Heracleion, a much prosperous and a known city had been engulfed underwater 1500 years ago. This grand city had also been mentioned by the Greek writer Herodotus, the 5th-century BC historian. He had told a wonderful tale of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, who had launched a thousand ships, travelled to Heracleion, then a port of ‘great wealth’, with her glamorous Trojan lover, Paris.
But until 2001, there had been no evidence of the city from this classical tale. But when a group led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio stumbled upon some relics, it led them to one of the greatest finds of the 21st century, a city underwater. The discovery took place when Goddio had been in search of Napoleon’s warships from the 1798 Battle of the Nile, when he had been defeated by Nelson in these very waters, but to his surprise, he stumbled upon this magnificent discovery. Goddio’s team has since been joined by the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and the Department of Antiquities of Egypt to produce a wealth of dazzling finds.
The discoveries include the colossal statues of the Egyptian goddess Isis, the god Hapi, and an unidentified Egyptian pharaoh, all preserved in excellent condition by their muddy burial shroud. Along with these 16ft statues there are hundreds of smaller statues of Egyptian gods, among them the figures that guarded the temple where Cleopatra who was inaugurated as Queen of the Nile. Dozens of sarcophagi have also been found, containing the bodies of mummified animals sacrificed to Amun-Gereb, the supreme god of the Egyptians. Many amulets, or religious charms, have been unearthed, too, showing gods such as Isis, Osiris and Horus. These had been created not only for Egyptians but also for visiting traders who used to incorporate them into their religion or kept them as trinkets.
Heracleion can now be added to the number as Egypt’s most important port during the time of the later pharaohs. The importance of Heracleion has further been seen by the discovery of 64 ships, the largest number of ancient vessels ever found in one place and a fascinating 700 anchors. The city had been a major motorway junction. It had a naturally navigable channel next to its ancient harbor and a further artificial channel appears to had been dug to accelerate trade.
The very name of the city had been taken from the most famous of Greek heroes, Heracles aka Hercules whose 12 labors had killed the Hydra and had captured Cerberus, the multi-headed hellhound that guarded the gates of the Underworld who had captivated the ancient world. Heraklion, Crete’s capital and largest city, had also been named after Heracles, as was Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town that had been buried under ash when Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. When Heracleion had faded in importance in the later classical period, its neighboring city of Alexandria had become the capital of Egypt in 312BC.
The discovery of Heracleion will now add depth and detail to our knowledge of the ancient world, because among the discoveries, there are perfectly preserved steles (inscribed pillars) decorated with hieroglyphics. Once translated, they will reveal much about the religious and political life in this corner of ancient Egypt. A similar inscription on the Rosetta stone had been discovered in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta in 1799 by a French soldier, and now preserved in the British Museum, it had cracked the code of hieroglyphics in the first place.
And like the Rosetta stone, those steles found beneath the waters of Aboukir Bay are inscribed in Greek and Egyptian, too. The possibility of discovery of many more archaeological gems at Heracleion has now been opened.
Moreover, Heracleion had been extremely crucial to the economy of the ancient world. This can be seen in the discovery of gold coins and lead, bronze and stone weights from Athens (used to measure the value of goods and to calculate the tax owed), which depicts that Heracleion had been a lucrative Mediterranean post.
On the discovery of this magnificent city, the archaeologists had first faced the mammoth task of reassembling massive stone fragments on the seabed before they could haul them to the surface. Twelve years on, their fabulous finds have been exposed to public view for the first time after more than a millennium spent beneath the silt and water of Aboukir Bay, 20 miles northeast of Alexandria.
Evidence shows that Heracleion slipped into its watery grave sometime in the 6th or 7th century AD. The discovery of this splendid city in Egypt has been thrilling and mesmerizing.