Explorers on the Trail of the Lost City of Atlantis

October 27, 2003

An expedition to the Strait of Gibraltar may solve one of the world's greatest mysteries, reports Roger Highfield

For more than two millennia, many of the world's greatest adventurers, explorers and thinkers have sought the fabled Lost City of Atlantis.

Next month, an expedition to hunt for its remains among submerged Gibraltarian islands will be unveiled at the Royal Geographical Society, London, by a renowned geologist, Prof Jacques Collina-Girard, and the leaders of the Titanic expeditions.

First described by Plato in 360 BC, many have written off the story as a moralistic tale, a Utopia that was located in the mind of the Greek philosopher who used the demise of Atlantis as an allegory of how the best laid plans of mortals can go wrong.

But many have taken the lost world seriously. It inspired Jules Verne and Walt Disney, even Adolf Hitler. In 1882, the Prime Minister, Gladstone, tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade the Cabinet to fund an Atlantis exploration vessel.

Now it is to be sought by the Deep Med One expedition, planned for next summer by Prof Collina-Girard, of the University of Provence, with Commander Paul-Henri Nargeolet and George Tulloch.

The team will search a location about 20 miles south west of Tarifa, Spain, and 12 miles north west of Tangier. Using a submersible capable of reaching depths of 3,200ft, the expedition, backed by private investors and corporate sponsors, will look for signs of temples, buildings and prehistoric artefacts, such as tools and weapons.

"We hope to find artefacts there, but cannot predict this with total certainty as this area is totally unknown from a diving perspective," said Commander Nargeolet. "We will gather as much as we can in preparation for a second excavation expedition."

Plato said the island kingdom was larger than Libya and Asia put together. It was paradise: peaceful, cultured and unspoilt. A golden age continued for centuries, but eventually corruption got the better of its inhabitants and the gods punished them by submerging Atlantis.

Prof Collina-Girard believes that generations of Atlantis obsessives overlooked the most obvious location: Plato's account suggests Atlantis lay before the Pillars of Hercules - today's Strait of Gibraltar.

The professor came to this conclusion after studying the patterns of human migration from Europe into North Africa at the height of the last ice age, 19,000 years ago. To see if Stone Age people could have crossed the strait, he made a map of what the coastline looked like at that time, when the sea level was 420ft lower than today. This revealed an ancient archipelago with an island "in front of the Pillars of Hercules".

This island is now a shoal, called Spartel or Majuan Bank, which lies to the west of the strait, also as Plato described.

When he first outlined his idea two years ago in Comptes Rendus de l'Academie des Sciences, Prof Collina-Girard suggested that the archipelago provided stepping stones for early sailors to cross between Europe and North Africa until around 11,000 years ago. Then sea level rises accelerated to more than 6ft per century, according to records from coral reefs, swamping the island.

This fits the timing of the demise of the science-fiction-style superstate in Plato's Timaeus and Critias dialogues.

The story is told by Critias who said he heard it from his grandfather, who had heard it from Solon, his great-grandfather's contemporary, who in turn heard it from Egyptian priests, who were describing events that had occurred 9,000 years earlier - 11,000 years before the present day.

Plato suggests Atlantis is huge, whereas Prof Collina-Girard's candidate is nine miles by three wide. However, the professor argues that distances in Greek geography were usually approximate. The legend - and size - of Atlantis likely grew as storytellers embellished it as it was passed down to Plato.

Plato also reports that volcanic activity sank Atlantis, when the strait is not in a volcanic area. Perhaps this was more plausible than a change in sea level, said Prof Collina-Girard. As for an advanced Atlantean civilisation, the professor points to Plato's own admission that he grafted these details on to the tale to promote his own ideas about a Utopian society.


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