Of all the mysteries that glitter in the realm of the unknown, just beyond the grasp of scientific proof, few can claim the enduring fascination of lost lands and vanished civilizations, especially those that are said to have slipped beneath the dark waters of the sea. To this day men still speculate on the existence of fabulous sunken cities off the coast of England or in French waters beyond Brittany. And the story of Atlantis, the all-time champion of drowned-world mysteries, has never been more provocative. First recounted by the Greek philosopher Plato, the chronicle of Atlantis is now more than 2,000 years old. Yet new Atlantis books appear every year (adding to the total of more than 2,000 already in print), and teams of contemporary archaeologists claim to have discovered evidence of its existence on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as well as in the Mediterranean Sea.
Atlantis is different from all the other lost world legends in almost every way. Its antecedents, history and the profusion of locations assigned to it over the centuries are impressive and intriguing. If Atlantis is still more a creation of imagination than fact, and likely to remain so, it is at least the best of its breed, a truly awesome will-o'-the-wisp empire that has been variously situated in Mongolia, Brazil, Greenland and Ceylon. And despite evidence that suggests that Atlantis is little more than a dream, the story is sustained by a compelling possibility: like Troy and the Minoan ruins on Crete, Atlantis might one day be found!
What, then, are the Atlantis facts as they exist today? Impressively enough, the first recorded mention of Atlantis appears in one of the greatest works of Western philosophy, Plato's Dialogues. Specifically, the story is told in two of the later dialogues, both composed around 350 B.C. The first, the Timaeus, is the record of a conversation that supposedly took place in Athens in 421 B.C. between the philosopher Socrates and three of his disciples. In the course of the discussion, one of the disciples, Critias, tells the others of a tale that had been told to his grandfather by Solon, a famous Athenian poet, statesman and lawgiver. Apparently Solon, during a visit to Egypt, had met a priest in the city of Sais. The priest told Solon that Egyptian historical records contained an account of a great war that had been fought in very ancient times, around 9600 B.C., between Athens and "a mighty host which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic Ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot." The invaders, the priest said, came from an island called Atlantis, which lay outside the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar). This island, bigger than North Africa and Asia Minor combined, was the center of a powerful empire that included not only many neighboring Atlantic islands but large parts of the mainland as well ("Libya as far as Egypt" and "Europe as far as Tuscany"). Greece, however, "was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone...she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest...who dwell within the Pillars. But afterward there occured violent earthquakes and floods, and in a single day and night of misfortune all...warlike men in a body sank into the Earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared into the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way, and this was caused by the subsidence of the island."
Plato tells us no more about Atlantis in the Timaeus, but in a subsequent, unfinished dialogue, the Critias, he has Critias take up the subject once again. This time Critias is more descriptive and factual. The island of Atlantis, he reports, was mountainous at its coast, but descended to a broad, fertile plain in the center. It was rich in minerals of all sorts and abounded in game (including elephants), timber and edible plants. The ancient metropolis was a marvel of wealth and advanced engineering. In its center were the royal palace and a temple dedicated to the sea god Poseidon, patron of Atlantis. His temple was heavily decorated with gold, silver, ivory and a mysterious bronze-like metal called orichalch, which, acoording to Critias, "gleamed like fire." The central island was entirely enclosed by a circular canal 600 feet wide. This canal was surrounded by a circle of land 1,200 feet wide, which in turn was ringed by a 1,200-foot canal, then by another 1,800-foot ring of land, and finally by an 1,800-foot canal, which could easily accomodate large ships. On one side this multi-ring complex was cut by a canal that ran from the center out to the sea.
Critias describes at length Atlantis's administrative system, its 1,200-ship maritime establishment, some of its ceremonials, and the many splendors of its architecture. But these were of minor importance. Atlantis and its people, he sums up, scorned "all things save virtue and counted their present prosperity a little thing."
Unfortunately, this did not last. Instead, says Critias, "when the gods part in them began to wax faint by constant crossing with much mortality, and the human temper to predominate, then they could no longer carry their fortunes, but began to behave themselves unseemly. To the seeing eye they now began to seem foul, for they were losing the fairest bloom from their most precious treasure...now that they were taking the infection of wicked coveting and pride of power."
Eventually Zeus, king of the gods, resolved to inflict punishment on Atlantis that would temper its worldly ambitions and restore it to piety.Accordingly, he "gathered all the gods in his most honorable residence, even that that stands at the world's center and overlooks all that has part in becoming, and when he had gathered them there, he said-" And there Plato's dialogue breaks off.
How is this vivid story, at once so detailed and so unlikely, to be interpreted? Did Plato fabricate the whole thing? Or was it a fanciful tale woven by Critias, or Solon, or the priest of Sais? Why in existing historical and mythological records written prior to Plato's time is there no direct reference to Atlantis? Is it possible that an Athenian state of any consequence could have actually existed in 9600 B.C., or that Egyptian records included that distant epoch, nearly 10 millenniums before the birth of Christ? And why did Aristotle, Plato's most eminent pupil, simply dismiss the whole subject of Atlantis with the pity comment, :He who created it also destroyed it"?