Swallowed by the Sea

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Winchester

As Japan reels from the tsunami, archeologists claim to have discovered the lost city of Atlantis, a fabled place built--like much of the world--in the crosshairs of nature.

To the grim list of cities and places wrecked and ruined by the indescribably awful majesty of earthquake-powered tsunamis--Sendai and Fukushima most recently, Banda Aceh in Sumatra six years ago, the west of Java more than a century back--must now be added one that is more famous and enigmatic than all the rest: Atlantis.

For it now turns out that the island-city that for centuries has captured the public imagination as the world's oldest philosophical wonderland may well have existed after all--and it may have done so right where it has long been thought to have been sited: close to the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean.

Beguiling new research into one of archeology's greatest mysteries appears to have thrown up remarkably persuasive evidence that remains of the ancient city are to be found in the great Hinojos marsh on the southwestern coast of what is today's Spain.

Richard Freund, a somewhat flamboyant professor of Judaica at the University of Hartford, has claimed that the city that has long been regarded--if Plato's famous description of it as having existed 9,000 years earlier, before Athens, rings true--as the grandmother of human civilization now lies submerged by mud and cottongrass in a part of the marsh designated as a national park a few miles north of the port city of Cadiz. It is a site now padded over by deer and badgers and a few feral camels, nested on by herons and avocets, and overlooked by Spain's massive expanses of factory-farmed strawberry fields.

Moreover, since Plato declared in his writings that "one grievous day and night -- Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and vanished," it is especially noteworthy that the newly found evidence also suggests it was a deadly Japan-style tsunami that finally caused the city to sink and disappear.

Perhaps inevitably, there is much academic squabbling about these new assertions, and some unkindly suggestions of claim-jumping among the numerous scientists who have worked on this latest quest for the site of the "real" Atlantis. But few of the principals dispute the basic claim, made in a recent National Geographic Channel documentary: that a mysterious set of concentric circles that can be easily seen on any good satellite map of the region, when subjected to intense high-tech examination on the ground, show a terrain littered with buried clues of an ancient settlement that appears to have existed there thousands of years ago.

There is nothing unusual about the discovery of a new Atlantis site. Earlier candidates have included sites in India, Finland, Sweden, the Bahamas, Crete, Knossos, Troy, the Bermuda Triangle--even Antarctica. But most sensible research has tended to be guided by a few choice words that Plato wrote back in 360 B.C., in his Socratic dialogue known as Timaeus: "In front of the mouth which you Greeks call, as you say, 'the Pillars of Heracles,' there lay an island -- Atlantis [where] there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power."

This marks the most essential literary clue: that the island-city must have been close to what are now called "the Pillars of Hercules"--the two cliffs marking the mouth of the Mediterranean. In the south is the red sandstone bastion of Jebel Musa in Morocco; in the north, the gleaming limestone massif of the still-British colonial possession the Rock of Gibraltar.

Atlantis, most archeologists have agreed for decades, must have been somewhere near Gibraltar.

The saga of this new discovery began almost 90 years ago when German archeologists, working on this close-to-Gibraltar theory, supposed that the site of Atlantis was somehow connected to that of another lost city, an eighth-century B. …