A map of the Mediterranean, showing where new land would create Atlantropa

Over untold millennia, the crust of the Earth has rearranged itself from a single huge continent to our current configuration of, depending on how you prefer to define the term, five to seven continents. (For example, the division between Europe and Asia is arbitrary, and from a geological point of view, it’s just one continuous landmass—Eurasia. Ditto for North and South America.) But if a proposal put forth in 1927 had gone forward, the number of continents would have been reduced by one, with Europe (or Eurasia) and Africa joining to form a new continent called Atlantropa.

Herman Sörgel, a German engineer and architect, came up with the idea to basically cut off the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean by building a huge dam, 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) long, across the Strait of Gibraltar, as well as four other dams elsewhere in the Mediterranean. His calculations indicated that without the constant influx of new water from the ocean, the Mediterranean’s sea level would lower by as much as 200 meters, in the process creating some 600,000 square kilometers (about 230,000 square miles) of new land and joining Europe to Africa. The dams, apart from creating new land, would produce massive amounts of hydroelectric power. The project would also involve creating artificial lakes that would irrigate the Sahara desert, and a waterway that would serve as a shipping channel deep into Africa.

Sörgel’s idea was to give Europeans lots of room to expand without having to invade anyone’s country, create enormous numbers of jobs (the engineering project was expected to take a century to complete), provide water to the desert, produce vast amounts of farmland, and make Europe more competitive with the Americas and Asia.

And I know what you’re thinking: what’s not to love about all that? Well…for starters, it pretty much ignored the autonomy of every nation in Africa, not to mention erasing vast stretches of coastline and moving formerly coastal cities (dependent, as they naturally would be, on fishing, shipping and so on) far inland and away from those essential resources. In Sörgel’s plan, the only useful thing about Africa was the extra space it would give to Europeans. And the worldwide implications for climate, sea level, wildlife habitat, and countless other factors that this massive project might affect were either ignored or considered inconsequential.

There was also the little matter that Germany does not actually border the Mediterranean, and the only way a project like this could go forward would be if all the Mediterranean nations bought in to the idea, cooperated, and provided massive financial support. Although a few nations expressed limited interest, the project never came close to reaching critical mass. Sörgel continued to promote the idea relentlessly, in books and other publications, for 25 years until he died in 1952. Very shortly thereafter, it faded into nothing more than a memory.

Although I admire both creativity and thinking big, this seems like a fabulously misguided plan, and it’s almost certainly to the world’s benefit that it never came to pass.