|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
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Between legend and realityA fuller story of the lost Mediterranean city of Heracleion is coming to light. Nevine El-Aref attended a revealing conference in Alexandria
Heracleion, in today's Abu Qir Bay, figures strongly in ancient history and Greek legend, but the new discoveries are casting fresh light on the Mediterranean city which predates Alexandria.
Top: A colossal statue of the god Hapi in the sunken city of Heracleion.
photo: Cristoph Gerigk.
Below: Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni (third right), SCA secretary-general Gaballa Ali Gaballa, (pointing, centre), and underwater archaeology expert Franck Goddio, (third left), with the statue of a queen wearing the robes of Isis.
photo: Gamal Said
Last week a high-ranking group of officials, accompanied by journalists from all over the world, assembled on Abu Qir dock to learn about the latest discoveries. These include the ruins of the great temple of Heracleion dedicated to Amun and Heracles-Khonsu; colossi of gods, kings and their consorts; stelae, domestic implements, pottery, jewellery, and even the ruins of the wall of the inundated city, not to mention no fewer than nine wooden shipwrecks.
Franck Goddio, president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, said the discoveries were important for two reasons. "First, it confirms the original name of the city of Heracleion which is 'the mouth of the Canopic Branch of the Nile,' and second, until now the city has been known only from legendary sources and from Herodotus's accounts, not from actual evidence. This is a sensational discovery, and the success of the expedition has exceeded all expectations," he said.
Work started in early May this year, with the aim of the mission being to compile an initial inventory of the underwater archaeological finds of the site. It concentrated on an area 1,000 metres long and 800 metres wide, at a depth of six metres about six kilometres offshore from Abu Qir port. At the same spot last year, a magnificent headless black-granite statue of Isis was found, as well as well-preserved houses, temples, walls, a harbour and colossal statues reflecting the wealth and affluence of the community that once inhabited the area.
This year's most important discoveries include two stelae, which lie on the dock awaiting further study. One, in poor condition, contains 14 lines of hieroglyphic text as well as Greek inscriptions which indicate it was a bilingual text, somewhat like the Rosetta Stone, which also had a demotic text. It is expected that this will take several months to decipher and evaluate. The other is a fully intact black granite stela, 195cm high, the dimensions and decoration of which are practically identical with the famous stela of Naukratis, which contains the decree of Nectanebo I (378- 362 BC) now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The texts on both stelae relate to a levy of 10 per cent on Greek handicrafts and goods for the benefit of the temple of Neith, and orders the stela to be set up in the town of Naukratis. The newly-discovered stela differs only in that, at the end of the inscription, a different site for its erection is named: Heracleion-Thonis.
"The existence of the two almost identical stelae is so far absolutely unique in the history of Egyptology," Jean Yoyotte, of the Collège de France in Paris, said. He calls them excellent examples of the art of engraving on hard stone. Similar engravings by artists of about the 4th century BC provide a rich source of information for historians. "The way in which the workshops in Sais managed to produce two practically identical monuments is truly surprising," said Ibrahim Darwish, head of the Underwater Archaeology Department of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
Also on the dock are three pink granite colossi which broke when they fell in the place where they were found in the sediment of the sea bed. One is of an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as the goddess Isis; and the second is a Pharaoh of a mid-1st millennium BC (the Late Period in Pharaonic history). The third is of Hapi, the Nile-god.
"These impressive statues were found close to a naos, a monumental monolithic shrine inscribed with hieroglyphs which dates from Ptolemaic times," Supreme Council of Antiquities secretary-general Gaballa Ali Gaballa said. "The inscription on the naos reveals that it was in a temple dedicated to Amun, identified with the Greek god Zeus. Amun's son Khonsu was associated with the deified Greek hero Heracles."
The ruins of the temple have been identified on the sea bed, and within it have been found numerous well-preserved artefacts including bronze vessels, gold coins and jewellery, together with several statues of excellent quality which still lie in situ.
"None of the objects so far retrieved from the site dates later than the first century before Christ," Goddio said, explaining that this did not mean that Heracleion sank at precisely that time but, rather, indicates that up to that time it was a flourishing city which, for reasons unknown, later declined.
Although it is believed that Heracleion was destroyed as a result of several natural disasters, geological measurements taken during the latest stage of work by Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington should provide more information. It may even pinpoint accurate details on which to base answers to such questions as whether Heracleion sank much earlier than the neighbouring suburb of Canopis.
Evidence indicates that the city was either destroyed or sank very rapidly following an earthquake or, perhaps, an excessively high Nile flood. Proof of this comes in the form of partial skeletons in the houses, and the fact that the objects in the houses are very well preserved and complete, as if there had been a sudden catastrophe in which there was no time for the inhabitants to save themselves or their belongings. Some of the people appear to have been killed by falling masonry. This sudden loss and destruction brings to mind the theories about the lost continent of Atlantis.
While an accurate survey of the underwater site has already revealed buildings and harbour installations of the ancient city, including a harbour basin and, so far, nine ancient shipwrecks, study continues to determine the actual date when the city of Heracleion was in its prime. "We have studied the subterranean strata at nine levels," the underwater archaeologist responsible for the study, Mohamed Mustafa, said. "It is like flipping the pages of a history book. The most important levels have proved to be the second and fourth. The second is a mud-brick layer, where pottery has been found which conclusively dates the ancient city to a period prior to Alexandria. The fourth is a wooden layer in which the wrecks are found along with a layer of disintegrated wood. "This," he said, "raises the question of why there might have been a layer of wood. Could it have been to counter the erosion of the shore by creating wooden barriers, or to decrease ground humidity. It is a tremendous challenge, and the study is at the threshold. It will continue for at least 20 years."
At the press conference, Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, said the artefacts so far retrieved from the sea would be properly treated and some would be exhibited at various places around the world. "The revenue will go towards the Alexandria Library," he said. Plans were also going ahead to construct a special museum in Alexandria for the exhibition of underwater artefacts from Abu Qir and the Eastern Harbour, the minister said.
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