The 'lost city of Atlantis has eluded explorers for centuries and is almost certainly the stuff of myth.
Staggeringly, though, an ancient city that is Atlantis in all but name has emerged from under the sea near Alexandria — and now the lost world of Heracleion is giving up its treasures.
Just as in the classical tale, Heracleion was once a prosperous, thriving city before it was engulfed by the sea around 1,500 years ago. It was grand enough to be mentioned by the Greek writer Herodotus, the 5th-century BC historian.
He told the fabulous story of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world — she of the face that launched a thousand ships — travelling to Heracleion, then a port of ‘great wealth’, with her glamorous Trojan lover, Paris.
But no physical evidence of such a grand settlement appeared until 2001, when a group led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio stumbled upon some relics that led them to one of the greatest finds of the 21st century.
Goddio was in search of Napoleon’s warships from the 1798 Battle of the Nile, when he was defeated by Nelson in these very waters, but came upon this much more significant discovery.
Goddio’s team has since been joined by the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and the Department of Antiquities of Egypt to produce a wealth of dazzling finds.
The archaeologists first faced the mammoth task of reassembling massive stone fragments on the seabed before they could haul them to the surface. Twelve years on, their fabulous finds have been exposed to public view for the first time after more than a millennium spent beneath the silt and water of Aboukir Bay, 20 miles north-east of Alexandria.
Among the discoveries are colossal statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the god Hapi, and an unidentified Egyptian pharaoh — all preserved in immaculate condition by their muddy burial shroud. Along with these 16ft statues there are hundreds of smaller statues of Egyptian gods — among them the figures that guarded the temple where Cleopatra was inaugurated as Queen of the Nile.
It seems the Amun-Gereb temple at Heracleion was the Egyptian equivalent of Westminster Abbey, where our own Queen was crowned 60 years ago.
Dozens of sarcophagi have been found, containing the bodies of mummified animals sacrificed to Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians. Many amulets, or religious charms, have been unearthed, too, showing gods such as Isis, Osiris and Horus.
These were made not just for the Egyptians but for visiting traders, who incorporated them into their own religions and also, one imagines, kept them as trinkets to remind them of their far-flung journeys.
The importance of Heracleion has been further proved by the discovery of 64 ships — the largest number of ancient vessels ever found in one place — and a mind-boggling 700 anchors.
Other finds illustrate how crucial Heracleion was to the economy of the ancient world. Gold coins and lead, bronze and stone weights from Athens (used to measure the value of goods and to calculate the tax owed) show that Heracleion was a lucrative Mediterranean trading post.
In the ancient world, the Mediterranean Sea was their equivalent of a superfast motorway. All their greatest cities, including Constantinople, Rome and Athens, were either on the coast or on rivers with easy access to it.
And now Heracleion can be added to their number as Egypt’s most important port during the time of the later pharaohs. It was, if you like, a major motorway junction — the spot where the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline, met the Med. Archaeologists have determined that as well as having a naturally navigable channel next to its ancient harbour, a further artificial channel appears to have been dug to expedite trade.
The Heracleion finds will add tremendous depth to our understanding of the ancient world — not least because, among the discoveries, there are perfectly preserved steles (inscribed pillars) decorated with hieroglyphics. Translated, they will reveal much about the religious and political life in this corner of ancient Egypt.
It was a similar inscription on the Rosetta Stone — discovered in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta in 1799 by a French soldier, and now in the British Museum — that cracked the code of hieroglyphics in the first place.
And like the Rosetta Stone, those steles found beneath the waters of Aboukir Bay are inscribed in Greek and Egyptian, too. Who knows how many more archaeological gems will be uncovered at Heracleion?
The very name of the city is taken from that most famous of Greek heroes, Heracles — aka Hercules — whose 12 labours, from killing the Hydra to capturing Cerberus, the multi-headed hellhound that guarded the gates of the Underworld, captivated the ancient world.
Heraklion, Crete’s capital and largest city, is also named after Heracles, as was Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town that was buried under ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
It appears that Heracleion faded in importance in the later classical period, eclipsed by its neighbouring city of Alexandria, which became the capital of Egypt in 312BC.
Still, Heracleion lingered on, later under Roman control, until it slipped into its watery grave some time in the 6th or 7th century AD. What a thrilling discovery we have on our hands now that the sea has, 1,500 years later, given up one of its greatest secrets.
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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 Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean entered Egypt.
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 Greek 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 Greece and the Phoenicians.
“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.
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.”
It was only a legend. Appearing in a few rare inscriptions and ancient texts, the city of Thonis-Heracleion was not something anyone expected to find, and no one was looking for it.
So it was something of a shock when French archaeologist Franck Goddio, looking for 18th-century French warships, saw a colossal face emerge from the watery shadows. Goddio had stumbled upon Thonis-Heracleion completely submerged 6.5 kilometres off Alexandria's coastline. Among the underwater ruins were 64 ships, 700 anchors, a treasure trove of gold coins, statues standing at 16 feet, and most notably the remains of a massive temple to the god Amun-Gereb, and the tiny sarcophagi for the animals that were brought there as offerings.
The ruins and artifacts made from granite and diorite are remarkably preserved, and give a glimpse into what was, 2300 years ago, one of the great port cities of the world. The harbor of Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) controlled all the trade into Egypt.
Built around its grand temple, the city was criss-crossed with a network of canals, a kind of ancient Egyptian Venice, and its islands were home to small sanctuaries and homes. Once a grand city, today its history is largely obscured and no one is quite sure how it ended up entirely underwater.
Heracleion Photos: Lost Egyptian City Revealed After 1,200 Years Under Sea
It is a city shrouded in myth, swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea and buried in sand and mud for more than 1,200 years. But now archeologists are unearthing the mysteries of Heracleion, uncovering amazingly well-preserved artifacts that tell the story of a vibrant classical-era port.
Known as Heracleion to the ancient Greeks and Thonis to the ancient Eygptians, the city was rediscovered in 2000 by French underwater archaeologist Dr. Franck Goddio and a team from the European Institute for Underwater Acheology (IEASM) after a four-year geophysical survey. The ruins of the lost city were found 30 feet under the surface of the Mediterranean Sea in Aboukir Bay, near Alexandria.
A new documentary highlights the major discoveries that have been unearthed at Thonis-Heracleion during a 13-year excavation. Exciting archeological finds help describe an ancient city that was not only a vital international trade hub but possibly an important religious center. The television crew used archeological survey data to construct a computer model of the city
According to the Telegraph, leading research now suggests that Thonis-Heracleion served as a mandatory port of entry for trade between the Mediterranean and the Nile.
So far, 64 ancient shipwrecks and more than 700 anchors have been unearthed from the mud of the bay, the news outlet notes. Other findings include gold coins, weights from Athens (which have never before been found at an Egyptian site) and giant tablets inscribed in ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian. Researchers think that these artifacts point to the city’s prominence as a bustling trade hub.
Researchers have also uncovered a variety of religious artifacts in the sunken city, including 16-foot stone sculptures thought to have adorned the city’s central temple and limestone sarcophagi that are believed to have contained mummified animals.
Experts have marveled at the variety of artifacts found and have been equally impressed by how well preserved they are.
“The archaeological evidence is simply overwhelming,” Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, a University of Oxford archeologist taking part in the excavation, said in a press release obtained by The Huffington Post. “By lying untouched and protected by sand on the sea floor for centuries they are brilliantly preserved.”
A panel of experts presented their findings at an Oxford University conference on the Thonis-Heracleion excavation earlier this year.
But despite all the excitement over the excavation, one mystery about Thonis-Heracleion remains largely unsolved: Why exactly did it sink? Goddio’s team suggests the weight of large buildings on the region’s water-logged clay and sand soil may have caused the city to sink in the wake of an earthquake.