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Volume 14, Number 4April 1963

In This Issue

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No one has found them, but plenty of people have gone looking for

Lands That Never Were

In another April almost a century and a half ago, exactly 500 people received an unusual printed letter in their mail. Sent to all the members of Congress, the presidents of every American university and the heads of many of Europe's learned societies, it read:

                                              St. Louis, Missouri Territory, North America

                                                                  April 10, 1818

To All the World:

I declare the earth is hollow and habitable within; containing a number of solid, concentric spheres; one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees. I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the World will support and aid me in the undertaking.

I ask one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia, in the fall season, with reindeer and sleighs, on the ice of the frozen sea; I engage we find a warm and rich land, stocked with thrifty vegetables and animals, if not men, on reaching one degree northward of latitude 82; we will return in the succeeding spring.

                                                               Jno. Cleves Symmes

                                                       Of Ohio, late Captain of Infantry.

Although John Symmes' letter had a certificate of sanity attached, those who read it dismissed him as a crank. He never received the support necessary to locate and ultimately descend into the flourishing world he alleged was inside the earth. He was, however, able to earn a good living by lecturing on it, and when he died he left behind several barrels full of newspaper clippings concerning "Symmes Land."

A son, Americus Vespucius Symmes, also believed in the theory and tried for years to assemble his father's notes into coherent form. He finally had to give up, but an Atlantic Monthly article in April, 1873 revived and defended ''Symmes Lost Land," and in 1868 Professor W. F. Lyons published a book on the subject titled A Hollow Globe.

The former Army officer's hollow earth theories were not unique; in fact they were quite in keeping with a long tradition of legends, claims and speculation about inner worlds. In epic poetry of the Middle East, the legendary Gilgamesh appears to descend into the earth on a visit to his ancestor Utnapishtim. Greek mythology of the classical period taught there was an underworld of the dead, ruled by Pluto, and that the divine smith Hephaistos had his workshop under the volcanoes. Plato, in his dialogue Phaidon, organized these beliefs into an impressive picture of happenings below. After stating that the earth was a sphere at the center of the universe—the first mention of the round earth doctrine in any writing—the ancient philosopher went on to describe illustrious "passages broad and narrow in the interior of the earth." The fictional writings of every age have reflected people's fascination with legendary lands —from the strange and exotic places visited by Sinbad in the pages of the Arabian Nights, to more recent travels by Jonathan Swift's Gulliver and by Jules Verne's heroes who found weird worlds not only inside the earth but on the moon.

That Symmes as a lecturer, though rejected by scholars, made an instant and enduring hit with the American public is not surprising. The "discoverers" of hidden lands, lost lands, and other lands of the imagination have always found spellbound audiences, and the tales that support their claims with conviction always find greater acceptance than arguments in refutation. People just naturally want to believe in romantic lands and legends.

Certainly the most "confirmed" of all man's fabled assumptions is the story of the "lost" continent of Atlantis. Though this land of glittering edifices and unparalleled culture has been variously located "just beneath the Azores," "directly east of Ceylon" and "actually in southern Sweden," it is still being looked for—and found—today. In fact, the legends of such lands seem to be more durable than the lands themselves. In 1938, a scholar estimated that a complete library of all the books devoted to Atlantis would exceed 1,700 titles, and the volumes are still coming out at the rate of two or three a year.

Any good list of other lost lands which were, and are, a long time in dying would have to include El Dorado, the fabulous city of diamond and gold streets sought in the interior of South America by the sixteenth-century Spaniards, Sir Walter Raleigh, P. H. Fawcett and even Theodore Roosevelt; Europe's Secret Kingdom of Prester John (inside its sapphire-roofed palace 62 dukes were said to wait on a solid emerald table set for 30,000 daily); the Fountain of Youth thought by Ponce de Leon to be in Florida but more recently, in 1948, "glimpsed" by a British and Norwegian team in the Himalayas; the Island of Lost Ships, a floating island of weed and wood believed for centuries to be at the center of the Sargasso Sea and inhabited by marooned sailors of all nations; and the missing Continent of Lemuria, placed by most "authorities" at the bottom of the South Pacific.

If dispelling an engaging geographic legend is difficult, trying to find out who started it is almost impossible. An example in point is the Lands of Ktesias story which hoodwinked all sorts of mapmakers, explorers, historians and entire nations for over 1,500 years. Even today many scholars erroneously accuse Ktesias—the physician to Artaxerxes II, Persia's king from 404 to 359 B.C.—with having invented the following:

A glorious land near India possessing a fountain of liquid gold, protected only by a handful of fur-covered, yard-high Pygmies; a mountain filled with 120,000 dog-headed men, and horses which could shoot poisoned darts from their single forehead-mounted horn (in time someone named it a unicorn); a race of one-legged men who had the habit of lying on their backs and shading themselves from the sun with one over-size foot, and so on.

It was true the physician wrote a book on India and environs, based on tales he heard from travelers at the Persian court. But in 65 A.D., when Pliny the Elder set down his massive Natural History, he borrowed both heavily and carelessly from the Ktesias manuscript. The treacheries of translation, coupled with the Roman's uncontrollable urge to exaggerate, completely ruined Ktesias as a scientist.

Actually, the Persian physician had written not of Pygmies but monkeys, not of dog-headed men but tigers. His unicorn originated from Ktesias' honest and accurate description of the Indian rhinoceros. The creatures with over-size feet were actually some Indians with elephantiasis whom Ktesias had referred to briefly.

Once, like the sapphire-studded Kingdom of Prester John, much of the world was a mystery. Now, centuries of science have filled in our knowledge of the earth to the point where extremely little of it is really unknown. Gradually, almost all the wonderful lands of legend have been first whittled down and finally pushed off the globe altogether. Some legends, however, have been proved true. The fabled, jewel-bedecked city of Angkor Wat was indeed found beneath a Cambodian jungle. Also found were the actual ruins of Babylon, the Mayan cemeteries of buried gold, the breathtaking Victoria Falls, Peru's Machu Picchu and the ornate yet austere capital of Tibet.

Yet in this contemporary, fact-conscious age it has to be conceded, perhaps a little sadly, that even the most alluring of the "lost" lands and "hidden" civilizations simply never were—except in the writings of some imaginative men and in the minds of others who wanted them to be right.

This article appeared on pages 18-19 of the April 1963 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1963 images.