6 - 12 June 2002
Issue No.589
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Heracleion emerges

The gold, silver and bronze coins and artefacts from the ancient city of Heracleion recently recovered from the sea bed in Abu Qir Bay are almost all that remains of what was once a flourishing Mediterranean sea port. Nevine El-Aref digs up the facts

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Underwater archaeologists working among the ruins of Heracleion in Abu Qir Bay have came across objects dating from the 8th century, proving that the ancient port did not disappear beneath the waves until well into the Islamic period. The new evidence, which is of considerable interest to historians, was discovered during a 15- day archaeological survey to define the topography of Heracleion and pursue excavation of the sunken Amun temple at Abu Qir,

Golden coins lifted from the sea bed date from the reigns of the Byzantine emperors and the caliphs of the early Islamic period, providing positive proof that this city at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile could not have disappeared before the 8th century AD.

This has cast fresh light on a Mediterranean city that was contemporaneous with early Alexandria. The ruins of Heracleion, which was of some importance in ancient history and Greek legend, lie six kilometres off the coastline, and six metres below sea level. Since the search began, the ruins of the great temple dedicated to Amun and Heracles-Khonsu have been found, along with colossi of gods, kings and their consorts, stelae, domestic implements, pottery, jewellery and even the ruined walls of the ancient city, not to mention some nine wooden shipwrecks.

Interest in offshore archaeology east of Alexandria was generated three years ago when a Franco-Egyptian team were searching for Napoleon's sunken fleet. They found the flagship L'Orient, along with two other ships, La Serieuse and L'Artemise, and while recovering diverse treasures from these wrecks (including navigational instruments, swords, crockery, uniform buttons and buckles and the like), they found traces of what could be a temple and a port of a sunken city. When a magnificent, headless black granite statue of Isis, along with well-preserved houses, temples, walls, and a harbour with statues also came to light, it became clear that this had been an affluent community.

Legends have long abounded of a sunken city on the Mediterranean, and underwater archaeologists were fired with enthusiasm. They extended their search and, in 2001, the mission began to concentrate on an area 1000 by 800 metres not far from the wrecks. There they located the ruins of an entire city -- a sensational discovery.

When a great temple dedicated to Amun and Heracles-Khonsu was identified, it became clear that this was ancient Heracleion, one of three Greek cities east of Alexandria. According to Franck Goddio, president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, the discovery was important, first because it confirmed the original name of the city of Heracleion, and second because it confirmed the accounts of the traveller-historian Herodotus.

How was the city destroyed? Did it sink rapidly following an earthquake, or over a long period of time as a result of excessively high Nile floods? The ruins tell their own story. Partial skeletons were found in some houses, and household objects were well preserved. Elsewhere the people appeared to have been killed by falling masonry; and the temple seemed to have collapsed on itself.

Theories abounded as to when and how this tragedy occurred. Amos Nur, director of the department of geophysics at Stanford University, who carried out the magnetic mapping of the area, referred to geomorphic and climatic change which resulted in a rise in the level of the Mediterranean, along with the slow swamping of the land. He also mentioned that the walls of the temple "appeared to have fallen in one direction", but added that the date of the collapse was unclear. Now, as a result of the latest discoveries, the answer is at hand. The coins conclusively show an extant city through to the 8th century AD.

Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni said: "In the Amun temple area several gold and bronze coins, as well as ritual bronze instruments of different styles, have enlightened our knowledge of the rich life of this Graeco-Egyptian sanctuary in the time of the Ptolemies, and we now know that it survived for at least eight centuries."

One of the discoveries at the site that also generated interest is a rather inconsequential- looking, rectangular marble stone found on top of a large structure buried in the sand. It is inscribed in Greek with a poetic epitaph for a young man from Asti (a village close to Canopis) which discloses that he died in a battle in Ptolemaic times. Zahi Hawass is confident that there will be more burials. "It will lead us to a large cemetery that may have served to the two cities, Heracleion and Canopis," he says.

On a stele found last year, a bilingual hieroglyphic and Greek text revealed that the city of Heracleion had a number of harbours. Ibrahim Darwish, head of the Underwater Archaeology Department, confirmed this. "A topographic survey at the south, west and north of the site of the sunken city has revealed two ports connected by a canal," he says. "Heracleion was clearly surrounded by several settlements."

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