Ninety Degree Angle

Has Robert Sarmast found the island of Atlantis, or has he lost perspective?

December 1, 2005

Illustrator Nathan Huang

“When you put your finger on Atlantis, you’re basically putting your finger on the pulse of the greatest mystery on earth,” says Robert Sarmast, 39, a self-taught explorer who thinks he’s found that pulse. “Where did civilization start? What is the missing link? Where did the races migrate from? Where did agriculture, the alphabet, language start?”

Sarmast is confident that he will find the answers to these questions when he proves that he’s discovered the location of Atlantis, a legendary lost island where a glorious civilization is said to have lived in abundance and harmony. In the fall of 2004, Sarmast claimed that a submerged landmass halfway between the island of Cyprus and the shore of Syria matches ancient descriptions of Atlantis. Sonar scans of this landmass revealed a wall angled at 90 degrees that he believes could only be man-made. But he still needs proof. To get it, he’s going back in, and this time, Hollywood’s coming too.

The earliest known account of Atlantis comes from the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato, in approximately 360 B.C. In Critias, Plato describes Atlantis as a beautiful island given to the children of Poseidon, the god of the ocean. But over 10,000 years ago, as this race of pure and virtuous people strayed from their divine heritage and became corrupt, the island was swallowed up by the ocean in a catastrophic earthquake.

This legend of an extraordinary civilization that disappeared suddenly has attracted explorers, scientists and treasure-seekers since Plato wrote about it. Tantalizingly, stories of cataclysmic floods that wiped out entire peoples appear in the holy books of Jews, Christians and Muslims, as well as in the mythologies of almost every major civilization from the Near East. And when 19th century amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the actual city of Troy, once believed to be a purely mythical setting in Homer’s Iliad, he showed that some legends are indeed rooted in fact.

For Sarmast, a blend of fact and fantasy drew him towards Atlantis. “A lot of my questions are spiritual in nature,” he says. “I noticed there’s a design in nature. Who is this designer?” Sarmast believes that “what was ancient history to [ancient peoples], we regard as mythology. It was as real to them as our holy land, Israel, is to us. As I learned more about ancient history, the more I started to see this could not be concocted out of thin air. It had to be based on partially factual accounts.”

Robert Sarmast was born in Iran and immigrated to the United States in 1977, when he was 11. His family had not planned on staying in the States for more than a few years, but when the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979, they decided not to return to Iran. His parents came from a Muslim background but were themselves agnostic. Sarmast’s own beliefs consist of “a combination of the highest concepts within each of the world’s religions,” but do not adhere to any particular one.

Sarmast began but never completed training as an architect, deciding instead that he would rather pursue a curriculum of his own design. “I have an insatiable curiosity,” he admits. “The regular academic programs weren’t cutting it for me. I wanted answers to questions the academic world wasn’t even ready to investigate.”

One of those questions is, of course, Atlantis. To answer that question himself, Sarmast says he, like other enthusiasts, has had to pioneer a new field of study. “There is no science in the world that prepares you for something like Atlantis—not in one curriculum,” he says. “Science is designed to work on known facts. We’re trying to find the unknown.”

Hazy about the details of his time between his college days and his current endeavor, Sarmast says he’s been educating himself in the field of “Atlantology”—a blend of archeology, ancient history, biblical knowledge, geology, cartography and oceanography. He sees himself as an explorer, a scientist, and someone who can think outside the box, not unlike Indiana Jones. “I don’t have a whip, but I’m not an armchair scholar,” he states.

As no complete charts of the Mediterranean Ocean’s underwater topography existed, he first spent years creating maps with the help of existing oceanic and geologic surveys. To explain how an entire island could be swallowed up by water in a cataclysmic event, he drew on a theory that the Mediterranean basin has been alternately filled with seawater and cut off from the Atlantic Ocean by the “Dam of Gibraltar” as tectonic plates shifted. Sarmast believes that the last large tectonic movement could have been as recent as 40,000 to 12,000 years ago.

This theory, however, is not particularly current among mainstream scientists. Professor Vic Baker, a paleohydrologist at the University of Arizona, says there is abundant geological evidence that the Mediterranean Ocean hasn’t been dry in six million years. “The last low period was about 22,000 years ago, and it was still on the low side about 11,000 years ago,” Baker says. “But ‘low’ is only about 80 meters or so lower than today.”

Sarmast acknowledges that scientists have taken core samples from the sea floor to support this claim, but points out that they’ve never taken samples from the Cyprus Arc. If there had been dry land on the Cyprus Arc 10,000 years ago, he argues, there would be no evidence of it on the neighboring submerged sea floor.

The confidence he gained from his own calculations enabled him to proceed. In the fall of 2004, he acquired new images of a submerged landmass halfway between the island of Cyprus and the shore of Syria that he says closely matches Plato’s description. A few months later he took a boat out on a deep-sea expedition to get his own images of the seafloor. His side-sonar scans, which he’s made available on his website, show a rectangular mountain that borders a large rectangular valley. Along the lower edge of the valley appear to be two canals that end perpendicular to a wall. The 90-degree angle formed by these structures could only be man-made, he says.

His theory also matches other details from Plato’s writing, Sarmast asserts, including the description of elephants roaming in ancient Atlantis. Modern Cyprus, which is only 50 miles from the submerged site he has identified, has no indigenous elephant population. Yet pygmy elephant bones have been found on the island. He lists up to 50 other details on his website, “We have a perfect match to the ancient description of Atlantis,” Sarmast says. “It’s not a coincidence.”

But he still needs proof that there are indeed man-made structures on the sunken island he’s found, so he’s planned another expedition for spring 2006. He’ll be taking a camera crew with him to televise the expedition as he hopes to uncover irrefutable proof of human civilization.

Of course, skeptics abound. First of all, many historians believe that Plato’s description of Atlantis is simply an allegory, a device Plato used to illustrate a larger point. “I think all of us would be pretty skeptical about any claim to have ‘found’ Atlantis, especially since Plato makes it clear that he’s telling the story as a myth,” says Andrew Stewart, a history of art and classics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Stewart points out that Plato is the only source for the legend of Atlantis, and that all subsequent mentions of Atlantis depend on him. “Of course, there have been many attempts to identify the site of Atlantis, some of them completely nutty,” says Stewart. But unlike Troy, “Atlantis left behind no widely-diffused legacy of legend—indeed no legacy at all apart from Plato.”

For those who believe in the existence of Atlantis, speculation about its location has ranged wildly, from somewhere in the South China Sea to Antarctica. Some of the more probable conjectures include the island of Spartel and the island of Santorini, which are in or near the Mediterranean and are sites of geologic upheaval.

But Sarmast admits that even true believers are likely to reject his theories. “It’s like the boy who cried wolf. People are apt to brush it aside,” he says. That’s why he’s turned to a movie-maker for financial backing for his next deep sea excursion. “The only way to fund it is to bring entertainment value to it,” he says. “So we’re working with Hollywood.”

Vague about the source of his funding, Sarmast says that he’ll need at least $300,000 for the next trip, which he hopes broadcasters in the United States and Europe will provide. Hollywood has never been shy about appropriating myths whenever it can, and Atlantis has had its fair share of creative interpretation. From Walt Disney’s recent animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire to Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Atlantis has held the promise of being the cradle of civilization, the lost Garden of Eden and Paradise.

Often the allure of a few “scientific” facts is all it takes to stir the public’s imagination. When Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, claimed he found canals—evidence of intelligent life—on the surface of Mars at the turn of the 20th century, he inspired an entire era of Martian lore and science fiction. Later, Lowell’s canals were found to be illusory, but that didn’t stop Orson Welles from misleading Americans with an elaborate hoax in his radio broadcast the War of the Worlds. Will Sarmast’s expedition next year turn out to be a similar goad to the public imagination, or simply a well-publicized failure?

The time is right, says Sarmast, because technology has advanced enough to allow researchers to explore the ocean. “We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about our own oceans and seafloors,” he said. “We’re the first generation in human history that has the wherewithal to look underwater.” Despite the challenges of deep-sea work, Sarmast is confident that the ocean—where there’s no wind, sun or heat to erode history—has preserved what he’s looking for. “The deep waters are the world’s living museum. These are places where you find shipwrecks, engulfed cities,” he saus.

Fueling Sarmast’s quest is the dream that he’ll be the one to change human history. “We see it as throwing a big boulder in a lake. It’s gonna have ripple effects in every direction. That wall with the 90-degree angle, we believe it’s the oldest man-made structure to be seen by modern eyes,” he says. “It’s obviously gonna have a huge effect on history. All history books will have to be scrapped.”

Is Sarmast crazy? Doesn’t he have to be to pursue a quest like this one? “I’ve been accused of everything,” Sarmast admits. “I’ve been accused of being nuts, of being delusional.” But a quote on his website taken from 19th century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggests that Sarmast might think it’s a compliment. Schopenhauer wrote: All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, and third, it is accepted as self-evident. “Anybody who wants to make discoveries with very great impact, they better be ready for this,” Sarmast says. “It’s very, very serious. I’m dedicating my life to this.” 

Monica Lam is a San Francisco Bay Area independent documentary filmmaker and journalist. She is a graduate of the journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Magazine Section: