Text cour­tesy of Franck God­dio, Images by Christoph Gerigk / Franck God­dio / Hilti Foun­da­tion

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Contents - By Franck God­dio

The ground­break­ing ex­ca­va­tion of Cleopa­tra’s leg­endary lost city

Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyp­tian and Greek names) is a city lost be­tween leg­end and re­al­ity. Be­fore the foun­da­tion of Alexan­dria in 331 BC, the city knew glo­ri­ous times as the oblig­a­tory port of en­try to Egypt for all ships com­ing from the Greek world. It also had re­li­gious im­por­tance as the lo­ca­tion of the tem­ple of Amun, which played an im­por­tant role in rites as­so­ci­ated with the con­ti­nu­ity of the rul­ing dy­nasty.

The city was prob­a­bly founded around the 8th cen­tury BC, un­der­went di­verse nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes, and fi­nally sunk en­tirely into the depths of the Mediter­ranean in the

8th cen­tury AD.

Prior to its dis­cov­ery in 2000 by the Euro­pean In­sti­tute for Un­der­wa­ter Ar­chae­ol­ogy (IEASM), di­rected by Franck God­dio, no trace of Thon­isHer­a­cleion had been found. Its name was al­most erased from the mem­ory of mankind, only pre­served in an­cient clas­sic texts and rare in­scrip­tions found on land by ar­chae­ol­o­gists.

The Greek his­to­rian Herodotus (5th cen­tury BC) tells us of a great tem­ple that was built where the fa­mous hero Her­ak­les first set foot in Egypt. He also re­ports of He­len’s visit to Heracleion with her lover, Paris, be­fore the Tro­jan War. More than four cen­turies after Herodotus’ visit to Egypt, the Geog­ra­pher, Strabo, ob­served that the city of Heracleion,

Arte­facts like this are thought to have been used in cer­e­monies hon­our­ing the god Osiris A colos­sal statue of red gran­ite (5.4 m), rep­re­sent­ing the god Hapy, god of the Nile flood and sym­bol of abun­dance and fer­til­ity dec­o­rat­ing the tem­ple of Heracleion

which pos­sessed the tem­ple of Her­ak­les, is lo­cated straight to the east of Cano­pus at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the River Nile.


With a unique sur­vey-based ap­proach that utilises the most so­phis­ti­cated tech­ni­cal equip­ment, Franck God­dio and his team, in co­op­er­a­tion with the Egyp­tian Supreme Coun­cil of An­tiq­ui­ties, were able to lo­cate, map and excavate parts of the city of Thonis-Heracleion, which lies 6.5 kilo­me­tres off today’s coast­line. The city is lo­cated within an over­all re­search area of 11 by 15 kilo­me­tres in the western part of Aboukir Bay.

Franck God­dio has found im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion on the an­cient land­marks of Thonis-Heracleion, such as the grand tem­ple of Amun and his son Khon­sou (Her­ak­les for the Greeks), the har­bours that once con­trolled all trade into Egypt, and the daily life of its in­hab­i­tants. He has also solved a his­toric enigma that has puz­zled Egyp­tol­o­gists over the years: the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ma­te­rial has revealed that Heracleion and Thonis were in fact one and the same city with two names; Heracleion be­ing the name of the city for the Greeks and Thonis for the Egyp­tians.


The quan­tity and qual­ity of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ma­te­rial ex­ca­vated from the site of Thon­isHer­a­cleion show that this city knew a time of great op­u­lence dur­ing the peak of its oc­cu­pa­tion from the 4th to the 6th cen­tury BC. This can be seen in the large quan­tity of coins and ce­ram­ics dated to this pe­riod.

The port of Thonis-Heracleion had nu­mer­ous large basins and func­tioned as a hub of in­ter­na­tional trade; thriv­ing ac­tiv­ity in the port fos­tered the city’s pros­per­ity. More than 700 an­cient an­chors of var­i­ous forms, and over 60 wrecks dat­ing from the 2nd to the 6th cen­tury BC, are also an elo­quent tes­ti­mony to the in­ten­sity of mar­itime ac­tiv­ity here.

The city ex­tended all around the tem­ple, and a net­work of canals through­out would have given the whole set­tle­ment a “lake-like” feel. On the is­lands and islets, dwellings and sec­ondary sanc­tu­ar­ies were lo­cated. Ex­ca­va­tions here have revealed beau­ti­ful ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ma­te­rial such as bronze stat­uettes. On the north side of the tem­ple to Her­ak­les, a grand canal flowed through the city from east to west and con­nected the port basins with a lake to the west.

The ob­jects re­cov­ered from the ex­ca­va­tions il­lus­trate the city’s beauty and glory, the mag­nif­i­cence of its grand tem­ples and the abun­dance of his­toric ev­i­dence: colos­sal stat­ues, in­scrip­tions and ar­chi­tec­tural el­e­ments, jewellery and coins, rit­ual ob­jects and ce­ram­ics – a civil­i­sa­tion frozen in time.

The ob­jects re­cov­ered from the ex­ca­va­tions il­lus­trate the city’s beauty and glory – a civil­i­sa­tion frozen in time Dur­ing ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions, rit­ual de­posits and re­li­gious in­stru­ments, like this oil lamp, were dis­cov­ered in the water­ways near the sanc­tu­ary of Thonis-Heracleion. Most were prob­a­bly used dur­ing the cer­e­monies in hon­our of Osiris A mem­ber of the dig re­veals the head of a lime­stone Cypriot stat­uette, dat­ing from the 5th cen­tury BC A bronze stat­uette with golden eyes, de­pict­ing the god Osiris

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