The Legend of Atlantis

The legend of Atlantis, is it fact, fiction or fiction based on fact? If fact, when and where was Atlantis located? Was it, as Plato indicates, destroyed in some great catastrophe and if so are there any recognizable archaeological remains?

answers, obscured by the fog of time, continue to prove evasive, the truth a mystery difficult to resolve:

The earliest known references to Atlantis are found in Plato’s twenty-five hundred year old dialogues the Timaeus and Critias in which he describes a visit (circa 590 BCE) by the Athenian statesman Solon to Egypt. During his visit the Greek traveler is allegedly told a tale by Sonchis, a priest of Sais (a city in the Nile Delta), of a wondrous land located beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar being the European pillar and either Monte Hacho or Jebel Musa the African) which had “in a single day and night disappeared beneath the sea” the event happening after an attempted invasion of Greece an incursion thwarted by the city state of Athens.

The priest went on to describe the island continent, and its surroundings, in great detail. The Mediterranean was portrayed as merely a lake connected by a narrow entrance to the Atlantic, which was described as the real ocean, a vast expanse of water on the far side of which was another continent. Atlantis was an island, supposedly the size of Libya and Asia Minor combined, located in the Atlantic beyond Gibraltar and due to its central position a stepping stone by which travelers could reach other islands and the opposing land mass.

Plato refers to the Atlanteans as a great and prosperous people, their homeland a paradise as bountiful as it was beautiful. The city (Plato only mentions one) is dominated by a magnificent palace, surrounded by concentric rings of land and water and connected to the sea by a man made channel. Its islands are covered by ornate temples, statues gilded in gold and silver, gymnasiums, gardens, fountains and a track for horse racing. Its harbors, home to the lifeblood of the island nation, are bustling with ships and the trappings of maritime commerce all secure under the umbrella of a navy capable of protecting Atlantis and if necessary projecting its power into any region where its commercial or political interests might be threatened.

Here, let's briefly re-examine the opening questions: If this mysterious land did exist, when and where was it located, how was it destroyed and are there any recognizable archaeological remains?

According to Plato’s version of events, a priest of Sais spoke to Solon of a continent called Atlantis, located beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which after attacking Athens 9,000 years earlier (9600 BCE) and being repelled had sank beneath the sea in a single day and night.

The problem with the time frame is that according to conventional history Athens did not yet exist, nor for that matter any other cities, the human race having not yet passed the hunter-gatherer stage.

Also revealed (by even the most perfunctuary research) is any lack of reference, to Atlantis, by Plato’s contemporaries including the historian Herodotus who also visited Egypt albeit a century and a half after Solon. [1]

Concerning the supposed location of Atlantis there is absolutely no proof that either the Canary Islands, Madeira or the Azores are the mountain tops of a submerged continent.

There are no 11,700 year old ancient palaces, temples, statues or even pottery to be found (on the aforementioned islands) and in the case of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge there are no submerged cities anywhere in evidence.

Many researchers, their Atlantic explorations proving fruitless, have come to the conclusion that Atlantis never existed but not all.

Alternate locations offered by the undeterred include: North or South America, southern Spain, Morocco, the Sahara desert, Greenland, Brazil, the Bermuda Triangle, Belgium, the Bahamas, Ireland and the English Channel.

Whether Atlantis was imaginary or real has been a subject of debate for millennia, a possible answer, it’s both, a legend with roots based in fact, a likely candidate for the legend's origin the Mediterranean island of Thera (officially Thira). Santorini (colloquial), today a caldera, was blown apart in a volcanic explosion approximately1600 BCE (one of the largest in recorded history) and although the tiny island itself was of little historical significance its location just a 110 kilometers (68 miles) north of Knossos, Crete, the center of Minoan [2] civilization, made the eruption an event which changed history.

The tsunami (s) which followed, trapped within the relatively confined area of the Aegean Sea, would have been devastating, coastal cities engulfed by walls of water even larger, more powerful and shattering than those that smashed into the countries encircling the Indian Ocean a few years ago or Japan more recently (estimates are of waves as high as 150 meters or 500 feet). Commerce would have come to an end along with the infrastructure of sea born trade as both harbors and ships were reduced to kindling. The Minoan navy, obviously an important factor in the defense of what was basically a maritime empire, would have virtually ceased to exist individual islands left open to invasion by the more barbaric mainlanders of Mycenaean Greece. To survivors it must have seemed like the end of the world as clouds of sulfurous ash turned day into night, lightning flashed and mud fell from the sky to a thunderous roar, indeed the Minoans never fully recovered from this catastrophe and eventually faded from importance, no longer a major player on the Hellenic stage.

Plato would certainly have heard of this disaster and realizing the theatrical possibilities might have, with a dash of dramatic license and a little imagination, used the chain of events as a template for his own ends. Sir Desmond Lee a renowned classical historian certainly thought so when he stated “We must remember Plato’s purpose  -- to describe a rich, powerful and technologically advanced society to serve as an opponent of his ideal Athens. He had a fertile imagination and in Atlantis produced the first work of science fiction.”

Was Plato describing a mythical utopia by embellishing stories of a real natural catastrophe that had occurred in his own backyard a thousand years earlier? Or is it as another classical historian J.V.Luce puts it by comparing the Atlantis story to the works of Jonathan Swift "as fictional as Lilliput or Brobdingnag"? Perhaps the real answer is that it doesn’t matter, imaginary or real it’s still a great tale of politics, avarice, retribution and mystery, as interesting and relevant today as it was during the famed philosopher’s lifetime and still providing enjoyment in both its original form and its many modern incarnations.

[1] The dialogues contain the only references to Atlantis in all of ancient literature except by those quoting Plato.

[2] It was British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who gave the name Minoan to the people of ancient Crete; what they called themselves is unknown.

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