Knossos, Crete. Welcome to Atlantis. This is what it looked like. And this:
Here’s where it is:
More nonsense has been invented about Plato’s myth of Atlantis – mentioned briefly in his Timaeus and Critias and nowhere else by anyone else in antiquity – than any other legend you care to name.
Yet like many myths, it was constructed out of something that really existed. Atlantis is the Minoan Civilization of Crete, Europe’s first and oldest. Named by archaeologists after King Minos of Greek mythology, whose palace was so huge it was called the Labyrinth in which roamed the Minotaur monster, it emerged out of the Bronze Age almost 5,000 years ago.
Minoans were true Europeans, as their mitochondrial DNA shows them to be descendants of the first Neolithic settlers to the island 9,000 years ago (and very similar to Cretans today). They invented their own written script, known as Linear A, which remains undeciphered as their language is unrelated to any other known.
By 4,000 years ago (2,000 BC), the Minoans had cities and ports all over Crete and had created the world’s first peaceful capitalist empire – a thalassocracy or Empire of the Sea – based not on military might and conquest but on trade. From spices like saffron to olive oil and foodstuffs to luxury goods of gold, silver and ceramics by skilled craftsmen, they had trade routes across the entire Mediterranean.
The best example of that skill is the famous Minoan Bee Pendant dated to 1800 BC, depicting two bees carrying a drop of honey to their honeycomb:
They became immensely wealthy, building fabulous palaces and villas – but their cities were not fortified. Europe’s original civilization was the most peaceful in European history. No evidence has been found of a Minoan army, or for Minoan domination of peoples outside Crete. Few signs of warfare appear in Minoan art.
Minoans worshipped female deities, such as the famous “Snake Goddess” holding snakes as the symbol of fertility:
Their most popular sport was leaping over wild bulls:
Their art depicted the beauty of nature and animals:
When massive earthquakes leveled their cities and palaces in 1700 BC, they rebuilt them bigger and better than before. Streets were paved with smooth stones, homes had running water and sewers drained with clay pipes. They invented polyculture, growing more than one crop at a time, thus had an abundance and great variety of foods.
Minoans were healthy, wealthy, peaceful and free, flourishing in their capitalist liberty. It was an astounding start for Western Civilization. It was not to last, of course. The end came not by a barbarian conquest as it usually does, but by the greatest natural catastrophe in human history.
Note in the map above the Minoan island of Santorini about 60 miles north of Crete. Sometime between 1500 and 1450 BC, the island – known to the Greeks as Thera – suffered a colossal volcanic explosion 10 times larger than Krakatoa in 1883 that was heard 3,000 miles away. The resultant mega-tsunami wiped the Minoans out on Crete. It was “The wave that destroyed Atlantis.”
With their ports and economy destroyed, they were easy prey for the Mycenaean Greeks, an Indo-European warrior elite society of southern mainland Greece described by Homer centuries later (ca. 750 BC) in the Illiad. By 1400 BC, the Mycenaeans had seized control of Crete. 250 years later, the Mycenaeans vanished from history as well, as did the entire Bronze Age.
The Collapse of the Bronze Age is considered by many historians to be the worst civilizational disaster in history and certainly the most mysterious.
From 1200 to 1150 BC, over just 50 years, every single major city from Greece to the Middle East was burned to the ground. The entire civilization of the Eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia (Turkey), and the Levant (Syria, Israel, Jordan) was wiped out, with Egypt so weakened it never recovered.
The book to read is 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Prof. Eric H. Cline, Chair of the Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at George Washington University.
Previously, the collapse was attributed to a wave of violently destructive raids by a mélange of barbarian hordes known simply as the “Sea Peoples” because historians still can’t figure out who they were.
Prof. Cline thinks the Bronze Age ended in a cataclysmic civilizational disintegration caused by a “perfect storm” of earthquakes, prolonged droughts, internal rebellions, a precipitous decline in international trade that all culminated in mass migrations and foreign invasions of the Sea Peoples and others.
By 1150 BC, civilization in the entire region was a smoking ruin, with Greece plunged into a primitive Dark Ages lasting over 300 years, from which it began to emerge during the time of Homer (mid 700s). The Illiad was constructed out of oral memories and legends of Mycenaean heroes that attributed the Fall of Troy to them.
The destruction layer of Troy VIIa dated to 1190 BC seems, however, to be just another of so many examples of Sea People violence.
By the time of Plato (423-347 BC), over a thousand years had passed since Minoan Glory with only the vaguest rumors of a great Mediterranean culture of long ago. He had the location right – Atlantis was between Libya (North Africa) and Asia (the Levant), just where Crete is. It’s a mistranslation of Greek to Latin to English to believe Plato said it was larger than both combined and outside the Med (the misnamed “Atlantic” Ocean).
And he had the end right: Atlantis was destroyed by natural disasters (“earthquakes and floods”). But the rest, like a war between Atlantis and Athens 9,000 years before (9400 BC!) he just invented.
The story of the Real Atlantis should be both an inspiration and a sobering lesson to us. It should be truly inspiring that the very first Western Civilization was one of capitalism, free trade, prosperity and peace. Like America, or what America was designed to be
History does not repeat itself. History is stochastic, a series of unrepeatable events. Just like your own life is. If you were placed back in time when you were a young child, there is no way whatever your life would turn out the same as now. You’d make different decisions, meet different people, your life would take a very different direction. Same with history, which is just the total aggregate of individual lives.
Yet we can learn from history nonetheless. Minoa flourished 4,000 years ago for 500 years then was forgotten until archeologists discovered it anew 115 years ago. What will history think of America 4,000 years from now – if it knows about America at all?
We’ll never know. All we can do is live up to the best within us. If we can do that personally and collectively as Americans, then the America we bequeath to our children will continue to flourish. For it is America that was and can yet be again the Real Atlantis of our time.
[Note: all photos above were taken by me at Knossos and the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete.]
Jack Wheeler is the founder of Wheeler Expeditions.