THE LOST CITY OF TARTESSUS
by Steven A.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.