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Travel - Revisiting Atlantis

An Aegean cruise to the islands of Crete and Santorini



A great tectonic spasm set the earth trembling and giant waves swept across the land. According to Plato (ca 400 BC) a land "Larger than Libya and Asia put together... was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared." And so began the mystery of the lost city of Atlantis – a mystery that continues to fascinate historians, archaeologists, and scientists to this day. It's a story that intrigued me long before Betty and I boarded the small Greek cruise ship Galaxias and set out on a tour of the Aegean Islands.

Egyptian scribes first recounted the tale to the Athenian ruler Solon in about 600 BC. Two hundred years later Plato picked up the story and in the Critias he describes Atlantis as two islands, one long and one round – a sweet country of art and flowers, united by one culture and rule. He put it somewhere out in the Atlantic but the story had undergone many tellings, and probably many changes, before reaching him. Today most scholars believe Plato's account is based on a real event – he just got a few details wrong. The lost city was probably swallowed up by the Aegean Sea rather than the Atlantic Ocean, and as we headed for the island of Crete the story of Atlantis was on everyone's mind.

The Galaxias dropped anchor in Herakleon harbour on the north coast of Crete and we set off for a day of prowling through the ruins of Knossos. The site has been occupied since Paleolithic time but around 2500 BC sea-born wanderers from the East arrived with new skills that raised Crete from stone-age stagnation into the age of metals. These industrious peace-loving people, who later became known as the Minoans, built elaborate unfortified palaces, made intricately decorated pottery, introduced the wheel, and developed a form of writing. After a catastrophic earthquake in 1700 BC the Minoans rebuilt their cities on Crete and entered the golden age of the "New Palaces" during which their merchant ships dominated trade and their artisans set the standard for metalwork, pottery, and art for the entire Aegean World. During this time the Palace of Minos at Knossos became the centre of political power.

Almost nothing was known about this great pre-Greek civilization before the pioneer archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans of Oxford came to Crete in 1900 and began excavating the Knossos ruins. Using his personal fortune and doggedly pursuing the project for most of his life Evans unearthed and restored the great Palace of Minos. Some purists have criticized his methods, arguing that the restoration goes too far. But Evans is, nevertheless, recognized for his scholarship and imagination. His reconstruction of the Palace is a tribute to the grandeur of the Minoan world and has made Knossos one of the most visited tourist sites in all of Greece.