The Search for Atlantis
I owe the analysis that should lead to the eventual discovery of the ancient kingdom of Atlantis to the late Princess Marte di Ruspoli of Rome, who presented her ideas to me while excavating the ruins of the Carthaginian city of Thymiaterion in Morocco. It is to my wife, a Joy both in name and nature, that I owe the urging to write down what I learned and have spoken of several times.
Let us begin:
Many people think the story of Atlantis is a Greek Myth. It is not. Atlantis appears nowhere in Greek mythology. In fact, the only account we have comes from two brief descriptions by Plato in in the two dialogues: “Critias” and “Timaeus.” Atlantis is mentioned in a few paragraphs and he reports it solely as hearsay. That is, he simply recalls hearing his uncle speak of it when he, Plato, was a little boy.
This brief mention has grown into an enormous historical account in the minds of millions who who have seen and heard it recounted only in books and films created by sensationalists. They find rocks under the Atlantis and say “Look: This is just where Plato predicted it would be.” In fact, Plato predicted nothing; he merely recalled a story he had heard from his uncle.
In the Critias, Plato is talking with a group of friends and tells them that when he was a small boy he hid behind a curtain one evening when his uncle was entertaining a group of friends. His uncle told a story he had uncovered in his travels. It was about an ancient city-state of great power and advanced technology, a place called Atlantis. It was the heart of an island civilization, his uncle said.
The city, his uncle said, was surrounded by seven canals, and had beautiful public buildings with metal roofs that shone like gold. Its people were skilled metal workers and used that skill to fashion tools and weapons from an unknown metal. The city, relates Plato, concluding this brief recollection, was unfortunately destroyed by an earthquake that caused it to sink beneath the sea. From that slender account has grown whole libraries of misinterpretation.
An Error in Translation Sinks a Fabled City in the Wrong Sea
It was the firm conviction of Princess Ruspoli that Atlantis did not lie submerged somewhere in the Atlantic or any other ocean. The Atlantic ocean placement is an assumption based on Plato’s description. And yet a single line from his “Timaeus” tells us how little Plato knew of geography, and how little he bothered to check. In this line he refers to the lost kingdom and continent of Atlantis as being far out in the Atlantic Ocean, adding: “back when that sea was navigable.” This ocean he placed “beyond the pillars of Heracles (Hercules),” which are two rocky points that flank the mouth of the Mediterranean. Those points are known today as Gibraltar to the north, at the tip of Spain, and the city of Ceuta to the south, in northern Morocco.
Of course the Atlantic has always been navigable. But another great sea, a once navigable inland sea, no longer is. It is only the reverence with which Plato is held in our time that we are willing to pass over his absurd placement.
It is from this far ocean location, Plato continues, that Atlantis launched an attack on Greece. This attack is mentioned by no other writer of Ancient times, by the way, not Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, nor any of a dozen others. Even further, the passage of such an enormous fleet is not mentioned in the ancient histories or legends of all the other cities and nations it must have passed to get to Greece. It is not even mentioned in in the histories of Greek colonies that were dotted all over the Eastern Mediterranean. Where then, Princess Ruspoli reasonably asked, did Plato’s information come from?
A Journey to the truth
There is a marked difference between a legend and a myth. The exploits of Hercules are legendary, for example. The man was real, but the stories, having been told and retold, are distorted by time and distance. They become legendary. The Earth being supported on the shoulders of a giant named Atlas, on the other hand, is a myth. Myths usually involve explanations of natural phenomena, attributed to the actions of gods simply because the knowledge is lacking to provide any other explanation.
What is legend and what is not depends greatly on the teller’s distance from the events. One people’s legend can be another’s local history. Hercules’ epic battle with the giant Antares is one of the better known Greek legends, for example. In northern Morocco where it took place, however, it is simply considered local history.
Near the ruins of the ancient Carthaginian city, Thymiaterion, for example, is an area long known as “The Caves of Hercules.” It is so named because it was where he and his band of marauders encamped when they began their raids on the countryside and eventually captured Tangiers. Yes, Hercules was a man who led a raiding force, much like the Vikings and Vandals of a later time, or the Condottiere of the Italian Renaissance. In chaotic times and places, bandits flourish. Princess Ruspoli had much more to say about Hercules’ storied exploits, but that is not the subject here. Our subject begins, as it should, with Plato’s uncle. After all, he, not Plato, is our source for the story.
A Greek Tourist of the Fifth Century B.C.
Let us for the moment take our minds back to ancient Greece:
It was Princess Ruspoli’s basic point, and the one we shall use for the start of our explorations, that the error that placed Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean was based on a simple mistake in translation. Such mistakes happen all the time; a search of the worldwide web will find hundreds. Nearly all such errors are minor. Most are trivial. A few, like this one, are crucial.
Over time errors in translation or interpretation, no matter how unintentional, can become so embedded that they dominate later thought. It will help to take a look at Plato’s family background.
Who was Plato? And who were his family? We know that he was an admirer of a local philosopher named Socrates and wrote down as much as he recalled of Socrates’ discussions with other intellectuals in Athens. As for Plato’s family, including of course, his uncle, they were rich Greeks in the Fifth century B.C.They owned a silver mine and olive orchards outside of Athens. Like other wealthy Greeks, such as the historian Herodotus, Plato’s uncle used his money to travel and see the world’s great sights. People with money do the same today.
In Plato’s time, the most popular destination for tourists was Egypt. It is popular even now. Back then, more than two thousand years ago, Egypt was already an ancient civilization. The pyramids had been there for more than a thousand years, the great Temple of Karnak in Luxor, also known as Ancient Thebes (not the city of the same name in Greece), was even more of a wonder then than it is today. Tens of thousands of Greeks lived in Egypt, many for reasons of trade and others who had lived there all their lives. They provided an easy and comfortable base for visiting countrymen; there were locals who spoke both Greek and Egyptian and could read hieroglyphics. There were cafes and inns that would make a Greek visitor feel at home. Locals could serve as guides as well.
While the pyramids at Giza and the temple complex of Karnak would have been major draws for tourists, there was another great attraction, further up the Nile, one that no longer exists but certainly did then. It was sometimes known as the Tomb of the Twelve Kings, but more often, simply, as “The Labyrinth.”
The Labyrinth was a massive structure, already ancient when Ramses the Great became pharaoh in the 12 century B.C.The tomb housed the remains and histories of twelve kings who ruled in Upper Egypt. One of these, by the way, may have been the Scorpion King, made famous by a movie with that title. Whether the film’s makers had heard of his legend or hit upon the name by luck, which is my own feeling, we don’t know. In any event his reign is not important for our search, though the Labyrinth and its tombs are.
The Labyrinth was the largest structure ever built up to that time. Even today it would be one of the largest structures in the world. Unfortunately, nothing remains, not a stone. So how do we know it ever existed? Well, many travelers saw it and commented: the Greek historian Herodotus, the Roman Senator Pliny, the Roman geographer Strabo and numerous others. It was, to put it in modern terms, a “must-see” in all the guide books. Herodotus said it was more impressive than the Pyramids; Pliny considered it the highest achievement of the builder’s art. Strabo, who was there in the first century, considered it at least the equal of the pyramids and even drew maps of part of it.
Strabo was a Greek, born in what is now modern Turkey shortly before it was absorbed into the Roman Empire. He is known to have lived from approximately 45 B.C. to around 20 A.D.So, the Labyrinth was still intact as recently as the first century.
He describes it as a massive structure, measuring 15-20 cubits (20 -30 feet) above ground and built in the shape of a square nearly a thousand cubits on a side. The size of the cubit, a common measurement of the time, has been given different lengths in ancient times, depending on the location and the period.But a generally agreed upon number is a length of around 18 to 20 inches. That would be half a yard to half a meter. That would make the Labyrinth a gigantic structure, well over a 1,000 feet on each side.
Herodotus wrote that the Labyrinth contained 3,000 rooms, 1,500 above ground, and 1,500 below. He noted that guards would not permit travelers into the rooms below ground, saying these contained the bodies and important property of the kings.
Strabo, who came to the Labyrinth 500 years later, held Herodotus’ accounts of his travels in a kind of amused contempt. Strabo wrote that the structure actually contained only 2,500 rooms, not 3,000, but noted that “some of them were of considerable size.” Just to put that in perspective, if we estimate the footage of the structure, an average room would have been several hundred square feet.
It is in these rooms that were likely found the story of Atlantis. For then, as was the practice both before and after, the walls of the rooms were painted and carved with pictures and low reliefs recounting events in the lives of the dead kings and a history of their kingdoms. We do much the same thing today in our government buildings.
Nothing remains of the Tomb of the Twelve Kings today. Why is that? Well, it is common for societies many centuries later to consider the works of earlier cultures as material for their own use. The Popes used the marble and limestone blocks from ancient Roman structures to build St. Peter’s Cathedral and other churches. The famous Coliseum, which is still impressive today but appears to be in ruins, was in fact nearly intact until the fifteenth century, when it was stripped for Papal building material. Nor is the Catholic Church alone in being responsible for this kind of destruction of ancient buildings, for it was common in all the cities and towns of the Roman Empire after its collapse. The same is true of other great civilizations that were destroyed either by conquest or internal decay. The ruins we see today of the great cities of ancient Persia, Greece, and Turkey, were not created by the decay of time alone. Even the Parthenon of Athens was destroyed not by time but was hit by a Turkish artillery shell in the Greek war of independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
The Princess and the Translation
Princess Ruspoli had a crucial insight about the stories pictured on the walls of the Labyrinth. It was her opinion, and a reasonable one, that Plato’s uncle or his interpreter made a mistake in translation.
In order to understand how easy this is, we should understand a little about Egyptian hieroglyphics. It is assumed by most people that hieroglyphics was a pictorial language in which the images – snakes, falcons, cats, wavy lines, etc., told a story like a picture book. The falcon caught a snake in the river and carried it to his nest, for example.
This is not true. The pictographs represent sounds, not creatures or objects. By reading them in sequence you put together words, just as we string together the sounds in the letters of our alphabet to make words. To make matters of translation even more difficult, as times changed so did the style and pronunciations of the pictographs. Of course, all languages change over time.
The Writing on the Walls
It is likely that here in the Labyrinth, Plato’s uncle saw the story of Atlantis. It was probably translated for him by a guide. He learns that an army of tall black warriors invaded the kingdom of the Upper Nile. They had advanced technology, drove chariots, and made weapons of an unusual and unknown metal.The story tells how they were on the verge of sweeping all before them when a great earthquake struck their home city of Atlantis and it sank beneath the sea. On hearing this news, the invaders broke off their attack and turned back toward their homes, to save their families. End of tale. Almost.
The Princess made several points about this story, which, she said, had also been seen by Hasdrubal, ruler of Carthage in the 6th Century B.C., as well as others in the ancient world.Her main point was that the hieroglyphic symbols for the desert can be read the same as if they were for the ocean. Of course, when read by a Greek, a member of a maritime people, the “sea” means only the sea he knows so well. Yet, the Sahara means the sea even in modern Arabic, just as the lands at the southern edge of the Sahara are called the Sahel, which means “the shore.” This simple mistake in hieroglyphic translation has now lived on for 25 centuries.
Princess Ruspoli said a study of ancient accounts in Egyptian and Carthaginian provide some information about Atlantis and its people not mentioned by Plato’s uncle. The Alanteans were very tall, black skinned, and ruled an extensive empire. They were technologically advanced, having chariots and hard-edged weapons. They were skilled in metallurgy, and had temples and public buildings with roofs that shone like gold in the sun. This last is a reconstructed quote, Dr. Ruspoli said, from a Carthaginian reading of the story in the Labyrinth. The same account appears in our own times in stories from African tribes around the headwaters of the River Niger.
Speculation brings to mind the thought that the unusual metal described for the Atlantean tools and weapons might have been uranium. There are at least three rich deposits of uranium ore in North Africa and the ore is no more difficult to smelt into metal than others in use thousands of years ago. Take a quantity of rich uranium ore, put it on top of a pile of charcoal, add some crushed limestone and cover the mound with clay. Ignite the charcoal through a bung hole and the process proceeds. The end result will be a pancake of metal at the bottom of this primitive furnace. Remove it and you can work it into useful shapes. The risk from radioactivity was of course unknown until recent times, and any ill effects would have taken decades to develop. Despite the present popular paranoia about uranium, it is not highly radioactive and can be handled with no short-term ill effects.
One final interesting observation: if you hammer uranium into thin sheets you can use it for roofing. One of the persistent descriptions of Atlantis in the account from the Labyrinth is that it was a city with temples that had metal roofs that looked like gold. This fits. Over time, uranium oxidizes. In short, it rusts. The color of uranium oxide is yellow, and it looks very much like gold from a distance.
Lying about like jewels in the desert, are hints in other legends that seem to speak to Atlantis. One of these is Hercules’ encounter with an African queen named Atalanta, a name remarkably reminiscent of that of Atlantis itself. Atalanta was tall and black, and her long stride gave her a reputation for being fleet of foot. She challenged Hercules to a race, and easily won. He raided her small kingdom, nonetheless, and moved on to other prizes. Another intriguing hint lies in the folklore history of some members of the Watusi, an aristocratic tribe in central Africa. Unusually tall, and of course black, they consider themselves a warrior race, a garrison in fact of a faraway empire. The Masai in Kenya, also might fit the physical description of the warriors of Atlantis. A metal worker in a village at the great bend of the River Niger, in the country of Niger, bragged to Princess Ruspoli that his ancestors “built temples with roofs that shone like gold” – his own words, she said.
Times Change, And So Does the Earth
It is difficult to picture what places looked like thousands of years ago. We tend to think what we see today is what has always been. But in fact the Earth changes. Shorelines expand and recede, most deserts were once seas and new seas form where none were before.
It is natural to look at a place like the Sahara and think that it has always been as we see it, but that is not the case. What is now the largest desert on Earth was once covered by forests and grasslands, home to vast numbers of wildlife, flowering plants and trees. It was lush and had a mild climate, a likely place for the rise of a civilization. Even in relatively recent times, elephants, antelope and lions were found in considerable numbers in country that is now completely barren. Millions of years ago the region was even home to dinosaurs. Their skeletons are revealed from time to time by shifting sands. Often the glimpse is fleeting, as the winds cover their remains as quickly as it revealed them, and none who saw the skeleton of some mighty beast are later sure just where it was.
The shift to desert in North Africa began around 8,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age in Europe. It is likely the events were related, the retreat of the ice sheet affecting rainfall.
In the south central reach of this region is a great lake. At that time it was the largest lake in the world. It is now called Lake Chad, in the nation of Chad, a word that in their language simply means “large water.” It is still one of the largest lakes in the world, measuring nearly 30 miles in its longest dimension.. At its greatest extend, which geological evidence places at around 4,000 B.C., the lake covered more than 400,000 square kilometers. This was an enormous body of water approximately 400 kilometers wide by a by 1,000 long. In miles it would have been about around 260 by 625.
To give us a simple idea of just how large this is, it would have been a lake about the size of France. The lake was larger than Germany or Italy, six times the size of Ireland or Japan. Lake Chad was truly an inland sea, requiring weeks to sail across it, months to march around. And all of it was fresh water. It perfectly fits Plato’s uncle’s description of a sea that was formerly navigable. In fact it likely supported hundreds of ships and dozens of towns.
The period of Lake Chad’s greatest extent meshes closely with the likely time for the flourishing of the ancient civilization of Atlantis. Such a location also matches the physical description of Atlantis as related by Plato’s uncle: that the city was surrounded by seven canals.
Indeed, such surrounding canals – the equivalent of moats, would have been logical defenses for a city on an inland sea. Lake Chad had many islands then and quite a few exist to this day. Then as now, the lake was relatively shallow, though its deepest point would have been greater than the present 35 feet. The construction of rings of surrounding moats would have made sense.
Is This the Place?
So, if Atlantis was real, and Princess Ruspoli and I are convinced it most assuredly was, it is here, somewhere around the shores of Lake Chad that we should find its remains. It would have been in Lake Chad back then, though almost certainly near the shore. Today that would leave it out in what is now desert. Considering how much the lake has shrunk in the last four thousand years, the location of Atlantis could be two or three hundred miles from the present shoreline. What was once an island in a vast sea might now be a hill or cluster of hills in the desert. Even the fabled Labyrinth we spoke of earlier is nothing but a low hill now.
While the exact location remains to be discovered, we believe we have narrowed it down considerably. If we think of Atlantis as a city state that controlled a much larger territory, an empire in fact, there would be evidence of that in places other than around the present Lake Chad. There might also be evidence of mining in the uranium deposits. There could be winter homes in the strange black spires of the Tibesti Mountains.There would also be towns and villages that were part of the Atlantean empire. And, of course, the region would have been an excellent starting point for an attempt to conquer Egypt.
We can put the idea of Atlantis having sunk beneath the ocean to rest in the deep. There is too much logic against it and no physical evidence for it; in brief there is nothing but a mistake in translation going for it. The idea of a chariot invasion from ships is absurd. That a people based somewhere out in the ocean would traverse the entire Mediterranean to launch an amphibious landing against Egypt or Greece, by-passing all the lands in between, defies common sense. The accounts on the walls of the Labyrinth said nothing of an attack against Lower Egypt, but only against Upper Egypt. To imagine that an invading force from the Mediterranean or Atlantic oceans would skip Lower Egypt and travel hundreds of miles inland so they could then attack further up the Nile is absurd.
Atlantis was real all right, and it will be found where its remains still lie, in the sands and hills around Lake Chad. Some modern evidence hints strongly of this.
The View From Above
In November, 1981 the crew of the space shuttle Columbia took what are sometimes called “SLAR” (side looking radar) images of the Eastern Sahara when their orbit passed over that region.
It was not the area initially targeted for this kind of imaging, but as chance would have it, a fuel cell failed, cutting short the original mission. The crew decided to open the camera shutter manually and shoot whatever they happened to be passing over while they still had power. As chance would have it they were passing over the southeastern Sahara. The resulting film strip covered a few hundred miles.
An interesting feature of side-looking radar, sometimes called false aperture radar, is that it can penetrate the ground and show images of things buried anywhere from several inches to severa feet. The depth of the penetration depends on the amount of moisture in the soil. The wavelengths of the radar imaging are blocked by water. In wet areas, like coastal wetlands or swamps, you get no penetration, but in areas with very little water, penetration can be substantial.
The Sahara, of course, is one of the driest places on Earth. The images taken in November, 1981, were able to penetrate as much as 20-25 feet below the surface. They revealed roads, river beds, and even trees buried beneath the sands. The images taken at that time are at the University of Arizona in Tempe, Arizona, a national repository for satellite and radar imaging. It is not likely that the buried City of Atlantis was itself captured in the radar imaging strip, but lost Cities and Empires never disappear completely, they leave tracks. It is likely that we are in the right area.
The Princess’s Tale
I had the good fortune to meet Princess Ruspoli in Tangiers when I was a young man, unencumbered and eager to see the world. I was a student, living in hostels and cheap hotels, subsisting on bread and cheese, and soaking up knowledge like a parched plant. She was finishing an excavation of Thymiaterion, a Carthaginian seaport on the Atlantic side of Morocco, near Cape Spartel. This the northwestern tip of Africa, one edge facing the Mediterranean, the other the Atlantic.
It was the winter of 1954-55. I was 20 at the time, she was in her late 30s or perhaps 40; I’ve never been able to accurately gauge a woman’s age, probably because they are so engaging at every age that it doesn’t seem to matter. She was without a doubt the most gracious and brilliant person I had ever met. And it was she who provided the key that will leads us ultimately to the probable location of Atlantis, the area where it most likely was and where any ruins may still be.
Our meeting was an accident, as many happy meetings are. I was and still am an ardent explorer of museums wherever I go. There was a small one in the city of Tangiers, unfortunately it was open only by appointment. I made an appointment at the appointed time and day I appeared and was met by the princess, who was alone and took me around the small building and explained the exhibits. To my surprise, the museum contained an extraordinary collection of Neolithic oil lamps. You wouldn’t think that people of the late Stone Age would have had oil lamps, and yet they did, in a wide variety of styles and sizes.
It was apparent that we both shared a passionate interest in the ancient world and its peoples. She invited me to her villa, which occupied a hilltop overlooking the city and the Bay of Tangiers. An old Berber squatted outside the entrance, one hand on a long and antique muzzle loading rifle. There was a statue of Crassus in the garden, or perhaps it was Pompey, but my recollection at this distance is no longer clear. A long hall in the villa had paintings by Watteau and Fragonard. It led to her study, which held a magnificent secretary desk, having many small drawers, each decorated with a miniature painting. She said they were by Raphael, and I have no doubt that they were. A picture of her first husband was atop the desk, a remarkably handsome man dressed in a uniform of the Royal Austrian Hussars. We had tea and talked of ancient Rome. Her title, she said, derived from a grant of nobility given to her family by the Emperor Maximian, who was co-regent with Diocletian. She had a palace on the edge of the Forum; one wall of it also a wall of the ancient Temple of Saturn.
Perhaps because I was a quiet and eager listener, she shared with me her knowledge of how one could uncover the ancient world from the air and the ground, and most directly to our present story, the likely origins of the legend of Atlantis.
Tangiers was an important city in the Carthaginian Empire, and later for the Romans. The Carthaginian dry docks and ship building yards are still standing there today. Out in the harbor are dozens of sunken ships from battles fought by the Carthaginian and Roman navies. At low tide you can sometimes stand on the submerged deck of a long lost galley. It is a good place to begin an examination of the ancient world.
This was all impressive enough for a young American from Chicago, who had spent years learning all he could in the museums of that city. But none of it was as impressive as her. Princess Ruspoli held a doctorate and was an accomplished pianist. She was fluent in a dozen languages, and could read several more that were long dead. She could easily read hieroglyphics, ancient Greek, Carthaginian, Aramaic, Hittite and Phoenician. It would be wonderful if her lasting tribute could be the true discovery of ancient Atlantis.
Robert Schwabach, Chicago, 2015