Type the word “Atlantis” into Google and 120 million results pop up. Like El Dorado or Shangri-la, the legendary sunken city of Atlantis hovers on the horizon of our imagination, tantalizing, mysterious, unreachable. Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City pulls together the tangled web of conjecture—and sticks a new locator pin in the map.
Talking from his home in Pelham, New York, author Mark Adams explains why he thinks Atlantis may have been off the coast of Morocco; how an Irishman created the world’s largest database of Atlantis lore; and how the parting of the Red Sea, in the biblical story in Exodus, may be connected to Atlantis.
You’re best known as a travel writer who has covered real places like Machu Picchu. Why did you choose to write a book about a subject usually discussed in the same breath as UFOs and Bigfoot?
[Laughs] I was writing the Machu Picchu book, and I read this headline in the New York Times: “German discovers Atlantis in Africa.” I was like, what? The fact that someone could actually search for Atlantis and be taken seriously was weird.
A year or two after that, I was working on a magazine story about the greatest philosophers of all time, so I started reading about Plato. And the one thing that came up again and again was that Plato is our sole reputable source for the story of Atlantis.
Your interest in Atlantis began with a series of movies you saw as a boy in the 1970s. Take us back in time.
You can tell from Machu Picchu that I have an interest in lost cities. [Laughs] I think a certain personality loves that type of thing. The germ for me was a series of movies that came out in the late 1970s. They were these super-cheapo pseudo-documentaries, like Beyond and Back or In Search of Noah’s Ark. There was also this show called In Search Of... hosted by Leonard Nimoy. If you get two people in a room and one finds out the other one loves In Search Of... as well, they’ll end up having this Vulcan mind-meld, and talking about it for the next three hours. [Laughs]
When is Atlantis first mentioned in the historical record?
The only mention of Atlantis by name is in Plato’s Dialogues (written around 360 B.C.): “Timaeus,” which was a very complicated attempt to explain the universe, and “Critias,” which has dozens of precise details about what Atlantis looked like, and where it may have been located in relation to other landmarks in the ancient world. It was “Critias,” in particular, that set people off thinking that Atlantis actually existed.
I am taken with the theory of Atlantis being in Morocco. Tell us why it could be right—or wrong.
One of the things I’ve found with people reading this book is that different people find themselves sympathizing with different theories. I have four main theories, and I talk to the people behind the theories and visit the locations.
In the case of Morocco, a German computer expert, Michael Hübner, became obsessed with “Timaeus” and “Critias” because he’s mathematically inclined. He set up what’s called a Hierarchical Constraint Satisfaction and looked at every one of Plato’s clues in “Timaeus” and “Critias.” He weighted them and came up with an area on the map that was within 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) of Athens, Greece.
What a lot of people forget is that the story of Atlantis is actually a war story where Athens defeats Atlantis. Hübner plugged in the clues—essentially it was like a game of Battleship, [in which] whatever area had the most pegs sinks the battleship, or in this case discovers Atlantis. He theorizes that Atlantis was a little bit south of Casablanca in modern Morocco.
One of the best clues that Plato gives about Atlantis is that there was a series of concentric circles around the city, black and red stone, and of course it was a seafaring society.
Michael Hübner and I walked across the desert and, sure enough, there was black and red striped stone. Then he took me to the edge of the Sahara desert, and walked me up the hillside. Lo and behold, there were these concentric circles on the edge of the desert, and just a few miles away was the Atlantic Ocean. He makes a really compelling case that Atlantis was located in Morocco, and that’s a relatively new theory. Not a lot of people have come up with his hypothesis.
What are the other three front-runner locations?
The traditional front-runner and the only one so far that has gotten a lot of traction with mainstream academics is the island of Santorini in the Aegean Sea. There is real archaeological evidence there. The island has a bull’s-eye shape with a ring around its center, and it has a relatively new volcano, which we know erupted in ancient times.
Santorini was also the site of an important maritime city called Akrotiri, which was discovered in 1967. There is a lot of evidence that it was a flourishing naval center. There were frescoes showing ships, very similar to the details that Plato gives about the Atlantis story. In the mid-1970s, Santorini was major news. Jacques Cousteau went to Santorini to look for Atlantis. It was taken pretty seriously.
The other two are Tartessus, in southern Spain, another lost city from antiquity, which is not too far from the modern-day city of Seville. Finally, there is Malta. Malta has the most ancient temples in the Mediterranean area, and Malta’s culture was destroyed by a tsunami and earthquake.
Jose Maria Galan, a naturalist, says the real story of archaeology and Atlantis is that “no matter how big and powerful you get, you can disappear like that.” Explain.
Jose Maria Galan worked at Doñana National Park [on the southern coast of Spain]. He took me out to the shore there and said: “In the summer, you’ll see thousands of people lying out on the beach. Now imagine that there’s a wave 60 meters high coming in, and you can see how a civilization could get wiped out right away.”
Then he took me out to this area of dunes and we started digging into the hills, and Jose starts plucking out all these various pieces of pottery: Roman pieces, Muslim pieces from the Middle Ages, Greek, all the way back to Phoenician. It was amazing that so many cultures in this quiet spot had come and gone over the millennia. He says: “The only thing we know for sure is that everything gets wiped out in the end.”
I think that is one of the main messages Plato was trying to get across: Time is cyclical, and even a very powerful, technically advanced civilization like Atlantis is going to get wiped out eventually.
You use the term “geo-mythology.” Are there any reliable maps that show Atlantis?
No, though there have been people who have tried to place it on maps. There was a sort of odd, brilliant polymath named Athanasius Kircher, a Jesuit who lived in Germany in the 17th century. He did what’s probably the most famous map of Atlantis, where he placed it in the Atlantic Ocean. But there’s no way of knowing whether he based this on any reliable information or whether he just made it up. The oldest maps we have don’t go back much past 1500. They’re post Christopher Columbus.
Your search for Atlantis took you all over the world, even to Ireland. Tell us about Tony O’Connell and how he started Atlantipedia.
Tony is one of those wonderful people that I got to meet. He and his longtime partner, Paul Evans, moved to the country outside of Dublin to take care of Tony’s ailing mother. Being a very intelligent busybody, Tony was looking for something to fill his time and started getting into serious Atlantis research. He realized there was no single compendium to look for information about Atlantis, so he started this thing called Atlantipedia online. There are thousands of entries—everything you could ever want to know about Atlantis is there! [Laughs]
He was crucial for my research because when I talked to archaeologists, historians, or philosophy professors, a lot of them didn’t want to talk about Atlantis. The subject is like kryptonite for serious academics. You’re not allowed to take it seriously. So I went to Tony, hat in hand, and asked if he could help me out. He said, “Come to Ireland and spend a week, and we’ll talk about it.” Basically, he played Socrates to my Plato. He talked me through all the possibilities; and at the end of the week, I had my four candidates.
I was intrigued by the explanation of the biblical story of the parting of the Red Sea being a tsunami and the Santorini explosion theory—can you tell us more about that?
A lot of the information from Exodus lines up with things that might have happened during the volcanic eruption: the ten plagues, the sky darkening, the sea turning to blood, locusts. If you compare what happens during a volcanic blast, you can see how the effect of a volcanic blast would get translated into the ten plagues that hit Egypt.
One of the more interesting points he makes is that what is commonly known as the Red Sea parting may have actually been the Sea of Reeds, which is a lagoon in northern Egypt. When a tsunami occurs, as we know from what happened in Thailand, the sea recedes. It can go out a half mile or so. This may be what happened when the Jews reached safety on the other side. Then the water came crashing back and wiped out the Egyptians in pursuit.
It would be an incredible coincidence if all these things happen to fall into place. But in ancient history things are often described as happening in a short period of time that may actually have transpired over hundreds of years. So we don’t really know.
Socrates said, “Everything I had done hinged on the truth or falsity of a statement about truth or falsity.” Explain.
Before Plato started writing about Atlantis, he mentions some of the things that are going on in The Republic. But Socrates says: There are stories that we use to teach children. Some of these stories are true; some of these stories are not true. And then there are stories that have some truth and some falsity. The falsity is put in for teaching purposes.
The problem with Atlantis is that we have to figure out whether it’s all true or all false. Plato wrestled with the idea of what’s true and what’s not true. The question is: Does Atlantis actually exist or does it fall somewhere in between? Part true. Part false.
So, Mark, will we meet in Atlantis one day? Or is it all a lot of hooey?
If somebody found concentric circles and an ancient Egyptian inscription mentioning a story like Plato says he found about Atlantis—and those two things are by no means impossible—I think we’d have a pretty good case that there’s a lot of truth in the story. And nobody would be happier than me if we did. I would be over the moon.