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THE LOST CITY OF TARTESSUS
by Steven A. Arts

There is nothing quite so invigorating as the story of a lost city. Stories from archaeology and fiction are replete with such tales, both real and fanciful.

One such lost city was called Tartessus or Tartessos by the ancient Romans and Greeks respectively. Some people think that the city called Tarshish in the Old Testament of the Bible refers to that same city.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, told us about the virtual sea of mud and debris where once brave Atlantis stood. The German archaeologist Adolph Schulten thought that Tartessus was the historical Atlantis and set about searching for the ruins. Alas, he never did find the ancient city. It remains undiscovered to this very day.

After many years of research into various written sources, I have to agree somewhat with Schulten. If there ever was a real Atlantis, Tartessus comes closest to fitting all of the various criteria.

The Old Testament is replete with references to that old city. Take II Chronicles 9:21 as an example: "For the kings ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks."

Huram was, of course, the world-renowned King Hiram of Tyre, a city in Phoenicia, just north of ancient Israel. Most people think of Hiram as a great Phoenician king, though scholars think that the name was the title of all Tyrian kings. Such as the name Inca was the name of all Quechuan (or Incan) Empire leaders in South America.

This quote from the Old Testament took place in the time of Hiram and King Solomon of Israel. No other Phoenician city is mentioned here; just Tyre by implication, and a mention of Hiram's name. This trade had obviously been going on for quite some time. To get the "ivory, apes and peacocks" the ships of Tarshish would have had to journey down the northwest coast of the African continent, past the Sahara desert to central Africa, in order to procure these exotic objects.

Then again, perhaps not. Even during the time of the Romans, much later, north Africa, north of the Sahara desert that is, was the home of lions, elephants, giraffe and other exotic, now sub-Saharan species. The apes are either real apes, or a not-so-pleasant reference to black African humans: for even the Portuguese of the 15th century refer to black Africans as "apes." It is an unpleasant side of history, but there are many of those, unfortunately.

Getting back to a more pleasant vein of thought, Atlantis was supposed to have been a fabulously wealthy country. Again there is a match with Tartessus. Tarshish possessed "gold, and silver, ivory, apes and peacocks." Tarshish was in a perfect geographical position to obtain gold and silver from the nearby Sierra Morena mountains in southern Spain, if that is indeed where it was located. Ivory, apes and peacocks could have come from the nearby northern and western African coast.

Doing research into the lost city of Tartessus or Tarshish, the conclusion is that the city was formerly located in southwestern Spain, very near the modern city of Cadiz, which was called Gades in ancient times. The ships of Tarshish were said to be located on the Atlantic side of the Pillars of Hercules, this last being identified with modern Gibraltar. Gades was later the most important Phoenician city on the Atlantic Ocean.

Another Biblical reference to Tarshish is from Isaiah 23:1: "The burden of Tyre. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish: for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from the land of Chittim it is revealed to them."

This is an extremely interesting quotation for several reasons. One, it says that Tarshish was destroyed, just like the semi-mythical Atlantis it is supposed to have been. Second, it refers to Chittim, which Biblical scholars identify with the isle of Crete, south of the Greek mainland. Third, "the burden of Tyre" ties it in with that Phoenician city, either as a colony or as an independent trading ally of some sort.

Then we come to a quote from Psalms 48:7, which says: "Thou breakest the ships of Tarshish with an east wind."

Obviously the destruction of Tarshish came from the east. Some natural calamity, perhaps? Again a tie-in with Atlantis.

Genesis 10:4 tries to give a racial history of Tarshish: "And the sons of Javan; Elishah, and Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim." It ties Tarshish with the Greeks or Cretans (Kittim) somehow. This could possibly be a reference to the island of Santorini or Thera, which blew up about 1500 BC. Some scholars think that this explosion led to the legend of Atlantis. It is possible that ancient lore combined what happened at Thera, with what happened to Tarshish, to form the legend of Atlantis. Javan refers to Caucasians or Europeans. So Tarshish must be located in or near Europe. Such as in southwestern Spain.

II Kings 10:22 says: "For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory and apes, and peacocks." Again the references to African natural products. Tharshish is just a variant spelling of Tarshish in the Bible.

Carthaginian coins have been found in the Azores Islands, proof that the ancient mariners had the ability to travel great distances from the shore.

There is a further mention of silver in the Bible in Jeremiah 10:9. "Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of workmen, and the hands of the founder; blue and purple their clothing; they are all the work of cunning men."

II Chronicles 20:36 says: "And he joined himself with him to make ships to go to Tarshish: and they make the ships at Ezion-Geber." Now Ezion-Geber was an ancient city located on the Gulf of Aquaba, which is itself an arm of the Red Sea. Look at a map of that area. Ships built there would either have to be transported to the Mediterranean Sea overland through ancient Israel, or circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa. For the Suez Canal was far in the future. Perhaps that is why it took the ships of Tarshish so long to reach her European and west Asian ports of call. There is literary proof that the Phoenicians sailed from Ezion-Geber, around Africa, and through the Mediterranean Sea, back to Phoenicia, in ancient times.

II Chronicles 20:37 says: "Then Eliezer the son of Dodovah of Mareshah prophesied against Johoshaphat saying, because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah, the Lord hath broken thy works. And the ships were broken, that they were not able to go to Tarshish." Again an allusion to a naval disaster of some sort for Tarshish.

The area where Tarshish was supposedly located, the area of the Guadalquivir River in southwestern Spain, has a long history. In 1923 there was a late Bronze Age hoard of bronzes discovered off the coast of a city called Huelva. There were, among the many discoveries, an Irish lunate spearhead and some Cypriote finds.

That there were Irish finds in this area is not really surprising. In the area of northern Brittany lived a Celtic tribe which the ancients called the Oestrymians. This tribe was supposedly associated with the Tartessians, and were said to have helped those people mine the Scilly Islands off the southwest coast of Britain. That Celtic tribes as far apart as the Oestrymians and the Irish traded with one another is not surprising.

There is also an ancient tradition in Ireland that that island was invaded by the Irish from northern Spain. This was the group that tradition terms the Milesians.

It was often thought that the Phoenicians themselves mined the Scilly Islands. However, this new information tells us that the Tartessians, with the help of the local Oestrymians, actually mined the islands for tin. It makes sense, because in more historically recorded times, none other than Julius Caesar recorded how the Veneti, a Gaulish Celtic tribe in the same area of Brittany, were accomplished mariners. It is perhaps possible that the Oestrymians and the Veneti were even one and the same tribe, or closely related to one another.

There is also a direct tie-in between the Tartessians and Celtic tribes in the Iberian peninsula itself. That there were so-called Celt-Iberian tribes in what is now Spain and Portugal, has long been known. There has been found bits and pieces of various Celtic deities, such as one called Endovellicus. This deity was supposedly worshipped over a large area of southwestern Spain back then. Endovellicus was associated with the underworld or Otherworld. Endovellicus was an oracular deity and had only one temple, surrounded by minor shrines. Endovellicus was also associated with the boar, which was an extremely popular animal with the ancient Celts. Boars figure prominently in surviving Celtic tales. Laurel and pine were also associated with this god, which represented immortality.

It has also been speculated that Endovellicus was associated with several other Celtic deities such as Succelos (Dis Pater) and Cernunnos, the last being a horned or antlered god of fertility and plenty. The "Anacreon" by Strabo also links Tartessus with the popular demi-god Heracles. The first king of Tartessus was supposed to have been named Habis, who made laws to unite the people. The Tartessians also had close ties to the eastern Greeks, especially the lost Greek colony called Mainake in southwestern Spain.

Wherever the ancient city of Tartessus is located, it was important in the ancient world. Perhaps one day someone will find this important, but little-known world. Then the legacy of Adolph Schulten will be remembered.



Copyright Steven A. Arts 2001

Steven A. Arts has had over 350 articles published regionally, nationally, internationally and online, along with many of his own photographs. Mr. Arts lives in western Iowa. He can be reached at hoosier553@yahoo.com.