Mystery or History? The Lost City of Atlantis

Although humans have achieved great things in the field of science, the world is still full of unsolved mysteries. For one, we have only explored 20 percent of the world’s oceans. The other 80 percent is home to myths, legends, and mysteries. Scientists have succeeded in explaining some, but there is a lot we don’t know.

Map of Atlantis / Book of Atlantis / A Newspaper Clipping of the Lost City of Atlantis / Pavlopetri City.
Source: Getty Images

Hidden treasures, ghost ships, and lost cities are part of the captivating marine world, and the lost city of Atlantis tops the list of unknowns. The legendary island sank below the waves, taking an advanced civilization with it. Was it real, or are people searching for something nonexistent?

An Island Utopia

Many centuries ago, Greek philosopher Plato told the tale of a wealthy civilization that sank below the ocean after a series of fires and earthquakes. The city, known today as the lost city of Atlantis, was supposedly founded by Poseidon, the god of the sea. Atlantis was reportedly a remarkable power.

A dated engraving of Atlantis as described by Plato.
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Plato described Atlantis as an island once larger than Libya and Asia, though “by now earthquakes have caused it to sink and it has left behind unnavigable mud.” He claimed it was once a utopia governed by moral people, but the citizens became greedy and failed to please the gods.

Not a Historian

According to Plato’s story, the inhabitants of Atlantis were punished by the gods for being vain and selfish. The divine powers destroyed Atlantis with fires and earthquakes as punishment. The tale was from Timaeus-Critias by Plato and his colleagues, and it is the only ancient source of the story.

An illustration of Plato and Aristotle having a conversation.
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Although there were historians in his time, Plato was not one of them. He was a philosopher, using the story of Atlantis in a debate as an example of a moral argument. Many people used this fact to discredit his story because they believed a philosopher wasn’t as credible as a historian.

Often Forgotten

One detail often left out from retellings is the role of the city of Athens, where Plato lived. In his writings, he said Atlantis was the antagonist force against ancient Athens. Athens apparently repelled the attack from Atlantis, unlike any other nation in the known world. They were witness to Atlantis’ power.

An illustration of ancient Athens.
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In the account, ancient Athens represents the “perfect society,” and Atlantis is the opposite. He used Atlantis to describe everything wrong with society, writing about all the flawed traits he saw in the world. It was a story fabricated to show a general truth about how ideal citizens should behave.

A Long Time Ago

Plato stated that Atlantis existed 9,000 years before his time and mysteriously disappeared one day. It was also thousands of years before Athens was founded, so how could they have had a large population, empire, and army? Since we don’t know much about ancient history, it allows us to keep believing.

An image of ancient clay vases.
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The Greek philosopher was not alive to see Atlantis or know anyone who would have been around in those times. However, people are still fascinated by the legend. Many believe it to be true and have searched for hard evidence to prove Plato’s story and all its interesting details.

Poseidon’s Island

Legend says that Poseidon searched the world to find the biggest island until he found Atlantis. It was apparently inhabited by the most beautiful and intelligent people he had ever seen. It was there that Poseidon fell in love with a mortal woman named Cleito.

A picture of ancient Greek.
Photo by Edie Adams and Ernie Kovacs Estate/Getty Images

Poseidon decided to build a city on top of a hill on the island to protect his love. He wanted to do something big to show Cleito how much he loved her. Poseidon ensured the land was protected from enemies so his love would be safe.

Many Obstacles

The new home built by Poseidon for Cleito in the city of Atlantis was surrounded by five rings of water and land. The water was connected to the land with the help of five tunnels, which led to a large canal that flowed into the ocean.

A bronze sculpture of Poseidon.
Photo by Leemage/Corbis/Getty Images

The tunnels allowed ships to come to the city, but gates and towers guarded every route. Poseidon put up every type of protection, including a wall made of red, white, and black rock decorated with precious metals. But that wasn’t the only way he “protected” Cleito.

Keeping Her “Safe”

Besides the many obstacles around the city, there was also a hill called the “Hill of Cleito.” Legend says Poseidon kept Cleito captive on the hill surrounded by huge moats and pillars. He locked her away because he didn’t trust her and thought she wasn’t loyal.

A sketch of Poseidon.
Photo by Bildagentur online/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The story says Cleito had five pairs of twin sons with Poseidon, with the eldest being named Atlas. His ten children inherited the city, and Atlas became the first ruler of Atlantis. The tale claims they built a giant gold statue to honor their father.

A Self-Sufficient City

There are varying details, as the legend has been told so many times, but Atlantis was said to be a fertile and beautiful city where the people were half-god and half-human. It was believed to be a self-sufficient region where the citizens grew food and raised animals.

A sketch of a map of Atlantis.
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The land was rich, and farmers grew crops in the plains on the outskirts of the city. The well-maintained irrigation system kept their crops lush. Everyone was resourceful and built stunning buildings from red and black stones. The inhabitants also had free time to play with volcanoes.

Rising From the Sea

Historians and other researchers have had many theories, but the findings of Edgar Cayce indicate something different. Cayce believed the lost city would rise again one day like “the sun rises from the sea.”

A dated illustration of Atlantis location.
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He thought Atlantis would rise off the east coast of North America. Cayce’s theory also suggested that the souls of people who lived in Atlantis returned to America to usher in a new era of enlightened humans. But people thought Atlantis was located in a different area.

An Unknown Location

Plato suggested that the lost city should have been somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Others have suggested that Atlantis is located in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Spain. A few have argued that it could be under Antarctica. It seems too cold for the Atlanteans.

A painting of Plato and Aristotle discussing.
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For many years, researchers thought the Azores was the site of Atlantis. However, new studies have revealed a new site, and scientists believe that Atlantis could be found in Cadiz, somewhere between the waters of Spain and Morocco. People have searched the oceans looking for Atlantis.

A 42-Day Expedition

In 1931, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution opened. The field of ocean science was still relatively new because deep sea ocean exploration technology wasn’t advanced. Oceanographer and WHOI founding director, Henry Bryant Bigelow, set off on a 42-day research expedition cruise around the Azores.

A photo from the expedition cruise.
Source: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The expedition’s purpose was originally to study how large currents like the Gulf Stream changed aspects of North America’s climate. But when they heard Atlantis might be located in those waters, Bigelow couldn’t resist the opportunity to comb the seafloor for signs of an ancient island.

Hoping to Find Something

Bigelow’s team planned to scrape off and collect a layer of the sea floor, then use deep sea acoustic soundings to search for deeper ancient artifacts or structures. They hoped the collected soil would tell them more about Atlantis and where it might have been.

A newspaper clipping reads Searching for the Lost Continent Underneath the Ocean.
Source: Pinterest

The WHOI’s first research vessel was a 140-foot sailboat named Atlantis. It was one of many voyages made across the Atlantic during the summer of 1931. Unfortunately, after more than a month at sea, the crew returned home empty-handed with no new findings about Atlantis.

Renewed Hope

More than 30 years later, oceanographic engineer James Mavor worked with scholars in Greece to locate Atlantis on the bottom of the Mediterranean. In 1966, Mavor and other researchers found evidence of a Minoan city dating back to 1,400 BC off the coast of the island Thera in the Aegean Sea.

An image of the cover of a book titled Voyage to Atlantis by James Mavor.
Source: Pinterest

The city seemed to have been destroyed by a powerful earthquake and volcanic eruption. It supported Plato’s description of the fall of Atlantis. However, the following years were spent arguing over who deserved credit for the discovery.

Not the Last Discovery

Mavor’s findings were clouded with doubt and skepticism because of the arguments over credit. He wrote a book about his findings years later and how his discovery matched the writings of Plato. Mavor wasn’t the last one to find clues about Atlantis.

An illustration of Plato’s statue.
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Reports of discoveries of Atlantis have surfaced countless times over the years. Unfortunately, no official evidence of its existence has ever emerged. Today, few scientists would dedicate their careers to searching for Atlantis. Still, over 75 new books have been published on the subject recently.

A Different Story

Besides what we have already heard, other stories claim the original inhabitants of Atlantis had extraterrestrial origins. These legends say the people came to the island 50,000 years ago from the Lyrian star system. It could also explain why no one has found the lost city.

An image of an extraterrestrial spaceship.
Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images

This version of the story said the people were much taller and fairer than today’s average person. Their lifespan was believed to be 800 years, making them a strong prototype of the human race. But it doesn’t seem to be the most talked-about version of Atlantis.

The Power of Atlanteans

In another version, the lost city of Atlantis was actually on Mars, and they were a colony of aliens. It was thought that they possessed exceptional powers, such as the ability to control the weather or volcanic eruptions. This was just another version of the story.

An exterior view of the planet of Mars.
Photo by Heritage Space/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Some accounts mention that the inhabitants possessed some device that allowed them to channel energy from time and space. The myth says Atlanteans were superior beings, but many feel this is just a mythical representation of Plato’s tale and version of events.

Is There Any Logic?

Many people believe Atlantis is just a legend. However, conspiracy theories suggest the tales are based on real events. Ocean explorer Robert Ballard found logic in the story because it resembled an actual historical event off the coast of Greece.

Robert Ballard speaks during a press conference.
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The story of Atlantis is similar to the massive volcanic eruption on the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea. Ballard said a highly advanced society lived there and suddenly disappeared, just like Atlantis. Someone else also confirmed the existence and disappearance of an island.

He Started It

Many think the legend of Atlantis became so popular in modern times because of Ignatius Donnelly. In 1882, he published Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, a book with 13 hypotheses about the idea that Atlantis truly existed and represented a place “where early mankind dwelt for ages in peace.”

A map showing the location of the mythical Atlantis.
Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Donnelly claimed Atlantis was the original source of many ancient civilizations around the world. He thought Atlantis could be found if people followed the clues in Plato’s writing. Donnelly might have been inspired by a discovery in the 1870s that unearthed the city of Troy.

“Concrete Proof”

Throughout the years, there has been much back and forth about Atlantis. In 2018, a team of researchers announced they found “concrete proof that Atlantis existed.” The evidence included a series of circles in a national park in Spain. This so-called proof was not what they thought.

A photo of the roofs of houses from a submerged village in Spain.
Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images

In reality, the circles were experimental ponds created in 2004 and 2005 for a study involving zooplankton. Their “concrete proof” was about as solid as a bowl of soup. Their research was brushed away because it was so easily discredited.

A Persistent Myth

Despite all the stories, the lost city of Atlantis most likely never existed. It’s possible that stories of flooded neighborhoods inspired Plato’s tales that he used to make a moral argument. Additionally, the widespread understanding of continental drift may have added to the story of a “lost continent.”

A promotional still of the Disney film Atlantis.
Source: Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures

Francis Bacon and Thomas More used Plato’s story of Atlantis for inspiration for their utopian novels, leading people to believe it was a historical fact. In the mid-1800s, French scholar Brasseur de Bourbourg was among those who said there was a relationship between Atlantis and Mesoamerica.

A Version of Athens

Plato used the idea of Atlantis to illustrate a point about the dangers of aggressive imperialism. He made the lost city sound like a utopia, but scholars have concluded that it was to show an idealized version of Athens from before his time.

A picture of The Temple of Poseidon in Athens.
Photo by Harvey Meston/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Jyl Gentzler, a professor of philosophy at Amherst College, said this version of ancient Athens “was similar to Plato’s notion of the ideal state.” Gentzler believed it should be small and virtuous and reject ostentation. The citizens had a “lust for possessions and power,” according to Plato.

It Should Have Been Found

Plato described Atlantis as bigger than “Libya and Asia combined,” which would be the size of modern-day northern Africa and over half of Turkey. If a landmass of that size sank in the Atlantic Ocean, it would have appeared on sonar maps of the ocean floor.

A cartography showing the location of Atlantis.
Photo by DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images

There is no way oceanographers wouldn’t have found a lost city of that size by now. Even though most of the ocean has yet to be explored, it’s hard to believe that something like Atlantis would have been overlooked. Maybe it’s in the deepest part of the ocean.

Atlantis Seekers

When Columbus returned to Europe with news of the New World, many thought America was the legendary Atlantis. However, the search for Atlantis only gained traction in the 20th century. Even if they thought America was Atlantis, it didn’t add up to the fact that Atlantis sank.

An illustration of the explorer, Christopher Columbus.
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The New World wasn’t discovered by Columbus until 1492, long after Plato’s time. Therefore, he didn’t know America existed. It didn’t fit the narrative he wrote in 360 BC. It has been concluded that Atlantis never existed, even if people want to believe the myth.

Atlantis in Pop Culture

The idea of Atlantis has been referenced in pop culture many times. Films such as The Little Mermaid are based on Atlantis. In a comic series based on the movie, Ariel gets a history lesson from a wizard fish about Atlantis.

A promotional still of The Little Mermaid.
Source: Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures

In DC’s Aquaman, the story revolves around his quest to become king to stop his half-brother King Orm’s plan to unify the seven Atlantean nations. Atlantis is featured in the 2018 film as an ancient lost civilization with a technologically advanced society that existed for 50,000 years.

Represented in Music

Atlantis has also been referenced in many songs. The folk/pop singer Donavan released a top 10 pop hit in 1969 called “Atlantis.” The song begins with a narrative of Plato’s description of Atlantis. Popular artist Ellie Goulding also released a song titled “Atlantis” in 2012.

A still from Ellie Goulding’s music video.
Source: YouTube

In Jimi Hendrix’s “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn to Be),” he mentions Atlantis as the destination for his love “Catharina” after she escaped from wars on land. The story of Atlantis lends itself to artistic interpretations because the myth is magical.

Other Underwater Cities

While Atlantis might be a widespread myth, there are actual underwater cities that researchers have confirmed to have existed. In the early 2000s, divers discovered the city of Thonis-Heracleion off the coast of northern Egypt. It was important to the ancient world’s maritime and trading routes.

An image of underwater remains of an ancient military vessel.
Source: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

The port town was Egypt’s major trading center until Alexandria replaced it in the 2nd century BC. Alexandria was 15 miles southwest of the sunken city. Thonis-Heracleion sunk due to earthquakes, rising sea levels, and the process of soil liquefication in the late 2nd century BC.

Another Discovery

Pavlopetri, a city of ancient Laconia in Greece, was another underwater city. It sunk below the waves around 1,000 BC. Its ruins, which included buildings and streets, resembled a whole town. Researchers found that it dated back to 2,800 BC.

A man dives into the city of Pavlopetri.
Source: Pinterest

The area never re-emerged, so it was never built over or disrupted by agriculture. Nicholas Flemming discovered Pavlopetri in 1967, and a team of archaeologists from Cambridge mapped it in 1968. Although it eroded over centuries, the town layout remained intact. However, it is in danger of damage by boat anchors, tourists, and souvenir hunters.

An English Lost City

On England’s southern coast, oceanographers found the medieval town of Old Winchelsea in East Sussex. It was destroyed by major flooding during a storm in February of 1287. It was an important part of the cross-channel trade and served as a naval base after the Norman Conquest.

A dated map of Old Winchelsea’s location.
Source: Pinterest

In the 13th century, Old Winchelsea was famous in the wine trade from Gascony. It is believed there may have been 700 houses, two churches, and more than 50 inns and taverns in the 1260s. These findings imply a population of thousands of people.