From Legend to Reality: Discovering the Sunken City of Heracleion

This giant granite statue of a pharaoh was found near the submerged city’s grand temple.

Around 1,200 years ago, colossal statues of Egyptian gods graced the bustling port city of Heracleion. Thanks to its huge network of sparkling canals, the city became one of the most vital trade hubs in the Mediterranean, and ships filled with treasures lined its docks. It’s said said that Helen of Troy and her lover Paris once walked here, as did the Greek hero Hercules – after whom the city may have been named.

Located at the mouth of the river Nile, the city was a place of great culture as well as commerce. Then, suddenly, an unknown catastrophe caused the whole city to sink beneath the waves, where it was forgotten – except for a few historical references.

This 18-foot tall statue is the largest one dedicated to the god Hapi that has ever been discovered, which suggests Hapi’s significance in the region.

Heracleion was the name the Greeks gave this ancient city. The Egyptians, on the other hand, referred to it as Thonis; as such, the city is often referred to as Thonis-Heracleion. Either way, it is believed that the city was founded in the 8th century BCE and sank in the 8th century CE. Nobody is sure exactly why this happened, but scientists theorize that it may have been caused by a combination of rising sea levels and collapsing sediment.

The site lies about four miles (6.5 kilometers) off the current coastline of Egypt, in the western region of Aboukir Bay, and the ruins of the city are under 150 feet (46 meters) of water. The area around Heracleion’s port had many big basins, which would have made it an ideal site for anchoring ships.

A bronze statue of a 26th dynasty pharaoh that was found in the city.

The remains of Heracleion would probably still be lying there undiscovered were it not for the efforts of underwater archaeologist Dr. Franck Goddio. In 2000, Goddio was trying to find sunken French warships from the 18th century Battle of the Nile with his Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) team, when he first came across the submerged ruins of Heracleion. Divers were stunned to find well-preserved Egyptian artifacts embedded in the sandy ocean floor.


This Greco-Egyptian statue is thought to represent either Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III of the Ptolemaic dynasty, dressed as goddess Isis.

Franck Goddio and his IEASM team carried out the excavations in cooperation with Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology at the University of Oxford. Using sophisticated equipment, they mapped and excavated sections of Heracleion.

“The discoveries enhance the importance of the specific location of the city standing at the ‘Mouth of the Sea of the Greek’,” Goddio told The Daily Telegraph in April 2013. “We are just at the beginning of our research. We will probably have to continue working for the next 200 years for Thonis-Heracleion to be fully revealed and understood.”


This four ton, 16-foot-tall statue of another Ptolemaic queen was found close to a large temple.

So far, statues, coins, jewelry, architectural remains and other relics have been found at the Heracleion site. Yet perhaps the most fascinating part is the haul of around 64 ships that Goddio and his team discovered. The ships date from between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE and were discovered beneath the clay and sand of the seabed. Interestingly, a number of them seem to have been intentionally sunk. Researchers say the vessels – and the 700 anchors they also found – are in good condition, and they have described the find as perhaps the biggest nautical hoard from the ancient world.

As with the submerged city of Heracleion itself, there are questions surrounding the sunken crafts. “This might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port-city,” says Dr. Damian Robinson of the Oxford Center for Maritime Archaeology. “Seductive as this interpretation is, however, we must also consider whether these boats were sunk simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.”

The lower leg of a massive red granite statue, which was discovered in Aboukir Bay

In its day, Heracleion was a obligatory stop for all ships headed up the Nile to Egypt. It is said that here vessels unloaded their cargo in order for it to be assessed and taxed before being sent up the river on other crafts.

Interestingly, lead weights were uncovered during excavations of the basins in the harbor. It’s believed that these were used when paying taxes and buying products. This find is particularly important because some of the weights are Athenian and, to date, have been found nowhere else in Egypt.


Goddio with the Heracleion Stele, which is almost exactly the same as the Naukratis Stele in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum

Heracleion housed the Grand Temple of Amun (an Egyptian god) and Khonsu (his son), and the temple played a major role in the religious rites associated with the Egyptian dynasty.

The Greek historian Herodotus gives the temple further significance, writing that it was built to commemorate the first visit of Herakles (Hercules) to Egypt. Herodotus is also the historian who said that Helen of Troy and Paris visited Heracleion before the start of the Trojan War.

The head of an enormous pharaoh statue is raised to the surface.

So far, the site has yielded more than 300 small religious artifacts, with statuettes and amulets representing both Egyptian deities and Greek figures. The items were found in very good condition and are proving useful for researchers studying the religious beliefs of the time.

However, the significance of the artifacts is not only religious; they appear to have been mass produced on a much larger scale than anything from earlier periods. Most of the artifacts were made for the local market, but evidence suggests that some of them were sold to people from other regions.


A stone with gold fragments is found.

Divers have also unearthed a large number of limestone sarcophagi, which researchers think once held mummified animal offerings to the gods, and they hope to uncover sarcophagi containing human remains as they excavate more of the sunken city.

Stone slabs etched with both Greek and Egyptian have also been found; these were brought to the surface and studied along with the other artifacts. The archaeological haul helped to shed light on the city’s name, Thonis-Heracleion. Previously, it was thought that these might be two separate cities.

The red granite statue of Hapi, god of the flooding Nile, is raised out of the water.

As discoveries continue to be made, archaeologists and researchers will no doubt learn even more about the city of Heracleion. Perhaps they may even find a more definitive answer as to why the prosperous and richly cultural city sank. But for now, we can continue looking at their amazing pictures as they investigate the city on the ocean floor.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4