The Magazine

The real Atlantis: Egypt’s sunken city

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Lost in the mud for millennia, believed to be mythical, the recently uncovered Heracleion is an ‘underwater Pompeii’. Now its treasures are coming to the British Museum

‘We are just at the beginning. We’ll probably have to continue working for the next 200 years,’ says maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio (Christoph Gerigk)

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Scroll back 2,500 years to a temple quayside in the Mediterranean town of Heracleion. Facing the Nile Delta (20 miles east of the modern city of Alexandria), this is a sort of Greek canton on the Egyptian coast, established to enable properly taxed and regulated trade between the cultures.

Founded around 300 years before, now spread across a group of islands about a couple of miles square, Heracleion is one of the most important ports in the known world. Home to thousands of people by 500BC, it is a concrete manifestation of the major trends affecting the region. Here we observe the increase of Hellenic influence and power, and the introduction to Egypt of money as a concept; and here we witness the opening-up of the country, as it becomes part of a global (or at least maritime) community, its monarchy supported by Greek mercenaries.

The dynasties have changed over the centuries, but the system has survived through the millennia. The pharaoh rules through his priests, who administer the law and lore of the land, and their word is made stone in huge, impassive and seemingly immoveable monuments – seemingly because, in a few centuries time, they will disappear and be forgotten. And thus, it is only in 2016 that the British Museum is having its first exhibition devoted to the lost city of Heracleion and its westward sister Canopus – its first on underwater archaeoogy – bringing together 200 “new” finds (excavated over the past 20 years) as well as rarities from Egyptian museums and scores of objects from its permanent collections.

A pristine stele lies in the underwater ruins of Heracleion (Christoph Gerigk)

Pristine monumental statues, fine metalware and gold jewellery will reveal how Greece and Egypt interacted in the late first millennium BCE. A 5.4m granite statue of Hapy, a divine personification of the Nile’s flood, will greet visitors as they enter the space. And the renowned Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria will be shown next to a sculpture recovered from the delta that represents Arsinoe II (the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty) as an embodiment of Aphrodite, “who grants fortunate sailing”.

At Heracleion, the architecture had to impress both subjects and strangers. Disembarking, you entered the sacred precinct of the city and passed towering steles and statues to reach the temple of Amun, from which a Venetian-like web of channels and canals radiated. Here, the Pharaoh came annually from his palace to perform the mysteries of Osiris, when a ceremonial barge conveyed a statue of the Lord of the Underworld to Canopus. And here, in Amun’s honour, stately sacrifices were made, oracles consulted, entrails divined.

Another temple was dedicated to Khonsu, son of Amun, and here the child-god – symbol of all new pharaohs – was worshipped with great pomp. (The Greek settlers considered it a sanctuary to Herakles – known to the Romans as Hercules – and gave his name to the town.) But the greatest object of veneration was the Nile. The mighty river was the focus of the Egyptians’ rites, and indeed their whole civilization. All over the delta’s jetties and docks, humble offerings including coins, pieces of meat and murex shells - were placed in stone bowls and carefully lowered down.

Meanwhile, at the quayside by Heracleion’s Grand Canal – designed more for ceremonial purposes than practical – more august celebrants did the same with bronze ladles, honouring Osiris with precious oils and wines. Or they dedicated a flotilla of model lead barges, each carrying lamps and the figurine of a god, in imitation of the rites of Osiris. And there these objects lay in the murky waters of Aboukir Bay, undisturbed until 2000CE – when the French maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio, director of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), made a discovery that is in its way as big as Pompeii.

Goddio had originally focused his work on the remains of Napoleonic ships lost in the Battle of the Nile, resting 12m down in a preservative mix of sand and mud. After inspecting the hull of L’Orient, the French flagship, he then led a three-year electronic survey of the whole bay in order to pinpoint the location of two cities said to lie east of the known site of Canopus.

Detecting magnetic signals, he was convinced that Heracleion and Thonis, which were described in ancient records but never found on land, now lay beneath the waves. So he and his team embarked on further excavations, sifted through the sea floor’s sediment – and found their own Atlantis.

The stele from Heracleion is brought to the surface (Christoph Gerigk)

There were 64 vessels that had sunk 2,000 years before Nelson’s victory. There were sphinxes, modest statuettes and massive statues – among the finest ever seen. There were hundreds of anchors, gold coins and weights; stone slabs inscribed in Greek and Egyptian; mercenaries’ equipment and more.

Among the most curious finds were several little limestone sarcophagi from the temple of Khonsu-Thoth – the child god in his guise as guardian of the city gates – which are believed to have contained mummified animals. Most probably the creatures in question were ibis, a wading bird. But as with so much at the site, more research is needed. As Goddio says, “We are just at the beginning. We’ll probably have to continue working for the next 200 years.”

However, he has already cracked one of the great puzzles of ancient Egypt. Although the town of Thonis was documented in the region, scholars always thought Heracleion to be mythical, only mentioned by historians as a stopover for Herakles during his labours, and for Paris and Helen en-route to Troy.

Goddio hasn’t just proved it was very much a real place; but that Heracleion and Thonis were one and the same. What’s more, the academics now poring over his discoveries have worked out how it came to be lost and forgotten, in a series of events that resonates particularly loudly in the perilous 21st century.