On a recent trip to Santorini, the Greek island in the southern Aegean, I couldn’t resist visiting the local ancient site of Akrotiri. My excitement and interest were particularly strong as it had been revealed to me that the remains could be that of the mythical city of Atlantis!
The idea of Atlantis was first introduced by Plato in 360 BCE in his dialogues, Timaeus and Critias. While many believe that Plato was using the tale of the island as a tool for explaining his philosophy, others feel that he was describing an actual place and there has subsequently been a search for its possible location.
Plato describes the island as being in front of the ‘Pillars of Heracles’ surrounded by other islands and a continent beyond. He continues:
“Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a federation of kings, of great and marvellous power which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and part of the continent.”
Plato also talks about the eventual fate of the island:
“But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed by the sea and vanished.”
So if Plato’s accounts are to be taken literally the island of Atlantis should have evidence of a once great civilisation that suffered a catastrophe which caused it to sink into the sea.
Santorini is a crescent shaped island that lies to the south of the Cyclades and about 90 miles north of Crete. Life at the Akrotiri site dates from at least 4th Millennium BCE but was at its height in the middle to late Bronze Age or between 20th and 17th centuries BCE. It was at this time that the island suffered earthquakes and eventually and eruption of a volcano. Much of the island sank leaving the crescent shape and the sea water rushed in to form what is known as the Caldera. Akrotiri was buried in the lava and, like Pompeii, wonderfully preserved.
In 1967, Dr. Spyron Marinatos a Greek archaeologist, discovered the buried town and started excavating it. So far only a quarter of the town has been excavated but the evidence is that an advanced civilisation lived there.
It is thought that Akrotiri’s inhabitants were Minoans and related to those who lived on Crete at Knossos. There are complex streets with buildings as much as three storeys high containing toilets and drainage systems. Their distinctive pottery found around Europe and imported pottery found at the site shows that they had strong trade links. So maybe here is evidence of Plato’s doomed civilisation.
This is not the only mystery that surrounds Akrotiri. So far no human remains or gold (apart from one small piece) have been found on the site. It may have been that the people had time to escape the island before the eruption taking with them their valuables only to drown in the following tsunami. Some feel that as only a quarter of the city has been excavated, the archaeologists might yet come across a mass grave.
So, all pretty convincing then? Well, there are other strong contenders for the title of Atlantis. Among them are a site just north of Cadiz, in Spain, and the supposed remains of the ancient city of Helike on the Corinthian Gulf.
In Spain, Professor Freund of Hartford University in the US, has used deep-ground radar and digital mapping to look at a submerged city which is organised in concentric rings. Its location near the Strait of Gibraltar is suggested as further evidence as this is what they called the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ in ancient times. There is also evidence of ‘Atlantis type’ towns around central Spain that Freund believes the survivors built after fleeing the city.
According to ancient texts, the city of Helike was swept beneath the sea in one night 2500 years ago. It had been a thriving city and over 5,000 people lived and worked there. The catastrophe struck in 373 BCE, just a few years before Plato’s dialogues were written. It is thought that this is the tragedy that inspired his telling of the lost city of Atlantis.
Whether the city truly existed or not is still questionable. What is clear is that the earth can be fragile, as indeed the life on it, and this story will continue to inspire speculation.