Using six classical sources, Peter James, a London specialist in Near Eastern ancient history, has reconstructed what appears to be the original quasi-historical legend on which the Atlantis story was based. An ancient Anatolian legend suggests the original "Atlantis" was a real city, Tantalis, in the west of Asia Minor, which was destroyed by an earthquake and flooding after 1400 BC.
A preliminary survey of the area has revealed the location of the now dried-up lake which, Mr James believes, covered the site, about 30 miles inland from the modern port of Izmir. After piecing together the legend from passages in the works of classical authors Pausanias, Pliny, Pherecydes, Pindar, Democles and Aristides, Mr James has concluded that Atlas, the key figure in the Atlantis legend, was based on a semi-legendary Anatolian king called Tantalus who ruled over a doomed city once known as Zippasla or Sipylus, which was renamed Tantalis in his honour.
In the traditional story, as told by the 6th century BC Athenian poet Solon and repeated by Plato, the fabulously wealthy Atlantis was destroyed by earthquake and flood because its rulers, the successors of Atlas, had offended the gods. Mr James believes that Solon was merely adapting the Tantalis story. He passed within a few miles of the site during his travels in Asia Minor and would have had ample opportunity to collect local folklore. It is not clear why Solon relocated the action 2,000 miles westwards to the Atlantic. Mr James, who reveals his findings in a book to be published this week*, suspects the move was necessitated by the Greek belief that Atlas - their version of Tantalus - lived on the Atlantic coast, or on an island in the ocean.
The Greeks believed that, for his defiance of the gods, Atlas was sentenced to hold up the sky for eternity and was transformed into a mountain. King Tantalus was also sentenced by the gods to hold up the sky for ever, though by other accounts he was crushed under a mountain. Many other aspects of the Atlas and Tantalus legends are also virutally identical.
Detailed exploration of the probable site of Tantalis is being planned by Mr James, a former post-graduate archaeological researcher at University College London. But the work will have to wait until the Turkish government gives permission for it to start. If Mr James's theory is correct, then the original Empire of Atlantis on which the legend was based would have been a 15th century BC Hittite vassal kingdom ruled from Zippasla, which broke loose from Hittite control in around 1400 BC and set up its own empire.
This Anatolian proto-Atlantis - with its capital at Zippasla/Tantalis - controlled an empire stretching from the Aegean Sea to central Anatolia and may even have included parts of Cyprus and part of what is now Israel. The empire lasted for around 50 years before being reabsorbed into Hittite territory. Its spectacular wealth came from a gold-rich river, and extensive mines.
"After re-assembling the Tantalis legend I was amazed at its striking resemblance to the Atlantis story," said Mr James. "For more than 2,000 years Plato has been accused of making the entire Atlantis story up. Now for the first time we know that his source, Solon, was working from a pre-existing and genuine tradition."
*'The Sunken Kingdom, the Atlantis Mystery Solved' by Peter James, Jonathan Cape pounds 18.99.