A lost ancient Egyptian city submerged beneath the sea 1,200 years ago is starting to reveal what life was like in the legendary port of Thonis-Heracleion.
Photo: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, graphic: Yann Bernard
For centuries it was thought to be a legend, a city of extraordinary wealth mentioned by Herodotus, visited by Helen of Troy and Paris, her lover, but apparently buried under the sea.
In fact, Heracleion was true, and a decade after divers began uncovering its treasures, archaeologists have produced a picture of what life was like in the city in the era of the pharaohs.
The city, also called Thonis, disappeared beneath the Mediterranean around 1,200 years ago and was found during a survey of the Egyptian shore at the beginning of the last decade.
Now its life at the heart of trade routes in classical times are becoming clear, with researchers forming the view that the city was the main customs hub through which all trade from Europe and the Mediterranean entered in Egypt.
Photo: Christoph Gerigk
They have discovered the remains of more than 64 ships buried in the thick clay and sand that now covers the sea bed. Gold coins and weights made from bronze and stone have also been found, hinting at the trade that went on.
Giant 16 foot statues have been uncovered and brought to the surface while archaeologists have found hundreds of smaller statues of minor gods on the sea floor.
Slabs of stone inscribed in both ancient Macedonian and Ancient Egyptian have also been brought to the surface.
Dozens of small limestone sarcophagi were also recently uncovered by divers and are believed to have once contained mummified animals, put there to appease the gods.
Dr Damian Robinson, director of the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford, who is part of the team working on the site, said: “It is a major city we are excavating.
“The site has amazing preservation. We are now starting to look at some of the more interesting areas within it to try to understand life there.
“We are getting a rich picture of things like the trade that was going on there and the nature of the maritime economy in the Egyptian late period. There were things were coming in from Macedonians and the Phoenicians.
Photo: Christoph Gerigk
“We have hundreds of small statues of gods and we are trying to find where the temples to these gods were in the city.
“The ships are really interesting as it is the biggest number of ancient ships found in one place and we have found over 700 ancient anchors so far.”
The researchers, working with German TV documentary makers, have also created a three dimensional reconstruction of the city.
At its heart was a huge temple to the god Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians at the time.
From this stretched a vast network of canals and channels, which allowed the city to become the most important port in the Mediterranean at the time.
Last month archaeologists from around the world gathered at the University of Oxford to discuss the discoveries starting to emerge from the treasures found in Heracleion, named for Hercules, who legend claimed had been there.
It was also mentioned fleetingly in ancient texts.
Dr Robinson said: “It was the major international trading port for Egypt at this time. It is where taxation was taken on import and export duties. All of this was run by the main temple.”
Submerged under 150 feet of water, the site sits in what is now the Bay of Aboukir. In the 8th Century BC, when the city is thought to have been built, it would have sat at the mouth of the River Nile delta as it opened up into the Mediterranean.
Scientists still have little idea what caused the city to slip into the water nearly 1,000 years later, but it is thought that gradual sea level rise combined with a sudden collapse of the unstable sediment the city was built on caused the area to drop by around 12 feet.
Over time the city faded from memory and its existence, along with other lost settlements along the coast, was only known from a few ancient texts.
French underwater archaeologist Dr Franck Goddio was the first to rediscover the city while doing surveying of the area while looking for French warships that sank there in the 18 century battle of the Nile.
Photo: Christoph Gerigk
When divers began sifting down through the thick layers of sand and mud, they could barely believe what they found.
“The archaeological evidence is simply overwhelming,” said Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford has also been taking part in the excavation.
“By lying untouched and protected by sand on the sea floor for centuries they are brilliantly preserved.”
The researchers now also hope that they may even find some sarcophagi used to bury humans in some of the outlying areas around the sunken city.
“The discoveries enhance the importance of the specific location of the city standing at the ‘Mouth of the Sea of the Greek’,” said Dr Goddio, who has led the excavation.
“We are just at the beginning of our research. We will probably have to continue working for the next 200 years for Thonis-Heracleion to be fully revealed and understood.”