A kingdom once existed in Western Europe that has been described as semi-legendary and even mythical. Several historians make reference to it, but archaeologists have never found it. It is said to have had at one time one of the largest navies in the world. The kingdom is Tartessus. The director of the Anglo-Spanish-American School of Archeology has made the claim that Tartessus was nothing short of Atlantis in Spain.
The first mention we often hear of this nation is from the Bible. One passenger on a Tartessian ship was the biblical Jonah. According to the Book of Jonah, he was told by God to preach in the city of Nineveh, which was in the land of Assyria. In biblical times it was a dangerous place; today it is Mosul, and still dangerous. The citizens of Nineveh worshipped the goddess Ishtar, and Jonah was told to bring his male-centric God to the people. He knew it was unlikely that he would be welcomed. So instead of heading east, he went to Joppa and boarded a ship heading west to what the Bible calls ‘Tarshish.’ A great storm threatened to capsize the ship so the sailors decided it was Jonah who had caused such bad luck. They threw him overboard and a great fish swallowed him. He repented and escaped the fish and eventually followed God’s command.
Tarshish is the biblical name for Tartessus, which may simply be an Aramaic translation of the name.
The Jonah story was one of the earliest records of this lost civilization, but it is believed that Tartessian ships carried goods from the west to Israel during the reign of King Solomon. Silver, gold, and copper as well as Barbary Apes were imported. Spain was rich in silver, and the Gibraltar area is famous for the Barbary Apes, so this was a hint at just where Tartessus was located. Some have said that the entire country of Spain was Tartessus; others believe it is the area known as Andalucia.
Who Were the Tartessians?
It may be the Tartessians were an offshoot of the Iberian peoples. The two groups are described as having much in common. Both had a language that remained undecipherable until recently. And the translations are based on the incorporation of the Phoenician language that took place around 1200 BC. The language of the Basque peoples, the Etruscan language, and the Tartessian language are representations of the handful of non-Indo-European languages in Europe. The extinct Etruscan language is described as unique.
The Iberian people were known in Spain from ancient times. Some believe they arrived from Northern Africa, and linguist Barry Fell claims they shared a writing system. He also recognized Basque words as related. The word ‘Arano’ means eagle in both languages. Gaelic tradition asserts that the Irish were originally from Iberia. The oldest Gaelic name for Ireland is Ibheriu.
From the Bible we know the Tartessians were ruled by kings and mentioned with princes of the isles—very likely islands like Corsica and the Balearics.
Their merchants were famed for their wealth and were known to sail into the Atlantic where the “east wind” mentioned in Psalm 48 could drive sailors out into the Atlantic. Ezekial also mentions them as bringing all sorts of riches to the markets of the east, especially to the port city of Tyre. These included silver, iron, lead, and tin. The tone of Isaiah makes it seem that the Semites regarded their trading partners as a necessary evil. The Phoenicians would go after the Tartessian monopoly of metals.
Where Were Their cities?
It was said the capital of Tartessus was a city of the same name, but no one has ever found just where that city might be. The place considered most likely is at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, which flows into the sea from Seville. A triangle exists from Seville to Huelva and down to the mouth of the Guadalquivir River. Niebla, outside of modern Huelva, was once a source of silver and today is a rich source for archeological finds. It is at the mouth of the Rio Tinto and, again, a source for silver mined nearby and upriver. Once called Ilipla, it was settled by Iberians long before 1200 BC, when Phoenicians arrived. It is believed Iberian people were trading with Libyans (of North Africa) for thousands of years.
The Rio Tinto mine is considered one of the oldest mines in the world and still produces copper.
Not far from Huelva is a modern day town by the name of ‘Tharsis.’ It has a population of 1800 and is home to a mining museum. There is little to show for a civilization once considered wealthy. The name and the copper and sulphur names do serve to boost the claim that a capital city was nearby 3000 years ago. Michael Grant’s Guide to the Ancient World points out that the modern Guadalquivir River was once the River Baetis, and it in turn was referred to as the Tartessus.
Even 2,000 years ago the historian Strabo described attempts to locate Tartessus that were unsuccessful. The Greek historian Herodotus describes trade with the civilization in 600 BC where silver, tin, and bronze is exported to Greece. Relations with the King Arganthonius were good, and the Tartessian king gave the Ionians funds to build a wall to protect their country from the Persians. The Greeks had initially made contact with Arganthonius when a Greek sea captain by the name of Kolaios was blown off course. He traded his cargo for a boatload of silver bullion. Despite this, the Greeks referred to Tartessus as beyond their reach.
Arganthonius lived for 120 years and reigned for 80 years. He names other kings as well, but they take on mythical aspects. One claims the founding ruler was Geryon. The cattle of Geryon were also said to have brought great wealth to the area. In the tenth labor of Hercules, the hero had to journey to the end of the world to steal cattle and kill the king. An alternate myth has a man named Habis, whose father had an incestuous liaison with his daughter. The child was abandoned and raised by wild animals. He would rise above his circumstances and become the king. Habis was said to have brought agriculture to the area and proclaimed himself a god. The area of such adventures was alternately described as Erytheia and later associated with Tartessus. Erytheia means the “red one” and is a name meaning the “distant West.” The Greek Hesiod calls the Hesperides ‘the daughters of the night.’ They and Strabo claimed the garden of the Hesperides was in Tartessus.
The Beginning of the End
While there is no mention in any of the histories of the elusive kingdom being a military power, we may assume that peace brought prosperity, especially before they had competition. Then the Tartessians made a serious mistake. In possession of much of southern Spain, they allowed Phoenicians to establish a port in an area they might have considered their own. The Roman historian Velleius dates the founding of Cadiz to 80 years after the Trojan War, which many date to 1184 BC. At first the arrival of the Phoenicians may have been considered beneficial to trade. Later it may have been that the interlopers were creating their own monopoly and taking business away from the Tartessians. They managed to form their own colony at Cadiz instead of just a port.
In ancient times Cadiz was referred to as Gades believed to be from a Phoenician word Ha-gadir meaning walled. The modern city of Agadir in Morocco may have, from the same root. There are only legends, and Gadeiros was a son of Poseidon. He was the twin brother of Atlas. The Atlas Mountains of Morocco are south of the Pillars of Hercules while Cadiz/Gades is north. Atlas and Gadeiros are known as two of the ten kings of Atlantis.
Cadiz was the gateway to the Atlantis, and the Phoenicians quickly began to infringe upon the Tartessian trade. Phoenician ships traveled north to the Cornwall area of Britain, where tin was mined from 2000 BC. Had they taken over the tin routes from the Tartessians? Only recently have these ancient mines closed. Tin might have been the most important commodity in the ancient world, as without it, bronze could not be made.
While the Phoenicians were building their fortified stockade as well as their trading activities, the world of Tartessus was shrinking. It is unknown if they had to defend themselves militarily or if the loss of their trade monopoly caused a gradual decline. Around the sixth century BC the Carthaginians may have defeated Tartessus. Certainly by 500 BC they simply faded away.
The Carthaginians went to war against Rome and eventually were driven out of Spain by Roman conquest. Once they had expelled the Carthaginians, the Romans went to war with the Iberian peoples, the Celtiberians and the Lusitanians.
Lost and Found?
The search for Tartessus has been disappointing. A German historian and archaeologist, Adolf Schulten, led several expeditions between 1905 and 1924. Schulten excavated the Celtiberian city of Numantia and several other Spanish cities but could not locate Tartessus. He believed it was at the mouth of the Guadalquiver River. Others believe it was at Jerez de la Frontera, now simply referred to as Jerez. This city is inland, northeast from Cadiz. Still another candidate is the port city of Huelva.
At Huelva a shipwreck with 400, highly prized bronze weapons, was found dating to 750 BC. Another Tartessian horde was found 36 miles northeast of Alicante in what is called the Spanish Levant. This port area is inside the Mediterranean Sea. The treasure itself was discovered in the bed of a dried-up river. The treasure can now be found in a small museum nearby in Villena. Described as the greatest treasure ever discovered on the Iberian Peninsula, the horde consists of gold, silver, and iron dating to 1000 BC.
Still another treasure dating to 600 BC was uncovered outside of Seville. Zuniga, the seventeenth century author of the Anales de Sevilla describes the sources as unique, possibly so ancient they no longer exist. He described Seville as a lake village when Hercules arrived with his relative Atlas. Hercules built the city himself, or so the legend goes. Inhabitants still regard it as the Alameda of Hercules.
Here a Sun Temple had been built reflecting the religion of the ancient Iberians and Tartessians. Global catastrophes have buried the Sun Temple and the Temple of Hercules five meters or more. These were discovered in the sixteenth century by workers cleaning out what they believed was a well.
More recently, there is evidence that the city of Tartessus lies beneath an area of the Coto Donana in the Marsh of Hinojo. Aerial images of these wetlands, which comprises one of the largest nature reserves in Europe, reveal unusual circular and rectangular forms under the marsh. Such concentric circles are reminiscent of Plato’s description of Atlantis. One area being researched covers two-and-a-half miles and contains one rectangular structure that measures 750 feet by 525 feet. German historian Rainer Kuhne refers to it as the Temple of Poseidon. Author Elena Maria Whitshaw believes this was the setting for Atlantis. The Donana wetlands are an ever-shifting landscape of dunes, sandbanks, and marshes and are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Because it is assumed the area was always underwater, little was done; but evidence of sand in the subsoil where there should only be clay may mean these forms may be the ruins of a submerged city. The former assumptions have been put to rest and now it appears that these modern wetlands were once not only inhabited but also used for agriculture, fishing, and salt panning. Historically the Iberian coast has suffered through earthquakes and tsunamis, the last one in 1755, devastating the area just south of Lisbon and sinking an area with the intriguing name of Troia.
Could such an event have resulted in the disappearance of the capital of the once-great Tartessus?