An appreciation of the author Colin Wilson (1931-2013) - philosopher, critic, novelist
Atlantis in the Mediterranean?
An article by Colin Wilson, similar to this one, appeared in the London Daily Mail on Saturday, August 21, 2004
In a month's time, I intend to set off with a team of explorers in search of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Our destination is not, as you might suppose, the mid-Atlantic, or even (as I once believed) the continent of Antarctica. It is the island of Cyprus. For new evidence seems to indicate that the lost Atlantis is the southern part of the island, which was submerged more than eleven thousand years ago, when the Atlantic ocean burst though the dam of mountains that stretched between Gibraltar and North Africa, and created the Mediterranean.
This view, propounded by an explorer named Robert Sarmast, will provoke violent reactions among earth scientists, who have always taken it for granted that the Mediterranean was formed five million years ago.
How do they know? They don’t. It is just an informed guess based upon the fact that in geology, most changes take a million years or so.
But in the mid-1970s, the Mediterranean suddenly yielded up a startling piece of evidence. Scientists looking for clues to reversals in the earth’s magnetic field were taking core samples from the bottom of the Mediterranean and were puzzled when their tubes came up full of hard-packed sea salt. That could only mean that the Mediterranean was of fairly recent origin, and its basin had once contained an older sea which had dried out, leaving salt flats.
During the 1960s, we first learned that the earth’s surface is not a continuous sheet, like the skin of an orange, but consists of tectonic plates which move about separately. Then scientists learned that that the Mediterranean is a fairly young sea that was created about seven million years ago, when the plate containing Africa drifted north, and collided with Europe. The sea was trapped into a kind of gigantic pond, which extended from Gibraltar to Lebanon. Gradually, this pond evaporated in the hot sun until the floor of its basin was covered in gleaming salt flats.
Geologists have always assumed that the Atlantic began to break through a gap near Gibraltar millions of years ago. But since salt beds cannot be carbon dated, no one knows exactly when. All we know is that the last great ice age began about one and a half million years ago, and came to an end about fifteen thousand years ago. But we know there were many tremendous floods at this time, as vast northern lakes melted and poured billions of gallons of fresh water into the sea.
Sarmast is suggesting that this is when the Atlantic began to leak through a gap near Gibraltar, and flooded the Mediterranean. But at first the sea broke through only in one place, and the new sea remained lower than the Atlantic.
It was during this period, while the Mediterranean was still protected by a range of low mountains between the “Gibraltar gap” and north Africa, that a new civilisation began to flourish in the eastern Mediterranean - Atlantis.
Atlantis had been described by the Greek philosopher Plato about 400BC, in two dialogues called the Timaeus and the Critias. He declared that it had been a great and flourishing civilisation, peopled by god-like beings. Egyptian priests had given an account of it to Plato’s ancestor, the statesman Solon, two centuries earlier. They told him how, nine thousand years before that, Atlantis had been destroyed in “a day and a night” in a great catastrophe that plunged the island under the waves. The gods had destroyed it because the people had become corrupt..
Inevitably, most historians have dismissed Atlantis as a myth - some have even called it the first science fiction story. Yet anyone who takes the trouble to read Plato’s account will be struck by its minute detail. If it was supposed to be some kind of moral fable about human corruption, why did he go in for such detail?
For more than two thousand years the story of Atlantis continued the fascinate readers. But the first really serious attempt to prove that it was real was made by an American congressman called Ignatius Donnelly, whose massive and detailed Atlantis, The Antediluvian World has been in print ever since. Donnelly took the view that Atlantis had once been in the mid-Atlantic, since Plato had said that it was “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”, which is generally assumed to mean the Straits of Gibraltar. Donnelly theorised that it had been in the mid-Atlantic, and that the Azores are the only part that now remains above water. But there is a powerful reason for rejecting this view. Underwater scans of the bed of the Atlantic reveal no signs of a sunken continent. That seemed conclusive.
However, not as conclusive as it sounds, as I discovered when, in 1979, I was drawn into the quest for Atlantis.
Someone sent me for review a book called Serpent in the Sky by John Anthony West, who was arguing, with a wealth of historical learning, that Ancient Egypt came into existence long before 3,000BC - the date most historians accept - but that it inherited its civilisation wholesale from a far older culture - Atlantis. The great Sphinx of Giza, he suggested, was built by survivors from the catastrophe of Atlantis.
It must therefore be thousands of years older than we believe. His reason - that it was not weathered by wind-blown sand, as is generally accepted, but by rainfall. And there has not been that kind of heavy rain in Egypt for thousands of years.
West had finally persuaded a professor of geology named Robert Schoch to accompany him to Egypt to look at the Sphinx. And Schoch had agreed, The wear and tear on the Sphinx was due to water-weathering, not sand-weathering. Schoch thought that the Sphinx might well have been built nearly five thousand years earlier than anyone had supposed - not 2,500BC, at the same time as the Great Pyramid, but closer to 7,000BC, long before Egyptian civilisation was supposed to have started.
I went to meet West, and ended by travelling with him to Egypt. As we stood in the Sphinx enclosure, I saw that he was obviously correct. Its walls are clearly weathered by water that ran down the rock face, cutting channels. West had to be right. The builders of the Sphinx came from elsewhere - and the likeliest place was Atlantis. But where was Atlantis?
Now in 1958, an American professor had become convinced that he knew the answer. His name was Charles Hapgood, and he taught the history of science at a small college in New England. Hapgood had been studying a strange old map drawn by the Turkish Admiral Piri Reis in 1513, and came to the conclusion that it was based on many far older maps, some dating long before the time of Alexander the Great.
One of the things that convinced him was the outline of a small island, apparently a 1,000 miles off the coast of Venezuela, where no such island now exists. His first assumption was that it was a mistake, but then he found the same island on two other ancient maps. It had obviously existed at one time, but the only land now visible above the waves are two tiny islands known as the rocks at St Peter and St Paul. These rocks are obviously the tip of an underwater mountain, and Hapgood believed that this was the sacred mountain at the centre of Atlantis.
To Hapgood, the mysterious island on the Piri Reis map looked just about the right size – 350 by 250 miles.
All that was now needed was a rich benefactor who would lend them his seagoing yacht, and hire some underwater cameras. The mountain should contain several temples and perhaps $500 million in gold.
One obvious choice was the new president, John F. Kennedy. Hapgood had some useful contacts with the White House, for in the Second World War had worked for the original version of the CIA. In October 1963, Kennedy agreed to meet Hapgood. However, before this could happen, Kennedy was murdered in Dallas.
Undiscouraged, Hapgood approached the millionaire Nelson Rockefeller, and when that came to nothing, tried to persuade Walt Disney to provide a ship and base a film on the expedition. But that also fell through. So, disappointed but still convinced that he knew the whereabouts of Atlantis, Hapgood retired, and died in 1973.
Now in the 1960s, a new theory emerged when archaeologists discovered an underground city on the island of Santorini, in the Mediterranean. Santorini was destroyed in a giant volcanic explosion around 1,500 BC which ripped the core out of the island and turned it into little more than the remains of a gigantic crater. A Greek professor named A. G. Galanapoulos wrote a book arguing that Santorini was Atlantis. He pointed out that Plato’s figures are all far too great. For example, Plato says that there was a huge plain south of the city, which contained a harbour consisting of concentric circles of canals, all 100 feet deep and 300 feet wide. But who would want to dig a canal that deep? A 100 feet is the size of five average houses piles on top of one another, and no ship would have that much draught, or even a quarter of it. As to that enormous width, it would take half a dozen aircraft carriers.
The professor’s theory was that some copyist had added a nought too many to all Plato’s figures – after all, ten feet deep and thirty feet wide is perfectly adequate for a canal. And the same, he suggested, is true of the date. Plato said nine thousand years before Solon, but since he added that there was a great war between the Athenians and the Atlanteans, this was highly unlikely. On the other hand, 900 years before 600BC would take us back to 1,500, the approximate date of the great volcanic eruption that devastated the Mediterranean.
I went off to look at Santorini in the 1970s, and had to agree that Galanapoulos made sense. I was sceptical about the notices in the harbour, declaring that this was the island of Atlantis, but I had to agree that the underground city that they had unearthed was an impressive as Pompeii, and must have been totally depopulated by the eruption. You could almost see the citizens dying in a poisonous cloud of carbon dioxide.
But what about Plato’s statement that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules? To that, Galanapoulos replies that the ancient Greeks also referred to the twin capes of Maleas and Taenarum, in southern Greece, as the Pillars of Hercules, and that Santorini is indeed beyond these.
John West also introduced me to a more recent theory about whereabouts of Atlantis. This had been proposed by a young Canadian named Rand Flem’Ath, who had corresponded with Hapgood. Flem’Ath had been looking at a famous map of Atlantis, made by a learned Jesuit scholar named Athanasius Kircher in 1665, based upon Plato’s description. He was suddenly struck by the close resemblance between the shape of Atlantis and the continent of Antarctica without its ice. Hapgood’s first book had been entitled Earth’s Shifting Crust, and had pointed out that the crust of the earth could be compared to the skin of an orange in which the crust can actually slide on its surface on the molten lava that supports it. Hapgood went on to cite powerful geological evidence to prove that the whole Atlantic plate slipped southwards two thousand miles in about 10,000 BC (Einstein was so impressed that he wrote an introduction to the book).
What struck Flem’Ath was that if Atlantis had been further south than Kircher assumed, then it could well be the continent of Antarctica. He was so excited that he gave up his job as a librarian, and went off to London to study Atlantis in the British Museum Reading Room. There he unearthed evidence of worldwide catastrophe myths all pointing to the same time – about 10,000 BC. He and his wife wrote a book called When the Sky Fell, and I found his arguments so convincing that I offered to write an introduction for it. And after that, Flem’Ath and I collaborated on a book called The Atlantis Blueprint, based upon his discovery that the great religious sites of the world are situated on a worldwide grid, as if they had been deliberately built there by some great civilisation that once covered the whole earth.
So when, two weeks ago, someone told me about an expedition that is about to sail off to the Mediterranean to search for Atlantis under the sea near the island of Cyprus, my first reaction was of scepticism. The author of the theory – and of a book called The Discovery of Atlantis – is an American explorer named Robert Sarmast, and when he asked me if I would be willing to join the expedition, and perhaps write a book about it, I told him that I found it impossible to imagine a less likely site for Atlantis than Cyprus.
But when I looked at his book, and at the mass of material on his website (www.discoveryofatlantis.com) I began to see that the idea is less preposterous than I thought. To begin with, I remembered the main argument of Galanopoulos: that Plato’s measurements for Atlantis are obviously too big. Plato says there was a fertile plain in front of the great city, 340 miles long by 230 wide, on which farmers grew food for the Atlanteans. But that is about half the size of England, and would certainly provide more food than any city could eat, even London. Plato says there was a rectangular ditch around the whole plain, into which several rivers were diverted to collect water. But that would provide enough water for ten cities. Anyone can see that this would be more convincing if it was all divided by ten.
But why Cyprus? Sarmast answered that years of research have convinced him that Cyprus fits Plato’s specifications more than any other site.
But how could we argue that Cyprus lies “beyond the Pillars of Hercules”? Sarmast’s answer is that there was another place called the Pillars of Hercules at the end of the narrow strait between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Seen from Greece, Cyprus lies beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the east.
The more I considered this, the more I saw that Sarmast could be right. And if we also take into account the fact that civilisation began in the Middle East, we have one of the most convincing theories of Atlantis that, in my opinion, has ever been suggested.
Which is why I have decided to join Sarmast and a group of Atlantis enthusiasts on his expedition next month. What he is hoping to find are the remains of temples, ancient artefacts (Plato says the Atlanteans possessed a high level of technology) and the huge circular canals described in the Critias. “Atlantis City” itself would have been on the edge of this plain, and even ten thousand years of submersion cannot have destroyed the magnificent architecture described by Plato, with its bridges, palaces and inner-harbours. If the giant stone blocks of Tiahuanaco can survive ten thousand years, then those of Atlantis certainly can.