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Plato gave the world the oldest remaining written account of Atlantis, in Critias, recorded circa 370 BC. By his account, Poseidon, god of the sea, sired five pairs of male twins with mortal women. Poseidon appointed the eldest of these sons, Atlas the Titan, ruler of his beautiful island domain. Atlas became the personification of the mountains or pillars that held up the sky. Plato described Atlantis as a vast island-continent west of the mediterranean, surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. The Greek word Atlantis means the island of Atlas, just as the word Atlantic means the ocean of Atlas. Atlantis was governed in peace, was rich in commerce, was advanced in knowledge, and held dominion over the surrounding islands and continents. By Plato's legend, the people of Atlantis became complacent and their leaders arrogant; in punishment the Gods destroyed Atlantis, flooding it and submerging the island in one day and night.
In a sense, Atlantis actually existed, and was indeed destroyed by the sea in a cataclysmic event, very plausibly lasting a day and a night. Plato's account was wrong in several essential ways, but was derived from correct, if garbled, historical accounts. Plato's writings embodied the now lost words of Solon, a Greek ruler who visited Egypt circa 590 BC. Plato's account of Atlantis was thus a retelling of the story of Solon, who in turn told the stories that he had heard during his trip to Egypt.
In Egypt, Solon heard of the ancient land of Keftiu, a island-nation named for holding one of the four pillars that supported the Egyptian sky. Keftiu was, according to the Egyptians, an advanced civilization that was the gateway to and ruler of all of the lands to the far west of Egypt. Keftiu traded in ivory, copper, and cloth. Keftiu supported hosts of ships and controlled commerce far beyond the Egyptians domain. By Egyptian record, Keftiu was destroyed by the seas in an apocalypse. Solon carried this story to Greece, and passed it to his son and grandson.
Plato recorded and embellished the story from Solon's grandson Critias the younger, translating the land of the pillars which held the sky (Keftiu) into the land of the titan Atlas. Keftiu-Atlantis was Egypt's gateway to the "western" lands (Greece, Libya, and beyond), and was the home of a civilization that held dominion over the surronding lands. But Plato mistook the location of Atlantis: Atlantis was not west of the Mediterranean, but was merely west of Egypt. Yet Plato preserved enough detail about the land of Atlantis that its identification is now unmistakeable. Plato never realized that the land of Atlantis was already familiar to him: Atlantis was the land of the Minoan culture, namely ancient Crete. The Minoan culture spread its dominion throughout the nearby islands of the Aegean, more than 1500 years BC.
Crete, now part of Greece, was the capital for the Minoan people — an advanced civilization with language, commercial shipping, complex architecture, ritual and games. The Minoans were peaceful: very little evidence of military activity was found in their ruins. Daedalus, the ancient scientist, was the architect of the 4-storied palace at Knossos, said to be the capitol of the Minoan culture. At Knossos one can still find the ruins of the labyrinth that housed the legendary Minotaur, slewn by Thesius. Minoan culture extended across the island of Crete, with most of its developments along the northern coast of Crete. But after 800 years of dominance, the Minoan culture came to an abrupt end, circa 1470 BC.
Correspondence of Minoan cultural artifacts with aspects of the Atlantis legend make the identity of the two seem virtually certain. Perhaps the most unusual of these is the Minoan bullfighting. By legend, the inhabitants of Keftiu would engage in ritualistic bullfighting, with unarmed Minoan bullfighters wrestling and jumping over uninjured bulls. This foolhardy practice is richly illustrated in remaining Minoan artwork. Legend also holds that Atlantis was peaceful — this is confirmed by a virtually complete absence of weapons in Minoan ruins and in Minoan artwork — unusual for peoples of that time. Egyptian legend held that elephants were found on Keftiu — while there were presumably no elephants on Crete, the Minoans were known to deal in ivory, and appear to have been the principal access to ivory for Egypt 20 centuries before Christ.
But what of the fabled apocalypse which, according to the Egyptians, swallowed the Keftiu-Atlantis in one day and one night? This also has basis in historical fact. The trail of evidence leads to the small island of Santorini.
Santorini (also known as Thera) lies 75 km north of Crete. Santorini was also a Minoan land, and ruins can be found throughout the island. A mountain lay at its center, probably about 1500 meters in height until approximately 1500 BC. This mountain was a volcano; eruptions began about 1500 BC, and smoldered until a final climax about 1470 BC. The volcano at Santorini was geologically similar to Krakotoa in composition, structure, and tectonic location; Santorini was about 4 times larger in diameter than Krakotoa, and probably somewhat more violent. The fury of its final explosion is inferred from geologic core samples, from comparison to the detailed observations made on Krakotoa in 1883, and from the simultaneous obliteration of almost all Minoan settlements.
In summer, circa 1470, volcanic ash filled the sky, blotted out the sun, triggered hail and lightning, and rained down over the Aegean. Earthquakes shook the land, and stone structures fell from the motion. When the enormous magma chamber at Santorini finally collapsed to form the existing caldera, enormous tsunamis (tidal waves) spread outward in all directions. The coastal villages of Crete were flooded and destroyed. The only major Minoan structure surviving the waves and earthquakes was the palace at Knossos, far enough inland to escape the tidal waves. But in the days that followed, volcanic ash covered some settlements, and defoliated the island. In famine from the ash, with the bulk of their civilization washed away, the remaining Minoans were overrun by Mycaeneans from Greece, and Knossos finally fell.
The island of Santorini is now the rim of the the volcano — the caldera is covered by the Aegean sea. Mounds of pumice and volcanic ash mark its center, where the volcano remains. New inhabitants of Santorini mine the volcanic ash to make cement — and still find ancient ruins under the stone. The ash is now the soil, olive and fruit trees cover the landscape, and former Atlantis is mostly buried. New inhabitants have rebuilt Crete, but the mute ruins of ancient Atlantis can still be seen.
This page is a summary of: J V Luce: The End of Atlantis: New Light on an Old Legend, 1969, Thames and Hudson. Reprinted 1993 by Efstathiades Group.