There’s nothing like a vigorous sea-to-summit hike up the Rock of Gibraltar to clear the jet-lagged mind, especially when you’re trying to solve a nearly 2,500-year-old mystery.
Following the zigzagging lines on the colorful paper place mat I’d been handed at the Gibraltar welcome center when I’d asked for a map, I climbed a steep set of concrete and stone stairs high into the green solitude of the Upper Rock Nature Preserve. As the path cut through a thick tangle of scrub, the southern coast of Spain appeared to the west, far below. A little farther on, the view widened to take in the cinched waist of the Strait of Gibraltar. A few steps later, the northern shore of Africa emerged through the last of the morning’s light mist.
If I stared hard in the direction of Morocco and held my hands to the sides of my head like horse blinders to block out the cargo ships and condo towers, I could imagine why the ancient Greeks considered this spot the limit of the known world. And perhaps why one Athenian, arguably the wisest Greek of all, had hinted that the solution to one of antiquity’s greatest mysteries might be visible from this very spot.
Most visitors come to the Mediterranean looking for sun, seafood and relaxation. While those were on my to-do list, I was primarily hoping to find something slightly more elusive: the lost city of Atlantis.
That might sound like a fool’s errand. But modern searches for lost cities have often unearthed before-you-die travel destinations; Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, after all, were both once jungle ruins hidden to the outside world. For archaeology fanatics like myself, raised on Indiana Jones movies and basement stacks of old National Geographic magazines, nothing could top finding Atlantis.
Contrary to what you might remember from reading comic books, the original Atlantis wasn’t a technologically advanced underwater city populated by Aquaman and mermaids. The first mentions of it were by none other than Plato, in his dialogues “Timaeus” and “Critias,” around 360 B.C.
“Now in this island of Atlantis,” he wrote, “there was a great and wonderful empire” that “endeavored to subdue the whole of the region within the straits.”
In recent years, a group of mostly amateur researchers has emerged. They treat the search for Atlantis as a serious topic. Surprisingly, almost none of them think it sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean; indeed, most believe the original Atlantis was hit by a tsunami or other cataclysm and therefore might still be found on solid ground somewhere around the Mediterranean. (According to Plato’s account, “there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea.”)
I studied their theories and drew up a shortlist of promising suspects to inspect in person. If this required taking a solo shoulder-season journey to examine clues in some of the nicest spots around the Mediterranean — Spain’s Andalusian coast, Malta, the Greek island of Santorini — that wasn’t my fault. A good detective simply follows where the evidence leads him.
The Pillars of Hercules
The Rock of Gibraltar is part of Plato’s most tantalizing clue: that Atlantis was an island that once sat “in front of the mouth” of the Pillars of Hercules. Ancient accounts place these columns at Gibraltar and Jebel Musa, a peak across the straits in Morocco, or Monte Hacho, a smaller mountain slightly farther east.
Gibraltar, ceded by Spain to Britain 300 years ago under the Treaty of Utrecht, is essentially a 1950s London theme park — red phone boxes, helmeted bobbies, fish ‘n’ chips specials — all set amid palm trees and overshadowed by the photogenic 1,400-foot slab of limestone familiar to Prudential customers. According to Greek myth, the Rock (as everyone in Gibraltar calls it) had been hurled there by Hercules as part of the strongman’s 12 labors. In the spirit of herculean tasks, I decided to skip the cable car ride and ascend on foot.
The residential area of Gibraltar squeezes most of its 30,000 residents into a claustrophobic 21/2 square miles. A few signs tempted tourists to peek at the 32 miles of defense tunnels carved inside the Rock over the centuries. (In one secret passage, rediscovered only in 1997, the British planned to sequester spies if Gibraltar fell to the Nazis.) Farther along I was greeted by the wild Barbary apes that inhabit the Rock, the only free-roaming primates in Europe.
Taking my cue from the hungry apes, I descended to a late lunch of steak and ale pie with a pint of bitter and walked back to Spain before my meter ran out.
My next stop was a short jaunt up through Spain, along the southwestern coast: Doñana National Park. Plato wrote that Atlantis was located near Gades, the ancient name for the city of Cádiz, about 60 miles northwest of Gibraltar.
Just to the north sits the national park, a former royal hunting ground where the Guadalquivir River splits to form a delta along the Atlantic coast. That marshy delta, with its winding, twisting landmasses and estuaries, turns out to be another possible candidate for the lost city: A German researcher caused a stir a decade ago when he published an article in the archaeological journal Antiquity, claiming that satellite photos seemed to show evidence that a city with structures similar to those in Plato’s Atlantis had once occupied that very spot.
Today, Doñana is a peaceful nature reserve beloved by bird-watchers, but as José María Galán, a park ecologist, pointed out as we drove through the choppy surf, it has a violent history. The offshore Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault shifts roughly every 350 to 450 years, unleashing huge earthquakes and tsunamis that obliterate anything built along the coast. (The last such quake, in 1755, leveled Lisbon.) It’s geologically impossible for a city to sink to the bottom of the ocean, but an ancient cataclysm might account for Plato’s famous description of an island vanishing in “a single day and night of misfortune.”
Doñana’s wetlands flood for six months annually, which is great for birds migrating to and from Africa and not so great for amateur Atlantis seekers. But the graceful, sloping dunes that overlook the water have clearly been occupied by multiple civilizations over the years; their small, identical mounds of sand have revealed pottery shards and other artifacts dating thousands of years.
Every year during the winter rainy season, the Guadalquivir River soaks Doñana’s plain and leaves behind a new layer of sediment. If Atlantis really had been located in Doñana, it might now be buried under 20 feet of silt and clay. As Galán knelt down to show me a Morse code line of scorpion tracks, a gust of ocean wind blew up and the trail vanished in a cloud of sand. “See, in the end nature erases everything,” he said.
Plato depicted Atlantis as a well-guarded island city, rich in temples. Which is also an excellent description of Malta. Valletta, its capital, built in the 16th century out of local yellow limestone that resembles unbaked pastry crust, was designed as a fortress by the Knights of St. John, a still-extant military order loyal to the Vatican and often cited by conspiracy theorists as geopolitical puppetmasters.
Malta is not well-known to Americans, which is a shame, because its waters are crystal clear, and the food, heavily influenced by proximity to Italy, is excellent. Over a plate of fenkata, the country’s ubiquitous rabbit stew, my local guide, Anton Mifsud (a pediatrician, amateur historian and all-around Malta booster), explained his theory that Plato’s Pillars of Hercules were actually in the center of the Mediterranean. “If there was an Atlantis, then Malta has to be it,” he told me excitedly.
Mifsud had extraordinary energy for someone who spends 12-hour days battling Malta’s horrendous traffic to make house calls to screaming toddlers. On his day off, he drove me to the ancient temples of Mnajdra and Hagar Qim, the oldest free-standing structures in the Mediterranean — they predate the Great Pyramids of Egypt by a thousand years, and Plato’s “Timaeus” by almost three millenniums — and the likeliest (or perhaps least improbable) candidates for Plato’s Atlantean temples.
The temples were stunning, clusters of oval rooms built from giant slabs of cut yellow limestone and set on a desolate bluff overlooking the water. Each looked as if Stonehenge had undergone cell division and then developed jaundice. At sunrise on the solstice, Mifsud told me as we stood in a doorway at Mnajdra, “the sunlight shoots down here onto the altar!” Later, studying the exhibits at the excellent National Museum of Archaeology, housed in a former Knights of St. John auberge in Valletta, I learned that whatever culture constructed these monoliths had vanished suddenly around 2500 B.C. Mifsud believed that accounts of this collapse, probably the result of a natural disaster, had been passed down through the generations until Plato recorded them in the story of Atlantis.
On my last afternoon in Malta, Mifsud drove me to Clapham Junction, also known as Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, a limestone field crosshatched with the island’s most famous unexplained phenomenon, its stone cart ruts. The explanation I’d seen at the archaeological museum, that the ruts had been worn into the soft rock by hauling sleds, was more banal than other theories: They were the large grid of irrigation canals that Plato wrote about. Or that they are the work of extraterrestrials, as Erich von Däniken suggests in his crypto-archaeology classic “Chariots of the Gods.”
Sitting on the terrace of a cliffside cafe, taking in the skybox view of Santorini’s bowl-shaped caldera over breakfast, I was almost certain that I’d found Atlantis. Plato’s city, before its catastrophic end, had been built atop concentric rings of land and water. Santorini’s broken-doughnut shape, created by a huge volcanic explosion that spewed ash from Egypt to Turkey around 1600 B.C., is essentially a bull’s-eye with a tiny island at the center. This compelling cataclysm-and-circles evidence has made Santorini the only Atlantis candidate sanctioned by otherwise skeptical establishment academics. (Jacques Cousteau once filmed a documentary here titled “Calypso’s Search for Atlantis.”) The island’s extraordinary natural beauty also happens to have established its reputation among travelers as the Platonic ideal of a Greek island.
Like many island dwellers, George Nomikos, a gregarious restaurateur who agreed to serve as my guide, saw his home as the center of the universe and wanted me to see every inch of it. From the town of Fira we followed winding roads cut through the thick volcanic tephra that covers Santorini’s ring like frosting on a Bundt cake. We visited red, white and black sand beaches — which echoed Plato’s description of Atlantis’ buildings constructed from red, white and black stone — and dormant vineyards and fields, where the island’s volcanic soil nurtures its famous white wine grapes and cherry tomatoes. After crossing twice through Nomikos’ adorable home village, Megalochori, where he enthusiastically slowed down to shout “Kalimera!” (“Good morning!”) to assorted friends and cousins, we turned north and traced the upper curve of the island’s ring to the town of Oia, with its whitewashed homes and glorious blue-domed roofs perched on the rim of the caldera. It’s one of the most photographed spots in the world and, incredibly, even more beautiful in person.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of Atlantis evidence on Santorini is Akrotiri, an archaeological site that reopened to visitors in 2012 after several years following a roof collapse. Akrotiri had been a thriving port town until the explosion 3,600 years ago. Today, it’s like a smaller Pompeii but better maintained. One extraordinary fresco, in which a fleet of ships voyage between prosperous maritime cities, has been interpreted by some as a snapshot of Plato’s Atlantis.
I mentioned the idea to Christos Doumas, chief archaeologist at Akrotiri since 1974, seven years after its discovery, when Nomikos and I met him for a late dinner at the Cave of Nikolas, a restaurant outside the ruins that overlooks the Sea of Crete. Doumas had hardly sat down when the chef, a white-haired matron in a black dress, came out to smother him with affection. “She was the cook on our famous dig here in 1967,” he explained after the hugs and kisses. “She was 14 years old.”
I was eager to ply Doumas with my theories about Atlantis, but as Nomikos ordered glasses of the local pink-hued vin santo, the archaeologist shook his head dismissively and told me I was, indeed, on a fool’s errand. “Atlantis is a utopia,” he said. “A word that in Greek means ‘no place.’ It’s a dream.”