Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
online news
Submerged Cities off the Coast of Egypt June 21, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster

[image] Colossal head of the Ptolemaic god Serapis in white marble (Christoph Gerigk, Hilti Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE]

An underwater archaeological survey of the Mediterranean just a few miles off Egypt's north coast has revealed the remains of two 2,500-year-old cities, possibly Menouthis and Herakleion, which served as trading hubs in the Late Dynastic Period. Divers, working under the direction of Franck Goddio of the Paris-based Institut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine and archaeologists from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities have located well-preserved remains of houses; temples dedicated to the gods Isis, Serapis, and Osiris; port facilities; fallen monuments; statues; inscriptions; ceramics; and late Islamic and Byzantine jewelry and coins, all embedded in the sea floor less than 30 feet below the water's surface.

Divers recovered a hoard of Islamic and Byzantine coins. (Christoph Gerigk, Hilti Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE][image]

Discovered 1.2 and 3.5 miles offshore from Aboukir, respectively, the two cities, which were founded sometime in the sixth or seventh century B.C., are known from ancient authors. Strabo, who visited Egypt in 26 B.C., described the geographic location of the cities and their opulent way of life. Herodotus, writing four centuries earlier, described the cities of the Nile Delta as looking like the islands of the Aegean set amid a marsh. The Greek historian specifically mentions Herakleion and its temple dedicated to Herakles. Herakleion had served as Egypt's principal commercial port until the founding of Alexandria by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.

By the fifth century A.D., however, these cities along with the Hellenistic capital of Alexandria had been destroyed, toppled by a series of earthquakes and tidal waves that struck the Egyptian coast, centered, according to Stamford University geophysicist Amos Nur, on a nascent fault line that stretches from Sicily to Cairo. Written sources tell us some 23 earthquakes struck North Africa between the years A.D. 320 and 1303, a particularly severe one in the summer of A.D. 365. Over time the coastline dropped more than 20 feet, the cities along it collapsing and slipping beneath the waves, and gradually buried by silt depoisted by the Nile. The cities are located in what was once the Canopic Branch of the Nile which disappeared in the tectonic activity.

[image] A black granite head of a pharaoh embedded in the seafloor (Christoph Gerigk, Hilti Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE]

Goddio, who gained notoriety with his work on what may be the remains of Cleopatra's palace on the now submerged island of Antirrhodos in Alexandria's Eastern Harbor and the discovery of Napoleon's Lost Fleet, sunk at Aboukir in 1798, has spent two years looking for the cities. "With Herakleion, in particular, we have an intact city, frozen in time," said Goddio.

Among the most extraordinary finds have been remnants of the so-called Naos [temple] of the Decades (Ital Naos of the Decades) a fourth-century B.C. black granite shrine found among the fallen remains of what may have been the city of Menouthis, which had been a suburb of a larger town, Canopus, also mentioned by ancient authors. Dedicated by the Pharaoh Nectanebo I, who reigned from 380 to 362 B.C., the shrine was inscribed with images and texts explaining the annual calender of 36 decades (ital decades) or ten-day periods defined by the appearance and disappearance of stars known as decans (ital decans) in the night sky. The texts describe the influence each star was believed to possess over nature, animals, and humans--both communally and individually.

A slab from the so-called "Naos of the Decades" a black granite shrine commissioned by the pharaoh Nectanebo I in the fourth-century B.C. The temple is inscribed with texts and images of the stars which governed the night sky throughout the year. Additional fragments of the shrine are on view at the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria and are in the Egyptian collection of the Louvre in Paris. (Christoph Gerigk, Hilti Foundation) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

Two slabs from the chapel, which are currently in the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria were recovered by the Ottoman Prince Omar Tousson, a pioneer in underwater archaeology, in 1940. In 1957, scholars realized that another part of the temple, a mysterious pyramid-shaped block, discovered on the beach at Aboukir in 1777, was among the objects in the Egyptian collection of the Louvre in Paris. "The newly recovered fragments," says Goddio, "provide abundant new information on the workings of the Egyptian calendar." Save for a few choice pieces, which will go on display in Egypt, Goddio and his team plan to leave the ancient remains undisturbed for future generations.

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America