I recently cruised to a place where I had never dropped anchor, Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia.
I had long known that Sardinia was an island of friendly people who were proud of their heritage, a place where the old ways of life were celebrated and remembered, and an island of beautiful sun-drenched beaches.
But I learned that there’s much more beneath the surface on this island off the west coast of Italy, a mystery, in fact. Could Sardinia be the ancient island of Atlantis?
Come along with me in search of legends.
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No one knows for sure that the great naval empire Atlantis ever existed — and if so, where it was.
Scholars have placed the mythical Atlantis in Crete, Malta, Cyprus, Sicily, Santorini, Andalusia and elsewhere. The Greek philosopher Plato said only that Atlantis existed beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which some believe were in Gilbratar.
In 2002, however, an Italian journalist argued that the Pillars of Hercules formed the treacherous gateway between Sicily and Tunisia. If that were so, Sardinia would fit the description of Atlantis perfectly.
To try to get more insights into the Sardinia-Atlantis connection, I stepped off my ship in Cagliari and traveled for about 30 minutes to an archaeological site in Nora.
“Nora is considered to the first Phoenician town in Sardinia,” Nora guide Valeria Spada told me. However, the Phoenicians weren’t the first to settle in this region. “Probably even before the Phoenicians arrived, Nora had a local population, a Nuragic tribe,” Spada says.
Nora was a thriving city from around 2000 BC until around 1400 BC. Evidence suggests that the Nuragic people were great sailors, who knew how to navigate the shallow waters between Sicily and Tunisia. They used their navigational skills to trade with other societies throughout the Mediterranean. Spada, the guide, says that Nora was perfect for trade, strategically situated in the middle of the Mediterranean and with two protected harbors.
At one time, the ancient roads in Nora were bustling with commerce. “So when we dig up, we always discover different kinds of ceramic, pottery, tools, items from Greece, North Africa, Iberia, all over the Mediterranean,” Spada says.
But suddenly Sardinia went silent, cut off from the eastern Mediterranean by a natural disaster of some sort. Sardinia was isolated, a dominant power no more. Was this how the legend emerged about the great Atlantis that sank into the ocean overnight? “There is a lot of mystery around the sunken city, the underwater city,” Spada says.
It took two centuries or longer before navigation was possible again, and around 1000 BC the Phoenicians began to visit Nora. In 1773, a stone was found at the archaeological site dating back nearly 3,000 years and referring to a Phoenician military victory and the conquest of Nora.
The Nora Stone is on display at Sardinia’s National Museum of Archaeology back in Cagliari. I went there and met with Donatella Mureddu, an expert in the antiquities.
She showed me how the ancient Sardinians were mysterious people who built megalithic towers known as Nuraghe. Dating from the 2nd century BC, thousands of these odd structures still dot the landscape of Sardinia.
The ancient Sardinians certainly were skilled people, evident in the process by which they manufactured axes — by using molds for mass production and then trading the axes throughout the Mediterranean.
The Nuragic Sardinians were also thought to be the feared warriors known as Shardana, who wore helmets with horns and carried shields and weapons. They reportedly tried to occupy Egypt, depicted in a fresco from an Egyptian temple built in 1190 BC.
With all that I had seen, it certainly seemed plausible that Sardinia could have been the legendary Atlantis. Clearly, it is as likely a candidate as any other place that claims to be the lost island.
Before leaving Cagliari, I wanted to experience Sardinian culture, and for that, I visited Sa Festa di Casa Atzeri, where I was greeted by musicians wearing traditional clothing from days gone by before stepping into the courtyard to explore some of the local arts and crafts. After 30 minutes or so, I took a seat at a beautifully decorated table for a meal that I will never forget, including suckling pig right from the earthen oven. Traditional songs and dances followed, a lovely ending to a day of exploring.
Piergiorgio Massidda, the president of the Cagliari Port Authority, drove me back to my ship in Cagliari. He too believes that his island belongs to an ancient time.
“We believe that Sardinia maybe was Atlantis, because too many things about the Atlantis history is the same as Sardinia’s,” says Piergiorgio Massidda, president of the Cagliari Port Authority.
I sailed away with the voices of those I had met in my head, reflecting on the significance of the day.
“Some scholars talk about the ancient and famous Atlantis, Atlantide,” Spada says. “A golden age, a golden city when everybody was happy, living happily and in harmony with nature, with god and they found they had the privilege of living in such a beautiful land.”
I certainly felt privileged having visited Cagliari with the new knowledge I now possessed. Cagliari is not simply a place of beautiful beaches and ancient relics without meaning. What I found here was a place as historically significant as Ephesus.
There is no doubt in my mind that Cagliari could have been the cradle of civilization in the world beyond the Pillars of Hercules, 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.