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Animation of the city of Heracleion according to Franck Goddio's excavation results.

Sunken Civilizations

From Legend to Reality

Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) 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 had also a religious importance because of the temple of Amun, which played an important role in rites associated with dynasty continuity. The city was founded probably 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 IEASM, no trace of Thonis-Heracleion had been found. Its name was almost razed 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 on to 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.

Pictures

Franck Goddio and divers of his team are inspecting the statue of a pharaoh. The colossal statue is of red granite and measures over 5 metres. It was found close to the big temple of sunken Heracleion.
A limestone head of a statue found at Heracleion. It probably originates from Cyprus (contacts between Cyprus and Egypt are well attested during the middle of the 1st millennium BC). Its features are characteristic for the Cyprian sculpture at the end of the 6th-5th century BC, especially the big almond-shaped eyes which were probably painted. The enigmatic headgear suggests the head representing “Baal”, a god of Syrian/ Palestinian origin.
Franck Goddio and his team with a colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region.
On a barge the colossal triade of the temple of Heracleion has been raised together with the assembled fragments of a huge stele. The pharaoh, the queen and the god Hapi are represented in red granite. All about 5 meters high, dated to the 4th century B.C. The red granite stele (found in 17 pieces) is assembled. It dates from the 2nd century B.C.
This gold object (11 x 5 cm) was found during the preliminary exploration of the southern sector of Heracleion. It is engraved with a Greek text of five and a half lines. It is an example of a plaque that act as a signature for foundation deposits in the name of the king, Ptolemy III (246–222 BC), responsible for building.
Bronze statue of Osiris, the assassinated and resurrected king-god. It is adorned with the atef crown. The typical insignia of power (crook and flail) are missing. Its open eyes are accentuated by fine gold sheets.
An archaeologist measures the feet of a colossal red granite statue at the site of Heracleion discovered in Aboukir Bay.
Bronze oil lamp (late Hellenistic period, about 2nd century BC) discovered in the temple of Amun.
Franck Goddio with the intact and inscribed Heracleion stele (1.90 m). It was commissioned by Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Naukratis Stele in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion.
The stele of Heracleion (1.90m) had been ordered by Pharaoh Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the stele of Naukratis in the Egyptian Museum of Cairo. The place where it was supposed to be erected is explicitly mentioned: Thonis-Heracleion.
Franck Goddio is inspecting a stone with gold fragments (6th-2nd century BC).
A gold vessel (Phiale) recovered from Thonis-Heracleion. Phiale were shallow dishes used throughout the Hellenistic world for drinking and pouring libations.
One of the finest finds from the bay of Aboukir is a remarkable Graeco-Egyptian product of the Ptolemaic era – a statue of a Ptolemaic queen in dark stone wearing the usual robe that identifies the sovereigns of Isis incarnate. Found at the site of Heracleion, the statue is certainly one of the queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Most likely, a representation of Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III, dressed as goddess Isis.
Colossus of a Ptolemaic queen made out of red granite. The whole statue measures 490 cm in height and weighs 4 tons. It was found close to the big temple of sunken Heracleion.
A colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region.
A colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region.
One of the finest finds from the bay of Aboukir is a remarkable Graeco-Egyptian product of the Ptolemaic era – a statue of a Ptolemaic queen in dark stone. Found at the site of Heracleion, the statue is certainly one of the queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Most likely, a representation of Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III, dressed as goddess Isis.
A colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region.
Head of a pharaoh statue is raised to the surface. The colossal statue is of red granite and measures over 5 metres. It was found close to the big temple of sunken Heracleion.
Bronze statuette of pharaoh of the 26th dynasty, found at the temple of Amon area at Heracleion. The sovereign wears the “blue crown” (probably the crown of the accession). His dress is extremely simple and classical: the bare-chested king wears the traditional shendjyt kilt or loincloth.

The Discovery

With his unique survey-based approach that utilises the most sophisticated technical equipment, Franck Goddio and his team from the IEASM, 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.

The objects recovered from the excavations illustrate the cities’ beauty and glory, the magnificence of their grand temples and the abundance of historic evidence: colossal statues, inscriptions and architectural elements, jewellery and coins, ritual objects and ceramics - a civilization frozen in time.

The quantity and quality of the archaeological material excavated from the site of Thonis-Heracleion show that this city had known a time of opulence and a peak in its occupation from the 6th to the 4th century BC. This is readily 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. The intense activity in the port fostered the city’s prosperity. More than seven hundred ancient anchors of various forms and over 60 wrecks dating from the 6th to the 2nd 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 in and around the city must have given it a lake dwelling appearance. 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.

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Videos

Colossal statues discovered on the sunken site of Heracleion. They get cleaned and reassembled underwater before being raised to the surface.
Colossal statues discovered on the sunken site of Heracleion. They get cleaned and reassembled underwater before being raised to the surface.