Four Lost Cities of the Ancient World

Uncovering the Hidden Treasures of Fabled Lands

Today, the word “Atlantis” has more popular connotations – think beach resorts or Disney movies - than the ancient landmass that Plato said vanished beneath the waves in 9600 B.C. Yep, even ancient philosophers indulged in myth – or history? – now and then.

In his latest book, Meet Me in Atlantis, writer Mark Adams has gamely taken on every possible theory about Atlantis, ranging from UFOs to Bronze Age cocaine smuggling. But Plato's paradise is far from the only ancient locale that might’ve mysteriously disappeared, leaving legends – and explorers – baffled. Here are four more spots to check out if you’re looking for the treasure of a lifetime.

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Sunken Sites of the Celtic Lands

Tristan, the most famous son of Lyonesse, bids adieu to his step-aunt/lover. DEA/A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images

Three areas in the British Isles and Brittany were reported missing due to floods. But are they lost in the mists of time – or beneath the waves?

First up is Ker-Ys, or Ys, a magnificent city which myths located in Celtic Brittany: more specifically, in the Bay of Douarnenez. Being on the water is tough, so this spot even had a special mechanical device to prevent flooding! A king named Gradlon ruled justly there under the tutelage of the Christian St. Gwennole, but his one weakness was his daughter, Dahud.

To impress a lover, the debauched Dahud stole her dad’s key to the dike; she opens the floodgates, both literally and figuratively, and the city is drowned beneath the waves. Dahud tries to hitch a ride out of town with her father before she drowns, too, but St. Gwennole touches the girl with his cross and she sinks into the sea.

A similar site was Cantre’r Gwaelod, located in the Cardigan Bay in Wales, once called “Maes Gwyddno,” or the “land of Gwyddno [its king].” King Gwyddno reigned in the sixth century A.D., and his kingdom’s fate is chronicled in the Black Book of Carmarthen. The realm’s name is likely derived from its ultimate fate: “Gwaelod” means “sunk.”  So how did Cantre’r Gwaelod get run over (by waves)?

In one version, similar to the ending of Ys, it’s a woman’s fault for flooding the city. In other stories, a big storm comes and drowns the town and its seawall that had protected it from the waves. One tale has a watchman and friend of the king, Seithennin, getting drunk and falling asleep, so he didn’t notice a storm and didn’t close the gates. The sea rushed up and drowned sixteen villages, forcing the king and his subjects to flee. Another version has Seithennin as a visiting monarch whose attention was distracted by a pretty girl, who was in charge of the floodgate, and she didn't close the gates.

The final drowned British kingdom was a mythical one in modern Cornwall (although some assert it was in France or Scotland). Called Lyonesse, it was the home of Sir Tristram (or Tristan), a knight of the Round Table and lover of Queen Iseult, wife of his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall. Some say that Lyonesse sank beneath the waves in the eleventh century A.D.; since then, it has featured in numerous literary works, including poems by Algernon Swinburne and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

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Vineta

A reconstructed medieval village on Wolin, the possible home of Vineta. ewg3D/Getty Images

This mythical city on the Black Sea was best known as a wealthy merchant town. Scholars have located it on the southern shores of the Baltic, perhaps the island of Wolin in the Oder River near Poland. Dating to the ninth century A.D., Vineta became known as a hotspot for trade all over eastern Europe and Scandinavia in the succeeding centuries.

Adam of Bremen, a medieval scholar, dubs it “truly the largest cities of all cities Europe has to offer,” combining Greeks, Slavs, and other diverse peoples in one spot. “Nothing desirable or rare is unobtainable” in commercial-friendly Vineta, he writes in his chronicle, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, of Jumne, often identified with Vineta. Even “alien Saxons” had “the right to reside there on equal terms with others”: Vineta was revolutionary! Its people were nice and welcoming, declares Adam, and the city itself boasts the marvel of Greek fire. But the name Vineta doesn’t appear until the later Chronicle of the Slavs, written by Helmold of Bosau.

Later writers have shown Vineta as both a sinful place and a utopia. It is said that the citizens of Vineta grew so pompous that God decided to punish them by flooding their city. Scandinavians invaded and scooped up the remaining riches of Vineta. In contrast, early modern Russian historians portrayed Vineta as the best of all worlds. For example, the Slovak poet Jan Kollar extols the glory of the Slavs in his “Daughters of Slava” and he even claims Italian Venice as part of the Slavic heritage. He exclaim, “Vineta and Venice, two daughters of Slava.” By engaging in such a nationalistic propaganda campaign, Slavic writers glorified their mythic past.

In reality, there were large trading towns in the area at this time, but who knows if Vineta ever existed? One guy thinks he does. German archaeologist Klaus Goldmann believes he discovered the remains of Vineta using medieval sources. Where did he find it? Underwater, at the mouth of the Oder River.

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Tartessos

Tartessos was located in southwestern Spain in the modern province of Andalusia. Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Let’s dredge up another sunken city: Tartessos in Spain. According to Herodotus, the Phoecaean Greeks were the first to “make long sea-voyages, and it was they who discovered the Adriatic Sea, and Tyrrhenia, and Iberia, and Tartessus.” There, the Greeks found the Tartessians; their king was named Arganthonius, who supposedly ruled for eighty years. Tartessus was the spot where, according to Pseudo-Apollodorus in his Library, Heracles established the Pillars of Heracles.

But what was the real deal behind Tartessos? As Manuel Bandala Galán notes in an essay on the Sea Peoples and Tartessos, from about the tenth to eighth centuries B.C., Tartessos may have originally represented a culture independent of the Greeks or Phoenicians. He writes, “Tartessos became defined: settlement patterns emerged, territory was defined, and forms of social and economic organization developed.” Eventually, Tartessos came under Phoenician and Greek influence, but it may also had Celtiberian influences (at least in terms of language). Others argue it was Phoenician from the beginning.

What made Tartessos and the surrounding area so famous, however, was its wealth! The region was replete with silver and other precious metals. Even “every mountain and every hill is bullion heaped up there by some prodigal fortune,” says Strabo. Must've been nice. For ancient Greek travelers who listened to sailors' tales and poems, Tartessos represented untold riches at the edge of the world.

This wealth led some scholars to posit that rich Tartessos was the same as the wealthy Tarshish mentioned in the Bible ... even though we don’t even know what “Tarshish” means in Hebrew. “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him,” resounds Psalm 72:10, while Isaiah 60:9 exclaims, “In the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your children from afar, with their silver and gold.” Tarshish’s merchant culture eventually came to an abrupt end: “Wail, you ships of Tarshish; your fortress is destroyed!” states Isaiah 23:14.

Others have gone one step further and identified rich Tartessos with Atlantis. Why? Because many aspects of the former – its wealth, its disappearance, its location beyond the Pillars of Heracles, and more – match the criteria Plato uses to identify Atlantis. We don’t know whether a catastrophe like that one that struck Atlantis ended Tartessos - probably in the sixth century B.C. - but, as Adams notes in his book, that area is prone to seismic activity. A Journey of Archaeological Science article even describes the potential destruction in the area. A

Adding to the problem is the fact that that scholars still haven’t conclusively identified where Tartessos was. They know it  was in southwestern Spain, but where? Some posit thatit lies beneath Doñana National Park. For more on Tartessos and Atlantis check out Meet Me in Atlantis.

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Gangga Negara

Gangga Negara lies somewhere in Malaysia. Lonely Planet/Getty Images

Now, to the east ... to the semi-mythical Malaysian kingdom of Gangga Negara. This lovely land was mentioned in the Malay Annals, a seventeenth-century chronicle of Malay civilization and kingship. There, it is described as “situated on a hill of very steep approach in front, but of easy access in the rear.” Its king was Ganggi Shah Juana, who, when challenged by Raja Suran, a prince of India, decapitated his opponent’s elephant – but was killed for his trouble. Raja Suran then married the former king’s pretty sister.

A famous merchant town that attracted citizens from both east and west, Gangga Negara first comes to prominence in the fifth century A.D., roughtly around the same time as other Hindu Buddhist states in the area. Most well-known for exporting gold and tin, Gangga Negara was conquered in the eleventh century A.D. by King Rajendra I Chola of the dynasty of the same name/

Gangga Negara has never been found. Some scholars believe it was located in the town of Beruas; others claim it covered three districts: Manjung, Kinta, and Kuala Kangsar; still more state Gangga Negara was one of three vanished kingdoms. The Malay Annals states that it was located “on the banks of the river Dinding, in the vicinity of Perak.” Some modern explorers think they may have uncovered sites related to this lost city … but that remains to be proven.