Imagine finding a forgotten city, a place swallowed up under the water or overgrown with forests and passed into legend over time. A place you’d heard almost unbelievable stories of, stories so fantastic, you weren’t sure were true, but that grabbed your attention and made you wish you were there.
What would be left after thousands of years? A few crumbled buildings or maybe just walls? Pieces of statues or paintings? How would you know whether this was the land you’d heard about? How many details would need to match up for you to be convinced?
Many archeologists and explorers have dreamed of discovering such a land: Atlantis.
Maybe you’ve heard of the “Lost City of Atlantis” and wondered where it really was, and where the story of this lost civilization even came from. The second question is actually pretty easy to answer. The first one–where it was and even whether it really existed–is a bit harder.
We actually only know about the story of Atlantis from one source. It was written down by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, about 2,400 years ago.
Plato is one of the most famous philosophers ever, but he wasn’t a historian. He also wasn’t a poet or storyteller who was trying to keep the old myths of Greece alive. He was interested in why the world exists and what it’s made of; what the best kind of government was and how people could live happy lives. He usually wrote in dialogues, or conversations where two or more people talked about important philosophical issues. He mentions Atlantis in two dialogues: Timaeus and Critias (those are the names of the people he talks to in each dialogue).
Plato describes Atlantis as a vibrant civilization that existed 9,000 years before his time (so, over 12 thousand years ago for us!), near a place the Greeks called “the Pillars of Hercules.” The Pillars of Hercules were the place where the Mediterranean Sea met the Atlantic Ocean – a narrow strait passing between Spain and North Africa. There’s an island there with a large, rocky hill jutting into the air– one of the “pillars” in the name. Now, this island is called Gibraltar,
The other pillar was probably a mountain in Africa, now called Jebel Musa.
These are real places, but we can’t tell based on the story exactly where Atlantis was supposed to be. Atlantis was said to control a huge area, spanning almost the entire Mediterranean, as big as “Libya and Asia” combined. Its main city though–the place explorers imagine and long to find–was an island. Not just an ordinary island though: this city was a marvel of engineering and architecture. It was made up of three rings of land, each one a little smaller than the last, that all surrounded a central island. There were moats of water between the rings, and bridges connecting the rings. The Atlanteans built canals that cut through the ring islands, so boats could sail right up to the circular island in the center.
On this central island stood a grand temple to the sea god, Poseidon. Legend held that the god had married a local girl named Cleito, and the descendants of their ten sons (five sets of twins) were the rulers. For centuries, this civilization was wealthy and strong. They had everything they needed: fresh water, rich soil for crops, a mild climate, and reserves of a precious metal called orichalcum. They developed art and technology, crossed the sea to trade with their neighbors, created tools from iron and bronze, and paid tribute to Poseidon through sacrifices and prayers.
But over time, Plato says, the Atlanteans began to lose their way, becoming greedy, deceitful, and power-hungry. They wanted to take over all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including Greece! But the Athenians led an army of Greeks to fight back against the Atlanteans. It’s no coincidence that Plato is from Athens, and of course, they win, a victory of the noble underdogs from a small city-state over a giant empire. The Greeks liberate all the people and lands that the Atlanteans had captured.
Even though Athens had repelled the attack, the gods–Poseidon included–were still angry with the Atlanteans. Shortly after the war, the gods sent earthquakes and giant waves that destroyed Atlantis, burying its glittering capital under the deep, churning waters of the ocean whose name would hint of their past glory.
That’s a great story, but was Atlantis really real, or did Plato make it up to try to teach his audience a lesson? Plato wasn’t a historian, but a philosopher. He was trying to debate ideas and important questions in his dialogues, and not everything was meant to be taken literally.
But the mystery is irresistible, and people have wondered about it for 2,000 years. Not only have they wondered about it, but they’ve also looked for real places and events that might give us clues about the location of the real Atlantis!
Plato certainly knew that earthquakes and volcanoes could destroy cities. It’s possible he had even heard stories of ancient volcanoes and earthquakes that helped destroy civilizations and reshape Greek islands in the vibrant blue waters of the Mediterranean. One such island, Thera, was partially destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the 17th century BCE. The volcano transformed the square-ish island into a horseshoe shape, with another, small, round island in the middle. Sounds a little like Atlantis, doesn’t it? And this eruption was ancient in Plato’s time, happening around 1600 BCE.
Thera and another nearby island, Crete, had been home to a civilization called the Minoans. The Minoans had some things in common with the Atlanteans. They were seafaring people with sophisticated art and architecture, beautiful palaces, and thriving trade with other societies.
The Minoans also disappeared, victims of mysterious forces that are largely lost to history. Though Crete was the center of Minoan civilization, the volcanic eruption on Thera and the tsunamis it caused may have helped end their civilization in both places. Could these islands have been the fabled Atlantis?
Not so fast! Let’s check a map. These Greek islands aren’t anywhere near the Pillars of Hercules off the coast of Spain. And it doesn’t seem the Minoans were conquerors bent on dominating the entire Mediterranean. Plus, 1600 BCE isn’t 9 thousand years before Plato’s time, only about 1 thousand. So anyone who believes that Plato’s Atlantis was really real would have to look elsewhere.
Others have looked closer to the spot Plato gave for the civilization, proposing that Atlantis once stood on the southern coast of Spain. They’ve sent divers to search for evidence of ancient debris from when the sea swallowed the country. They’ve found a few stone anchors underwater, and evidence of an ancient tsunami in southern Spain. Today this is a vast area of mud flats, but thousands of years ago it may have been a bay with islands. People have suggested that some of them made up the ring-shaped capitol city of Atlantis.
Some scholars have looked even further afield, to the Azores, islands lying almost a thousand miles to the west of Europe in the Atlantic Ocean. Until recently, people thought these islands were too far out for ancient seafarers to reach, but now archeologists have found evidence that people may have lived there, building temples and burial chambers in the sides of mountains and sailing between the islands and maybe even Europe.
People have suggested many, many other places. Locations in Morocco, Tunisia, and Malta have been proposed. When Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in the 15th century, and then the Europeans learned of the existence of North America, people speculated that one of these places might be the long-lost Atlantis. One 19th-century scholar even wrote a 4 thousand-page tome claiming that Sweden was Atlantis! (Not surprisingly, he was Swedish.) And of course, since Atlantis was supposedly swallowed up by the sea, people have looked underwater in both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, using a combination of sonar and scuba divers.
Still, it’s hard to say whether any of this really proves that Atlantis was “real.” Sometimes facts and fiction, real and imaginary, get mixed up and blended together. Plato wasn’t trying to tell history. He probably took bits and pieces of other stories and wove them into his own story to try to make a point. Still, Atlantis is such a captivating story, many people have wanted it to be true, and dreamed of finding it.
But just because a story might not be true, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be told. To Plato, there was something more important than Atlantis being a real place you could find hidden under the earth or sea. He wanted to talk about important ideas, like how societies need wise and just leaders who try to make the best decisions for their people. Maybe he wanted to warn his fellow citizens that any country might stray from that ideal. Even though the Atlanteans had everything they needed, even a god on their side, their rulers became greedy and tyrannical, and the whole country was destroyed because of it. And that’s a lesson you don’t need to dig or dive for!
Albert, Liv (2022). Deconstructing Atlantis: Finding Atlantis in the Depths of Plato’s Imagination (Part 1). Let’s Talk About Myths, Baby: Greek and Roman Myths Retold. Jan. 11, 2022. https://www.mythsbaby.com/atlantis
Karst, Ken (2015) Enduring Mysteries: Atlantis. Creative Education: Mankato, MN.