‘Sunken Cities’ background: Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus

By | January 11, 2018

Rendering of the town of Thonis-Heracleion; Artist rendering / oder 3D / oder Inforgraphy: Yann Bernard © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation

More than 1,200 years ago, two cities on Egypt’s north coast disappeared into the Mediterranean Sea. They were victims of different natural catastrophes, like the rising of the sea level and seismic disruption, which triggered tidal waves. Over the coming centuries, these cities were largely forgotten.  Ancient accounts told of the cities’ splendor and magnificence, but no physical traces remained. Even their true names were obscured over time.

In 1996, The European Institute for Underwater Archaeology began to explore the murky Mediterranean waters in the bay of Abukir. Under the direction of maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio, the team focused their considerable expertise and sophisticated technology on a new goal: uncovering the two lost cities.

Among the earliest finds were carved inscriptions that confirmed the cities’ names: Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. Thonis-Heracleion was once Egypt’s premier center for trade with the Greek world. The site was also home to a major temple where new pharaohs came to be legitimized by the gods. The nearby city of Canopus housed shrines, which drew pilgrims from across the Mediterranean. Artifacts from the two cities – colossal statuary, humble votive offerings, beautiful jewelry and ornaments, imported goods, and relics of a mysterious religious festival—illustrate the range of human experience in the ancient world.

Experts believe soil liquefaction and a gradual rise in sea level eventually led to the abandonment of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. They likely had submerged by the latter half of the 8th century AD, and the exact locations of the cities were unknown until Goddio’s discoveries.


Situated on the westernmost branch of the Nile, Thonis-Heracleion by the 8th century BC had become an important hub for trade between Egypt and civilizations with access to the Mediterranean Sea. Underwater excavations around the city have revealed a vast harbor with quays and basins protected by bands of sandbars. A systematic archaeological survey of the basins identified more than 60 shipwrecks, from the 5th and 4th centuries BC, which speak to the volume of sea traffic once in this location.

Imported objects excavated under water at Thonis-Heracleion reveal the extent of the contact between the city and the Mediterranean region. Ceramics from southern Italy and Athens reflect trade with Greek colonies. Coinage from Cyprus attests to exchange with the Phoenicians of the Levantine coast, who used Cyprus as an important trading depot. Metal objects from the Persian Empire in the heart of Mesopotamia indicate that goods traveled vast distances over land before embarking upon their nautical journey to Egypt.

The presence of these varied objects, coupled with evidence of vessels at the port of Thonis-Heracleion, confirm this ancient city as a crossroads where travelers, merchants, and commercial entrepreneurs from around the Mediterranean met, conducted business, and socialized. It was here where the millennia-old Egyptian civilization converged with the comparatively young, emerging culture of Greece.


The city of Canopus lies two miles west of Thonis-Heracleion.

Called Canopus by the Greeks and Pe-Guti by the Egyptians, the city was also home to a monumental temple for Serapis, a new hybrid Graeco-Egyptian god created by the Ptolemaic rulers. The city became one of the most significant religious centers during the Ptolemaic period. Pilgrims from all over the world came to visit the temple dedicated to Serapis—called a Serapeum—in search of miraculous healing.

These pilgrimages came to an end in AD 391, when the Christian emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan cults. Christian hordes smashed statues, toppled shrines, and razed the Temple of Serapis to the ground, leaving only its foundations to be discovered by archaeologist 2,000 years later. In place of pagan structures, the people of Canopus built their own buildings, including a monastery and the site continued until the 8th century.


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