Beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, near the modern city of Alexandria, Egypt, lies a submerged mystery that has fascinated historians, archaeologists, and ancient mystery enthusiasts for decades: the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion. Known to the ancient Egyptians as Thonis and to the Greeks as Heracleion, this once-thriving city was swallowed by the sea, hiding its secrets for over a thousand years. Its story is a fascinating blend of myth, legend, and historical reality, a tale that evokes images of lost grandeur and reminds us of the inexorable power of nature.
The Mystery of Thonis-Heracleion
The enigma of Thonis-Heracleion is rooted in the mists of time, attracting the attention of scholars and dreamers for generations. Mentioned by ancient historians such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, it held an almost mythological fascination due to its existence seeming more within the realm of legend than historical fact. Descriptions of a prosperous port city at the entrance to the Nile painted a picture of a place where humanity’s horizon met the divine, where the riches of the entire Mediterranean converged into a single, vibrant centre of trade and cultural exchange.
Despite frequent mentions in ancient tales, Thonis-Heracleion remained invisible to modern history, its location and the truth of its magnitude lost in the sands of time. Historians and archaeologists could only speculate on its exact location and the role it might have played in ancient Egypt and the Mediterranean world. This mystery extended beyond merely locating a lost city; it was about understanding how such an advanced and connected civilization could vanish so completely, leaving little more than echoes in sacred and profane texts.
The rediscovery of Thonis-Heracleion at the beginning of the 21st century marks one of the most exciting and significant moments in underwater archaeology. Led by renowned underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, in collaboration with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, the team utilized advanced underwater mapping techniques to locate and explore the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, situated about 6.5 kilometres off the current coast in the western part of Aboukir Bay at a depth of around 10 meters. The research that began in 1996 led to significant discoveries in 2000, revealing that Thonis-Heracleion and the Greek Heracleion were, in fact, the same city—a revelation that solved a historical enigma that had puzzled Egyptologists for years.
Among the most extraordinary findings were colossal statues, inscriptions, coins, ritual objects, and ceramics that illustrate the beauty and glory of the cities, as well as the magnificence of their temples. These findings showed that Thonis-Heracleion experienced a period of opulence and a peak in its occupation from the 6th to the 4th century BC, as evidenced by the large number of coins and ceramics dated to this period. The port of Thonis-Heracleion housed numerous large basins and functioned as a hub of international trade, whose intense activity fostered the city’s prosperity. Over 700 ancient anchors were discovered and 79 wrecks dated from the 6th to the 2nd century BC testify to the intensity of maritime activity in this area.
Recent missions have uncovered further treasures, including silver ritual instruments, gold jewellery, and alabaster containers for perfumes and ointments belonging to the temple’s treasury, offering a glimpse into the wealth of this sacred place and the devotion of the city’s former inhabitants. Moreover, the discovery of a Greek sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite and evidence of Greek mercenaries through Greek weapons indicate that the Greeks, authorized to settle and trade in the city during the reign of the Saite dynasty (664 – 525 BC), had their sanctuaries dedicated to their gods.
Some of the colossal statues recovered from Thonis-Heracleion are now displayed at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, near Cairo, becoming part of one of the world’s largest archaeological museums. This transfer to the museum underscores the importance of Goddio’s findings and their impact on our understanding of ancient Egyptian civilization.
The research by Franck Goddio and the ongoing support of the Hilti Foundation has made it possible not only to discover ancient civilizations hidden for millennia under layers of sand and sediment on the seabed but also to share these discoveries with both the scientific community and the wider public. Travelling exhibitions of “Sunken Treasures of Egypt” have already captivated millions worldwide, demonstrating the enduring impact of these discoveries on our understanding of ancient civilizations.
Thonis-Heracleion – The Fall of a City
The fall of Thonis-Heracleion was the result of a series of natural disasters that, over the centuries, led to its complete submersion under the Mediterranean Sea. The combination of earthquakes, tsunamis, and rising sea levels weakened the city’s foundations, culminating in catastrophic events that caused its sinking.
In the 2nd century BC, a major weather event, possibly a tsunami or earthquake, or a combination of the two, pushed the city towards its destruction. The ground beneath the central island of Heracleion underwent soil liquefaction around 101 BC, likely following a severe flood. This process, where solid ground rapidly turns into liquid, caused the buildings in the city to collapse into the water. Soil liquefaction, exacerbated by the Mediterranean basin’s susceptibility to this phenomenon, led to the city’s total submersion by the 8th century AD, leaving Thonis-Heracleion relatively undisturbed beneath the sea floor for 1200 years.
Further research confirmed that around 150 BC, an earthquake followed by a massive tidal wave spectacularly annihilated Thonis-Heracleion. The earthquake caused the ground to shake so violently that the Mediterranean’s water mixed with the soil, creating quicksand. Through soil liquefaction, the city sank into the newly formed quicksand, although some parts survived. In the 6th century AD, a convent of nuns was built on one of the surviving islets, but by the 8th century AD, a second major earthquake destroyed the city.
These natural disasters, coupled with the rise of Alexandria as Egypt’s main port in the 2nd century BC, diminished Thonis-Heracleion’s importance, eventually leading to its abandonment and submersion. The story of its fall is a reminder of nature’s power and its impact on human civilizations, even those that seem thriving and invulnerable.
Legacy of Thonis-Heracleion
The discovery of Thonis-Heracleion has significantly expanded our understanding of ancient Egypt and its interactions with the Greek world. Once believed to be a myth, the city was revealed through the research conducted by Franck Goddio and his team, providing valuable insights into daily life, religion, and commerce in the ancient Mediterranean.
Excavations have unearthed remarkably preserved artefacts, including 2,200-year-old fruit baskets still containing fruit, testifying to the city’s prosperity and daily life before its tragic fate. These baskets, along with ancient vases and amphorae, as well as bronze treasures, were discovered in the remains of the legendary city of Thonis-Heracleion, unveiling its significance as Egypt’s main port on the Mediterranean before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria.
Discoveries also include silver ritual instruments, gold jewellery, and alabaster containers for perfumes and ointments found in the temple remains, which collapsed during a catastrophic event in the 2nd century BC. These findings offer a glimpse into the wealth of this sacred place and the devotion of the city’s inhabitants. Exploration has also led to the discovery of underground structures, supported by well-preserved wooden posts and beams, located several meters below the temple area.
The research resolved an ancient mystery, confirming that Thonis and Heracleion were indeed the same place, known by two names to the Egyptians and Greeks. This revelation clarified the commercial and cultural connections between Egypt and the Greek world, demonstrating Thonis-Heracleion as a crossroads of exchanges and encounters between different cultures.
Despite its discovery and in-depth study, it is estimated that only a small fraction of Thonis-Heracleion has been explored so far, with Franck Goddio estimating that only 5% of the city has been uncovered. This suggests that many more fascinating discoveries await, promising to further enrich our understanding of this submerged city and its role in antiquity.
In summary, the rediscovery of Thonis-Heracleion has not only enriched humanity’s historical and archaeological heritage but has also bridged the past and present, allowing us to better understand the interactions between ancient civilizations and the transience of human glory.
Further Reading and Resources
For those captivated by the story of Thonis-Heracleion and eager to dive deeper into its mysteries, the following resources offer extensive information, insights, and the latest discoveries related to Egypt’s legendary sunken city:
- Franck Goddio’s Official Website – Explore the official website of Franck Goddio, the underwater archaeologist who rediscovered Thonis-Heracleion. The site features detailed expedition logs, photographs, and findings from the underwater excavations. Visit Franck Goddio’s Website
- The European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) – IEASM, led by Franck Goddio, conducts underwater archaeological research. Their website provides information on the Thonis-Heracleion project among other significant underwater archaeological endeavors. Explore IEASM
- The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology – Affiliated with the University of Oxford, this centre collaborates with the IEASM on the Thonis-Heracleion excavation. The website offers academic papers, project reports, and publications on the findings. Discover More at The Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology
- The British Museum – The British Museum has hosted exhibitions featuring artifacts from Thonis-Heracleion. Their website includes exhibition overviews, highlight pieces, and educational resources on ancient Egypt. Visit The British Museum
- Smithsonian Magazine’s Feature on Thonis-Heracleion – This article provides a compelling narrative of the discovery and exploration of Thonis-Heracleion, complemented by stunning imagery and insights into what the findings tell us about ancient Egyptian civilization. Read the Smithsonian Magazine Article
- National Geographic’s Coverage – National Geographic has featured Thonis-Heracleion in its publications and documentaries, offering breathtaking visuals and expert analyses of the city’s archaeological and historical significance. Explore National Geographic’s Coverage
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