Divers Discover Extraordinary Treasures In "Egypt's Atlantis"

Excavations of the sunken cities of Canopus and Heracleion in Egypt are heralding some exciting treasures. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation

Rosie McCall 25 Jul 2019, 15:11

Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities has announced a series of new finds unearthed during recent excavation work at the ruins of two underwater cities – Canopus and Heracleion, both in the Gulf of Abi Qir near Alexandria. To summarize: there is gold, pottery, temples, and more gold.

At Canopus, a team of underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio discovered the remains of buildings, which – combined – extended the overall size of the sunken city by a kilometer (0.6 miles). The team also uncovered gold jewelry, gold coins (from the Byzantine period), a collection of pottery, and bronze coins (from the Ptolemaic period, 305-30 BCE). These artifacts, they say, suggest the city was inhabited between the fourth century BCE and the Islamic era, starting in the seventh century CE.

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At Heracleion (or Thonis, as it is known in Egyptian), the archaeologists found parts of Amun Garp – the city's main (and now, completely destroyed) temple. There were also the remains of a smaller Greek temple and pieces of storage pottery and tableware dating to the third and second century BCE. On top of that, there were bronze coins from King Ptolemy II's reign (285–246 BCE) and sections of columns from the same period.

Until 2000, the existence of Thonis-Heracleion was only known because of its documentation in ancient classic texts as well as the occasional mention of it in inscriptions found on land. According to Goddio's site, it was the obligatory port of entry to Egypt from Greece until the founding of Alexandria (named after Alexander the Great) in 331 BCE. 

Legend has it – as per the writing of Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE – a great temple was built in the city where the Greek hero Heracles stepped foot in Egypt for the first time. It was also, supposedly, visited by lovers Helen and Paris before the Trojan War broke out. 

Despite, ultimately, suffering a quite a tragic end (in the eighth century CE and after various natural disasters, the city sunk to the Mediterranean seabed), it had a long life and was probably founded some time around the eighth century BCE, says Goddio.

Its neighboring city, Canopus, is also referenced in various classical texts. Its first mention can be found in a poem by Solon, an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet, in the first half of the sixth century BCE. In another poem – this one by Nicander in the second century BCE – the sailor Canonpus, helmsman to Menelaus, king of Mycenaean Sparta (and Helen's husband pre-Troy), was bitten by a viper on the sands of Thonis and died in the city. Hence its name. It was known for its religious significance and opulent lifestyles of its inhabitants.

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Gold coin. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation
Coin recovered from the site. Christoph Gerigk/Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation

According to the Ministry of Antiquities' press release, archaeologists have also been working on some 75 vessels that have been discovered in the area, including one ship in an ancient Egyptian style that dates back to the fifth century BCE. 

This is part of a long-term project to explore the sunken cities of the eastern harbor of Alexandria and Aboukir Bay. 

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