The fictional, utopian city of Atlantis has long fascinated humans as a representation of paradise lost. But it’s not the only mysterious place to have been turned into legend by the ebbs of time. Below, we look at the lost city of Atlantis and five other lost worlds that have intrigued people throughout history.
The fictional island of Atlantis was introduced in Plato’s allegorical dialogues Timaeus and Critias. In the latter, Atlantis launches an attack on Athens, to which Athens responds with unprecedented force. Eventually, the gods turn their back on Atlantis, burning it to ashes and allowing the island to collapse in on itself from earthquakes. Atlantis sinks into the sea.
Even though Atlantis itself played a relatively small part in Plato’s body of work, it has been represented throughout many other artistic and literary movements as a lost utopia. It’s commonly accepted that Atlantis was fictional. However, many scholars over the years have argued that Plato may have based the story of Atlantis' destruction on real-life events.
This type of research is called geomythology, or the study of finding a real geological event that inspired myths about the great creation or destruction of places. Myths can be far-fetched ways to explain real events and can have some truth to them. One example is the city of Dwaraka, which was said to be visited by the Hindu god Lord Krishna. After Lord Krishna left, the city sunk into the Arabian Sea. Dwaraka was thought to be a mythical place, much like the city of Atlantis. But in 1963, archaeologists found remnants of the sunken city off the coast of India, where it was fabled to have stood.
This find raises questions about whether or not other lost cities really existed. After all, Plato did live in a part of the world which was often subjected to tsunamis and earthquakes. Atlantis could be no more than a figment of his imagination–or a real island he, and other Athenians, witness sink beneath the sea.
According to legend, Lemuria was a continent that once existed in the Indian Ocean, thriving just south of modern day Sri Lanka. However, modern-day understanding of plate tectonics shows that Lemuria as it is typically described could never have existed.
Much of the hype surrounding Lemuria is owed to British zoologist Philip Sclater. The lemurs of Madagascar, a primate species found nowhere else in the world, puzzled Sclater. He discovered that fossil records for the lemurs existed in faraway India, but not in nearby Africa, and came to the conclusion that some larger continent must have once connected the two. In 1864, he wrote in The Quarterly Journal of Science:
“The anomalies of the Mammal fauna of Madagascar can best be explained by supposing that … a large continent occupied parts of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans … that this continent was broken up into islands, of which some have become amalgamated with … Africa, some … with what is now Asia; and that in Madagascar and the Mascarene Islands we have existing relics of this great continent, for which … I should propose the name Lemuria!”
A more likely explanation for the anomalies noted by Sclater is Pangea, a supercontinent that fossils and the geology of modern continents indicate broke apart 175 millions years ago.
Some people also associate Lemuria with the Tamil creation story, which talks of a lost continent known as Kumari Kandam, said to be the birthplace of Tamil civilization.
Celtic Breton mythology holds that a magnificent city known as Ker Ys (low city) once towered over Douarnenez Bay in France’s Brittany region. It was the most wealthy trading giant in the Atlantic and its citizens were living comfortably. Legend says that Dahut, a magician and the daughter of Gradlon, King of Kerne, had a deep love for the sea. She pleaded with her father to build a city at the edge of the sea, and so Ys was founded. But Dahut would also be the one to bring about the demise of her beloved city. She is said to have loved orgies that angered the gods, often murdering her own lovers when morning came.
Eventually, a handsome red knight arrived at Ys but couldn’t pass the city gates, although Dahut wanted to let him in. Knowing that only her father held the keys to the gate, she fetched them and gave them to the knight. Unfortunately, the knight was the devil. (I hate when that happens.) The devil intentionally left the gate open to the raging sea, and it rose like a cliff, swallowing all of Ys. As Dahut and Gradlon scrambled for shelter, Gradlon was convinced by a saint to push his daughter into the sea in order to save himself. Dahut would go on to become a mermaid who lures men and sailors to their death.
The story of Ys is very similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah–a city that supposedly is sinful in the eyes of a larger entity, therefore it must be destroyed. The people of Ys got accustomed to their unfettered wealth and hedonistic ways, so much so that they forgot they were mere humans at the mercy of the gods.
Ys is long gone, but among the locals of the Brittany Coast is a legend that on a day where the waters are still, if you listen carefully, you can hear the muffled tolls of bells deep under the sea.
Perhaps not “lost” in every sense of the word, Thule was a lost place to many in the ancient world. Considered a mysterious northerly location by many classical European cartographers, Thule was thought to be some of kind of untamed island at the far reaches of Earth’s end. The Carta Marina, published in 1539 by Swedish writer Olaus Magnus, depicts Thule as lying just northwest of Scotland’s Orkney Islands, surrounded by large sea monsters. The Ancient Roman poet Silius Italicus said the people of Thule painted themselves blue when they went into battle on chariots. They hunted bowhead whales (the sea monsters that Magnus was probably referring to) as well as seals and used every part of the animals they caught. Their homes were made of whale bones and their clothes were made from sealskin which kept them warm and water-resistant.
Thule owes one of its first mentions to the Greek explorer Pytheas, who described it as a place where land and sea were blurred “into the consistency of jellyfish.” Virgil coined “Ultima Thule” to refer to any place that seems unreachable or unattainable. Most modern cartographers contend, however, that Thule was likely modern-day Norway or Iceland, which still would have seemed very exotic to Virgil and his peers.
However, some believe that Thule really did exist at one time and was washed away by rising sea levels. This version raises questions about the continuous melting of ice in the Earth's northern seas and how it will affect the islands and countries there. If Thule couldn't survive the elevated sea, will Iceland or Svalbard?
Iram of the Pillars
Al-Fajr, the 89th chapter of the Qu’ran, describes the destruction of non-believing people and the denizens of Iram of the Pillars. No one knows exactly where Iram of the Pillars, also sometimes called “Atlantis of the Sands,” was located. What is outlined in the story is that the city dissolved in a terrifying way.
Iram of the Pillars was a grand metropolis inhabited by a people known as Ad. Another people who faced a fate similar to the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Ad turned away from the word of Allah and led lives of wickedness. But they were given a chance to repent when Allah sent the prophet Hud to Iram. When the prophet Hud arrived to summon King Shaddad and his people back into the fold of Islam, they revolted. And so, a sandstorm rose up for seven nights and eight days and the entire city was consumed into the desert.
In the 1990s, a team of archeologists uncovered the lost city of Ubar, which is thought by some to be the Iram spoken of in the Qu’ran. They found camel tracks that converge at the same watering hole which indicated trading routes. The civilization must have been advance enough to produce its own goods and have an economic system to buy others. A large fortress was also uncovered, with parts of it missing that were presumed to have fallen into a sink hole, all of which further supported the theory that Ubar and Iram might be the same place. The demise of this successful city is unknown, which leads some to speculate that Ubar is indeed Iram of the Pillars and whether by God or nature–was swallowed by the sands.
There are numerous tales throughout different cultures of tunnels and subterranean communities beneath the surface of the Earth. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder even spoke of those who escaped Atlantis’ demise by fleeing to the Earth’s core.
While this underworld has many names, Agartha (or Agharti) is a place where all four corners of the world are connected by paths and tunnels. Some Agartha believers even argue that another world exists beneath us and serves to counterbalance our energy. While we live in a state of heightened emotions, violence, and over-the-top ideology, this world crawling under the ground is, simply put, flipside. But in some religions, Agartha is believed to be a land crawling with demons and monsters.
People who believe in Agartha's existence are often called "Hollow-Earthers" for their belief that the Earth's elusive inner core is actually a thriving civilization and not a solid iron ball like scientists assume. They believe that there is a secret entrance into Agartha that is hidden in the Gobi Desert. It is said that Agarthans themselves built this entrance with such advanced technology that surface humans would not be able to detect it.
Inside Agartha are several cities, the capital city being Shambala. There is a smoky "central sun" in the middle that provides light and life to Agarthans. French occultist Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre claimed that this world’s potential could only be unlocked “when the anarchy of our world is replaced by synarchy” (harmonious rule). It’s a nice thought, particularly in our modern world.
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