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Imagine this: You’re in Egypt, a country full of rich ancient history and beautiful scenery. You decide to go diving in the Meditteranean Sea off the coast of Alexandria. The water is a beautiful blue, colorful fish swimming by. As you dive deeper and deeper, you start to notice something strange.
You see what looks to be human figures. But surely they can’t be real humans. You get closer and start to make out what it is. Or what you think it is.
A Powerful Discovery
You reach the sea floor. But what you see is right out of a movie. There are giant Egyptian statues and artifacts. Some of them gold! You can’t believe your eyes. You know in your heart that you’ve just discovered something huge. Something ancient. Something powerful.
But what do you do now? Who do you tell?
Lost and Found
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If that sounds like a work of fiction, it isn’t. Those Egyptian statues and artifacts are real and were actually discovered by Franck Goddio’s team of archaeologists when they were diving in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea in the year 2000. They were on a mission and made a powerful discovery. They revealed an ancient underwater city off the coast of Alexandria, in Egypt.
But which city? And why is it underwater?
A City from the Depths
The lost city of Thonis-Heracleion isn’t well known, of course. And it’s because for thousands of years it’s been submerged under the sea. Goddio’s team of archaeologists noticed a colossal face surfacing from the shadows of the water 6.5 km off the coast of Alexandria.
This was eventually identified as the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, once a grand Egyptian port city. The exact reason why it sunk underwater remains a mystery. So what happened? What could possibly have caused an entire city to sink down into the depths of the sea?
Hapi, God of Fertility
The city of Heracleion used to be a busy port which is believed to have been in the 2nd century BC. The port city served as the main entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. The statue of Hapi, who was the Egyptian god of fertility, proudly watched over the port. He gazed upon the ships of trade and the bustling city. With Hapi being the gatekeeper of the city, it became one of the greatest port cities in the ancient world.
Although it’s a mystery as to why the city sunk, there is a theory…
It was believed that towards the end of the 2nd century, an earthquake occurred that caused immense devastation upon the city. The tremors caused the ground to sink beneath Hapi’s feet. Within a matter of minutes, more than six tons of finely-crafted stones, buildings, temples, and artwork submerged into the sea. The settlement soon followed. The legendary city vanished underwater as if it never existed at all. Only to be discovered in the year 2000.
Cut to Modern Times
The city of Thonis-Heracleion is rarely mentioned in modern history books. As a result, not a lot is known about the city except that it’s believed to be like the ancient Egyptian Venice, built with canals as its main waterways. There is also a belief that part of its land is aquatic marshland, which may be part of the reason why it sank so quickly. However, nothing was concretely known about the city until its recent discovery.
But what they discovered underwater wasn’t everything that there was to be found.
More to Be Found
In the early 2000s, after the crew made the discovery, they decided to bring the fragments of the lost city to the surface. Hapi’s statue was covered with salt but still intact. They were sure that there was more to be found. So the divers chose to continue their search and found six more pieces, along with other artifacts. They were ecstatic.
The Search Begins
The archaeologists wanted to uncover this lost city and prove to the world that it is not a myth or the stuff of legends. Their goal was not only to discover the city but also to learn more about the culture and how it became a busy port town. Archaeologists scoured the area of Abu Qir Bay off the coast of Egypt.
The underwater excavation was a lot of work, but through the innovative techniques and the tireless effort of the archaeologists, it paid off. And they show real proof of a city that once was.
And their efforts were awarded.
An Excellent Achievement
Thonis-Heracleion was submerged 150 feet underwater about 6.5 km from the coastline of Alexandria. According to Aurelia Masson-Berghoff, curator of the Sunken Cities exhibition at the British Museum, it is an excellent achievement for an archaeologist to discover even a tomb of an individual, but discovering a whole city which was home to thousands and thousands of people is something extraordinary.
And the pieces they found were remarkable and undoubtedly valuable…
The Colossal Discoveries
When Frank Goddio and his team started the underwater exploration, they found a staggering number of valuable items in this lost city. What did they find? They found 64 ships, 700 anchors, 16-foot tall statues, coins used for trading, treasure chests of gold, and religious statues.
Amazingly, 98% of the artifacts of the lost city have been left underwater for future generations to explore. Why? Because according to the archaeologists, the remains of the city are better preserved underwater as they are protected against looters.
The Temple of Amun
One of the essential items that were found in the sunken city of Heracleion was the remains of the temple that is dedicated to the god Amun-Gereb. This included the stone coffins of animals. Even though the city was submerged underwater for well over two thousand years, the artifacts which were remarkably well-preserved.
A Magnificent City Indeed
From what the archaeologists found so far, it can be concluded that Thonis-Heracleion was a busy and prosperous town which provided a cosmopolitan gateway from the Mediterranean to the western world. It was a city of mighty temples and tower houses which were decorated by harbors and linked by a network of bridges and ferries. It was indeed a magnificent ancient city.
But how did the team of archaeologists know to look there?
How the Exploration Began
The underwater exploration of the lost city was initiated in 1933 when a British RAF pilot noticed something under the water. It was reported to the local prince, and a diver was sent to inspect the place, but no results were obtained. The exploration ceased due to World War II and the Cold War. By the end of the 20th century, the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology had sent a team to find the lost city. The team had spent many years creating maps and technological tools because the sea is all stirred up with floating sand and mud. This makes visibility underwater tricky even for the most skilled divers.
A City of Heroes
Why is Heracleion such a famous city? First off, it’s strategically located – looking over the port where trading ships from the Mediterranean get in and out of Egypt. It was in this city where Heracles, the divine hero, took his first footsteps into Africa. This is also the city where Helen of Sparta sought refuge after Paris of Troy abducted her.
A Significant Discovery
The hard evidence of the lost city’s existence had faded over the years. No proof of the city was ever found except for a rare mention in some ancient text or another. There was no physical evidence until recently when divers first caught a glimpse of its vast treasures.
The pictures and all the objects found during the exploration of the sunken city are solid proof of the magnificence of Heracleion. Since the city was submerged thousands of years ago, there was little information about the sunken city. In fact, even the information provided by the historians was minimal.
It is no wonder then how long it took the team to excavate the piece.
Buried but Not Forgotten
Frank Goddio and his team carried out the challenging operation of excavating an entire city that’s submerged under the sea. It took them 13 years! And it was worth it. The things that they found are nothing short of amazing. Piece by piece, the city started to take shape. And they were able to make history.
From the Depths
The archaeologists did not expect the city to be so big. That is why moving out objects from the sand and silt was quite tricky and took a lot of time. The team uncovered huge statues of gods and goddesses that amazingly, were almost entirely intact. They also found gold coins, tablets with inscriptions, and temple artifacts.
How is it that these statues were intact for thousands of years underwater?
Since the statues were buried under the sea for thousands of years, they have not seen much wear and tear. Their appearance is almost entirely preserved. The fact the statues were not completely damaged tells us that the Egyptians used materials that were long-lasting and stands that test of time. This isn’t really surprising since it is the same civilization that built the fantastic pyramids which are still intact today.
Discovering artifacts under the sea was one thing. Carrying out the excavation was another. The statues weigh tons of kilos, and it took a large team to carry out the process of bringing these huge artifacts to the surface. The divers who moved out the important artifacts did a commendable job. After all of these, another huge undertaking is taking care of these precious objects.
So how did they actually lift and inspect these giant structures?
Submerged for Years
Raising the heavy artifacts from the depths is not easy. The team utilized heavy equipment to pull out the objects buried in the sand under the sea. The archaeologists carried water-dredges and huge vacuum cleaners that they used to remove the sand that covered the archaeological artifacts.
An Awesome Experience
Seeing the sunken city of Heracleion is a memorable experience, no doubt. Archaeologist Frank Goddio and his team are fortunate enough to have encountered and explored the lost city of Heracleion. In one of his photos, Goddio can be seen examining a pharaoh’s statue that is over 16 feet tall!
Piecing Artifacts Together
Since the cause of the tragedy is most likely an earthquake, it had caused damage to some of the artifacts. The marine archaeologists have found a stele that was broken into 17 pieces. Fortunately, throughout the exploration, the divers have found all the pieces. It took a lot of hard work to put every piece of the artifacts together, but remarkably, they managed to do it.
Another extraordinary discovery of Goddio’s team is the red granite statue that was buried along the huge temple in Heracleion. The divers also found many other statues that are in such good condition, almost as if nothing tragic ever happened. Coming across these statues was nothing short of a miracle for the divers; it was as if they struck gold.
Another magnificent discovery of the archaeologists was a statue of a Graeco-Egyptian queen. The figure was carved in dark stone. In spite of being buried in the sand under the sea for thousands of years, the statue was well-preserved.
A Bronze Oil Lamp
One of the objects that were found while exploring the sunken city of Heracleion was an oil lamp. Who would believe that a bronze oil lamp will endure the tragedy and still be in good condition? This surprising discovery is considered to date as far back as 2nd Century BC.
A Pharaoh’s Statue
The interplay between the Greek and Egyptian societies during the ancient years is manifested in the lost city’s remnants. The archaeologists have discovered a pharaoh’s statue measuring more than 5 meters. It was made with red granite, and its head was separated from its body when it was found.
A Gold Plaque and Greek Engravings
Another artifact that was discovered by the team of archaeologists was a gold plaque. The divers found it in the southern part of the lost city. The plaque had Greek engravings of more than five lines and measured 11 x 5 cm.
The God of the Underworld
In Ancient Egypt, Osiris was the “god of the underworld and resurrection.” A bronze statue of Osiris was found, which depicts him bearing his crown to wield his power. The eyes of the figure are gold-plated. This artifact is proof that the temple in Heracleion celebrated an ancient Egyptian festival called the Mysteries of Osiris.
Heracleion is a treasure trove for archeologists and an incredible discovery that must be made known to the rest of the world. Team members followed strict protocols in documenting and measuring anything that they found to the last decimal. One photo of the excavations show a team member taking exact dimensions of a statue. For archaeologists, accuracy is essential.
More Gold in the City
It isn’t a secret that gold is abundant in Egypt. Some gold artifacts were discovered from ancient Egyptian settlements. The discovery of the city proved that ancient Egypt indeed was extremely rich. An example of a gold item that has been found was a shallow dish made of gold which was used for drinking and eating.
Red Granite Statue
Another beautiful find unearthed in the city is the statue of Hapi, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile. It is made from red granite. The symbol of fertility and abundance decorated the Thonis-Heracleion Temple. It’s incredible how the statue, despite its humongous size was left almost untouched in its thousand years slumber.
Who Was the Queen?
The ancient city was filled with other magnificent items, one of which was a beautiful statue that left the divers who discovered it stunned by its incredible beauty. It was a Ptolemaic queen dressed as the magnificent goddess Isis. The discovery was followed by a hot debate to know the identity that the statue portrays. They have not settled whether it’s Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III.
For the team of people involved in this project, this is probably considered the discovery of their lifetime. It is indeed very rare to discover an entire city submerged underwater and recreate it back on land. As the treasures piled up, the team got more and more excited at the enormity and importance of this discovery.
There’s More to Discover
The discovery of the city that previously existed only in myths has awakened the interest of scholars and experts in the field or archeology and history. Archeologists and historians from different parts of the globe have flocked to the area to conduct researches about this great find.
Untouched by Time
For Frank Goddio and his team, what was most surprising was how the city stayed intact after all those years. With Thonis-Heracleion being almost untouched, no artifacts seem to have been lost. It’s as if the city was laying there patiently, waiting to be discovered.
The Exhibit of Artifacts
A discovery of such scale and magnitude is not meant to be hidden. It deserves to be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible. Thonis-Heracleion is a huge discovery, literally, and as such requires a big avenue that will allow people to enjoy and appreciate it. An entire museum can be made from the incredible artifacts unearthed from the city, and it should be open to the public.
What Researchers Say
One of the researchers involved in the Thonis-Heracleion discovery, Masson-Berghoff, expresses his hope that their future developments will enable them to shed more light on the lives of ordinary people. No better discovery can allow an extensive study of the ancient people’s lives, culture, and history than one whole big city. He also said that they hope to learn more about an entirely new civilization.
A Promising Beginning
Frank Goddio had revealed that the discovery is not yet complete, far from it actually. With all the objects that were found and made public, he claims that they are still at the very beginning of their search. In fact, he says that “What we know is just a fraction.”
What Lies Ahead?
The discovery reaffirms that our oceans hide a plethora of wonders yet to be discovered. If an entire civilization can hide from us for thousands of years, then explorations of smaller scale but equal magnitude might be just around the corner. This creates hope for other lost history legends which might be rediscovered soon and enrich our history even more!