The ancient sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion in Abu Qir Bay in Alexandria, submerged when a destructive earthquake hit Egypt during the second century BCE, continues to reveal more of its secrets.
The remains of Aphrodite’s sanctuary and a collection of artefacts from the Amun Gereb Temple that have been lying for centuries on the seabed were discovered by an Egyptian-French archaeological mission led by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) this week.
“It is a very important discovery because it reveals how the city sank and the kind of life that its inhabitants had once led,” said Mustafa Waziri, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).
The mission uncovered precious objects and jewellery from the treasury of the famed Temple of Amun Gereb, part of which slid into a canal during the earthquake that hit the country.
Large blocks had been dragged down, taking with them pieces that were part of the temple treasury. The archaeological excavations also revealed deep underground structures supported by well-preserved wooden beams dating from the fifth century BCE.
Waziri added that the artefacts were found embedded under a three-metre layer of hard clay and thus were well preserved. Among many other precious objects, silver ritual instruments in pristine condition, gold jewellery including lion-head shaped earrings, Udjat eye pendants and fragile alabaster containers that were used to preserve perfumes and unguents were found.
“The use of new underwater excavation devices made it possible to extract the finds from the heavy sediment,” IEASM head Franck Goddio said, adding that “it is extremely moving to discover such delicate objects that survived intact despite the magnitude of the cataclysm.”
Islam Selim, head of the Underwater Archaeology Department at the SCA, said that the discovery of the silver ritual plates and instruments was very rare as silver was extremely valuable for the ancient Egyptians.
He said that the ritual objects and offerings in the temple are evidence of the wealth of the sanctuary and the piety of the former inhabitants of the port city. Among the uncovered rituals instruments are a limestone hand-shaped pot and a bronze goose-shaped kettle.
East of the Temple of Amun Gereb, a Greek sanctuary dating back to the fifth century BCE and devoted to Aphrodite was also discovered, yielding vestiges of imported bronze and ceramic objects. “The Greeks were allowed to trade and settle in the city by a decision of the Pharaohs of the Saite Dynasty [664-525 BCE],” Selim said.
They were also allowed to build their own sanctuaries. The presence of Greek mercenaries can be ascertained by the numerous Greek weapons found in the area of the port city at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile controlling the entrance to Egypt.
The remains of the city of Thonis-Heracleion are located under the sea, almost seven km off the present coastline at Abu Qir. The city was Egypt’s largest port on the Mediterranean Sea before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 BCE.
Several earthquakes, followed by tidal waves that triggered land liquefaction, caused a 110 square km portion of the Nile Delta to collapse under the sea, taking the city of Thonis-Heracleion with it.
The cataclysm in the mid-second century BCE destroyed the Temple of Amun Gereb, where the Pharaohs had come to receive their title as universal kings from the supreme god of the ancient Egyptian pantheon.
The city of Thonis-Heracleion was rediscovered by the IEASM in 2000 in collaboration with the Underwater Archaeology Department of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly