A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Letter from Dubai: Arise Atlantis!
Volume 62 Number 2, March/April 2009
Updated March 20, 2009
In the hyper-modern but economically crippled emirate, an over-the-top resort channels the ancient legend of a sophisticated civilization that collapsed under its own excesses
The map on the wall looks eerily familiar, but for some reason--maybe it's the dim lighting or the water flowing down the cracked terracotta tiles that make up the complicated cartography--I can't figure out what it represents. Luckily, Blair Badua of Manila, Philippines, is on hand to help me out. "It's the Middle East, and this is Atlantis!" he says, pointing to tiles that depict a stylized torch at the center of the map. Now that he mentions it, I see a pretty clear representation of Iran and the Arabian peninsula. "Atlantis was right here where we are," he adds confidently. "In Dubai."
There is real archaeology in Dubai, the formerly high-flying United Arab Emirate that has experienced a spectacular financial meltdown (it was recently forced to take out a 10 billion dollar emergency loan from its fellow Emirates). The Bronze Age mound of Umm Suqaim (3000 B.C.) and the later Islamic town of Jumeirah (A.D. 600-1000) are just two of the emirate's important sites. Both have been thoroughly excavated, and their artifacts take pride of place in the national museum. But now this country is better known for an altogether different kind of "ancient site"--and Badua is about to tell me all about it.
Outfitted in a safari hat, khaki shorts, and a vest designed to hold trowels and sextants, Badua is the official guide to the "Navigation Room," the first of the "Lost Chambers" that lie beneath the 1,539-room Atlantis resort, which opened last year on one of the famous artificial palm-shaped islands off the coast of Dubai (rumor has it that these artificial islands are now imitating Atlantean legend and are actually slowly sinking). The chambers are equal parts aquarium (the water flowing down the map ends up in a shallow pool that holds freshwater stingrays) and dimly lit, fantastical museum showcasing the exceedingly well-preserved "mystical ruins of Atlantis." They are the lavish centerpiece of the resort's attempts to wrap itself in the aura of Atlantean myth, an effort that extends all the way from the hotel's soaring, ancient-looking spires to its outdoor trash cans, decorated with a graceful "Atlantean" script.
There are no signs in the Lost Chambers, so English-speaking docents wearing adventure gear are stationed in each of the exhibit's rooms, primed to tell visitors about both the abundant marine life on display and the achievements of the super-advanced Atlantean civilization. (Like most workers in Dubai, all the docents are foreigners; if you've read one thing about Dubai other than its recent construction boom, it's probably that the emirate's population is 80 percent expatriate, mainly from South Asia and the Philippines, and that they aren't always treated well.)
Maybe it's because of his enthusiasm, or his ready command of Atlantean history, but Badua is a master guide, and he has an incredible tale to tell. With a straight face he explains that these ruins came to light while the hotel was being built, and that the evidence "we found" shows the Atlanteans were a technologically advanced, peace-loving people ruled by Poseidon's "son" Atlas and a collective of seven sages.
Right away I have a few questions of the spoilsport variety. For starters, I've never heard that Atlas was Poseidon's son--wasn't he much older than the sea god? And secondly, has it ever occurred to Badua that the metaphor of an advanced but ultimately doomed civilization might be an awkward fit for a country that once experienced phenomenal growth but is now in economic free fall? But there's no time for questions. Badua is already ushering me over to a tank of fish that sits in front of an elaborately engraved wall he calls an "ancient hangar." An explanation of Atlantean flying machines follows.
The myth of a lost continent ruled by an advanced civilization first shows up in the works of Plato. His dialogue Critias describes Atlanteans as a people of immense wealth and knowledge whose culture eventually collapses because greed and corruption infect its utopian society and trigger a natural catastrophe.
Atlantis has haunted popular culture ever since. A number of serious and not-so-serious scholars have claimed to locate the lost continent in the middle of the Atlantic, South America, or Southeast Asia, or just about any under-visited corner of the globe you can imagine. Marquee writers have been using the myth as a plot point for ages: Sir Francis Bacon described an advanced utopian society in The New Atlantis, Jules Verne has the crew of the Nautilus run into Atlantis in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt discovered the continent in Atlantis Found.
The resort in Dubai is also not the first of its kind. In 1990s, South African developer Sol Kerzner opened the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, which has become one of the Caribbean's priciest destinations. Using Atlantis as an organizing principle in the Bahamas has a logic to it. In the early 20th century, the well-known psychic Edgar Cayce located the lost civilization off the Bahamian island of Bimini. Natural rock formations discovered near the island that resemble roads have convinced many New Age enthusiasts that Cayce was right. So a lavish Atlantis-themed resort in the Bahamas makes a certain amount of sense.
A $1.5-billion Atlantis in Dubai doesn't follow any logic other than pure economics. The hotel is just one of the most high profile of thousands of new real-estate ventures in Dubai, which in the past 10 years has been making a bid to become the financial and tourism capital of the Middle East. An outlandish marvel of modern architecture, Dubai's skyline is rising out of the desert at a dizzying pace and will soon feature the world's tallest building, a graceful, slender spire that recalls a minaret. (Whether there will be anyone to fill these skyscrapers is another question).
Just 40 years ago, Dubai and the six other United Arab Emirates (UAE) were a relative backwater. Known as the Trucial States and administered by the United Kingdom until 1971, the area had been prosperous in the past. In the Bronze Age and again in the early Islamic era, it was an important stop on the trade routes from Mesopotamia to Oman. The region's significance faded over time, but the development of the oil industry in the mid-20th century changed all that. Collectively, the UAE is now the world's third leading oil exporter and the emirates enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world.
But that won't last. Dubai's oil reserves are expected to run out a decade from now, and its current real-estate boom is a conscious hedge by the government against that day. By positioning Dubai as a financial-services capital and tourist mecca, the sheikhs that run the emirate hope to ensure prosperity far into the future. For them, that means building the world's tallest buildings, the toniest resorts, and the biggest malls (shopping is the prime tourist activity in Dubai). The resulting service-based economy has proved to be one of the biggest of the world's many economic bubbles.
Hotelier Kerzner is known as one of the world's flashiest developers, said to be impervious to broader trends in the market, and the Bahamian Atlantis is his signature property. So building a fantastically expensive homage to the lost continent on the artificial island of Palm Jumeirah, one of Dubai's most high-profile developments, must have had great appeal to the government, which has a big stake in the resort.
The opening last year was the event of the season in Dubai. A fireworks display "visible from space," as the promotional materials claimed, was part of a three-day party that featured A-list Hollywood and Bollywood stars, and drew the kind of glowing press that exclusive resorts thrive on. It's too soon to say whether the Middle Eastern Atlantis will repeat the success of its cousin in the Bahamas, but booking a room (they start at $430) was difficult, if not impossible, last December. But this March online reservations were easy to come by. It doesn't take a financial wizard to see the hotel is in real danger of going under along with the rest of the world's economy.
Atlantis, Dubai, isn't a carbon copy of the original hotel on Paradise Island. For one, there is no casino, because Islam forbids games of chance. More artistically, the hotel incorporates Islamic motifs, such as Moorish arches, giving the resort a Middle Eastern flavor. But for my purposes, the most important differences lie between the ruins of the "Lost Chambers" of Dubai and their counterpart in the Bahamas, known as the "Dig."
Like the Lost Chambers, the Dig is a hybrid aquarium/pseudo-archaeological wonderland with an origin myth and backstory all its own. Artist Charles White, the CEO of California design firm Olio, worked on both. "The Dig in the Bahamas had a Maya, Egyptian theme," says White. "We invented our own system of hieroglyphs, since both those cultures used them--and they were the most plausible cultures that would have been related to Atlantis if it was in the Bahamas." For Dubai, the designers went in another direction. "We thought Mesopotamian cultures were more appropriate for the emirates. So the writing we use on the walls and so forth is a script, like they used." Still, Olio did not feel compelled to accurately represent any ancient culture. "We wanted it to be as high tech as possible, but still with an ancient feel. So we used our imaginations, mostly."
One element that White and his team lifted directly from history is the legend of the Apkallu, or Seven Sages. Texts from the Neo-Assyrian era (934-609 B.C.) mention seven wise and powerful figures who are credited with having built the walls of Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The designers had a field day with this. "We took that idea and figured the seven sages were technologically advanced wise men who helped Atlas rule Atlantis. They were a key idea for us." When I ask him if the use of the seven sages was also a deliberate reference to the seven sheikhs of the seven emirates of the UAE, he laughs. "That's the first I've heard that. But I tell you what, in the room we call the Red Sage chamber, the stars on the ceiling are arranged exactly as they would have been on the night of the UAE's founding [on December 2, 1971]."
In the Bahamas, there are no direct political references in the Dig, but Olio did put an emphasis on Atlantean religion, and the image of a sacred bull was critical to the design. In Dubai, that motif became highly stylized. "We were conscious that Islam forbids graven images, so we didn't want to emphasize that. Instead, we used horns as a motif, but not the full-on representations of the sacred bull that we have in the Dig."
Overall, White tells me he is happy with what he accomplished with the Lost Chambers. "The most gratifying thing I can hear is when people come out and ask 'Did that really happen? Was there really an Atlantis?' That's when I know I've done my job. When people are looking at history, looking at their environment a little differently than when they came in."
For Syracuse University archaeologist Samantha Rebovich, when people leave Atlantis wondering if there really was a lost continent in the Bahamas or the Persian Gulf, a little piece of her dies inside. Also a Fulbright fellow at National Parks Antigua, Rebovich has written two papers on the Bahamian Atlantis that explore the intersection of resort tourism and archaeology. "I'm interested in how Atlantis blurs the boundaries between theme resort and historic site," she says, pointing out that, unlike the exhibit in Dubai, the Paradise Island Atlantis begins with a room that purports to show a vintage 1920s archaeologist's office featuring, among other things, "a huge trowel. Just a mammoth trowel that you would never use on an archaeological site."
Still, she continues "the Dig has a real sense of authority. Even though it doesn't have any interpretative material, it does an impressive job of presenting an alternative, though wildly off-base, vision of the past." When she speaks about the sums involved in creating an artificial civilization, it's with a noticeable touch of envy.
She does seem to have a sense of humor about the endeavor. "After all, it's a tourist attraction. It's meant for entertainment." But she notes that there are serious issues at play in the resort. "If people think, even subconsciously, that this is how archaeology works, or how ancient cultures work, that's a problem."
Erica Knott came to Atlantis, Dubai, after working at the resort's Bahamian counterpart, and is in charge of interpretation at the Lost Chambers. After weeks of back and forth with the Atlantis public relations folks, she has arranged to give me a private tour of the site, after I've already been through on my own a few times.
Though she's not wearing the explorer's garb that is mandatory for the docents she supervises, the diminutive black-haired Knott has an enthusiastic delivery that recalls Badua's, and like him, she tells the story of Atlantis with a straight face. Beginning with the "discovery" of the ruins during the construction of the resort, she embraces her role as guide like the best National Park ranger at Mesa Verde. After lecturing me on Plato, she leads the way into the Lost Chambers, which she tells me is essentially "the Atlantean research facility."
We walk past a large glass cylinder that Knott calls the "Entry Portal." It's swarming with scads, mackerels, and anchovies circling like mad, and is actually quite lovely. Soon we're in a dim chamber that Knott calls an "ancient phone room." She shows me a gizmo that recalls the large disk featured in the ancient-cross-dimensional sci-fi thriller Stargate. According to Knott, this is how the seven sages communicated with notables in faraway countries.
The highlight of the tour might be the Abyss Room, which features a huge bronze and leather "elevator" that took Atlanteans down to the center of the earth, where they mined crystals and diamonds. Leather suits that recall gladiator armor line the room, along with drilling tools displayed like artifacts in an art museum, sans labels.
The next stop on the tour is the Red Sage chamber, where the wise men studied the stars. The room also looks out onto the "Ambassador's Lagoon." The resort's massive, central aquarium features sharks, manta rays, and some 250 other species swimming among submerged ruins, which Knott tells me are the remains of a royal court where Atlas and his sages received visiting dignitaries. I can make out an astrolabe, a large stele, and a throne amid the ruins.
But the Blue Sage room is clearly Knott's favorite. This is where the Atlanteans trained for battle, though Knott hastens to add that they were a peaceful people. In niches throughout the room hang a number of weapons, including what Knott calls the "Bow of Anshan" and the "Axe of Heroes," both of which are specifically mentioned in the 7th-century B.C. Akkadian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The fish tank in the Blue Sage room holds piranhas.
Our last big stop is the workshop, where the Atlanteans made products from the ore they mined. All the artifacts here are bronze, an accurate touch, since the designers date Atlantis to about 5,000 years ago, or the early Bronze Age. A large mural in the room depicts an Atlantean giving a shield to Atlas who looks curiously like depictions of the Achaemenid king Cyrus the Great. "We even found the shield," says Knott, pointing to an artifact that rests on a nearby podium, perhaps the most serendipitous find in the history of fictitious archaeology.
The whole tour takes fewer than 40 minutes, but by the end I'm exhausted. Knott still seems to be brimming with energy, as she wishes me a pleasant stay in Dubai.
Outside the Lost Chambers is a series of high-end shops, the most glamorous mall I've ever seen. The floors are covered in mosaics that vaguely recall those in ancient Roman villas, and Atlantean motifs are everywhere. A set of stylized horns are set in a niche opposite a Tiffany's boutique. The walls of a huge chamber called Poseidon's Court that looks out onto the Ambassador's Lagoon are covered with pseudo-ancient tapestries. One depicts a griffin dancing above Stonehenge, another has a Chinese dragon decorated with what seem to be Mesoamerican symbols. I stop to examine a 10-foot-high medieval-style manuscript that incorporates Roman, Aztec, and Egyptian motifs, but soon cut short my close inspection of it when I realize there are a bevy of Italian tourists waiting to take their picture with the tapestry.
The polyglot crowd flowing through the halls includes Russians, Germans, Arabs, Chinese, Africans, Indians, and Australians, all of whom are gawking at the marine life and pausing to take pictures of the trappings of a lost world.
When I see three amphorae decorated with Minoan themes tucked in a corner, I can't help myself, and ask a young Arab man to use my camera to take my picture with them. As a tourist, I appreciate what Atlantis has to offer; it's hard to resist the outrageously overproduced theatrical environment. There's no question people are enjoying the exotic link to antiquity, but I'm unsettled by it. Over a billion dollars has been spent here to create a past that is a generic mishmash of ancient cultures. Dubai has an excellent, if small, national museum. But I wonder how many of these people will see it. Nothing in the resort links visitors to Dubai's authentic past. It's almost as if the emirate has none.
Not far up the coast from Atlantis are the ruins of the medieval city of Jumeirah. The former trading hub and port was founded as early as the 6th century A.D., and flourished in the Abbasid period, from the 9th to 10th centuries A.D., when it was one of the largest early Islamic cities on the Persian Gulf. First excavated in 1969 by the American University in Cairo, the 20-acre site today consists of 6 visible structures, including a mosque, a marketplace, a caravansari, and a large residential building where archaeologists recovered intricate plaster moldings.
The ruins aren't in any guidebook to Dubai that I've read (though the Mercado, a nearby medieval-Italian-themed shopping mall, is in all of them). So Jumeirah, nestled in a community of upscale villas, is seldom visited, even though, for my money, the contrast between the ruins and the dramatic skyline of Dubai makes for one of the most extraordinary views in the city.
I'm all alone at the site when I arrive, and there are only a few footprints in the sand to indicate Jumeirah has been visited by anyone recently. The Egyptian guard at the gate, a solicitous man named Doad Hussein, gives me an excellent brochure that explains the history of the site, and I spend two hours walking this small patch of antiquity, enjoying the quiet contrast of the remains to the go-go atmosphere that permeates Dubai's resorts, malls, and, especially, Atlantis, where a dozen languages echo through the halls. Here in Jumeirah, I can hear birds for the first time since I arrived in Dubai.
At 12:15, the call to prayer echoes from the loudspeakers of at least four different mosques in the neighborhood and a breeze begins to blow in from the sea. As the last notes of the muezzin fade away, I imagine the same beautiful, keening sound as it must have echoed through this site more than 1,000 years ago (minus the tinny sound introduced by the loudspeakers). I begin to notice porcelain and other sherds that litter the ground and testify to an era when this was a bustling place of commerce, not unlike the imposing skyscrapers in the distance.
I need one last trip to Atlantis, so I cut short my visit and walk to Jumeirah's exit. I might stop by the Mercado, too, just to see what an Italian-themed mall in Dubai is like. Even my modest motel has a shuttle that runs to it several times a day.
As I walk through the gate, it occurs to me that while commerce in Dubai can trace its heritage to this site, it's not a surprise ancient Jumeirah seems like an afterthought in modern Dubai. In the end, the sand swallows everything, even the most high-performing civilizations. And when that time comes for the towering, space-age skyline of Dubai, it will leave behind a ruin that will inspire myths to put Atlantis to shame.
Eric A. Powell is deputy editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.Share