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You try Cornwall, we'll try Bolivia

Atlantis fever is gripping the world of exploration. Jeremy Atiyah on the rival expeditions seeking out Plato's city under the sea
THIS is Atlantis season again. Now that the Russians are losing their ability to fund space exploration they have decided to search for mythical lost cities instead - in unexpected places. The remains of the city of Atlantis, they predict, will be found a hundred miles off Land's End.

That at least is the view of theMoscow Institute of Metahistory, an organisation formed last year with the intention of proving that conventional ideas about human history are wrong. Their application for permission to dive is currently circulating Whitehall departments.

"An operation such as this is probably going to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds," said a spokesman for the Maritime department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. "Presumably someone in Russia thinks the project is worth funding."

Their director, Professor Viatcheslav Koudriavtsev plans to lead his Cornish expedition in the summer. He has applied to explore in the area of the Celtic Shelf, an underwater hill in the north Atlantic which, he claims, sank permanently below sea-level during catastrophic floods after the last ice-age.

Oddly enough, at the very moment that Professor Koudriavtsev heads for Cornwall, another explorer, the very British Colonel "Blashers" Blashford- Snell, Chairman of the Scientific Exploration Society, is planning an even less probable Atlantis search: in Bolivia.

Colonel Blashford-Snell is not particularly impressed by his Russian rivals though he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

"You have to keep an open mind on these things," he says of his own expedition. "I am going to investigate a possible lost city, which may or may not turn out to be Atlantis. Our Bolivian site has about 50 factors which happen to fit Plato's description - for example that it's a rectangular plain of the right dimensions, flat and level and of high altitude. Most interesting of all is an apparent canal - exactly as described by Plato - running down to the inland Bolivian sea of Lake Poopo."

But surely South America was unknown to the ancient Mediterranean?

"So we suppose. But the discovery of cocaine as part of the mummification process used by the ancient Egyptians raises interesting questions. There is an ocean current running from Montevideo to Cape Town and quite primitive rafts could cross that gap. In fact, investigating the possibility of contact between South America and Africa in ancient times is really the serious part of our project. Not Atlantis."

Which is not, of course, how most people would like to see it. We want Atlantis. Ever since the middle of the last century, when the hero of Jules Verne's novel Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea stepped into its sunken ruins, Atlantis theories have grown progressively wilder. In addition to Bolivia and Cornwall, other suggested sites have been the north coast of Libya, ancient Wessex, Antarctica and (from the Japanese) the South Pacific.

These days, lost "secrets" from the dawn of civilisation evoke no end of extra-terrestrial trumpery. Mysterious technologies such as "cosmic crystals" have been dreamt up by mystics and attributed to Atlantis. Latter-day Platos have even claimed that it was misuse of "crystal-power" that caused the destruction of their civilisation, and (to choruses of ethereal angels) have come to see the search for Atlantis as synonymous with the search for the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

But why? Was not the Atlantis story just a standard allegory, rustled up to illustrate the dangers of a society corrupting itself? A story of a once virtuous city, now so eaten up by debauchery that Zeus had no option but to send in the tidal waves?

This is hard to dispute. Take another look at Noah and his flood, the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, or Irem in the Koran. (A lesser Atlantis, Irem, also has its followers, who search in the sands of the Arabian peninsular.)

Except - and this is where our psychological need for The Big Quest kicks in - the detail makes us hesitate. Plato's descriptions are packed with circumstantial evidence. He describes an island continent "circled by mountains". He talks of a "rectangular plain in the centre of the continent measuring 3,000 by 2,000 stades" with a drainage canal running round its perimeter. He talks of a strange Atlantean metal, orichalcum, which "sparkled like red fire".

Such is the detail that keeps the Atlantis-busters out in force. Blashford- Snell himself, half-Indiana-Jones half-Victorian-explorer, has been keeping his eye on Atlantis for years. In 1978 he discovered the lost city of Acla in the jungles of Panama, with the eminent archeologist Dr Mark Horton. He has also successfully demolished other people's Atlantis theories, including the persistent idea that the vanished land was near the island of Bimini in the Bahamas.

"I was asked to dive the area by an American society who had invested a lot of money in proving that this was Atlantis. In fact I shot the whole thing down. They weren't happy but in the end they accepted my verdict."

Theories spring up with the regularity of pulsating stars. In 1995 a British archeologist, Peter James, published his theory that Atlantis was actually a city called Tantalis in the interior of Turkey, which had been destroyed by flooding in 1400BC. Meanwhile a German scholar, Dr Zangger, has plausibly claimed that Plato's description of Atlantis was based on Homeric Troy, also in Turkey.

Considering that Plato located the islands beyond the Pillars of Hercules (today's Straits of Gibraltar) practically any island or land-mass in the Atlantic becomes a possible candidate. Central America and Mexico are considered promising sites by some.

Most scholars, however, suppose that echoes from a lost civilisation - if that is what Plato's story was - must have come from within the Mediterranean. Minoan Crete was one such lost civilisation: it had abruptly disappeared 1,000 years before Plato, leaving behind sketchy memories in the form of legends of the Labyrinth and its resident Minotaur.

According to Plato, the Kings of Atlantis hunted bulls for sport, and the excavation of Knossos (the Minoan capital) has uncovered pictures of bulls and people at play. To cap it all, the demise of Minoan Crete seems to have been triggered by the Mediterranean's worst ever natural catastrophe: the explosion of the volcanic island of Thera (today's Santorini), blasting four cubic miles of rock into the atmosphere, reducing the island to a fraction of its former size and causing massive tidal waves throughout Greece.

A solution to the mystery? No one can say, and in the mean time we await the upcoming expeditions. If Atlantis turns out to be Cornish, the cost of the search will surely look like the greatest investment ever made by a Russian.