Search for the Lost City of Atlantis Part 1: History

About the search for the lost city of Atlantis, information about the history and background of the city of myth and legend.

The Continuing Search for . . . Atlantis

BACKGROUND: Atlantis, that magic island with its ornate palaces and more-than-human inhabitants, has been said to lie submerged wherever there is an ocean. The idea of Atlantis has fascinated mankind ever since Plato wrote about it in 335 B.C., when he was an old man in his 70s. In the 1st Atlantean dialogue, Timaeus, he traced the story back through real-life people, including the scoundrel historian-politician Critias, to Solon, a statesman who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest about 590 B.C. According to the priest, there had existed over 8,000 years before a great Athenian nation on the Greek mainland and an empire named Atlantis on a huge island or continent. They had been rivals. When Atlantis tried to conquer the lands of the Mediterranean, the Athenians drove its armies off. Then an earthquake destroyed Athens and sank Atlantis under the sea.

In Critias, the companion dialogue, Plato is more explicit about the political setups of both empires and gives a detailed description of Atlantis' central city:

The palaces in the interior of the citadel were constructed in this wise: In the center was a holy temple dedicated to Cleito [Poseidon's mortal lover] and Poseidon, which remained inaccessible and was surrounded by an enclosure of gold. Here too was Poseidon's own temple, having a sort of barbaric splendor. All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. In the interior of the temple, the roof was of ivory, adorned everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; all the other parts of the walls and pillars and floor they lined with orichalcum. In the temple they placed statues of gold; there was the god himself standing in a chariot--the charioteer of 6 winged horses--and of such a size that he touched the roof of the building with his head; around him there were a hundred Nereids riding on dolphins....

Then, the story goes on, the Atlanteans began a moral decline, so Zeus, deciding to punish them, called the gods to a meeting. Plato's dialogue ends with an unfinished sentence: "And when he had assembled them, he spoke thus..."

CLUES FOR THE HUNT: Theories explaining the sinking of Atlantis, and where it might be, range from the occult to the zany to the bogus to the scientific.

When the age of exploration began in the 1500s and America had been discovered, scholars (and others) decided that Atlantis either was America or had once stood between America and Europe. Spanish historian Francisco Lopez Gomara was the 1st to say that the Atlantis story must have been based on knowledge of a New World continent. Sir Francis Bacon agreed with him. Often maps of the time showed a place called Atlantis.

If Atlantis, as an Old World continent, influenced the New World, that would explain many mysteries such as the sudden flourishing of the Mayan culture-- it would not have been indigenous, but transplanted. To back up this theory, scholars began to find similarities between European and American civilizations: language, tools, customs.

In the 1800s and 1900s, Atlantis cults, many of them bizarre, were popular. Simultaneously, geologists argued about whether continents could disappear, and archaeologists did a lot of digging in places that could once have been Atlantis.

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