Nat Geo's "Atlantis Rising": A Stew of Fake Experts, Motivated Reasoning, and Weird Claims That Judaism Contains "Atlantean Theology"
Atlantis Rising is a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries. Slick and superficial, it cheerfully glosses over facts and subsumes logic beneath the siren song of personality. It is less a search for Atlantis than a chronicle of the filmmakers’ own ego-trips as they indulge in the fantasy that they are uniquely touched by genius in the effort to find the one true meaning behind the legend of Atlantis that has somehow escaped the notice of thousands of previous investigators over thousands of years. It is the kind of documentary where the audience is an afterthought. If you were not familiar with Plato’s Atlantis before the show started, you won’t come out the other side any the wiser, but you will have learned many false facts and come away with the impression that a cast of lunatics, obsessives, and frauds are actually respected and careful scholars. In other words, Atlantis Rising is full of “alternative facts” spouted by dilettantes and poseurs pretending at wisdom. It is the perfect show for our time.
Oh, and it also tells us that Judaism is really an Atlantean religion, born of the same wellspring as Classical civilization and the West itself.
The search for Atlantis is, at its core, a search for a mystical justification for Western Civilization. Few who hunt for the lost continent will ever admit this, but the facts make it plain. Plato used Atlantis as an allegory for the fall of civilizations consumed by hubris in order to contrast its demise with the ideal Republic that was “ancient” Athens. In the 1500s and 1600s, the Spanish and Portuguese used Atlantis to try to bring the New World into the history of the Old and assign to it a Classical past worthy of Empire. In the eighteenth century, De Sales imagined the fall of Atlantis as precedent for the liberation of the French Revolution. In the nineteenth century, Ignatius Donnelly cast Atlantis as precedent and justification for Western imperialism, and in the 1990s Graham Hancock used it as an ancient analog for Western-led globalization. The harder one tries to justify the hunt for Atlantis, the more likely one is to see an attempt to connect the site of its alleged location to Western Civilization.
It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the filmmakers behind National Geographic’s Atlantis Rising specifically imagined that they were looking for a moral lesson about the fate of Western Civilization by fantasizing that known Bronze Age cultures were actually the city and empire described by Plato in the Timaeus and the unfinished dialog Critias. As filmmaker James Cameron told The Vulture shortly before the show aired, America is gripped by fear that civilization is about to collapse, which makes the story of Atlantis relevant today: “And so there are rumbles of social collapse that aren’t far away in the imaginations of some people. I think there’s going to be fascination with some of these lessons from history.” Of course, Atlantis isn’t historical any more than The Walking Dead is a chronicle of a real medical epidemic. Cameron is right that there is a culture-wide unease about social collapse, brought on by globalization, multiculturalism, and other challenges to tradition and stability. But he is not right to transform myth and allegory into fake history to justify addressing these fears.
The orange glow of the sunset of the West casts long shadows across Atlantis Rising, a fluffy, illogical, and disposable entry in the “hunt for Atlantis” subgenre. In substance, it is hardly different from Finding Atlantis, NatGeo’s 2011 documentary that also chronicled biblical archaeologist Richard Freund’s imaginative efforts to find Atlantis. In that program, Freund falsely identified Plato’s Atlantis with an archaeological site in Spain, known as Doñana, a claim that dismayed the actual archaeologists who worked on the site and who accused him of appropriating their work for a Biblical agenda. For, you see, Freund equally falsely identified Atlantis with the Biblical city of Tarshish in order to bring Plato into alignment with the Bible. As I reported at the time (slightly corrected):
… let us grant him his point and pretend that Atlantis is Tarshish. If this is true, then we have a contradiction. Tarshish traded with the Israelites during the reign of Solomon, traditionally around the tenth century BCE. This is thousands of years after Plato’s Atlantis sunk beneath the waves (9600 BCE), and at least a thousand years off from the proposed dates when the Spanish site was destroyed (possibly around 2000 BCE). Never mind that the books of Chronicles and Kings were likely composed no earlier than 560 BCE, at which time Tarshish must still have been an active port—one still in operation when Jonah tried to sail there in the Book of Jonah (composed c. 500 BCE). So Tarshish and Atlantis, like Schrödinger’s cat, both exist and do not exist, are active and destroyed, simultaneously. The only way to make the two into one is to change Plato, and once you change Plato you are no longer looking for “Atlantis” but are instead naming whatever you find in honor of Plato’s fictional allegory.
Freund said that we are justified in adjusting the facts in Plato to make them “more plausible.” This willingness to cherry-pick which parts of Plato’s account to believe is a hallmark of Atlantis fantasies, and it is what directly leads us to finding conspiracy theorist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici gushing over the idea that Plato’s Atlantis might be identical with the Bronze Age Nuragic civilization of Sardinia. This claim was made by De Sales in 1793, but it faces an insurmountable problem if we are to take Plato as our guide, even if we agree to discount the 8,000-year age difference between Plato’s Atlantis and Sardinia’s Nuragic ruins. Plato’s student was Aristotle, and one of his students (or his students’ students) in the Peripatetic School told us what the Greeks thought of the Bronze Age structures of Sardinia in the book On Marvelous Things Heard, chapter 100:
In the island of Sardinia they say there are many beautiful buildings constructed in the ancient Greek style, and, amongst others, domes carved in remarkable proportions. It is said that these were built by lolaus, son of Iphicles, when he, having taken with him the Thespiadae, the sons of Heracles, sailed to those parts with the intention of settling there, considering that they belonged to him through his relationship with Heracles, because Heracles was lord, of all the western land. (trans. Launcelot D. Dowdall)
The account also appears in Diodorus Siculus (Library 4.29-30, 5.15) and Pausanias (10.17). Aristotle must have known a similar story himself, as he alludes to the graves of the Heroes on Sardinia in Physics 218b21.
By what right can we trust Plato’s account but not that of the followers of Aristotle? Jacobovici and Freund say that it is because Plato was copying a copy of an Egyptian original, making it more trustworthy. But if that is the case, then whence came the Aristotelian version? If we concede that Aristotle’s school made things up, by what right do we say Plato did not, when we have documented cases where he created fictions (the allegory of the cave, the Republic), and no documentation of any Egyptian original for the tale of Atlantis?
It’s clear that Jacobovici hasn’t thought much about these issues in his rush to latch on to some exciting proof or another that any given Bronze Age culture might have been the foundation of the story of Atlantis. The bottom line is always the same, however: to make any candidate fit, we must first change some fact or another about Plato, from the age of the island, to its method of destruction (news flash: Sardinia still exists and Doñana is not under water), to the identity of its mysterious metal of orichalcum, to its possession of elephants. By the time they are done, there is less connection between Plato’s Atlantis and the imagined original than between The Walking Dead and the nineteenth century Caribbean zombi that in a roundabout way inspired it. At least there one can trace the intermediate steps, which for Atlantis somehow fail to exist.
Disclosure: The PR firm for National Geographic Channel offered me an interview with Freund and Jacobovici, but then pulled out without explanation shortly after I accepted. You can draw your own conclusions, but essentially they are cowards who don’t want to answer hard questions.
The documentary, a pointlessly personal “quest” narrated bizarrely by Jacobovici in his sleepy and accented English and set up like a lost episode of a long-running series that none of us has seen, starts with James Cameron alleging that the “parable” and “myth” of Atlantis sits atop a historical truth, but one assembled from pieces of facts, like science fiction. He quickly teams up with Jacobovici, who believes in a literal Atlantis and who summarizes the Timaeus and the Critias with the help of unconvincing computer graphics that seem about ten years behind state of the Art. Cameron literally phones in the rest of his appearances in the documentary, lending his name, but not much else, and for what purpose?
If you are not already familiar with these men and their ideas, and the history of the myth of Atlantis, I can’t imagine that any of this makes any senses at all. Who are these people? Why are they looking for Atlantis? They never say. Jacobovici and Cameron both strategically leave out Plato’s claim that Atlantis occupied a massive island beyond the Pillars of Hercules larger than Africa and Asia combined. Instead, they falsely allege that the civilization of Atlantis is merely a Mediterranean civilization that occupied lands from the Aegean to Gibraltar, including the Spanish mainland. This is decidedly not the same thing. Spain, just to note, is not an island.
Jacobovici interviews Charles Pellegrino, a controversial author and creationist who was accused of fabricating parts of one of his books, as well as of falsely claiming to hold a Ph.D. (He falsely claimed that the university stripped his Ph.D. because of his creationist beliefs; in reality he failed to meet academic standards in his dissertation.) He is Cameron’s favorite expert on the history of Atlantis. Left unsaid: Pellegrino, in addition to his documented falsehoods, is also friends with Jacobovici, and the two wrote a book about the “Jesus Family Tomb” together. Both men are also friends with Scott Wolter, and the three men work together on Jesus Holy Bloodline conspiracy theories. Pellegrino is writing a book with Wolter about it, or at least Wolter claimed as much, and Jacobovici similarly promotes the same conspiracy theory about the marriage and children of Jesus in his widely debunked documentary based on the book he wrote with Pellegrino. Disclosure and ethics are not a strong suit with this set, and it’s no wonder Jacobovici didn’t want me to talk to him.
The first segment of the documentary explores the destruction of Thera (Santorini) and looks at the claims, dating back to K. T. Frost in 1909 and Louis Figuier in 1872 that the Minoans of Santorini were the “real” people of Atlantis. This is a familiar, and boring, allegation, and nothing has been added to it since Frost’s academic version of the argument in his 1913 journal article following up on his 1909 proposal. Pelligrino says that the claim is 99% certain, but Jacobovici and Cameron aren’t so sure.
A second claim alleges that Malta was Atlantis. This is also an old claim, one going back to the early 1800s, when Maltese hoaxers created fake artifacts and a fake ancient text by Eumalos of Cyrene to “prove” that Malta was indeed part of the lost continent. You’ll probably remember the claim from Meet Me in Atlantis and its appearance on In Search of Aliens. Jacobovici isn’t much interested in Malta, so he travels to Gibraltar to meet up with Freund to search for Atlantis there, and Jacobovici uses the beats of reality TV to provide pointless teasers—“Oh my God, look at this!”—to punctuate commercial breaks. This is a documentary for people who find America Unearthed too sophisticated.
Freund is excitable, his voice squeaking and cracking as he screams that Plato’s city of Atlantis is drowned near Gibraltar, and as will come out later, he is looking for evidence that the site he identified in 2011 is not just Atlantis but extended its power into the Atlantic Ocean. The site, which dates back, Jacobivici said, to 6000 BCE, is somehow also the “exact” time of Atlantis—9600 BCE—in Freund’s mind. We rehearse Freund’s belief that the Biblical Tarshish was actually Atlantis, though as I noted above, this is chronologically impossible.
Jacobovici cuts Freund loose for now and follows another claim that the Pillars of Hercules were once at the Straits of Messina. This will help him to move Atlantis to Sardinia, on the other side of the Straits of Messina. Even though he will adopt this claim to “prove” Sardinia’s connection to Atlantis, he will also abandon it at will without abandoning the connection of Sardinia to Atlantis, a logical problem. He meets with Robert Ishoy – you will remember him from his goofball exploration society, the Society for Historical Exploration – and Jacobovici treats the amateur explorer as though he were an expert in ancient history and archaeology. In fact, he never actually tells us anything about Ishoy, letting the music and the dramatic camerawork lend him an air of fake authority. Nat Geo should be ashamed of itself for letting a conspiracy theorist pass off a bunch off frauds as real and respected researchers. No one bothers to note that De Sales made claims like these back in 1793, and that Sardinia has been associated with Atlantis, Bible giants, and other fantastical claims ever since. For that matter, Jacobovici lets Ishoy, an American dilettante—his claim to fame is that he posted a college essay on Atlantis to the internet in 2001—serve as his proxy in Sardinia when Italian journalist Sergio Frau has been doggedly pursuing the claim that Sardinia is Atlantis for decades. Since the Italian government and the U.N. patronized him, one would think that would earn him some screen time. I guess they had already met their quota for non-English-speakers.
Jacobovici claims that Nuragic architecture matches that of Plato’s description of the houses of Atlantis. He doesn’t quote it because he’s making things up. There are no descriptions of the architecture of the houses (I assume he refers to the palaces Plato mentions as surrounding the temple of Poseidon), and only one of a temple, which doesn’t match the round towers of Nuragic style. Just to be clear, Plato says of the temple that it “was a stadium in length, and half a stadium in width, and of a proportionate height, having a strange barbaric appearance. All the outside of the temple, with the exception of the pinnacles, they covered with silver, and the pinnacles with gold. In the interior of the temple the roof was of ivory, curiously wrought everywhere with gold and silver and orichalcum; and all the other parts, the walls and pillars and floor, they coated with orichalcum.” No Nuragic temple in Sardinia bears any resemblance to that. He claims that a temple in the center of Sardinia belongs to a water deity, though there isn’t a way to know that since the Nuragic people left no writing. We know nothing of their Bronze Age gods.
Although Jacobovici is convinced, Cameron is not, so he travels to southern Spain for another view. He interviews yet another looney tune, Georgeos Diaz Montexano (a.k.a. Cuban researcher Jorge Diaz Sanchez), who has been accused of making misleading (though not false) claims about his academic credentials. (He holds no relevant degree.) Notice a trend yet? He alleges that southern Spain was where the Atlanteans settled after the fall of their citadel. He also claims that practically any stone carving of a circle or concentric circles must be an aerial map of Atlantis and its rings. It’s a stretch at best, based on a fanciful interpretation of petroglyphs, an ignorance of local cultures, and a lot of wishful thinking. He provides the same evidence that Freund did in 2011—that a picture of a stick man holding a sword and standing next to a series of concentric circles is a “bible of the Atlanteans.”
To show you how silly this all is, Montexano takes Jacobovici to a Copper Age city in southern Spain that was composed of a series of round walls (not unlike, say, Troy), with a moat external to it. This city, which is decidedly not 11,600 years old, is somehow nevertheless coeval with Atlantis “at its height” for our hero because Jacobovici has no methodology whatsoever and happily does whatever he wants with Plato to make things fit. Why do we get to chuck out the dates Plato gave? Just because. (Montexano, in his books, claims Plato’s number has been mistranslated and should refer to 1500 BCE.) Why do we get to throw out the elephants? Why not? Why do we get to forget about the temples covered in precious metals? It’s Sunday.
The second hour of the documentary returns to Freund’s efforts around Gibraltar for some expensive underwater photography, and it pairs this effort with Montexano’s efforts to interpret petroglyphs of boats, spirals, and circles into evidence of Atlantis. At one point, the film crew goes into an Iberian cave to use spectral analysis in order to determine whether a petroglyph of a boat could be an image of an Atlantean warship. With the cave’s entrance covered over, and the whole crew sitting with their backs turned to the entrance, staring at flickering lights and shadows on the cave wall, it never crosses the minds of any of the people present that they are enacting Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. They are reading into shadows on the wall what they want to imagine the real world to be like.
Needless to say, there is no reason to suspect that such common motifs as boats, circles, and spirals have anything to do with Atlantis. Jacobovici assumes that images of boats and a horse (or so he says) near a square proves that the images record the flight of Atlanteans from their sinking harbor city. “They were recounting stories of events that were occurring somewhere along the coast, far away from here.” There is no reason to impose that story on the images, which can’t even be shown to be connected to one another as a coherent narrative. Montexano adds another layer of absurdity when he presents what Jacobovici calls an “ancient Egyptian map,” but which is no such thing. It’s a Byzantine-era map based on Claudius Ptolemy’s geographic coordinates. Ptolemy’s original map does not survive, nor any direct ancient copy of it. The exact source of the Greek language map Montexano uses is not given, except to say it is in the British Museum. Freund, Jacobovici, and Montexano all are thrilled that Tartessos, which they conflate with the Biblical Tarshish, appears on the Greek map exactly where ancient Greek geographers said it would be. This is only exciting if you think Tarshish = Tartessos = Atlantis, a claim that logic does not allow us to accept. Certainly the Greeks (e.g. Strabo 3.2.11; Pausanias 6.19.3) never thought Tartessos was Atlantis.
Old underwater footage from 1993 shows broken stones that Jacobovici think look like Sardinian round towers, but everyone involved jumps to the conclusion that it is an underwater city before considering any geological explanations for collections of stones on the seafloor. New underwater footage uncovers round stone discs, which the team liken to Greek column drums, even though such a style of construction was not used at the time period in question. No one stops to ask why Atlanteans would be building with Greek styles not invented for millennia. Given how long the area has been occupied, settled, and sailed, the presence of anchors, ballast stones, etc. is of no surprise. A dive to the supposed site of what Jacobovici calls “megalithic ruins” shows what at first glance appear to be perfectly natural geological formations that the team of motivated reasoners are intent in interpreting as a lost city. “Your imagination kind of starts to help a little bit,” one team member says. “It’s easy to start to imagine things.” The team’s marine archaeologist can’t determine if the rocks are natural or artificial.
In the final half hour, Jacobovici proposes that Spain was Atlantis, and Sardinia is its colony. To prove this, he relies on Montexano to lead him to a round Spanish structure from around 2500 BCE, which Jacobovici claims has “many features” of Sardinian architecture, by which he means that it is more or less round and has interlocking chambers. “You can’t say this is a metaphor,” Jacobivici gushes. “This is Atlantean architecture as described by Plato!” Notice how he has redefined Plato—the temple is taken now to be identical with the whole city of Atlantis, and all of the details he doesn’t like, such as the ivory roof and the metal-plated walls, are thrown aside. Jacobovici and Montexano, both standing in Spain, see a petroglyph composed of three upside-down arcs with a line drawn perpendicularly through them and declare it a Jewish menorah! The two men agree that Jewish menorahs are actually “an evolution of the Atlantean symbol of concentric circles,” a claim that lacks any factual foundation since Atlantis was, so far as we know, never symbolized as concentric rings. That was abstracted from Plato’s description of the city’s canals. Nevertheless, the two men conclude that the Bible reflects “Atlantean theology.”
Stop and consider that for a moment: A group of religious conspiracy theorists who already think Jesus is part of a secret conspiracy of ancient bloodlines now argue that Atlantis is the secret source of Judaism! I would have been more impressed if anyone on this show reflected for a moment on the fact that Plato modeled the fall of Atlantis in the Critias on the same anger of the gods that led to Noah’s Flood in the Bible, both stories deriving from the Near East Flood Myth. It looks like Ignatius Donnelly’s identification of the Nephilim with the Atlanteans (not to mention their identification with ancient Sardinians!) is still part of the Atlantis discussion today.
The team finds some Bronze Age stone anchors, and Jacobivici declares that it “fits the Atlantis timeline.” It does not. Only by throwing out Plato’s facts can we make that work, shaving 7,000 years off of the age of Atlantis, and assuming, again without evidence, that the Bronze Age destruction of the site at Doñana is (a) Tartessos and therefore (b) Atlantis. The logic does not hold. The anchors, needless to say, only prove that the residents of mainland Iberia took their ships out from Spain in the Bronze Age. In a tossed off comment, Jacobovici admits that other people have found such anchors before. He then alleges, without evidence, that there “must be thousands” of such anchors in the area because Plato said Atlantis was a big port. He also said it had elephants, but we haven’t seen any of those yet.
In the last minutes of the show, Jacobovici asks us to accept all of the preceding speculation, and he asks us to believe that the Bronze Age residents of Spain sailed to the Azores. The evidence for settlement before the Portuguese discovery of the Azores is ambiguous, and there is no proof that any pre-Portuguese structures, should they be proved to be from before European colonization, date back to the Bronze Age. Jacobovici sees a bunch of what look like natural rock formations, and we are told that they are actually the remains of a temple and village, complete with a “holy of holies”! Some gouges in the rocks are said to be identical to Maltese cart tracks, but no evidence is given to date them to 3000 BCE.
Jacobovici concludes that Bronze Age cultures from Spain to Sardinia were all connected together through political, social, and economic ties, which makes the Bronze Age “civilization” of the Western Mediterranean the “real” Atlantis. He alleges that the Bronze Age cultures were destroyed by natural disasters caused by the eruption of the Santorini volcano on the other side of the Mediterranean around 1600 BCE, even though that eruption failed to fell even the Minoans, right next door. They soldiered on for another couple of hundred years, and even longer after that under the control of the Mycenaeans. For that matter, the Sardinian Nuragic civilization was unaffected by the Santorini eruption--as this very show said in the first hour—and continued on down to historic times. Even the people of the site of Doñana were still there down to 1250 BCE, according to some estimates of the site’s age.
Atlantis, though, was apparently too fragile, and its people gave up the ghost as soon as they heard that a volcano had gone off on the other end of the world. It makes you wonder how they managed to get themselves to the Levant to be remembered as the mighty Nephilim and the Giants, the men of renown whose prowess offended even the gods.
So, to recap: Jacobovici threw out all of the parts of Plato he didn’t like and then identified Atlantis as the civilizations of the Bronze Age. This lets him identify the Bronze Age collapse as the “real” Atlantis, and perversely allows him to remove the source of Judaism from the milieu of Near East cultures that eventually gave rise to the Arabs and place it firmly in the hands of an imaginary Western culture free from the contamination of Babylon and all things Arab. His own Jewish faith is now firmly Western, separate, and linked indivisibly from the wellspring of the Western experience, here removed from Greece and placed into the wonder-world of the lost Atlantis.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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