capital of Atlantis as described by Plato. (Copyright Lee Krystek
The story of the lost continent of Atlantis starts in
355 B.C. with the Greek philosopher Plato. Plato had planned
to write a trilogy of books discussing the nature of man, the
creation of the world, and the story of Atlantis, as well as other
subjects. Only the first book was ever completed. The second book
was abandoned part way through, and the final book was never even
Plato used a series of dialogues to express his ideas.
In this type of writing, the author's thoughts are explored in a
series of arguments and debates between various characters in the
story. Plato often used real people in his dialogues, such as his
teacher, Socrates, but the words he gave them were his own.
A character named Kritias tells an account of Atlantis
that has been in his family for generations. According the character
the story was originally told to his ancestor Solon, by a priest
during Solon's visit to Egypt.
According to the dialogues, there had been a powerful
empire located to the west of the "Pillars of Hercules" (what we now
call the Straight of Gibraltar) on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
The nation there had been established by Poseidon, the God of the
Sea. Poseidon fathered five sets of twins on the island. The
firstborn, Atlas, had the continent and the surrounding ocean named
for him. Poseidon divided the land into ten sections, each to be
ruled by a son, or his heirs.
The capital city of Atlantis was a marvel of
architecture and engineering. The city was composed of a series of
concentric walls and canals. At the very center was a hill, and on
top of the hill a temple to Poseidon. Inside was a gold statue of
the God of the Sea showing him driving six winged horses.
About 9000 years before the time of Plato, after the
people of Atlantis became corrupt and greedy, the Gods decided to
destroy them. A violent earthquake shook the land, giant waves
rolled over the shores, and the island sank into the sea never to be
So is the story of Atlantis just a fable used by Plato
to make a point? Or is there some reason to think he was referring
to a real place? Well, at numerous points in the dialogues Plato's
characters refer to the story of Atlantis as "genuine history" and
it being within "the realm of fact." Plato also seems to put into
the story a lot of detail about Atlantis that would be unnecessary
if he had intended to use it only as a literary device.
If we make the assumption that Atlantis was a real
place it seems logical we should find it west of the Straight of
Gibraltar near the Azores Islands (some have suggested that the
Azores are what are left of Atlantis's highest mountain peaks). A
scientific survey of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, though, shows
it is covered with a blanket of sediment that must have taken
millions of years to accumulate. There is no sign of a sunken island
Are there any other candidates for the
location of Atlantis? People have made cases for places as diverse
as Switzerland and New Zealand. One of the most convincing
arguments, though, came from K.T. Frost, a professor of
history at the Queen's University in Belfast. Later, Spyridon
Marinatos, an archaeologist and A.G. Galanopoulos, a
seismologist, added evidence to Frost's ideas.
Frost suggested that instead of being west of the
Pillars of Hercules Atlantis was east. He also thought that the
catastrophic end of the island had come not 9000 years before
Plato's time, but only 900. If this was true the land of Atlantis
might already be a well-known place even in Plato's time: The Island
Crete is now a part of modern Greece and lies just
south of the Athens across part of the Mediterranean Sea. Before
1500 B.C. it was the seat of the Minoan Empire. The Minoans
dominated the eastern Mediterranean with a powerful navy and
probably extracted tribute from other surrounding nations.
Archaeological excavations have shown the Minoan Crete was probably
one of the most sophisticated cultures of its time. It had splendid
architecture, and art. A code of laws gave women equal legal status
as men. Agriculture was highly developed and an extensive irrigation
system was existed.
Then, seemingly in a blink of an eye, the Minoan
Civilization disappeared. Geological studies have shown that on an
island we now know as Santorinas, located just ten miles to the
north of Crete, a disaster occurred that was very capable of
toppling the Minoan state.
Santorinas today is a lush Mediterranean paradise
consisting of several islands in a ring shape. Twenty-five hundred
years ago, though, it was a single large island with a volcano in
the center. The volcano blew itself apart in a massive explosion
around 1500 B.C.
To understand the effect of such an explosion,
scientists have compared it with the most powerful volcanic
explosion in historic times. This occurred on the Island of Krakatoa
in 1883. There a giant wave, or tsunami, 120 feet high raced
across the sea and hit neighboring islands killing 36,000 people.
Ash thrown up into the air blackened the skies for three days. The
sound of the explosion was heard as far away as 3,000 miles.
The explosion at Santorinas was four times as powerful
The tsunami that hit Crete must have traveled
inland for over half a mile destroying any coastal towns or cities.
The great Minoan fleet of ships were all sunk in a few seconds.
Overnight the powerful Minoan Empire was crushed and Crete changed
to a political backwater. One can hardly imagine a catastrophe more
like Plato's description of Atlantis' fate than the destruction of
Many of the details of the Atlantis story fit with
what is now known about Crete. Women had a relatively high political
status, both cultures were peaceful, and both enjoyed the unusual
sport of ritualistic bullfighting (where an unarmed man wrestled and
jumped over an uninjured bull).
If the fall of the Minoans is the story of Atlantis,
how did Plato get the location and time wrong? Galanopoulos
suggested there was a mistake during translation of some of the
figures from Egyptian to Greek and an extra zero added. This would
mean 900 years ago became 9000, and the distance from Egypt to
"Atlantis" went from 250 miles to 2,500. If this is true, Plato,
knowing the layout of the Mediterranean Sea, would have been forced
to assume the location of island continent was squarely in the
Not everyone accepts the Minoan Crete theory of the
story of Atlantis, but until a convincing case can be made for some
other place, it remains science's best guess.