Image: NASA

Deep within Mauritania, there’s a vast and strange formation of rocks that looks almost like an enormous fossil sunken into the sands. The curious geological phenomenon also bears a marked resemblance to a part of the human body, and this has earned it an appropriate nickname: the Eye of the Sahara. But this unusual dome – officially known as the Richat Structure – is special for more than its appearance. It’s also the center of arguably one of the most divisive conspiracy theories of recent years.

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Spanning a gargantuan 28 miles in diameter, the Richat Structure can be found in the sprawling expanses of the western Sahara. In these harsh environs, humans are few and far between, with most of Mauritania’s population living a good 300 miles away on the Atlantic coast. And altogether, it’s unusual for such a desolate and remote area to spark not only confusion and controversy, but also heated debate.

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In fact, the Richat Structure is arguably every bit as baffling as it is magnificent. And the attraction is certainly a showstopper. Its kaleidoscopic mix of different colors and rocks – all framed by great mountainous peaks – has often inspired awe in those lucky enough to see for themselves. Still, for decades the Richat Structure has perplexed those who have attempted to understand it – with even geologists having scrambled to make sense of its history and formation.

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And although the so-called Eye of the Sahara was witnessed well before man ever made it to the moon, it’s definitely best seen from high above Earth’s surface. Indeed, NASA has claimed that the structure has since “become a landmark for shuttle crews.” There’s a reason for that, too; according to the agency, it’s “a conspicuous bull’s-eye in the otherwise rather featureless expanse of the desert.”

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On the ground, then, the Richat Structure simply doesn’t have the same impact. It’s not typically seen at close range, either. As previously mentioned, much of Mauritania’s population lives hundreds of miles from the site. And foreign visitors usually stay away from the country owing to the volatility that has plagued the region.

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Those who do make it to the Eye of the Sahara may well be disappointed, too. With the aid of an escort, travel writer Francis Tapon made the seldom-attempted journey through the inhospitable desert back in 2018. Then, after a lengthy drive into the Sahara, Tapon’s guide shared with him some disappointing and seemingly improbable news: they had failed to find the 28-mile-wide phenomenon.

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Yet as it turned out, a subsequent GPS search revealed that at one point the pair had been right in the center of the Eye. So, the territory may have appeared unremarkable on the ground. “We felt like failures, but the adventure was fun regardless,” Tapon later wrote for Forbes. “Perhaps an astronaut was admiring [the Richat Structure] right while I was driving through it.”

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The writer went on, “Astronauts love to observe the Eye of the Sahara from space because it looks like the landing site of a 40-kilometer-wide flying saucer.” And, indeed, there have long been links between space travel and the Richat Structure – although not because any extraterrestrial beings have ever put down their craft there.

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Astronauts’ unique vantage point above the Earth have in fact allowed them to capture an image of the Richat Structure in all its glory. In June 1965 the crew of NASA’s Gemini IV were tasked with photographing areas of geological interest on our planet. Naturally, then, Edward White and James McDivitt did just as they had been asked, taking snaps of various sites across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the U.S. and Mexico. And in the process, the two men produced a picture of the Richat Structure – even though they hadn’t been directly told to do so.

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Rather, White and McDivitt had been asked to photograph any areas of land that appeared to mark the origins of impact structures. Ultimately, then, the shot of the Richat Structure was merely one of around 100 pictures taken on the mission – and it acts, NASA has claimed, as “a good example of opportunistic photography.”

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When seeing the Eye of the Sahara from above, though, the astronauts could very well have been fooled into thinking that it was the site of an impact structure. Owing to the Eye’s distinctive appearance, it’s been suggested that it first came into being as the result of a meteor strike.

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After all, a meteorite leaves a circular crater – and one that could be dozens of miles across – at the point of impact. With this in mind, it doesn’t seem like a great leap to assume that the Richat Structure was formed as the result of a violent confrontation between flying space debris and the Earth’s crust.

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But this hypothesis lacks some crucial supporting evidence. Meteorites, you see, will strike land at unfathomable speeds – upwards of 25,000 mph. So, owing in part to this sheer velocity, rock at the point of collision may become instantly molten. And as that affected area begins to cool down, a new geological feature known as impact melt rock is created.

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This is where the meteorite theory falls apart, as the land around the Richat Structure appears to be distinctly lacking in impact melt rock. Overall, it therefore seems that there has been no such cataclysmic event at the site. So, what else could explain the strange phenomenon?

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Well, geologists Guillaume Matton and Michel Jébrak have put forward another suggestion as to the Eye’s origins. In particular, the Canadian academics have theorized that the structure was created more than 100 million years ago. During that period, they claim, the supercontinent Pangaea was splitting apart, leaving molten rock to force its way up in the direction of the Earth’s crust.

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This process then apparently created a vast protrusion in what is now the circular center of the Eye of the Sahara. And, ultimately, this dome is thought to have collapsed – thus creating part of the structure we see today. But what accounts for the rest of the unusual sight?

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In essence, it’s all down to the erosion that has taken place in the area over the centuries. And this wear and tear goes some way to explaining the Richat Structure’s bright hues. The rocks that have proved less susceptible to eroding now make up raised ridges in eye-catching shades of blue and purple; those more likely to disintegrate, on the other hand, have given way to yellow valleys.

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But while there may now be a credible theory explaining how the Eye of the Sahara first formed, some mysteries are far from solved. Jébrak therefore wants to go back to Mauritania to further investigate the structure and its array of unusual rock forms – including kimberlites, which occasionally host diamonds.

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And the Eye of the Sahara isn’t the only part of the region to excite geologists. For instance, the nearby Kediet ej Jill mountain features not only the tallest peak in the country, but also its own magnetic field. The landmark therefore causes havoc with compasses, as it’s comprised entirely of the oxide mineral magnetite.

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Thanks to these rocks, the mountain has a distinctive blue tinge. But the conspiracy theory surrounding this part of the Mauritanian Sahara doesn’t actually concern Kediet ej Jill and its bizarre properties. Instead, it’s all to do with the Richat Structure – and what may once have dwelled there.

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And popular YouTube channel Bright Insight has made waves for a particularly outlandish claim. Bright Insight is the work of a man known only as Jimmy, and the video in which he declares his hypothesis about the Eye of the Sahara has achieved more than four million views to date.

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Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean Jimmy’s theory has been unanimously accepted. Yale assistant professor Steven Novella, for one, is highly skeptical of the premise laid out in the video, which he has called “an excellent example of crank pseudoscience.” In a 2018 post on his NeuroLogica Blog, Novella further asserts that Jimmy is simply “[blowing] a lot of smoke to convince the naive that there’s a fire.”

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Others, however, have been happy to take Jimmy’s side. “History should be taught in school like this,” one YouTube user wrote in the comments section to the video. “[It’s] critical [and] thought-provoking with facts and discoveries.” And at present, the clip has 150,000 likes – suggesting perhaps that there are many viewers out there who agree with the host.

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Yet regardless of whether Jimmy’s theory has any basis in reality or not, it’s certainly fascinating to contemplate. The origins of the tale date back to 350 B.C., and ever since its subject has captured the imaginations of millions – from historians and archaeologists to psychics and occultists.

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Ultimately, then, Jimmy claims that the Eye of the Sahara is of great historical significance. This now scarcely populated stretch of desert, it’s been argued, was once home to many thousands of people. Apparently, though, after sea levels rapidly rose, the land was subsequently submerged under the ocean – leaving its population lost and its former glory consigned only to myth.

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Yes, if Jimmy is to be believed, the Richat Structure was once the site of the fabled island of Atlantis. According to legend, Atlantis succumbed to its terrible fate many millennia ago, with natural disasters having laid waste to the small nation and its people. And ever since, the true location of the landmass has been the subject of fevered debate. But is there actually anything to support Jimmy’s unusual claim?

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Well, the first mention of Atlantis came by way of Plato’s dialogues Timaeus and Critias. These works in turn are said to have been inspired by accounts by Greek magistrate Solon, who apparently suggested that Atlantis was obliterated in roughly 11,600 BC. And, interestingly, this proposal could theoretically be backed up by the Younger Dryas impact hypothesis.

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The Younger Dryas impact hypothesis posits that an object from space – either a comet or an asteroid – hit Earth approximately 12,800 years ago. And the vast climatic changes that ensued as a result of this strike could very well have left at least portions of the Sahara underwater.

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Jimmy suggests, too, that the size and shape of Plato’s Atlantis matches up with that of the Richat Structure. Yet there’s some discrepancy when it comes to the measurements. In his work, the ancient philosopher describes the lost island as having been 127 stadia wide – or the equivalent of 14.5 miles. According to NASA, though, the diameter of the Eye of the Sahara is close to twice that size at 28 miles.

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And Jimmy is certainly not the first to cite contentious evidence as proof of Atlantis’ place on the planet. Nor is he alone in speculating upon the island’s potential location. Indeed, when speaking to National Geographic, historical archaeologist Charles Orser quipped, “Pick a spot on the map, and someone has said that Atlantis was there.”

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Orser’s not wrong, either, as possible Atlantis sites have been proposed the world over. One of the more recent claims emerged in 2018, when staff at British surveying firm Merlin Burrows suggested that the island had once been in what is now the Doñana National Park in Spain. And the reported archaeological evidence of a tsunami having taken place in the region could go some way to backing up that theory.

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Even Antarctica has been in the running. Writing in 1958, professor Charles Hapgood proposed that the continent was once in a different part of the globe, with its warmer climate at the time making it much more conducive to life. Apparently, though, movements in the Earth’s crust ultimately pushed Antarctica into a colder region that left it smothered in ice – and its people lost forever.

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Yet another theory links Atlantis to the ancient Greek island of Thera, which is said to have been situated near to current-day Santorini. Back in the second millennium B.C., the catastrophic Minoan eruption laid waste to much of the area – destroying Thera in its entirety. And as a result, there are some parallels to be drawn between the fate of the island and that of Plato’s Atlantis. Yet ultimately it’s said that the timelines simply don’t match.

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So, perhaps the devastation of Atlantis takes its cues from another very real event: the flooding of the Black Sea. It’s claimed that before 5600 B.C. this huge body of water didn’t exist as we know it today; instead, it was a mere lake. When the Mediterranean Sea poured into the region, though, it not only boosted the levels of the lake but displaced the pockets of civilization at its shores. So, could Plato have used this moment in time as the basis for the events surrounding Atlantis?

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We’ll probably never know for sure, but there’s general consensus among academics that Atlantis likely never existed. Australian geologist Patrick Nunn, for example, is adamant that the Atlantis story is a mythical tale. And it’s worth noting that Plato himself lived in a country that was no stranger to volcanic and seismic activity.

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Speaking to the BBC in 2016, Nunn explained, “[Plato] observed what was going on, and he used details from these observations to make his narrative about Atlantis sound more credible.” Altogether, then, the professor is skeptical. “I think there’s no way that we could consider Atlantis as a particular place,” he added.

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Plato’s credibility on the matter was even apparently brought into question by his most famous student. Yes, according to Greek philosopher Strabo, the great Aristotle once quipped that his former teacher was prone to inventing whole countries – before annihilating them at the drop of a hat.

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Meanwhile, Bard College classics professor James Romm has claimed that the tale of Atlantis simply served to shore up some of the concepts underpinning Plato’s work. Talking to National Geographic, Romm explained, “[Plato’s] ideas about divine versus human nature, ideal societies, the gradual corruption of human society – these ideas are all found in many of his works. Atlantis was a different vehicle to get at some of his favorite themes.”

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It’s certainly curious that of the litany of texts that survive from Ancient Greece, Plato’s are the only writings that make reference to Atlantis. Could it really be possible that Plato was the only philosopher of his era to possess – and document – knowledge of the great land?

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In any case, the longevity and impact of the Atlantis story are undeniable. “It’s a great myth. It has a lot of elements that people love to fantasize about,” Romm told National Geographic. Even two millennia on from the description that started it all, many still seem eager to locate the fabled island. And who can blame them?

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