Atlantis, the lost continent! Surely these are among the most evocative words in the language, conjuring up visions of ancient triremes, magical crystals and vanished arts and sciences while offering the satisfying notion of an entire classical civilization hurtled into oblivion, pillar by pillar, in a single cataclysmic natural disaster. In short, Atlantis is Pompeii on steroids. From the days of the ancient Greeks to modern times, tales of this fallen empire have been a tabula rasa onto which current popular fantasies can be projected. Victorian poets made rhymes about Atlantis; Pre-Raphaelite artists painted it; American seer Edgar Cayce visited it in visions. Nazis claimed to share bloodlines with Atlanteans, while folksinger Donovan made Atlantis into a hippy anthem, not long after a hilariously cheesy Hollywood movie depicted the lost continent as a depraved empire in which berserk scientists armed with killer crystals create a subrace of donkey-eared slaves. Yet this colossal fictional edifice of bygone grandeur and disaster has been erected upon slender reeds. The tale of Atlantis was first related by Plato. In two dialogues, Timaeus and Critics, written circa 36o B.C., the Athenian philosopher describes Atlantis as an advanced civilization occupying an island “within the pillars of Hercules,” which most scholars believe is a reference to the Strait of Gibraltar. At the center of the island, enclosed within three moats, was a great palace. The Atlanteans conquered Egypt and other lands, Plato tells us, until they were halted by the valiant ancestors of the Athenians. Then, just as the kingdom’s power was challenged, “there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune… Atlantis… disappeared into the depths ofthe sea.” To modern ears, this tate of destruction is eerily familiar: the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, reminds us of nature’s devastating power. But is Plato’s tale—which he claimed occurred 9,000 years before he set it down— based on fact? Or is it merely a folk tate based on secondhand legends of past natural disasters? And if Atlantis was a real place, where was it? The list of suggested locations rivals the manifest at an international airport: the lost continent has been confidently placed in Antarctica, the Caribbean, Indonesia, the Black Sea, the Azores, Scandinavia and Ireland. Few scholars believe that Atlantis may have been located in the Atlantic Ocean; most place it within the Mediterranean Sea. The kingdom’s spectacular demise has led some to propose that its story
is a recollection of the massive eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, now known as Santorini. Some scholars believe this event may have helped destroy the advanced Minoan civilization on Crete, a culture rich in arts, sciences and trade, the memories of which could have inspired Plato’s tale. The date of the eruption ofThera is currently much debated, but it is generally assigned to the period between 1650 and 1450 B.C. That is much more recent than Plato’s estimate, but in the staggering fait of the Minoan kingdom, we can glimpse the outlines of Atlantis, shimmering across the centuries.
ATLANTIS? The island of Santorini (Thera) is the lip of an ancient volcanic caldera. Greek archaeotogist Spyridon Marinatos excavated the ruins of an ancient Minoan port on the istand and first proposed in 1939 that Santorini was Atlantis. Inset, an 1866 illustrator imagines Thera’s eruption