Heracleion: The Hidden Ancient Underwater City of Egypt

Historically, a large portion of the ancient world has been either destroyed or buried by nature. The missing bits of ancient history that we require to complete the puzzle of our evolution as humans can be found behind the walls created by previous civilizations. Many individuals are attracted to the phrase “History is a mystery” because it suggests that stories from ancient times are nothing more than fables. One such fascinating discovery is the lost ancient city of Heracleion.

Heracleion

The discovery of artifacts from antiquity, however, has demonstrated that such stories are not mere urban legends on a number of occasions. The Lost City of Heracleion, which was once Egypt’s busiest harbour, was discovered underwater in the year 2000, more than 2,000 years after it was thought to have vanished. Many of its roots can be traced back to the 12th century BC, and it shares many characteristics with Ancient Greece.

Although it was thriving as far back as the Pharaohs’ final reign, archaeologists believe the city was gradually destroyed over time as a result of a mix of earthquakes, tsunamis, and rising sea levels, which caused the city to become debilitated.

After a major flood, most likely around the end of the 2nd century BC, the massive buildings of Heracleion fell into the river, destroying them completely. A few of its residents remained in what was left of the city between the Roman era and the beginning of Arab control, but by the end of the ninth century AD, the rest of Heracleion had sunk beneath the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

History of the Lost Ancient Underwater City Heracleion

Heracleion, also known as Thonis in its original Egyptian form and occasionally as Thonis-Heracleion, was an ancient Egyptian port city on the Mediterranean Sea, 32 kilometres (20 miles) northeast of Alexandria.

Its remains are located in Abu Qir Bay, approximately 2.5 kilometres off the coast, under water that is just 10 metres (30 feet) deep. According to a stele discovered on the site, it was a single city known by both its Egyptian and Greek identities.

Heracleion experienced its glory days even before Alexandria became a twinkle in Alexander the Great’s eye, as it functioned as the primary port of entry into Egypt for the numerous ships arriving from all around the Greek world.

Franck Goddio is a specialist in modern maritime archaeology who began searching for this city in 1996 with the Hilty Foundation’s assistance. Thonis-Heracleion and a portion of Canopus were discovered at a depth of 150 feet in the Bay of Aboukir (45 meters).

Thonis was initially constructed on a cluster of adjacent islands in the Nile Delta. It was crossed by canals and contained a number of distinct bays and anchorages. Ferries, bridges, and pontoons connected its wharves, spectacular temples, and tower-houses.

The city was an emporion, or commercial harbour, and throughout ancient Egypt’s Late Period, it served as the country’s primary port for foreign trade and tax collection.
Thonis possessed a colossal temple dedicated to Khonsou, Amun’s son, who was known to the Greeks as Herakles or Hercules. Later on, Amun worship became increasingly prevalent.

Between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, when the city was at its height, a great temple dedicated to Amun-Gereb, Egypt’s supreme god of the period, was located in the heart of the city.

In the fourth century B.C., Pharaoh Nectanebo I added numerous improvements to the temple. Sanctuaries in Heracleion devoted to Osiris and other Gods were renowned for miraculous healing and drew travelers from all across Egypt.

At the turn of the twentieth century, just a handful of historians believed in Heracleion’s existence. The majority of people regarded it as a legend. The first time this city was mentioned was in 1930, when an RAF commander flying above Abu Qir noticed something in the sea that appeared to be ruins.

The pilot’s storey sparked a new period of offshore study in pursuit of this fabled metropolis, but to no avail. Archaeologists were unable to discover anything due to a lack of advanced technologies. It was akin to sifting through a mound of needles in search of a little pin.

Fascinating Religious Ceremonies, Temples and Structures

Each year during the month of Khoiak, the city hosted the “Mysteries of Osiris” festival. These magnificent festivities involved the god’s statue being transferred in his ceremonial boat from the Amun temple to his shrine in Canopus. The tumulus is about 60 meters (197 feet) long and eight meters (26 feet) wide. Around 64 naval ships buried in the sand underwater were found. Aside from ships, numerous other items have been uncovered, including statues of Egyptian Gods, gold coins, bronze statues, and dozens of miniature sarcophagi.

“The objects recovered from the excavations illustrate the cities’ beauty and glory, the magnificence of their grand temples and the abundance of historic evidence: colossal statues, inscriptions and architectural elements, jewelry and coins, ritual objects and ceramics – a civilization frozen in time.”

Recently, archaeologists have unearthed a cache of fourth-century BCE items, including wicker baskets packed with fruit and Greek ceramics. The artifacts were discovered by the same team of researchers from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio who found the city decades ago. 

The wicker baskets were loaded with doum, African palm tree fruit, and grape seeds. Goddio hypothesised that the fruit was kept because it was stored in an underground room, probably with a burial connotation. The discoveries were located near the site of a massive tumulus, or burial mound, that the researchers had previously studied. In addition, the researchers discovered Ancient Greek miniature ceramics and various metal objects, including mirrors and statuettes of Osiris, the ancient Egyptian fertility deity.

“There’s something very strange here.” That site has been used maybe one time, never touched before, never touched after, for the reason that we cannot understand for the time being. It’s a big mystery.”

Goddio

“Everywhere we found evidence of burned material. Spectacular ceremonies must have taken place there. The place must have been sealed for hundreds of years as we have found no objects from later than the early fourth century BCE, even though the city lived on for several hundred years after that.”

Goddio

The Trojan War and the Lost City Heracleion

A war broke out between several Goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite due to an a golden apple which was meant for the fairest among them all given by Goddess Eris. The apple is also known as the apple of discord and the three Goddesses were sent to Paris, a prince of Troy by the God Zeus to decide that who was the fairest among them all, and the prince chose “Aphrodite”.

Being happy, Aphrodite made Helen, the most beautiful woman in existence and the wife of Sparta King, Menelaus. However, despite being married to another man, Helen fell in love with Paris, so Paris kidnapped her and eloped with her to Troy. Herodotus in his book reveals that Paris and his wife Helen visited Herocleion before the Trojan war.

To seek revenge, the entire Greek army along with their commander, who also happened to be the brother of Helen’s husband, Agamemnon unleashed war on Troy. The war lasted for around 10 years. Then one Greek King, Odysseus built a horse known as the Trojan Horse and several Greek soldiers hid inside the horse making the Trojans believe that the Greeks have fled the city. The Trojans saw the horse and took it inside their territorial boundaries. At night, when the Trojans were celebrating their victory, the soldiers from the Trojan horse emerged and burnt the entire city to ashes.

The Eventual Downfall of the City

What happened to the city is unknown, but archaeologists have a notion. Many ancient Egyptian cities, such as the one shown in the image above, were built on river banks. Although the water level was low enough to allow for construction, it was never firm enough to support a structure for an extended period of time.

Archeologist Franck Goddio argues that the ground beneath the city was so damaged by natural disasters like earthquakes that the soil beneath disintegrated, submerging the city over time. The city was further impacted by the late rising of water owing to climate change, which took it even deeper underground, making it more difficult to find.

Heracleion was built on a type of island that succumbed to soil liquefaction. In other words, the firm clay upon which the city was built began to deteriorate into a liquid incapable of supporting the city’s hefty structures, and it all crumbled beneath water. It had taken several years for the city to be completely submerged under water. Experts estimate it reached its lowest point around 1500 years ago.


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