Gateway to Atlantis: The Search for the Source of a Lost Civilizationby Andrew Collins, David Rohl (Introduction), David Rohl (Introduction)
For two millennia the fate of Atlantis has fascinated philosophers, classicists, and explorers. They have debated its reality, they have consigned it to mythology, they have searched in vain for the kingdom behind the legend. Historian Andrew Collins has done more. In addition to meticulously examining centuries of literature on Atlantis, he has traveled oceans gathering evidence to support his conclusion that not only did Atlantis exist but remnants of the ancient empire survive today.
Collins's quest for Atlantis begins with a trail of clues left by Plato, and his journey takes him far beyond Crete and the Mediterranean, where scholars in recent times have placed the island kingdom. Collins finds signposts among the mummies in Egypt, in the wreckage of Roman vessels off the coasts of South and Central America, and in the African features of great stone heads in Mexico. His final destination has roused controversy among the experts, but he may indeed have found the land that history lost.
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THE OLD PRIEST SPEAKS
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Sometime around the year 355 BC, the Athenian poet and philosopher Plato (429-347 BC) evoked the inspiration of the Muses before writing what is arguably one of classical literature's most enigmatic works. Already he had completed a book entitled the Republic, which set out his vision of Athens as an ideal state. This was based to some degree on the philosophical teachings of Pythagoras (born c. 570 BC) who was a major influence on Plato's life. His new work would be called the Timaeus and, like its predecessor, it would take the form of a drama, or dialogue, enacted by four historical figures in the year 421 BC, when Plato would have been just eight years old. The participants, the same as those who featured in the Republic, were Socrates, Plato's great mentor and friend, who died of poison by his own hand in c. 399 BC; Timaeus, an astronomer of Locri in Italy; Hermocrates, an exiled Syracusan general; and Critias, who was either Plato's great-grandfather or his maternal uncle (see Chapter Three).
This style of writing, common in Plato's day, was intended to establish, in an informative and readable manner, the principal themes of the book. In this new dialogue, which was meant as a sequel to the Republic, subjects to be discussed included the mechanics of the universe and the nature of the physical world. Yet instead of Socrates assuming the role of chairman, as he had done in the Republic, this honour would go to Critias.
It isalmost at the beginning of the Timaeus that Plato introduces the world to the subject of Atlantis. Critias (styled `the Younger') relates to Socrates and those present how, when only a child, his elderly grandfather, also named Critias (styled `the Elder'), had told him a fascinating story. This he had gained from Dropides, his father, who in turn had learned it from a friend and relative named Solon. Like the participants in the dialogue, Solon (c. 638-558 BC) is also a historical character a celebrated Athenian legislator spoken of by Plato as one of Athens' seven great sages.
Hoary with Age
The Timaeus informs us that Solon obtained what he knew of the story while at Sais, `the city [in Egypt] from which King Amasis came'. This Amasis, who is more correctly identified as Aahmes II, ruled Egypt from his seat at Sais from c. 570 BC onwards for a duration of 44 years. Although Solon was alive at this time, the text does not specify that Solon was in Egypt during his reign. Indeed, Plato's pupil, the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), tells us that Solon visited Egypt at the beginning of a ten-year sojourn overseas, following his time as the archon, or chief magistrate, of Athens. Since this is believed to have occurred in c. 594-593 BC, some 22 or 23 years before Amasis' reign, there is a possible discrepancy here. Yet we know that Solon did indeed visit Egypt around this time because the Greek historian Herodotus (484-408 BC) in his History informs us that: `It was this king Amasis who established the law that every Egyptian should appear once a year before the governor of his canton, and show his means of living ... Solon the Athenian borrowed this law from the Egyptians, and imposed it on his countrymen, who have observed it ever since.'
It implies therefore that Solon must have visited Egypt towards the end of his life and thus after Amasis had become pharaoh in c. 570 BC (see also Chapter Two).
Critias tells us that on entering the temple dedicated to the worship of Minerva (the Greek name for Neith, the patron goddess of Sais), Solon engaged in conversation one of the priests, who was said to have been `a very old man'. He spoke about the destruction of the human race in former ages, a matter the Athenian statesman felt he knew something about from his own education in these subjects. Yet in response the priestly elder chastised Solon for knowing so little about the true history of mankind, saying:' ... you Greeks are always children; in Greece there is no such thing as an old man ... You are all young in your minds ... which hold no store of old belief based on long tradition, no knowledge hoary with age.'
After enlightening Solon in respect of the `many and divers destructions of mankind, the greatest by fire and water', the priest went on to explain the nature of those catastrophes that destroy everything memorable of the past. These traditions were, he said, preserved only in the registers belonging to the temple, for they `are the oldest on record'.
Solon is told that the history and genealogies of Athens, which he has recited, `are little better than nursery tales'. It is also explained how `your people [i.e. the Athenians of Solon's age] remember only one deluge [of the Greek flood hero Deucalian], though there were many earlier; and moreover you do not know that the bravest and noblest race in the world once lived in your country'. It was apparently from this race that the Athenians of Plato's day were descended.
The elderly priest identified by the Greek biographer Plutarch (AD 50-120) as `Senchis the Saite' then spoke of how before the `greatest of all destructions by water', the citizens of Athens were the `most valiant in war', their exploits and government being the `noblest under heaven'.
Solon is informed that the `great exploits' of the noble race of Athena are recorded in the temple's sacred registers, and that perhaps they should reconvene to `go through the whole story in detail another time at our leisure, with the records before us'. Yet one great exploit that Solon does learn from his conversations with the old man is how the Athenian nation `once brought to an end' an almighty power that `insolently advanced against all Europe and Asia, starting from the Atlantic ocean outside [author's emphasis]'.
Needless to say, it is at this juncture in the dialogue that the priest of Sais reveals to Solon the story lying behind the destruction of Atlantis, the homeland of this almighty power. In most English translations of the Timaeus this all-important textual account takes up about 50 lines. However, each one is loaded with compelling facts regarding this sunken kingdom. Plato goes on to recount further details of his Atlantean nation in the unfinished sequel to the Timaeus entitled the Critias. We must, however, never forget that although the Timaeus actually contains a wealth of astronomical and scientific knowledge, more or less unparalleled in its day, the whole thing was written as a fictional narrative.
An Almighty Landmass
The priest of Sais relates next how the great force that rose up to oppose the mighty nation of Athens came from an `island' situated in front of the Pillars of Hercules. This was the name given in classical times to the pillar-like rocks that stood on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar and marked the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. The old man justifies the placement of this `island' in the Atlantic by revealing that `in those days' the `ocean could be crossed'.
What might Plato have meant by `crossed'? As we might imagine, it implies that the Atlantic `island' from which this aggressor stemmed was not only accessible in past ages, but that it was also visited by ocean-going vessels able to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
So where did Plato have in mind when he first considered the idea of an Atlantic `island' on which lived a warlike race that opposed the might of earliest Athens? Could it have been based on early maritime knowledge of the Madeiras? One of the Canary Islands, perhaps, or even the Azores? All these island groups are located on the eastern Atlantic seaboard and were unquestionably known to ancient mariners during the first millennium BC (see Chapter Five).
Yet Plato does not seem to be referring specifically to any of these islands, for the old priest informs Solon that the Atlantic `island' was larger than `Libya and Asia put together'. This is a quite fantastic statement. In Plato's day, Libya was seen as the entire North African continent west of Egypt a landmass comparable in size to Europe today. Asia, on the other hand, was considered to stretch between Egypt in the west, the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia in the north, Arabia in the south and India in the east. The Asia of Plato's day might be compared in size with North America. This therefore suggested the former existence of an almighty landmass of gigantic proportions, too big even to fit in the North Atlantic Ocean!
Since an island continent of the extent implied by Plato in his Timaeus could not possibly have existed at any point in the earth's geological history, scholars understandably dismiss Plato's account of his colossal island as mere fiction. Most Atlantologists are very much aware of this problem and often attempt to shrink down the size of Plato's Atlantic island by proposing that by Asia the author in fact meant only Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey. Yet there is no reason to make this assumption based on Plato's existing text. He does not imply this in any way. Indeed, it would appear that in comparing the size of Atlantis with that of Libya and Asia when placed together, he was simply attempting to convey the immense size of Atlantis in the absence of any true geographical knowledge.
Other scholars have assumed that if Plato really was alluding to a landmass of the size suggested in the Timaeus, then he must have been referring to the American continent. The Americas do match the proportions of his Atlantic `island'. Indeed, the idea that either North or South America could be Atlantis was first proposed by Spanish explorers and scholars, such as Francesco Lopez de Gomara, shortly after the discovery of the New World.
If Atlantis did once exist, and it really was of the immense size proposed in the Timaeus, there is no better solution. So when referring to his Atlantic island, had Plato been alluding to the American mainland an opinion that has received considerable attention again in recent years?
In actuality, this solution has a significant drawback, for after relating the size of the Atlantic island, the old priest of Sais tells Solon that `from it [i.e. Atlantis] the voyagers of those days could reach the other islands, and from these islands the whole of the opposite continent [author's emphasis]'.
This last statement should be seen in the context of the age in which it was written. To put it bluntly, there was no `opposite continent' in the classical age! According to the official history of the world, the American mainland was not `discovered' until Christopher Columbus' third voyage to the New World in 1498. This is, of course, if we ignore the Viking settlements established in Newfoundland around the year AD 1000, or indeed the indigenous peoples that have inhabited the continent for the past 15,000 years.
Yet Plato seems, quite clearly, to be referring to the Americas, suggesting therefore that he was somehow aware of this continent's existence on the other side of the Western Ocean. Oddly enough, there is evidence that by 300 BC other classical writers were also aware of a separate landmass beyond Oceanus, the ocean river once thought to encircle the ancient world. A work entitled De Mundo, written around 300 BC and falsely attributed to the philosopher Aristotle, talks about the known world as being a `single island round which the sea that is called Atlantic flows'. The text's author who was very possibly a pupil of Aristotle goes on to speculate in the following, quite revealing manner:
But it is probable that there are many other continents separated from ours by a sea that we must cross to reach them, some larger and others smaller than it, but all, save our own, invisible to us.
Pseudo-Aristotle ends his musings by stating poetically that `as our islands are in relation to our seas [i.e. the Mediterranean], so is the inhabited world in relation to the Atlantic, and so are many other continents in relation to the whole sea; for they are as it were immense islands surrounded by immense seas'.
Land of the Meropes
Further evidence in support of the view that early classical writers were very much aware of the American continent comes from the writings of a younger contemporary of Plato named Theopompus of Chios a Greek historian born around 378 BC. Only fragments of his writings survive today, and these are found in a work entitled Various Anecdotes, written by a second-century Roman naturalist and historian named Aelian.
Theopompus relates how during one fateful journey through Phrygia, a country of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Silenus, a satyr and teacher of the god Bacchus, became drunk and fell asleep in the rose gardens belonging to the legendary King Midas. On waking up he found himself under the charge of the king's gardeners, who promptly marched him off to the royal palace. Having been placed under guard, Silenus was given his freedom only after suitably amusing his host with various anecdotes.
One of the tales told by Silenus is of particular interest, for he informs the king that: `Surrounding the outside of this world' is a `continent' that is `infinitely big'. Here you could find `men twice the size of those who live here. Their lives are not the same length as ours, but in fact twice as long', and they possess `various styles of life'. There are also `two very big cities'; one called Machimus, or `Warlike', and the other Eusebes, or `Pious'. In addition to those who lived in these cities, Silenus tells Midas that on the continent is a race called Meropes, `who live among them in numerous large cities'. At the edge of their territories is `a place named Point of No Return [Anostus], which looks like a chasm [gulf] and is filled neither by light nor darkness, but is overlaid by a haze of a murky red colour'. It is said that `two rivers run past this locality, one named Pleasure and the other Grief. Along the banks of both stand trees the size of a large plane.'
According to Theopompus, the peoples of the distant continent once planned a voyage to `these islands of ours'. No fewer than 10 million of them are said to have sailed the ocean (thus supposing that they had seafaring capabilities) and came upon Hyperborea, an unknown island usually identified as the British Isles (see Chapter Seven). On coming ashore, the visitors from another continent felt that the Hyperboreans were `inferior beings of lowly fortunes, and for that reason dismissed the idea of travelling further'.
In addition to the accounts presented above, the Greek geographer Strabo (60 BC-AD 20) makes reference to an unknown continent that can only have been America. It comes during a discussion on the opinions of a Greek geometer and astronomer named Eratosthenes (276-196 BC), who claimed that `if the immensity of the Atlantic Sea did not prevent, we could sail from Iberia [ancient Spain] to India along one and the same parallel'. In response to this statement, Strabo voiced the opinion that: `we call "inhabited" the world which we inhabit and know; though it may be that in this same temperate zone there are actually two inhabited worlds, or even more, and particularly in the proximity of the parallel through Athens that is drawn across the Atlantic Sea'.
It would be easy to dismiss these apparent references to the American continent as either misconceptions on the part of authors like myself or lucky guesses on the part of well-informed classical figures such as Plato, Pseudo-Aristotle, Theopompus and Strabo. Yet if we can accept that knowledge of the existence of an `opposite' continent was available to a select few during Plato's age, might this information have been deliberately withheld from the outside world? Perhaps there were stories and rumours circulating Greece, and/or Egypt, regarding the existence far beyond the Pillars of Hercules of another continent. Yet beyond maritime circles no one was aware of the full picture, leading to the sort of speculations voiced by Plato in his Timaeus.
It seems certain that Plato was somehow aware of America, the so-called `opposite' continent, and so incorporated this idea into a dialogue on the nature of the universe. Where exactly this knowledge might have come from need not detain us here. What seems more important is that this theory is strengthened considerably if we now consider Plato's assertion in the Timaeus that from the Atlantic island, i.e. Atlantis, `... the voyagers of those days could reach the other islands, and from these islands the whole of the opposite continent'.
This all-important statement should be read again and again until it sinks in as to what Plato is implying. He is suggesting that Atlantis was located in front of, or before, `other islands' that acted like stepping stones for maritime voyagers wishing to reach `the opposite continent', which we will take to be the Americas.
Does this information make sense in geographical terms? From the time of Columbus' first landing on the island of San Salvador in 1492, the Bahaman and Caribbean archipelagos have been used in precisely this manner as stepping stones for seagoing vessels journeying to the American mainland, either via the coast of Florida or the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover, the chain of islands known as the Lesser Antilles that connect Puerto Rico the most easterly of the three main Caribbean islands with the northern coast of South America might also be viewed in a similar manner.
Was it this island-hopping process to and from the American mainland that Plato is alluding to in his account of the Atlantic island? It seems as good a solution as any put forward by Atlantologists and scholars alike. Yet how might a Greek philosopher and poet have come across such precious nautical information, which was supposedly unavailable during his own day? Plato himself seems to supply us with the answer, for his account suggests that this knowledge was derived from Atlantic `voyagers', who in ancient times `crossed' the Atlantic Ocean and visited these islands en route to the American continent.
In itself this is a startling revelation one that has often been overlooked by scholars simply because it is considered inconceivable that mariners might have reached the Americas prior to the age of Columbus. So if Plato really had become aware of journeys made by transatlantic `voyagers' before his own time, how might this information affect our understanding of Atlantis? Did it really exist as an Atlantic island, and if so where exactly might it have been located?
Although the Timaeus does not say exactly where Atlantis was to be found, there seems little doubt that the island lay in the outer ocean. Repeatedly we find references in classical literature to similar island paradises under a variety of names, most important the islands of the Hesperides (see Chapter Six). Almost without exception they are said to have lain either in or beyond the Western Ocean, the domain of the hero-god Atlas, and so this is where we must start our own search for Plato's Atlantic island.
Turning back to the account given in the Timaeus, the old priest tells Solon:
Now on this Atlantic island there had grown up an extraordinary power under kings who ruled not only the whole island but many of the other islands and parts of the [opposite] continent ...
There seems to be no vagueness in this statement. Atlantis, we are told, was ruled by a monarchy that Plato insisted held dominion over `other islands', seemingly those referred to in connection with `the opposite continent'. These kings would also seem to have held sway over `parts of the [opposite] continent' itself. What sort of kingdom might we be dealing with here? Was the Atlantean nation really an island-based culture with seafaring capabilities that enabled it to control not only vast areas of the Western Ocean but also parts of the American continent?
More difficult to understand is Plato's next assertion that these same Atlantean kings held sway `within the straits', in other words inside the Mediterranean basin. He informs us that they were `lords of Libya [i.e. North Africa] so far as to Egypt, and of Europe to the borders of Tyrrhenia [modern Tuscany in Italy]', and `attempted at one swoop to enslave your country and ours and all the region within the strait'. There are no easy explanations for this statement, and it might seem easier to dismiss Plato's words as mere fiction. An Atlantic culture of the description given to us by Plato controlling towns and ports in both Europe and Libya seems nonsensical.
This brings us perhaps to what is arguably the most controversial aspect of Plato's Atlantis narrative: the dates given for these supposed events in the Atlantic Ocean. A little earlier in the text, the old priest of Sais has informed Solon that the city of Athens was founded a full 1,000 years before the `institution' of Egypt's sacred registers. Since these are said to contain a record of events spanning a period of 8,000 years, and Solon visited Egypt in c. 570 BC, it implies that Athens was founded in c. 9570 BC. Almost in unison, classical historians will inform us that in 9570 BC civilisation had not yet begun, and that Athens was not even a twinkle in the eye of its founding goddess Athena.
We know that humanity's transformation from nomadic hunter-gatherer to settled Neolithic farmer did not occur in the Near East until sometime after the cessation of the last Ice Age, c. 9000-8500 BC. In the opinion of archaeologists, there was nothing whatsoever happening around Athens in 9570 BC. Indeed, it is only with the arrival of the first settlers from Asia Minor and the Levant in c. 1500 BC that a city was established there. So it seems that Plato got it wrong.
Yet if we examine his words a little more closely we can determine how he arrived at these dates, and in so doing understand their meaning in the context of what he has to say in the Timaeus.
The Myth of Dates
The old priest of Sais informs Solon that `the age of our institutions is given in the sacred records as eight thousand years'. This might seem a fantastic statement which, if we presume that he visited Sais in c. 570 BC, implied that Egyptian civilisation began in c. 8570 BC. Quite naturally, historians suggest that Plato must have been mistaken in this respect or that the time-frame he provides in the Timaeus is meaningless. Yet in Plato's final work, The Laws, one of the characters known only as `the Athenian' attempts to explain the establishment of Egypt's legislation. During this speech he refers to the arts of the Egyptians in the following manner: `If you examine their art on the spot, you will find that ten thousand years ago (and I'm not speaking loosely: I mean literally ten thousand), paintings and reliefs were produced that are no better and no worse than those of today.'
Even though there is a 2,000-year difference between the figure given in the Timaeus and the one cited in The Laws, it is apparent that Plato fully believed that these dates related to real time. Such enormous time-spans are considered mythical by Egyptologists. However, they appear with frequency in king-lists such as the fragmentary Royal Canon of Turin, which dates to the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egyptian history, c. 1308-1194 BC. This tells us how a semi-divine race known as the Shemsu-hor, the Followers of Horus, reigned for a period of 13,420 years (although the end character is missing, meaning that as many as 1,350 years can be added to this figure) before the rise of the first pharaoh in c. 3100 BC. The Royal Canon also gives a total of either 33,200 or 23,200 years for the various dynasties of divine or semi-divine beings. Other similar canons contain equally extravagant time periods, leaving us to conclude that both the 8,000 years quoted in the Timaeus and the 10,000 years given in The Laws derive most probably from now lost Egyptian king-lists.
It becomes clear therefore that by suggesting the Athenians are 1,000 years older than their Egyptian rivals, Plato is merely attempting to define the even greater antiquity of his own race. Certainly, there is no historical precedent to suggest that this was in fact the case. Indeed, there is overwhelming evidence to show that some of the greatest wisdom and philosophy taught at the Athenian schools was derived from the mystery schools of Egypt. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, for instance, was educated in Egypt, where, according to the fourth-century Latin grammarian Ammianus Marcellinus (fl. AD 353-390), the priests `taught him to worship the gods in secret'. Solon is also said to have visited Egypt so that he might become acquainted with the wisdom of the ancients (as did Plato himself see Chapter Two). Perhaps Plato saw the fact that Egypt had a much more ancient heritage as a national embarrassment, and so in the Timaeus he attempted to redress the balance by bolstering up the antiquity of the Athenians, who were presumably his intended readership.
Having established a date of around 9570 BC for the foundation of Athens, Plato has the old priest of Sais explain to Solon that it was following this time that the Atlantic nation rose up against his country. For he states: `Many great exploits of your city [i.e. Athens] are here recorded for the admiration of all; but one surpasses the rest in greatness and valour.' Indeed, since the kings of Atlantis are said to have risen up against Egypt also, the clear inference is that the war with Athens occurred sometime after the Egyptian sacred records were begun in c. 8570 BC. As we shall see, this is a statement blatantly contradicted in the text of the Critias.
With this in mind, we are next informed that thereafter the Atlantic kingdom attempted `at one swoop to enslave your country [i.e. Athens] and ours [Egypt] and all the regions within the strait [of Gibraltar]'. According to the Timaeus, the Athenians were then `forced by the defection of the rest' of the Mediterranean nations to move against the aggressor. Furthermore, since the Athenian fleet was deemed to be the `foremost of all in courage and in the arts of war', it vanquished `the invaders' and freed `all the rest of us', including Egypt, from the threat of bondage and slavery.
Crucially, the text of the Timaeus then reveals that:
Afterwards [`At a later time' in the Loeb edition] there was a time of inordinate earthquakes and floods; there came one terrible day and night, in which all your men of war were swallowed bodily by the earth, and the island of Atlantis also sank beneath the sea and vanished [author's emphasis].
This is a loaded statement, and one that appears incredible. It is alleged that both the Atlantic island and the Athenian `men of war' were lost during an almighty cataclysm involving `earthquakes and floods' that can only have occurred post 8570 BC. So what are we to make of this stupendous event, clearly unrecorded in conventional history? Did it really happen, and what can it tell us about the true location of lost Atlantis?
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