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Volume 23, Number 3May/June 1972

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Legend Lives On

"...There occurred violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune, all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable because there is a shoal of mud..." —Plato-"Timaeus"

Written by Arturo F. Gonzalez
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

These words, written centuries ago, have sent expedition after expedition chasing down the world's most fascinating and intellectual archeological detective story—what is the precise location of the lost land of Atlantis?

More than 5,000 books, and tens of thousands of magazine and newspaper articles have been written on the subject. At least one scientific party, headed 30 years ago by a certain Colonel Fawcett from Britain, went deep into the Amazon jungle in search of Atlantis and has never been heard from again.

Atlantis is a legend which dies far more slowly than the mythical country itself expired. A convention of British journalists recently ranked a verifiable re-emergence of Atlantis as one of the most important front-page stories newsmen could ever hope to write—far more compelling, in their professional opinion, than even the Second Coming of Christ. Such is the fascination of the unknown that in an era when hitting the moon with a manned expedition is a fait accompli, the thought of finding this lost land somewhere beneath the earth's endless ocean surface still captures our imagination with an intensity that few other concepts can match.

To study the alleged history of Atlantis is to journey back in time onto a magnificent continent of antiquity... to hear the cry of vendors in the crowded markets of the capital city... to listen to the clang of armor and weapons as imperial guards troop by... to see the glitter of royal crowns amidst thousands of cheering subjects. This is the vision of bygone beauty which has impelled countless scholars and scientists to turn their backs on the magnificence of their labs in modern New York, their libraries in Paris or colonnaded museums in Rome to devote a lifetime to the search for the dead, seaweed-encrusted remains of a lost, centuries-old continent—which indeed may never have existed.

These honest scientists are perhaps not the most fascinating Atlantis-seekers. Far more amusing are the theories of the many charlatans, cosmologists, faith healers and crackpots who over the years have seen Atlantis as a non-debatable historical proof for every variety of strange philosophy they may espouse. Atlantis attracts the kind of fanatics who spend their entire lives trying to prove that Bacon wrote Shakespeare's plays. The Atlantis theme has, over the years, been tied variously to romanticism, racism, pacifism, theosophy, socialism, communism and spiritualism. Crackpots have linked it with cannibalism, the Cyclops and flying saucers as well.

A Russia'n cosmologist named Velikovsky insisted that Jupiter erupted millennia ago and spewed up a fiery comet which sped past the earth in 1 600 or 1 500 B.C., swamping Atlantis in the same roaring tide which parted the Red Sea and conveniently allowed the children of Israel to pass into the Promised Land. He explains that historians make no record of this event with the convenient rationale that the human race suffers from "collective amnesia."

The most monumental Atlantis hoax was perpetrated by Herman Schleimann who, in 1912, conned the New York American into running a lengthy feature story entitled "How I Discovered Atlantis, the Source of All Civilization." This not only sold newspapers to impressed New Yorkers by the thousands, but so befuddled the academic world that many texts and source books on the Atlantis legend still list facts and figures from Schleimann's daring piece of science fiction.

Atlantis has never yet been absolutely identified or pinpointed on the earth's surface. Numerous scientists have periodically amassed mounds of conflicting evidence to "definitely and indisputably" locate the mysterious continent variously in South, West and North Africa, the Azores, the Canary Islands, the Caucasus, Ceylon, Spitsbergen, 1 3,000 feet up in the Andes and in the Baltic Sea. Racial experts have credited Atlantis with fathering both the Spanish and the Italian races, and one of Hitler's hack philosophers in the 30's actually tried to trace Aryan supremacy back to the glorious Atlantans, locating the island just a few miles off the Nazi coastline.

A few years ago no less than three costly expeditions were simultaneously exploring different world sites in a futile search for the remains of Atlantis. Depth charges and sonar were being bounced off the ocean bottom near the Azores; a descendant of Leon Trotsky was skin-diving off Bermuda in search of the lost country, while the Discovery II, a British research ship, charted the Galicia Bank, a steep-sided, 20-mile-long protruberance in the seabed 2,400-feet under the Atlantic's surface 30 miles off the coast of Spain, another alleged site of the lost continent.

Many experts insist on placing Atlantis midway in the Atlantic Ocean, claiming this location makes it a bridge between the Old World and the New and helps to explain some striking similarities between early Egyptian and American Indian cultures, as shown, for example, by the fondness each civilization had for pyramid-like structures.

But now, two scientists persuasively argue that Atlantis was not in the Atlantic at all, but was a Mediterranean island off the coast of Greece. In their new book "Atlantis, the Truth Behind the Legend," A.G. Galanopoulos and Edward Bacon present convincing evidence that the original Atlantis is really the Island of Santorini, 78 miles northeast of Crete. Atlantis, they insist, was really a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern civilization—a culture mysteriously destroyed around 1500 B.C. They think they have even found a reason for its destruction: a massive volcanic eruption similar to the explosion which destroyed Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883, which sent most of Santorini plunging under the sea and triggered huge tidal waves that swept up against Middle Eastern shorelines and through the Mediterranean, washing away life in the Minoan city of Knossos on Crete, just a little under 100 miles away.

There can be no doubt that Santorini was destroyed by a huge volcanic eruption in approximately 1450 B.C. Today, it remains as five islands, clearly composing the nearly perfectly circular walls and central cone of a volcano which has exploded and collapsed in on itself.

To understand how a single volcanic eruption could completely destroy a multi-island culture one has only to look at Krakatoa. When this volcano exploded in 1883, the explosion was heard 1,900 miles away and the sea was covered in pumice for more than 100 miles. So much ash went into the sky that sunsets around the world were extremely red for more than a year. It sent out tidal waves so large that ships at anchor in South America broke their mooring chains.

Using this as a yard stick, it's interesting to note that the Santorini explosion would have been three times as large. The Krakatoa blast destroyed only nine square miles of land; the Santorini explosion would have blown up more than 31 square miles.

The huge tidal waves it caused started floods as far away as Egypt, according to the legends of Manetho, and may have been the reason why Noah took to his ark. Its waves could have even been the reason the Red Sea opened up for Moses, and the iron oxide fallout from its smoke might have been the reason that the Bible says the Nile ran red. The tidal wave it caused definitely dropped pumice on the Jaffa shoreline 562 miles away, some

One definite result of the eruption: it buried sections of Santorini beneath 100 feet of ash. And under this ash has recently been discovered a buried Minoan town, similar to the sophisticated civilization found on Crete, and quite probably the remains of the city of Atlantis which so fascinated the Greeks because it was so civilized and then disappeared so completely. The city—called Thera—was found by an American, James W. Mavor Jr. of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He helped build the Alvin, the mini-sub that recovered the lost H-bomb off Spain, and several years ago cruised Santorini's central bay in the research ship Chain, using sonar to map the bottom and bringing up evidence that there was a major community destroyed by the volcanic explosion below. Actually, researchers have known that there was a community under both the bay and the shoreline for more than a century; during the construction of the Suez Canal, builders found that the ash from Thera made a high-quality, waterproof cement and in digging it up, first evidences of a city under it all came to light.

Now the village looks very much as if it is becoming an Eastern Mediterranean Pompeii, an intact city of two- and three-story houses apparently still standing under the ash. As one researcher summed it up, "We had expected to find the ruins of a prehistoric town. What surprised us was that it was three-dimensional. In most finds, the ruins don't come up to your knee..." Even the frescoes, usually just piles of plaster on the floor by the time the archeologists get to them, are beautifully preserved. The first nine trenches that were dug, yielded enough artifacts to load down 35 donkeys. The absence of skeletons and gold suggests that the ancient inhabitants had some disaster warning, escaping in their boats and leaving houses and furniture sealed under the preserving ash for the scientists to find. A volcano which smoked for a few days before blowing up would have been enough to drive the frightened citizens away. Some refugees almost certainly went to Lebanon and Syria; some of today's Middle Easterners are thus Atlantans by heritage.

Where precise details on the Plato story of Atlantis and the current Cretan theory don't match exactly, there is also an explanation. Plato, after all, picked up the story, second hand, from Solon who, in turn, got it from Egyptian priests, who had been handing it down verbally for a thousand years. Possible translations and misinterpretations of the legend help to explain away the few incongruities and even the incongruities are under investigation. A small team of researchers sponsored by the government of Greece and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is working steadily away and as recently as December a Professor Marinatos discovered some frescoes suggesting that the remains of a royal palace are not far off.

And so, the legend of Atlantis is moving from mystery to an Eastern Mediterranean fact. Now the big remaining, unsolved mystery is: what ever happened to Colonel Fawcett?

Arturo Gonzalez, formerly of Time and McGraw-Hill International Publications, is the author of more than 900 magazine and newspaper articles.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the May/June 1972 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1972 images.