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Atlantis "Evidence" Found in Spain and Ireland

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
August 19, 2004
 
An empire filled with riches, it was an awe-inspiring civilization west of the Strait of Gibraltar's Pillars of Hercules cliffs—until it was defeated by ancient Athens and consumed by a cataclysmic natural disaster.

"In a single day and night … the island … disappeared into the depths of the sea."

So wrote the Greek philosopher Plato in 360 B.C. about the island he called Atlantis. The story is one of the more mysterious and enduring tales in history.


Whether or not Atlantis actually existed has been a great topic of debate for thousands of years. Plato—whose celebrated "dialogues" Timaeus and Critias are the only historical sources of information about Atlantis—often mixed facts and fable.

Now new evidence claims that Atlantis was based on a real place—or places.

According to Rainer Kühne, a German physicist, satellite photos of southern Spain suggest that the "island" of Atlantis was in fact a region of the southern Spanish coast that was destroyed by a flood between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C.

"These satellite photos show rectangular structures and concentric circles that match very well with Plato's description of the palaces and the city of Atlantis," said Kühne, whose research was reported in the journal Antiquity.

But Ulf Erlingsson, a Swedish geographer, believes Plato combined elements from different times and places in the background description for his utopia. The distribution of the Atlantean empire seems to match that of the megaliths (large rough stone monuments) in Western Europe and North Africa. The geographic description of the island Atlantis, he suggests, is based on an island that is still standing today—Ireland.

"Just like Atlantis, Ireland is 300 miles [480 kilometers] long, 200 miles [320 kilometers] wide, and features a central plain that is open to the sea," said Erlingsson, the author of Atlantis From a Geographer's Perspective: Mapping the Fairy Land.

"I have looked at geographical data of the whole world. Of the 50 largest islands, Ireland is the only one that matches Plato's description of the landscape," he added.

Wrath of the Gods

Plato, who derived his story from the Egyptians, described Atlantis as having a main city with a royal palace made of ivory, gold, and silver. The city featured bridges, canals, ships, temples, and even a horse-racing track.

Once a domain of the sea god Poseidon, Atlantis may have been named after Atlas the Titan, said to have been Poseidon's son. According to Plato, the city's kings conquered parts of both Europe and Africa before being defeated by Athens.

The gods, angered by Atlantis's greed and corruption, unleashed a barrage of floods and earthquakes on the fabled kingdom, sinking it into the sea in a single day. (Athens was destroyed by natural disaster at the same time.)

The bulk of Plato's account is clearly fictional. The war between Athens and Atlantis takes place more than 11,000 years ago, at a time when the civilization he describes could not possibly have existed—nor could his victorious Athens.

But Plato's use of vivid details has led scholars to speculate that his fabled island was based on a real place. Some believe Atlantis is Spartel Island, a mud shoal in the Strait of Gibraltar that sank into the sea 11,500 years ago.

But Kühne says Spartel Island is too small—Plato wrote that Atlantis was bigger than Libya and Asia put together—and could not have possessed the high culture described by Plato.

Instead, Kühne points to satellite photos of a salt marsh region called Marisma de Hinojos, near the city of Cádiz in Spain, as the possible location of Atlantis. The photos, Kühne says, show two rectangular structures in the mud and part of concentric rings that may once have surrounded them.

"These rectangular structures could be the remains of the temples described by Plato," Kühne said in a telephone interview from his home in Braunschweig, Germany.

While transmitting the Atlantis story, the Greeks may have confused the Egyptian word for "coastline" with one meaning "island," Kühne speculates. The "plain" described by Plato could be a plain that extends today from the Spanish southern coast to the city of Seville, he said.

"I cannot say with certainty that Atlantis was located [in southern Spain]," Kühne said. "But these photos suggest that we should take a closer look at this location."

The Fairy Land

Erlingsson, meanwhile, says Atlantis is a literary construction by Plato. "Its existence has not been proven," he said in a telephone interview from Ireland, where he was doing research. "We know it was a utopia."

But Erlingsson is convinced that Plato based the geographical description of his fabled kingdom on a real place and argues that even the empire might be historic. He claims he has calculated with "99.98 percent probability" that the island Atlantis was modeled on Ireland.

"It is the only island in the world that matches the criteria of the island described by Plato," Erlingsson said.

The island that sank was not Ireland, he suggested, but nearby Dogger Bank, which was struck by a flood wave in 6,100 B.C.

The geographer says Ireland's megalithic monuments, dating back to 3,000 B.C., can be associated with the palaces and temples described by Plato. The megalithic culture of Western Europe and Northern Africa was more advanced than other Stone Age cultures, and Ireland is one of its core regions, he noted.

"The hill in which the Atlanteans' maternal ancestor, Cleito, was born resembles Tara, the legendary seat of the high king of Ireland, while Newgrange resembles the palace of their paternal ancestor, Poseidon," he said.

Erlingsson says he started his studies believing that Atlantis never existed. But he is now convinced that Plato knew of Ireland.

"He obviously blended fantasy and fact. But the question is not whether he made something up. It's if he made everything up—or if he based it on some real data," Erlingsson said.

"With very high probability the answer is that he based it on actual geographic information," the geographer said. "Ireland comes out as the only logical location for the central island of the Atlantean empire in Plato's tale."
 

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