I met Jill Yesko at Killer Nashville earlier this year. We struck up a conversation about South American history, and she told me the story below. As soon as I heard it, I knew I wanted to share it on MIE. So, allow me to introduce Jill. She is the author of “Murder in the Dog Park” and the just-launched “Dog Spelled Backwards.” She was a doctoral candidate in cultural geography at Syracuse University, and you can find her at www.murderinthedogpark.com.
Annamaria - Monday
The maps were blank, the directions lousy, but explorers for 300 years knew that the fabled Lost City of the Caesars was just beyond the next ridge...
Paul Theroux, author of The Old Patagonian Express, was right when he wrote, “nowhere is a place.”
Patagonia is a place—and a big one at that. While programs like Google Earth have put maps at our fingertips, seventeenth-century cartographers found the interior of Patagonia such a cipher that they labeled it “Incognita.” For centuries, Patagonia’s geographic isolation at the bottom of the Americas helped foster an image of a tabula rasa onto which explorers and writers projected their hopes and fears.
Spanish explorers seized on Patagonia as a location for El Dorado, the golden treasure trove they took to be just around the bend anywhere they went in the Americas. Local Indians were only too happy to rid themselves of bothersome Spanish invaders by directing them to supposed lands of gold far into the uttermost reaches of Patagonia.
In 1515, the Spaniard explorer Juan de Solis and his men were attacked by Indians while exploring the area near present day Buenos Aires. Rumor spread that the survivors of de Solis’ party trekked inland toward Patagonia. There they stumbled upon a fantastic city inhabited by a race of white men.
In 1528, Francisco Cesar claimed to find a city of immense wealth in the Andes that he called the Ciudad de los Cesares–the City of Caesars.
Hearing the same rumor, Jesuit missionaries in Patagonia, believing the so-called City of Caesars to be an island of salvation in a “sea of barbarism,” joined the search for what they thought to be wayward Christians. In 1766, the Jesuit Father José García Alsue explored the area now part of Chile searching for the City of the Caesars.
Keeping the legend of the Lost City of Caesars alive was beneficial to the Spanish and British crowns. Both monarchies used the myth of city of lost “whites” in a game of colonial one upmanship. Under the premise of ferreting out the Lost City, Spanish and British monarchs established outposts in the most remote corners of Patagonia to keep track of rival colonists.
By the close of the Age of Exploration, scientists exploring Patagonia showed little enthusiasm for accounts of fanciful kingdoms and lost tribes. Naturalists like Charles Darwin trained their attentions on Patagonia’s flora and fauna rather than legends. Writing in his Beagle diary, Darwin recounted the sublime beauty of the Patagonian landscape while ranting against the “cannibal” Fuegan Indians he encountered.
Too cynical to believe in lost kingdoms of white gods, Darwin wrote that Patagonia is “el fin de Cristiandad,”—the end of the line for any hope of discovering reclusive Christian souls.
More than two centuries after Darwin, a group called the Delphos Foundation reportedly discovered a fortress in Argentina’s Rio Negro province that they claim is part of one of the many fortresses of the City of the Caesars. They believe the fortress was built by the Knights Templars to protect the Holy Grail which was smuggled to the Americas.
In Patagonia, it seems, old legends die hard.