Thanda Island
Luxury Travel

The Atlantis of Africa May Be Hiding Near a New Private Island Retreat

Ultra-luxe digs meet archeological ruins in the Zanzibar archipelago.

On a clear day in February 2013, the turbulent waters off the coast of Mafia Island, one of the islets in the Zanzibar archipelago, had fallen to an unusually low tide. A few nautical miles away, a strange formation poked above sea level. A helicopter whirred overhead.

For years, the "lost city" of Rhapta had baffled scholars, divers, and archaeologists. Dating to roughly 50 A.D., it was originally documented in Ptolemy’s Geography as Africa’s first metropolis—and a trading hub for tortoiseshell and metal weapons. It was one of the wealthiest cities of its time. Yet little has been added to Rhapta’s story since its disappearance more than 1,600 years ago, aside from the vague discovery that its remains were buried somewhere off the coast of Tanzania.

This is the picture I took from a helicopter from a distance and after zooming in saw the shape of the structure and went to investigate.

Ruins of a buried city, possibly Rhapta, as seen from a helicopter in February 2013.

Source: Seaunseen

Now there’s reason to believe that the algae-covered formation spotted from the skies in 2013 could be the mysterious sunken city. Pushing the theory is diver Alan Sutton, who documents hidden wreck sites and blue holes online—and who spotted the ruins from the helicopter. His first instinct? To strap on his fins and get a closer look. But the ruins proved difficult to locate, and it took repeat attempts over the course of three years to pinpoint their whereabouts. Finally, over three years later, on March 21 of this year, Sutton struck gold.

Among his finds: walled structures, some still connected to their original fortifications, and pieces of pottery. The cultural artifacts are currently being dated—a process that may confirm or deny whether the ruins could correspond to the lost city of Rhapta—but early signs are pointing toward a possible match.

An underwater look at the north wall, one of several ruins that researchers are now investigating.

Source: Seaunseen

Adding to the evidence is archaeologist Felix Chami from the University of Dar es Salaam. His work with villagers in nearby Jojo have recently confirmed sightings of “underwater houses” in the vicinity. Members of the Jojo community insist that the sunken city was the work of their Portuguese ancestors, but Chami believes there is a strong possibility that the Portuguese had built on top of someone else’s ruins. 

One of five bedrooms (left) and a dining room at Thanda Island.

Source: Thanda Island

While more official research gets under way, diving enthusiasts and history buffs can explore the site for themselves. To do so, they can head to neighboring Thanda Island—a newly opened, $10,000 per night private island retreat—where guests can take guided dives around the mysterious formations. Unlike research stations associated with most archaeological discoveries of this magnitude, Thanda makes a for a plush base camp. Among other things, the five-bedroom villa is stocked with its own spa, cigar humidor, copper bath tubs, and a glass-walled pool.

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The main villa at Thanda Island.

Source: Thanda Island
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The typical scuba experience in the Zanzibar archipelago puts divers face to face with whale sharks and sea turtles.

Source: Thanda Island
A view of some blocks on the south side of north wall with Athumani Bakari from Mafia Island who helped us find the place.

Mafia Island local Athumani Bakari walks across sections of the north wall, one of the newly-discovered fortifications, at low tide.

Source: Seaunseen
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