Heracleion Cleopatra's Sunken City

Ancient Egyptian City of Heracleion - on the border between myth and reality

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The city of Heracleion, home of the temple where Cleopatra was inaugurated, plunged into the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Egypt nearly 1,200 years ago.  It was one of the most important trade centres in the Mediterranean before it sank more than a millennium ago. For centuries, the city was believed to be a myth, much like the city of Atlantis is viewed today.  But in 2001, an underwater archaeologist searching for French warships stumbled across the sunken city. 

After removing layers of sand and mud, divers uncovered the extraordinarily well preserved city with many of its treasures still intact including, the main temple of Amun-Gerb, giant statues of pharaohs, hundreds of smaller statues of gods and goddesses, a sphinx, 64 ancient ships, 700 anchors, stone blocks with both Greek and Ancient Egyptian inscriptions, dozens of sarcophagi, gold coins and weights made from bronze and stone.

Bronze oil lamp discovered in the temple of Amun. Photo credit:  Christoph Gerigk

Spectacular photographs of the discovery and recovery process reveal numerous statues and structures that once stood tall and mighty in the great city. One photo shows a Graeco-Egyptian statue of a Ptolemaic queen which stands eerily on the seabed, surrounded only be sediment and darkness, while another photographs shows the face of a great Pharaoh peering up out of the sand. 

Bronze statuette of pharaoh of the 26th dynasty. Photo credit:  Christoph Gerigk

One of the most incredible shots shows a diver next to an amazingly well-preserved 1.9 metre tall Heracleion stele commissioned by Nectanebo I in 378 - 362 BC, complete with detailed and clearly readable inscriptions. 

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) told us of a great temple that was built where the famous hero Heracles first set foot on to Egypt, and was named after him. He also reported of Helen of Troy’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, 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. However, until its discovery, Heracleion was just a place of legends.

The discovery of Heracleion raises important questions about what we believe today are mere myths and legends.  If a city once believed to be myth can be uncovered from the depths of the sea, who knows what others legends of the past will be uncovered in the future? 

References:

Lost city of Heracleion gives up its secrets - Telegraph

Sunken Civilizations: From Legend to Reality - Frank Goddio

The Lost City of Heracleion - Atlas Obscura

By April Holloway

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