The Atlantis Enigma

by Steve Johnson

In around 360 BC, the Greek philosopher, Plato, introduced the world to a word that would reverberate throughout the millennia. That word was Atlantis.

Opinion is divided as to whether Plato’s works that describe Atlantis, Timaeus and Critias, are works of fact or pure speculation. It is obvious, though, that a great deal of dramatic license has been used in both works, with the gods of ancient Greece making frequent appearances.

Plato described Atlantis as a large, island empire that existed beyond ‘the Pillars of Hercules’, ruled by the god Poseidon and the royal family he sired with the mortal woman, Cleito. She bore him five sets of boy twins and Poseidon installed the eldest son, Atlas, as king, with the remaining nine becoming princes of the Atlantean territories.

Nine thousand years before Plato’s time, he said, the armies of Atlantis warred with those that lived within the Pillars of Hercules, mostly notably, Athens. The Atlanteans were defeated and driven back by the Athenians, only for their island to be consumed by the sea shortly after their return.

That’s the basic story, so let’s get down to the details.

Plato gave a very specific description of Atlantis in his works, insisting that it was a real place and not some idealistic, perfect state. Indeed, the rulers of Atlantis were so imperfect that the gods felt compelled to destroy it.

According to Plato, Atlantis lay beyond ‘The Pillars of Hercules’, which is generally taken to be the Straits of Gibraltar, thus placing it somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a name also taken from that mythological empire. Some have argued, though that the Pillars of Hercules referred to by Plato may actually have been at the Cape Maleas in the Peloponnese, where Hercules was said to have performed all of his labours. So immediately, we have a grey area concerning Atlantis’ location. However, Plato said that Atlantis faced the region called Gades. We now know Gades as Cadiz in south-western Spain. This is a port on the Atlantic, so for Atlantis to face Gades, it stands to reason that this legendary place must also be located within the Atlantic Ocean.

It has been postulated that Atlantis may have been a small island that once existed just beyond Gibraltar, but Plato was very specific when he stated that Atlantis was an island larger than Libya (the whole of known Africa at the time) and Asia (which generally covered the rest of the Mediterranean and the lands of what was to become the Middle East). Obviously, a small island just beyond the Pillars of Hercules cannot be said to be larger than what was essentially the known world!

Plato then goes on to describe the city of Atlantis itself:

First of all they bridged over the zones of sea which surrounded the ancient metropolis, making a road to and from the royal palace. And at the very beginning they built the palace in the habitation of the god and of their ancestors, which they continued to ornament in successive generations, every king surpassing the one who went before him to the utmost of his power, until they made the building a marvel to behold for size and for beauty. And beginning from the sea they bored a canal of three hundred feet in width and one hundred feet in depth and fifty stadia in length, which they carried through to the outermost zone, making a passage from the sea up to this, which became a harbour, and leaving an opening sufficient to enable the largest vessels to find ingress. Moreover, they divided at the bridges the zones of land which parted the zones of sea, leaving room for a single trireme to pass out of one zone into another, and they covered over the channels so as to leave a way underneath for the ships; for the banks were raised considerably above the water. Now the largest of the zones into which a passage was cut from the sea was three stadia in breadth, and the zone of land which came next of equal breadth; but the next two zones, the one of water, the other of land, were two stadia, and the one which surrounded the central island was a stadium only in width. The island in which the palace was situated had a diameter of five stadia. All this including the zones and the bridge, which was the sixth part of a stadium in width, they surrounded by a stone wall on every side, placing towers and gates on the bridges where the sea passed in. The stone which was used in the work they quarried from underneath the centre island, and from underneath the zones, on the outer as well as the inner side. One kind was white, another black, and a third red, and as they quarried, they at the same time hollowed out double docks, having roofs formed out of the native rock. Some of their buildings were simple, but in others they put together different stones, varying the colour to please the eye, and to be a natural source of delight. The entire circuit of the wall, which went round the outermost zone, they covered with a coating of brass, and the circuit of the next wall they coated with tin, and the third, which encompassed the citadel, flashed with the red light of orichalcum.

The palaces in the interior of the citadel were constructed on this wise:-in the centre was a holy temple dedicated to Cleito and Poseidon, which remained inaccessible, and was surrounded by an enclosure of gold; this was the spot where the family of the ten princes first saw the light, and thither the people annually brought the fruits of the earth in their season from all the ten portions, to be an offering to each of the ten. Here was Poseidon's own temple which was a stadium in length, and half a stadium in width, and of a proportionate height, having a strange barbaric appearance. All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum. In the temple they placed statues of gold: there was the god himself standing in a chariot-the charioteer of six winged horses-and of such a size that he touched the roof of the building with his head; around him there were a hundred Nereids riding on dolphins, for such was thought to be the number of them by the men of those days. There were also in the interior of the temple other images which had been dedicated by private persons. And around the temple on the outside were placed statues of gold of all the descendants of the ten kings and of their wives, and there were many other great offerings of kings and of private persons, coming both from the city itself and from the foreign cities over which they held sway. There was an altar too, which in size and workmanship corresponded to this magnificence, and the palaces, in like manner, answered to the greatness of the kingdom and the glory of the temple.

In the next place, they had fountains, one of cold and another of hot water, in gracious plenty flowing; and they were wonderfully adapted for use by reason of the pleasantness and excellence of their waters. They constructed buildings about them and planted suitable trees, also they made cisterns, some open to the heavens, others roofed over, to be used in winter as warm baths; there were the kings' baths, and the baths of private persons, which were kept apart; and there were separate baths for women, and for horses and cattle, and to each of them they gave as much adornment as was suitable. Of the water which ran off they carried some to the grove of Poseidon, where were growing all manner of trees of wonderful height and beauty, owing to the excellence of the soil, while the remainder was conveyed by aqueducts along the bridges to the outer circles; and there were many temples built and dedicated to many gods; also gardens and places of exercise, some for men, and others for horses in both of the two islands formed by the zones; and in the centre of the larger of the two there was set apart a race-course of a stadium in width, and in length allowed to extend all round the island, for horses to race in. Also there were guardhouses at intervals for the guards, the more trusted of whom were appointed-to keep watch in the lesser zone, which was nearer the Acropolis while the most trusted of all had houses given them within the citadel, near the persons of the kings. The docks were full of triremes and naval stores, and all things were quite ready for use. Enough of the plan of the royal palace.

Leaving the palace and passing out across the three you came to a wall which began at the sea and went all round: this was everywhere distant fifty stadia from the largest zone or harbour, and enclosed the whole, the ends meeting at the mouth of the channel which led to the sea. The entire area was densely crowded with habitations; and the canal and the largest of the harbours were full of vessels and merchants coming from all parts, who, from their numbers, kept up a multitudinous sound of human voices, and din and clatter of all sorts night and day.

I have described the city and the environs of the ancient palace nearly in the words of Solon, and now I must endeavour to represent the nature and arrangement of the rest of the land. The whole country was said by him to be very lofty and precipitous on the side of the sea, but the country immediately about and surrounding the city was a level plain, itself surrounded by mountains which descended towards the sea; it was smooth and even, and of an oblong shape, extending in one direction three thousand stadia, but across the centre inland it was two thousand stadia. This part of the island looked towards the south, and was sheltered from the north. The surrounding mountains were celebrated for their number and size and beauty, far beyond any which still exist, having in them also many wealthy villages of country folk, and rivers, and lakes, and meadows supplying food enough for every animal, wild or tame, and much wood of various sorts, abundant for each and every kind of work.

I will now describe the plain, as it was fashioned by nature and by the labours of many generations of kings through long ages. It was for the most part rectangular and oblong, and where falling out of the straight line followed the circular ditch. The depth, and width, and length of this ditch were incredible, and gave the impression that a work of such extent, in addition to so many others, could never have been artificial. Nevertheless I must say what I was told. It was excavated to the depth of a hundred, feet, and its breadth was a stadium everywhere; it was carried round the whole of the plain, and was ten thousand stadia in length. It received the streams which came down from the mountains, and winding round the plain and meeting at the city, was there let off into the sea. Further inland, likewise, straight canals of a hundred feet in width were cut from it through the plain, and again let off into the ditch leading to the sea: these canals were at intervals of a hundred stadia, and by them they brought down the wood from the mountains to the city, and conveyed the fruits of the earth in ships, cutting transverse passages from one canal into another, and to the city. Twice in the year they gathered the fruits of the earth-in winter having the benefit of the rains of heaven, and in summer the water which the land supplied by introducing streams from the canals. (my emphasis)

As we can see, Atlantis was a big place! One Greek stade is equal to 528 feet, so the plain upon which the city of Atlantis (remember this is not the whole island) is 300 miles long and 200 miles wide!

It is now known that no vast, island-continent has ever existed within the Atlantic Ocean, so what was it that submerged beneath the sea?

Researcher Jim Allen, in his book, Atlantis: The Andes Solution, believes that Atlantis was what we now call South America, with the rectangular plain lying on what is now the Bolivian alteplano, a huge, windswept region high up in the Andes Mountains. Unfortunately for Allen, though, the Bolivian alteplano is not large enough and he had to fiddle with his measurements, cutting down the stade by half to get it to fit his theory. Despite this jiggery-pokery, however, he makes a compelling case for South America as being the home of Atlantis, citing the many similarities between Plato’s account and the local features around the alteplano and Lake Titicaca.

To the north of the South American continent lie the islands of the Caribbean. This had long been proposed as a possible site for Atlantis, but the case became stronger when a feature known as The Bimini Road was discovered in 1968 and has been the subject of heated debate ever since. The scientific community maintains that the regularly-spaced blocks that comprise the ‘road’ are nothing more than the natural cracking of the sedimentary bedrock, while Atlantis theorists suggest that it is a part of some larger, artificial construction. More recently, in 2003, another contentious discovery was made – that of the Andros Platform, a large, foundation-like structure on the sea floor. Again, opinion is divided in much the same way as it is with the Bimini Road.

Beneath nearby islands, a cave was discovered and photographs were taken of what appeared to be a form of hieroglyphics. It is unknown whether or not these strange markings are genuinely ancient or a more recent addition, however it is yet another tantalising clue in the search for Atlantis.

In 2002 came the next twist of the ‘Atlantis in the Caribbean’ saga. Ocean engineer, Paulina Zelitsky and her team from Canadian-based Advanced Digital Communications, discovered what appeared to be the ruins of a city, 2000 feet down in the waters off western Cuba.

“On the matter of whether the sonar imagery really does show `pyramids, roads and buildings”, Paul Weinzweig, director of ADC, stated: “We had been looking at the images for some months, and keep a picture on the wall showing pyramids in the Yucatan, and let’s just say they kept reminding us of these structures. They really do look like an urban development.”

Little new information concerning this possibly epoch-shattering find has emerged, and, yet again, opinion is divided, but further investigation is promised, culminating in a series of dives on the site.

Back over in the Mediterranean Sea, the island of Santorini holds the most famous claim to being the location of Atlantis. Although it lies within Plato’s Pillars of Hercules, it was a place where a great disaster destroyed an entire civilisation. In about 1650 BC, the island was devastated by a volcanic eruption that destroyed the Minoan towns there and the resulting environmental impacts may even have brought about the end of the great Minoan civilisation that was primarily centred on the island of Crete.

It is widely regarded that the eruption of Thera (as the island was known in antiquity, although the Minoan name is lost) was the basis of Plato’s Atlantis myth. The Minoans were a bountiful civilisation and their passing, their destruction by the gods, as it were, would have become a great legend of the following centuries.

But Thera does not conform with Plato’s descriptions of Atlantis, especially in size.

Was Plato exaggerating to tell a gripping story of what may happen when men think they have become gods? It was common for legends of the age to greatly inflate a hero, an army or a disaster, so was Plato doing likewise? Was the mighty, ocean-spanning empire that invaded the Mediterranean nothing more than a tiny island consumed by volcanic fire? Or is there a nugget of truth in Plato’s descriptions and Atlantis really did exist on the continent we now call America?

With new discoveries keeping the scientific community on their toes, perhaps we will soon find out.

© 2005 Steven Johnson



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Updated 16th August, 2012