Discovery Of Sunken City of Heracleion Near Alexandria Turned Myths Into Reality
One of the best examples of seeing a legend becoming a reality is the Sunken City of Heracleion. For centuries, the city of Heracleion of Ancient Egypt was shrouded in myths. The city, visited by Paris and Helen of Troy and mentioned by ancient historians

One of the best examples of seeing a legend becoming a reality is the Sunken City of Heracleion. For centuries, the city of Heracleion of Ancient Egypt was shrouded in myths. The city, visited by Paris and Helen of Troy and mentioned by ancient historians such as Diodorus and Herodotus, was lost for nearly a thousand years until the French archaeologist Franck Goddio discovered it in 2000.

In 2000, in the western part of the Abukir Bay near Alexandria, the city of Heracleion was found. At a depth of 45 meters, 6.5 kilometers from the modern coast, Franck Goddio and his team discovered an ancient Egyptian temple and a stele on which the name of the city was engraved.

The ancient city of Heracleion was known to many ancient Greek philosophers, among them Herodotus, who referred to this city in numerous of his writings, although its existence was not proven until the nineteenth century. Also known as Thonis, the city belonged to the Ancient Egyptian civilization and its importance grew particularly during the waning days of the Pharaohs.

Franck Goddio and his team watch the rise to the surface of a colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapy, symbol of abundance and fertility and god of the Nile flood which stood in front of the temple of Heracleion. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

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According to a legend, this lost metropolis had hosted its namesake, Heracles, and lovers Paris and Helen before they fled to Troy. Cleopatra, Egypt’s most famous queen, had even been crowned in one of the temples there. In the Late Period, it was Egypt’s main port for international trade and collection of taxes. Thonis-Heracleion’s infrastructure was divided into more than 6 sea basins.

Franck Goddio with the intact engraved Thonis-Heracleion stele of 1.90 m height, commissioned by Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and almost identical to the Naukratis stele in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Its text names the site where it was erected: Thonis. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Note: The city of Heracleion should not be confused with the city of Heraklion, which is the largest city and the administrative capital of the island of Crete.

The city existed for about 1500 years and covered an area of 11 by 15 kilometers (6.8 x 9.3 miles), and then sank underwater. It happened in the 8th century AD. After removing layers of sand and mud, divers uncovered the extraordinarily well-preserved city with many of its treasures still intact, including the main temple of Amun-Gerb, giant statues of pharaohs, hundreds of smaller statues of gods and goddesses, a sphinx, 64 ancient ships, 700 anchors, stone blocks with both Greek and Ancient Egyptian inscriptions, dozens of gold coins, weights made from bronze and stone.

In 1933, British RAF Group Captain Cull was flying his plane over Aboukir, a Royal Air Force base east of Alexandria in Egypt when he glimpsed something in the water below him. From his vantage point, Cull could make out the outlines of structures beneath the water. Without knowing, Cull located Heracleion, an important ancient Egyptian city that had lain hidden beneath the water for nearly 1500 years.

A golden phial found in Thonis-Heracleion. Phials were shallow dishes used throughout the hellenistic world for drinking and pouring libations.
©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Even before Cull flew over Heracleion, there had been rumors of underwater ruins for over a century. In 1866, Mahmoud Bey El-Falaki, the official astronomer to the Viceroy of Egypt, published a map that located the nearby ancient town of the Canopus on the edge of the coastline. But it took nearly 70 years to identify and excavate the area.

It was only in 1996 when a team of Egyptian and European archaeologists, working under the leadership of Franck Goddio, began to truly explore the uncharted waters of the ancient port. It took years to locate Heracleion itself: the team had to start from scratch by surveying the seabed, taking soil samples, and collecting geophysical information in an effort to locate archaeological remains.

One of the most noteworthy artifacts recovered from the sunken city was a magnificent black stele that stands two meters high and is carved with perfectly preserved hieroglyphics from the beginning of fourth century BC. The stele reveals some of the intricacies of contemporary taxation in Egypt: “His Majesty [Pharaoh Nectanebo I] decreed: Let there be given one-tenth of the gold, of the silver, of the timber, of the processed wood and of all things coming from the sea of the Hau-Nebut [the Mediterranean] … to become divine offerings to my mother Neith,” reads its edict.

The discovery of the stele was of great importance for archaeologists as it helped solve a great mystery: by comparing it to other inscribed monuments, experts were able to determine that Thonis and Heracleion were not, as previously believed, two different towns, but rather one single city is known by both its Egyptian and Greek name respectively.

Heracleion, Menouthis, and some parts of Canopus were located in Abu Qir Bay, and now it is under the surface of the water at a depth of about 10 meters. This is confirmed by the manuscripts of the historians Herodotus and Strabo, but their location was forgotten after Alexander the Great founded Alexandria as the main port of Greece.

Map of Nile Delta showing ancient Canopus, Heracleion, and Menouthis. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In Canopus, in turn, according to the ancient chroniclers, there was a huge temple dedicated to the god Serapis. This temple, according to a legend, was destroyed by the first Christians in the 4th century. A monastery was erected in its place to glorify the martyrdom of numerous saints. It was the head of the god Serapis made of white marble with two faces framed by a beard and curly hair that turned out to be one of the first finds after the start of the first dives.

Archaeologists believe that the ancient island sank due to a series of earthquakes. Scientists also do not reject the possibility that an earthquake accompanied by a tsunami, or all of these factors together, led to the sinking of cities into the sea. In any case, not a single object younger than the second half of the 8th century was raised from the bottom of the sea.



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