From Atlantis to Troy

Athanasius Kircher's 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons)
Athanasius Kircher’s 1669 map of Atlantis (Wikipedia Commons) — north is to the bottom

Eberhard Zangger The Flood From Heaven:
Deciphering the Atlantis legend

Pan Books 1993 (1992)

Two nightmares haunt the field archaeologist. The first is the finds tray without a label. The second is the label minus its artefact. The former is the source, one suspects, of many an ‘unstratified’ reference in dig reports. The latter represents what one might call the empty treasure chest syndrome. Great therefore is the joy when, like the return of the prodigal son, the two are brought together again!

That is, unless the wrong suspect has been identified. For some time now a particular finds label has been kicking around the store. Many attempts have been made to match it up correctly, but since the original author of the report is long gone all such efforts have been speculative, many controversial and some, indeed, spectacularly misattributed. As with Utopia and Camelot this other famous site has been firmly located many times, and a book from a score of years ago claimed to have found a detour round the usual impasse and so solved the puzzle. This particular finds label reads “Atlantis”, the mythical landmass that perished beneath the waves, according to Plato, and which various historians and pseudohistorians have located in the Mediterranean, off Scandinavia, in Britain and the Americas, for example, as well as in the ocean named after it.

Now, before sceptics throw the nearest coffee table book at my head, please bear with me and consider these ten assertions found in Plato’s Critias. Following traditions said to have been passed on by his ancestor, Solon, Plato describes a city which:

1. was successfully defeated by the Achaeans (whom we know as Bronze Age inhabitants of Greece);
2. lay by the Pillars of Hercules;
3. was associated with the daughter of Atlas;
4. was destroyed at about the same time as the Achaeans suffered earthquakes and floods;
5. had Poseidon as a patron god;
6. had a complex system of harbours and watercourses in the plains around the city;
7. was especially noted for two springs, one hot and one cold;
8. had a hinterland rich in natural resources including – unlike Greece – metal ores;
9. was notably fond of racing horses;
10. could muster around 1200 ships for its navy.

Of course, no scientific evidence exists for an advanced civilisation anywhere (let alone one defeated by inhabitants of Greece) nine thousand years before Solon, who himself had died about 560 BC. At this time Mesolithic peoples inhabited caves and rock shelters in the mountains of mainland Greece.

However, nine thousand months before Solon (that is, about the 12th century BC) there was a famous opponent of the Achaeans lying by those Pillars of Hercules that Zangger tells us anciently led not to the Atlantic Ocean but to the Black Sea. This city, it was said, was peopled by the descendants of Elektra, the daughter of Atlas. After its destruction by the Achaeans the Bronze Age civilisation of Greece itself collapsed, accompanied coincidentally by very severe localised flooding in parts of the mainland.

Trojan Horse from a 7th-century BCE Cycladic vase
Trojan Horse from a 7th-century BCE Cycladic vase

All the other facts quoted above, which Plato relates concerning Atlantis, apply equally well and very aptly to the city of Troy, as revealed by archaeology and as described by Homer. Troy, of course, is famous for its ten-year war and siege by the Greeks, the love triangle of Helen, Paris and Menelaus, the wrath of Achilles, the Trojan Horse and for the Odyssey, the ‘sequel’ to the Iliad. Eberhard Zangger, a geo-archaeologist, attempts to treat Plato’s text seriously and, without having recourse to unsubstantiated continents, rogue comets or wish-fulfilment fantasies, argues that Plato began Critias by using an Egyptian version of the Trojan Wars. Critias survives unfinished because Zangger believes Plato abruptly came to the realisation that his Atlantis, based on the Egyptian account, was simply Troy under another name, and that to continue the Critias was merely to cover ground similar to Homer’s Iliad.

Now, admittedly there are some difficulties. For example, how does one get round Plato’s description of Atlantis as an “island larger than Libya and Asia together”? Though ancient Libya was the same as the modern state, Troy itself (situated on the western coast of Turkey) is in what we now call Asia Minor. Those ten assertions are also a mixed bag of truisms and ambiguities. Both Troy and Atlantis were indeed successfully defeated by the Achaeans, were associated with the daughter of Atlas and had Poseidon as a patron god; both were noted for two springs, one hot and one cold, and were known for horse-racing; both had a hinterland rich in natural resources including metal ores and could muster around 1200 ships for its navy.

More contentious however are those other statements. Zangger suggests that the entrance to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean was also known as the the Pillars of Hercules though that term is more associated with the passage from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. Only if we accept the recalibration of years to months can we agree that both states were also destroyed at about the same time as the Achaeans suffered earthquakes and floods. And we don’t know for certain that Troy, like Atlantis, had a complex system of harbours and watercourses in the plains around the city because the Turkish ministry didn’t allow Zangger to conduct a geophysical survey of the Troad, which would have established whether his claim that earthworks and basins existed was correct or not.

Apart from writing an exciting detective yarn, what Zangger has done is to draw attention to the idea that, far from being an insignificant local difficulty blown out of all proportion by some Iron Age Anatolian poet, the siege of Troy represents a piece in a huge political collapse, domino-fashion. The 13th and 12th centuries BCE seem a long time ago, but over a century or two so many events happened that still have a certain resonance today. These include the Israelite exodus from Egypt; the ruin of the Hittite empire in Turkey; large-scale nomadic movements of people who not only briefly threatened the military might of Egypt but in the aftermath of defeat probably gave their names to Sicily, Sardinia, Tuscany and Palestine; economic and political disintegration in Bronze Age Greece; and, as literature and archaeology suggest, the fall of Troy (Sandars 1985).

If Troy and its hinterland, the Troad, was indeed the original of Atlantis then the fact that Solon’s Egyptian hosts regarded it as worthy of detailed mention when he visited them (whence Plato’s later account) suggests that it had a greater economic importance than is generally recognised — and that when it fell this event had reverberations throughout the Mediterranean. However, much depends on whether we have got our dates right. Research in the 1990s suggested that the so-called European Dark Ages, between the end of the Bronze Age (conventionally some time after 1200 BCE) and the beginning of the Iron Age (about 800 BCE), may need to be recalibrated (James 1991).

Zangger also doesn’t always do his own case justice. The Flood from Heaven first appeared in a hardback from Sedgwick & Jackson, publishers of several offbeat and eccentric titles, and therefore was unlikely to be taken seriously by academics. After his theories were discounted and requests for geophysical surveys refused, Zangger moved from archaeology into business consultancy. Nevertheless, when he quotes the late fantasy writer L Sprague de Camp on why the concept of Atlantis might provide “mystery and romance for those who don’t find ordinary history exciting enough”, he is almost certainly right. That label is going to be kicking around for a whole lot longer.

P James Centuries of Darkness Jonathan Cape 1991
N K Sandars The Sea Peoples Thames & Hudson 1985


2 thoughts on “From Atlantis to Troy

  1. Very interesting connection I had not considered before. Thanks. I guess since you begin by mentioning two “nightmares” that plague archeologists, I won’t ask about various theories that ancient space aliens helped seed the human race…

    1. No, until I read this in the 90s I hadn’t considered it either, Morgan, though not being au fait with the period I don’t know how plausible it is. In any case, the nitty gritty of Dark Age chronology is still being argued over by specialists so who am I…

      As for aliens, I well remember the controversies of Von Daniken and his ilk and the plausibility of his theories unless you knew something of history, art, literature, archaeology, religion etc. Then it all crumbled away.

      As for those nightmares, I speak as a lowly amateur digger on several excavations, not as a bona fide professional archaeologist: they have their own nightmares, I’m sure!

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