Lost cities #6: how Thonis-Heracleion resurfaced after 1,000 years under water
Ancient Egypt’s gateway to the Mediterranean – submerged and buried under layers of sand – is an eerie reminder of how vulnerable cities are to nature’s forces
He stood for centuries at the very edge of ancient Egypt, gazing down imperiously upon the trading ships as they blew in from the Mediterranean. His name was Hapy: god of fertility, lord of the river, life-giving steward of its floods. And, on his plinth at the western mouth of the Nile, a massive red granite gatekeeper to one of the greatest port cities on earth.
Until one day, probably towards the end of the second century BC, there was a tremor and the ground began to churn and liquefy at Hapy’s feet. He wobbled, lurched, and then six tonnes of intricately carved stonework crashed into the sea.
In time, the rest of the settlement that Hapy guarded followed suit. A place written into the legends of antiquity – the site of the divine hero Heracles’ first footsteps in Africa, and where Sparta’s Helen famously sought refuge with her abductor, Paris of Troy – disappeared completely under water and was buried, seemingly forever, by layer upon layer of sand and silt.
In the early 2000s, however, a group of divers working off the Egyptian coast found a large fragment of rock under the seabed, and brought it up to land. It was a piece of Hapy, salt-encrusted but intact. They continued searching, and eventually unearthed six more. Around these pieces lay other treasures: the ruins of temples, shards of pottery, precious jewellery, coins, oil lamps, processional barges and busts.
“As an archaeologist, discovering a tomb is exciting, but it’s the tomb of one individual,” says Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, curator of the Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum. “Discovering a whole city, which was home to thousands and thousands of people over more than a thousand years … Well, that’s something else.”
The home in question was Thonis-Heracleion. And now, more than a millennium after it was first submerged, Hapy’s city is returning to the surface once again.
‘Part marshland, part urban sprawl’
Unlike Babylon, Pompeii or mystical Atlantis, few people today have heard of Thonis-Heracleion. Indeed, until the remarkable finds of recent years, there was a danger that the waves of the Mediterranean would consign to history not only the city’s physical remnants, but even its memory as well.
And yet if you were a European merchant in the fifth century BC – an importer of grain, perfume or papyrus perhaps, or an exporter of silver, copper, wine or oil – then Thonis-Heracleion loomed large on your horizon. The same was true if you were a Carian mercenary, an educated Greek, a professional sailor, or a member of the Pharaonic court. Scattered across a series of interlinked islands, sand and mudbanks, Thonis-Heracleion – part aquatic marshland, part urban sprawl – was ancient Egypt’s bustling, cosmopolitan gateway to the Mediterranean, and thus its nexus with the western world.
Founded around 2,700 years ago on the site of present-day Abu Qir bay, 15 miles north-east of Alexandria, Thonis-Heracleion predated its better-known neighbour as the main emporion (trading port) for the region by several centuries and was a hub for international commerce.
Criss-crossed by a network of canals and dotted with harbours, wharves, temples and tower-houses – all joined together by a network of ferries, bridges, and pontoons – the city controlled most of the maritime traffic coming into Egypt from the Mediterranean. Goods would be inspected and taxed at the customs administration centre, and then carried on for distribution further inland, either at Naukratis – another trading port that lay almost 50 miles further up the Nile – or via the Western Lake, which was connected by a water channel to the nearby town of Canopus and offered access to many other parts of the country.
Although Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus are mentioned by many of the great chroniclers of antiquity, from Herodotus to Strabo and Diodorus, most detailed knowledge of their existence was feared to have been permanently lost.