Heinrich Himmler, William Gladstone, James Cameron, Jacques Cousteau, Alexander von Humboldt, Comte de Buffon, Prince Michael of Greece—these are just a few of history’s illustrious figures who got entangled in the search for the mythical lost city of Atlantis.
Depending on how you look at it, the pedigree of that list is either reassuring or disheartening given the number of, well, slightly off people similarly seduced over the years. Luckily, journalist Mark Adams, the author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu has made the history of the quest for Atlantis, as well as the motives of those on the hunt, the subject of his lively new book, Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City.
While largely associated today with advanced beings living in bubbles under the ocean, Atlantis got its start in a pair of stories by none other than Plato. The lost nation appears in his Timaeus and Critias, dialogues between Critias, Hermocrates, Socrates, and Timaeus. It describes an ancient power that fought and lost to Athens 9,000 years before Plato’s life and was destroyed in a natural disaster. Plato’s story also contained bizarrely specific details about the city, including its size (larger than Libya and Asia[!])its layout (concentric circles), nearby geographic landmarks (the pillars of Heracles), and certain city features (a giant canal).
In his book, Adams hops around the world in search of the various places that people have claimed are the location of Atlantis. Morocco, Spain, Santorini, Crete, the Atlantic Ocean, Malta, and Antarctica are just a few of those that have been seriously bandied around. Adams also introduces the reader to a colorful cast of die-hard Atlantis enthusiasts. Most, like Dr. Anton Mifsud of Malta, are amateur sleuths who make up in unyielding determination what they lack in archaeological know-how.
Always entertaining, Meet Me in Atlantis also introduces a significant amount of Platonic philosophy and devotes generous space to legitimate archaeology like that in Akrotiri. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is Adams’s knack for clever descriptions of places and people. William Lange of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution looks “like a nocturnal forest creature caught outside his burrow.” Malta “has the world’s highest per capita rates of fat men and beautiful women.” Braunschweig, a German city, “looked like a case study of the sort of urban planning cautionary tale that keeps Jane Jacobs in print.” An explorer who has just returned from several months in the Amazon has “sunken cheeks and long beard [that] looked as if he’d just stepped out of an El Greco painting.”
The initial attraction of Atlantis is obvious—history’s most famous philosopher devotes a significant amount of time and detail to a place that nobody can find. But over the centuries, Adams argues, other factors played a role in boosting its popularity.
One of those was the discovery of Troy by German businessman Heinrich Schliemann in the 1870s. A self-made man, but more importantly a self-taught historian, Schliemann lit a spark under all the behinds of all the world’s amateur sleuths when he proved that not only were literary places presumed to be fictional actually real, but that any layman with determination could find them.
The second driver was the enduring popularity of Atlantis in popular culture. One of the more significant authors in Atlantological history was the former progressive congressman from Minnesota Ignatius Donnelly. His seminal work, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, not only received some critical praise, but British Prime Minister William Gladstone even wrote him a letter declaring, “I may not be able to accept all your propositions, but I am much disposed to believe in Atlantis.” Donnelly’s book weaved in many of the technological inventions of the 1880s, kicking off the idea that the people of Atlantis lived in a city of the future.
While Donnelly’s sanity level appears merely questionable, Atlantis has attracted its share of people who we may comfortably label crackpots. There was the Russian Madame Blavatsky who held séances and led the Theosophy movement. She also, as Adams notes, promoted the idea of Atlantis as the home of a super race, an idea which found its way—surprise surprise—to the Nazis. One of those Nazis who believed that the Aryan people were from Atlantis was one of Heinrich Himmler’s top advisors and got Himmler to agree to expeditions to search for the lost city. Another was the psychic Edgar Cayce, nicknamed “the sleeping prophet,” who seems to have claimed that when he was lying down he could give psychic readings, 700 of which had to do with Atlantis. The research in Virginia Beach created in his name still funds work to find evidence of the veracity of his pronouncements about Atlantis.
The hunt for Atlantis also has overlapped frequently with more legitimate archeological exploration in Crete, Santorini, Egypt, or Spain. Discoveries like the Sea People (naval invaders beaten back by Ramesses II) and the Mycenean empire have only fueled the belief that Plato’s story was true. As a result, there is evidently some bad blood between the archaeology community and the Atlantis proponents, especially since there is only so much limelight available for this industry.
Adams himself steadfastly maintains an appropriate air of skepticism about the likelihood that Atlantis was ever more than an allegorical figment of Plato’s imagination. Still, it’s hard not to suspect that some part of him wistfully nurtures the hope that such a discovery is possible. In the end, though, it’s altogether more likely that Plato holds the record for the longest-running prank in Western history.