The Sally Isles. Phoenician, Greek and Roman historians all referred to the ‘tin islands’ oil the British coast. These islands off Cornwall, Britain’s only tin-mining region, do not fit, however, Plato’s lush description.
Bimini. Between 1923 and his death in 1945, an American commercial photographer named Edgar Cayce made a name for himself as a faith healer and visionary. Although he had never read Plato’s works, he claimed to have looked back in time and mentally visited Atlantis, and he described it in much the same way as the Greek philosopher had done 2,300 years before. Cayce added that Atlantis had been destroyed by an atomic explosion (the inhabitants having mastered the science of nuclear fission) around the year 10,000 BC – close to the date set by Plato. And he gave the site of Atlantis as North Bimini, a small island in the Bahamas, forecasting that ‘a portion of the temples may yet be discovered’ in 1968 or 1969.
It was a preposterous story. And yet, in 1968, veteran American zoologist and deep-sea diver Dr. J. Manson Valentine discovered some strange structures beneath the sea off the coast of North Bimini. They could be made out clearly only from the air, but when he dived to investigate he found that they were the walls of what seemed to be an enormous harbor, enclosing quays and jetties. The walls, about one-third of a mile long, were of massive stone blocks more than 16 ft square.
Subsequent expeditions – and there have been many – have alternately supported and debunked Dr. Valentine’s assertion that the formation amounts to a man-made harbor. In 1970, Dr. John Hall, professor of archaeology at Miami University, led a survey of the site and reported: ‘These stones constitute a natural phenomenon called Pleistocene beach rock erosion. We found no evidence whatever of any work of the human hand. Therefore, alas for those who believe in the old legend, another Atlantis is dismissed.’
But two later American expeditions to Bimini, in 1975 and 1977, came up with very different findings. The expeditions’ leader, Dr. David Zink, of California, brought to the surface a block of stone with a tongue-and-groove worked edge. The conclusion: ‘On balance, we believe that the structure at Bimini is archaeological rather than geological in origin – but its purpose must remain a matter for speculation.’
So the Bimini mystery is yet to be solved. The possibility that it is the site of a lost city has not been disproved. Yet the most likely site of Atlantis so far suggested is nowhere near the Caribbean. It is not even in the Atlantic. For most archaeologists now believe that Plato made two remarkable mistakes when he wrote about his lost island.
Firstly, it is most likely that Atlantis, if it existed at all, was not ‘beyond the Pillars of Hercules’, but in the Mediterranean itself. Secondly, when Plato recorded the disaster as having happened 9,000 years before the Egyptian priests’ account, he may have written 9,000 in error for 900. If so, that would put the date of the demise of Atlantis at approximately 1500 BC instead of 9600 BC. And in 1500 BC, there did occur one of an appalling cataclysm of ancient times . . .
Archaeologists now know that the civilization of Atlantis described by Plato was very much like the highly developed Bronze Age Minoan culture which flourished on the islands of the Aegean Sea until the 15th century BC. It ended abruptly in about 1470 BC – and until recent years no one has understood why.
It is now known, however, that around that time a volcanic explosion, unimaginably destructive, tore out the entire center of the Minoan island of Kalliste – now known as Santorini – which lies midway between Crete and the Greek mainland. Sea rushed in to fill the crater that was left.
Archaeologists are now excavating the 100-ft-deep deposits of volcanic ash that cover what may once have been Plato’s fabulous island. What they have so far uncovered has enabled them to build up a frightening picture of the events that occurred there almost 3,500 years ago.
Because of the scarcity of human remains, it is assumed that the inhabitants of the island had some warning of the impending disaster through earth tremors and a series of minor volcanic eruptions. What probably happened next was this. The citizens took to their boats and headed for Crete, some 70 miles south. But before they had a chance to reach their goal, Kalliste exploded in a holocaust of fiery lava.
Molten rock spewed into the air, and ash and pumice stone rained down on the overcrowded boats. Soon the sea was an unnavigable mass of floating pumice. The people in the boats, unable to flee, died a slow and hideous death as the torrent of burning, choking ash became ever thicker. For some, the agony was ended by a tidal wave, perhaps 200 ft high, which swept out from the island, smashing the boats to matchwood. The giant wave, traveling at more than 150 miles an hour, soon reached Crete, the heart of the Minoan empire. It swept away all the towns and villages along the northern coastline and obliterated the harbor serving the capital, Knossos.
The wave traveled on to the North African coast, where its effects may have been responsible for the Old Testament story of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea. It has also been suggested that the rain of ash, which covered more than 100,000 square miles, may have been the origin of the story of the Egyptian plagues.
Some idea of what must have been the scale of the devastation can be gained from the example of the explosion of the volcanic Indonesian island Krakatoa in 1883. About 300 towns on the neighboring islands of Java and Sumatra were wrecked, and 36,000 people died. The blast was heard 3,500 miles away in Australia, shock waves went around the world three times, volcanic dust reached Africa and even Europe, and tidal waves crossed the Pacific Ocean and damaged boats on the coast of South America.
Such must have been the fate of Kalliste. Today, as Santorini, it stands fragmented and desolate under its barren covering of ash. It is made up of two main islands, Thera and Therasia, whose sheer 1,000-ft cliffs curve around a seven-mile-wide expanse of water, in parts 1,000 ft deep. This water covers the caldera, the dead heart of the volcano, formed when the cauldron of molten rock burned out and collapsed in upon itself.
In the center of the great sea-covered crater – at the spot where the palace and temple of Atlantis may once have stood – are two islets which arose from the depths long after the original catastrophe. They are rocks of black lava. Sometimes smoke rises from them in lazy wisps – a faint but threatening reminder of the cataclysm that may have destroyed the legendary kingdom of Atlantis.
1 – PLATO’S ATLANTIS
At the center of the island (of Atlantis) was a plain, said to be the most beautiful and fertile of all plains, and near the middle of this plain was a hill of no great size. Around the hill were two rings of land and three of the sea, like cartwheels. In the center of the hill was a shrine sacred to Poseidon and Cleito, surrounded by a golden wall through which entry was forbidden. There was also a temple to Poseidon, which was covered all over in silver, except for the statues, which were of gold. Two springs, hot and cold, provided limitless water supplies, and there were indoor heated baths for kings and commoners, for women and for horses. On the outer rings of land, there were dockyards and harbors, surrounded by a wall which was densely built up with houses. From this crowded area rose a constant din of shouting and noise throughout the day and night. Beyond were the plains, which brought to perfection all those sweet-scented stuff which the earth produces now, whether made of roots or herbs or trees or flowers or fruits. All these, that hallowed island, as it lay then beneath the sun, produced in marvelous beauty and endless abundance.
2-LOST GARDEN OF EDEN
Atlantis is not the only legendary land lost beneath the waves. Two entire continents are reputed to have vanished without the trace – each vastly larger than Atlantis and each, in its time, described as the cradle of mankind.
The names of these two lost Gardens of Eden were Mu and Lemuria. Mu was supposedly situated in the Pacific Ocean and was twice the size of Australia. Lemuria, according to legend, filled up most of the Indian Ocean and linked Africa with Malaysia.
The Mu theory was raised in 1870 by Colonel James Churchward, who claimed that, while serving with the Bengal Lancers in British colonial India, he was told the secrets of the lost land by Hindu priests. He was shown some tablets, since lost, and was taught a forgotten language called Naacal. Churchward also said that he had found identical stone tablets in Mexico. According to the tablets, Mu sank into the ocean in a great natural catastrophe 12,000 years ago, wiping out its 64 million people. Remarkably, the story of Mu was taken seriously at the time.
A somewhat better-argued tale was told about the lost continent of Lemuria. The name was coined by the 19th- century British zoologist Professor Philip Sclater, who named his nation after the lemur. It was fossils of this and of other animals, found in both Africa and Malaysia, that led Sclater to support legendary tales of a lost continent in the Indian Ocean. The many supporters of his theory included eminent biologist Ernst Haeckel and evolutionist Thomas Huxley.
The Less fanciful evidence is used to support the legend of Lyonesse – a land of the south-west English coast said to have been visited by King Arthur and his knights. The 15th- century chronicler William of Worcester quoted monastery scrolls which referred to ‘140 parochial churches, all since submerged, lying between Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly’.
The land is said to have sunk into the sea in a single day. This extravagant punishment, so folklore has it, was meted out by the magician Merlin to drown King Arthur’s treacherous knight Mordred and his rebel followers.
3-MIRACLE OF SURTSEY
Sunken cities? Lost continents? The world was inclined to treat such legends lightly – until the remarkable events of November 1963. It was then that the forces which obliterated Atlantis were seen at work but in reverse.
The skipper of a fishing boat off the south coast of Iceland radioed his base to report a vast cloud of black smoke rising from the sea. He and his crew watched in awe as explosion after explosion burst from the depths. Rocks were hurled 500 ft into the air and the smoke billowed to more than 10,000 ft.
Then the fishermen noticed waves lapping over a vast black form which was slowly emerging from the ocean. It was the summit of a volcanic mountain rising from the depths.
Within 24 hours, the island was higher than a housetop. Within the week, its peak was 200 ft above sea level. And by the time that volcanic activity ceased two years later the island was more than 500 ft high and over a mile long.
The Icelanders named their new-born island Surtsey after Surtur, the god of fire in Norse mythology. Today* colonized by birds, insects, and plants, it still stands as proof that new land can emerge from the depths as quickly as an old one can sink into legend.