Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names) is a city lost between legend and reality. Before the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC, the city knew glorious times as the obligatory port of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the Greek world. It also had religious importance as the location of the temple of Amun, which played an important role in rites associated with the continuity of the ruling dynasty.

The city was probably founded around the 8th century BC, underwent diverse natural catastrophes, and finally sunk entirely into the depths of the Mediterranean in the 8th century AD.

Prior to its discovery in 2000 by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), directed by Franck Goddio, no trace of Thonis- Heracleion had been found. Its name was almost erased from the memory of mankind, only preserved in ancient classic texts and rare inscriptions found on land by archaeologists.

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) tells us of a great temple that was built where the famous hero Herakles first set foot in Egypt. He also reports of Helen’s visit to Heracleion with her lover, Paris, before the Trojan War. More than four centuries after Herodotus’ visit to Egypt, the Geographer, Strabo, observed that the city of Heracleion,  which possessed the temple of Herakles, is located straight to the east of Canopus at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the River Nile.

The Discovery

With a unique survey-based approach that utilises the most sophisticated technical equipment, Franck Goddio and his team, in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, were able to locate, map and excavate parts of the city of Thonis-Heracleion, which lies 6.5 kilometres off today’s coastline. The city is located within an overall research area of 11 by 15 kilometres in the western part of Aboukir Bay.

Franck Goddio has found important information on the ancient landmarks of Thonis-Heracleion, such as the grand temple of Amun and his son Khonsou (Herakles for the Greeks), the harbours that once controlled all trade into Egypt, and the daily life of its inhabitants. He has also solved a historic enigma that has puzzled Egyptologists over the years: the archaeological material has revealed that Heracleion and Thonis were in fact one and the same city with two names; Heracleion being the name of the city for the Greeks and Thonis for the Egyptians.

A Rich, Bustling City

The quantity and quality of the archaeological material excavated from the site of Thonis-Heracleion show that this city knew a time of great opulence during the peak of its occupation from the 4th to the 6th century BC. This can be seen in the large quantity of coins and ceramics dated to this period.

The port of Thonis-Heracleion had numerous large basins and functioned as a hub of international trade; thriving activity in the port fostered the city’s prosperity. More than 700 ancient anchors of various forms, and over 60 wrecks dating from the 2nd to the 6th century BC, are also an eloquent testimony to the intensity of maritime activity here.

The city extended all around the temple, and a network of canals throughout would have given the whole settlement a “lake-like” feel. On the islands and islets, dwellings and secondary sanctuaries were located. Excavations here have revealed beautiful archaeological material such as bronze statuettes. On the north side of the temple to Herakles, a grand canal flowed through the city from east to west and connected the port basins with a lake to the west.

The objects recovered from the excavations illustrate the city’s beauty and glory, the magnificence of its grand temples and the abundance of historic evidence: colossal statues, inscriptions and architectural elements, jewellery and coins, ritual objects and ceramics – a civilisation frozen in time.

This article is an excerpt from Scuba Diver‘s “Lost Worlds”. To read more, purchase a copy of this latest issue or subscribe here at our online shop.

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