In Photos: The sunken city of Thônis-Heracleion in Alexandria reveals new archaeological treasures

Nevine El-Aref , Monday 19 Jul 2021

Ptolemaic Ship wrecks and a Greek cemetery were submerged in the sunken city

The sunken city of Thônis-Heracleion

During an underwater excavation at the sunken city of Heracleion in Abu Qir bay in Alexandria, the Egyptian-French mission, led by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), uncovered remains of a military vessel and a funerary complex.

Mostafa Waziry, secretary general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, announced the discovery of the remains of a military vessel in the submerged city of Thônis-Heracleion, which sank receiving huge blocks of the famed temple of Amun in the second century BC. The ship was to be moored at a landing stage in the canal that flowed along the south face of the temple, when it was totally destroyed during a cataclysmic event. The fallen blocks have kept the precious naval remains pinned to the bottom of the deep canal along with the debris of the sanctuary.

According to Head of Egyptian Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt, Ayman Ashmawy, the ship was detected under nearly 5 metres of hard clay mixed with temple debris thanks to a cutting edge prototype electronic sub-bottom profiler.

French archaeologist Franck Goddio pointed out that finds of ships from this age remain extremely rare, with the only example being the Punic Marsala Ship (235 BC). The Hellenistic ships of this type were completely unknown from an archaeological perspective before this discovery.

The sunken city of Thônis-Heracleion 1

Ehab Fahmy, head of the Central Department of Underwater Antiquities, said that the preliminary study shows that the hull of this ship was built in the classical tradition and relied on long mortise-and-tenon joints and a well-developed internal structure. However, at the same time it also features ancient Egyptian construction techniques. It was a rowing ship that was equally provided with a large sail as evidenced from its mast step of considerable dimensions. This long boat was flat-bottomed and had a flat keel, quite advantageous for the navigation on the Nile and within the delta. Some typical ancient Egyptian shipbuilding features, together with the evidence of wood reuse, indicate that the ship was built in Egypt. With a length of more than 25 m it had a length-to-breadth ratio close to six to one.

The sunken city of Thônis-Heracleion 1

In another part of the city, a tumulus (burial mound) stretching alongside the north-east entrance canal also revealed remains of a large Greek funerary area, all covered with rich donations. They date from the very first years of the fourth century BC. This discovery beautifully illustrates the presence of the Greek merchants who lived in that city, controlling the entrance to Egypt at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile. The Greeks were allowed to settle in this city during the late Pharaonic dynasties. They built their own sanctuaries close to the huge temple of Amun. Those were destroyed simultaneously and their remains are found mixed with those of the Egyptian temple.

The sunken city of Thônis-Heracleion 1

Important remains of the temple of Amun slipped into the deep canal during a land slide caused by a land liquefaction phenomenon. They were discovered in a pristine state of preservation. They are the witnesses of the richness of the sanctuaries of this city, now located under the sea seven kilometers from the present coast of Egypt.

Thônis-Heracleion was for centuries the largest Egyptian port on the Mediterranean Sea, prior to the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. Several earthquakes, followed by tidal waves, triggered land liquefactions, causing a 110 square kilometer portion of the Nile delta, with the cities of Thônis-Heracleion and Canopus, to collapse into the sea. Both cities were rediscovered by the IEASM in collaboration with the Underwater Archaeology Department of Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, respectively in 2001 and 1999.

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