About 1,200 years ago, a lost ancient Egyptian city submerged beneath the sea, and had modern day historians believing that it was a legend. A city of extraordinary wealth, visited by Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris, due the recent massive findings by archaeologists, this city, Heracleion, was not legend but actually existed.
What was life was life like in the legendary port of Thonis-Heracleion?
That’s what divers are beginning to piece together after a decade of uncovering its treasures, they can actually produce a picture of what it was like living in that era of pharaohs. Heracleion, also called Thonis, that had disappeared beneath the Mediterranean around 1,200 years ago, but was rediscovered by French underwater archaeologist Dr. Franck Goddio who was actually surveying of the area for French warships that sank there in the 18 century battle of the Nile. But when divers began sifting down through the thick layers of sand and mud, they could barely believe what they found. What has become clear is it’s role in the heart of trade routes in classical times from Greece to elsewhere in the Mediterranean to Egypt.
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 in an interview: “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.”
One of the most astounding finds is the heart of the city’s huge temple to the god Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians at the time and the vast canals and channels that stretched from the heart, allowing Heracleion to become the most important port in the Mediterranean at the time.
Recently, archaeologists from around the world gathered at the University of Oxford to discuss these major discoveries that have started to emerge from the treasures found in this ancient Egyptian sunken city. What was noted was that Hercleion, named for Hercules, who legend claimed had been there, was also mentioned in ancient texts, plus it’s importance as a port.
Dr. Robinson stated, “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.”
The site sits in what is now the Bay of Aboukir, submerged under 150 feet of water. In the 8th Century BC, which is 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. It is thought that gradual sea level rose and combined with a sudden collapse of the unstable sediment, the city dropped by about 12 feet. Over time, the city faded from memory and its existence, along with many other lost settlements along the coast, was only known from a few ancient texts…until now.
What have they found?
They discovered the remains of more than 64 ships buried in the current sea bed of thick clay and sand. Gold coins bronze and stone weights, giant statues, (at 16 feet), have also been uncovered and brought to the surface, amongst hundreds of other smaller statues of gods of the time. Not to mention slabs of stone inscribed in ancient Greek and Ancient Egyptian have also been brought to the surface and dozens of small limestone sarcophagi were also recently uncovered by divers which may have once had mummified animals to appease the gods.
“The archaeological evidence is simply overwhelming,” said Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford that has also been taking part in the excavation. “By lying untouched and protected by sand on the seafloor 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 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.”
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