The Lost City of Heracleion

Colossal red granite statue of pharaoh found close to the great temple of sunken Heracleion: Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Sunken and forgotten off the coast of Egypt, hidden beneath layers and layers of sand and silt lies the once bustling metropolis city of Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city), a city lost between legend and reality. The sunken civilisation that was once barely more than a legend, appearing in only a few rare inscriptions and ancient texts, was discovered by Frank Goddio and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) in the early 2000s while searching for Napoleon's warship remains from the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

The city, that was disappeared beneath the Mediterranean Sea 1,200 years ago predated its more commonly known neighbour, Alexandria, as the main trading port of the region, built on the banks of the Nile river serving as the obligatory port of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the Greek world. Before being discovered one of the only places its memory survived was in the writings of the 5th-century BC Greek writer Herodotus, who told the story of the great temple that was built where the famous hero Herakles first set foot on the Egypt. He also reports of Helen of Troy's, the most beautiful woman in the world, visit to Heracleion with her lover Paris before the Trojan War.

Colossal triad of 5, tall red granite statues of a pharaoh, his queen and the god Hapy: Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Archaeologists faced the mammoth task of reassembling the massive stone fragments found on the seabed. Among the discoveries are colossal 16ft statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the god Hapi, and an unidentified Egyptian pharaoh, hundreds of smaller statues of Egyptian gods which guarded the temple where Cleopatra was inaugurated as Queen of the Nile, dozens of sarcophagi containing mummified animals sacrificed to Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians, many amulets depicting gods such as Isis, Osiris and Horus, and hundreds of bronze coins and gold jewellery, all immaculately preserved by their muddy burial. Discovered amongst the ruins was 64 ships lined up along with 700 anchors, the largest number of ancient vessels ever found, further proving the importance of the city.

Stele of Thonis-Heracleion: Frank Goddio/Hilti
Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk
One of the most interesting artefacts unearthed for the archaeologists was the Decree of Sais, a perfectly preserved, 2 metre tall, black stele (inscribed pillars) inscribed in both Egyptian and Greek that reveals the taxes and duties owed and paid: "His Majesty [Pharaoh Nectanebo I] decreed: Let there be given one-tenth of the gold, of the silver, of the timber, of the processed wood and of all things coming from the sea of the Hau-Nebut [the Mediterranean]... to be divine offerings to my mother Neith."

Many hellenic elements were discovered in the seabed alongside the Egyptian artefacts. Things like Hellenic helmets, Cypriot statuettes and incense burners, Athenian perfume bottles, ancient anchors from Greek ships, gold coins and lead, bronze and stone weights from Athens which were used to measure the value of goods, all of which further prove the importance of Thonis-Heracleion as a lucrative trading post in the Mediterranean.

While the site continues to be explored and unearthed, these finds will further our understanding of the ancient world 

While the site continues to be explored and unearthed, these finds provide a unique window into the ancient world, adding tremendous depth to our knowledge and understanding.

3D recreation of what the lost city may have looked like: Frank Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Yann Bernard


  1. This must be the most difficult archaeology to accomplish, so very interesting that so many ancient artifacts have been found.


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