In Disney’s new summer animated blockbuster Atlantis, a team of intrepid explorers searches the sea-bottom for the legendary lost continent.

Atlantis is only a legend, but in the non-animated world, real researchers have recently made discoveries almost as sensational, locating the fabled city of Herakleion, along with two of its suburbs, Canopus and Menouthis, underwater off the coast of Egypt.

Herakleion, located at the mouth of the Nile, was one of ancient Egypt’s major ports until it was superseded by Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. Herakleion was probably founded during the last days of the pharaohs, in the seventh or sixth century B.C.

Herodotus, who visited Egypt in 450 B.C., wrote about it and its temple dedicated to Hercules (after whom the city is named). Greek mythology recounts how Menelaus, king of Spartans, stopped in Herakleion during his return from Troy with Helen. His helmsman Canopus was bitten by a snake and transformed into a god (in much the same way Spiderman got his super powers), and had a city named after him; the third city, Menouthis, was named after Canopus’s wife.

The ancient author Strabo described the location of the cities and their rich lifestyles; the ancient author Seneca condemned them for their moral corruption.

After the founding of Alexandria, Herakleion lost economic importance. And then it vanished altogether, as did Canopus and Menouthis.

But in 1996, an effort began to find the lost cities–a challenge, because it required surveying a hundred square miles of the Mediterranean.

French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, with the help of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, assembled a team made up of specialists in geophysics, archaeology, history and marine diving. The geophysicists loaded up a catamaran with echosounders, side-scan sonar and nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers towed in parallel. For days, they found nothing. Then, with just one day left, paydirt: a sunken city, submerged in silt, less than eight meters below the sea surface.

For the past year divers have been exploring a large section of the find, a rectangle one kilometre by 1.2 kilometres in size, located 6.5 kilometres out to sea. They’ve uncovered houses, temples, giant statues, the infrastructure of the city’s port, complete with at least 10 sunken ships, even a colosseum.

The ages of the artifacts range over hundreds of years, but nothing turned up in Herkaleion so far dates further back than the first century B.C.–possibly a clue as to when the city was destroyed. (By contrast, artifacts from Canopus range up until early Islamic times, which indicates it may have survived for centuries longer.)

Among the most exciting finds are three giant statues of pink granite depicting Hâpi, the Nile God of Flooding, a Pharoah and a Queen. A nearby sanctuary bears hieroglyphs proclaiming that it was dedicated to the Supreme God Amun, confirming that this was the legendary Great Temple of Herakleion.

Another exciting find was a fully intact black granite pillar, or stela, 1.95 metres high, a duplicate of a famous stela currently in the Cairo Museum, right down to the inscription, which proclaims the edict of Pharaoh Nektanebos the First (378-362 B.C.) setting a levy of 10 percent on Greek handicrafts and goods to benefit the temple to the Goddess Neith. Both stela include instructions specifying which city they were to be set up in; the new one proclaims it is to be erected in “Herakleion-Thonis,” confirming the identity of the city.

Many smaller artifacts have been recovered as well, including bronze vessels, gold coins and jewelry.

What happened to the cities? Whatever it was, it must have been sudden, since it left 10 shipwrecks in the harbor. The best guess is a combination of massive earthquake and tidal wave. Alexandria, not that far away, contains historical records and archaeological evidence of several devastating earthquakes.

Why did Herakleion and, eventually, Canopus and Menouthis, sink so low that the sea overwhelmed them? One possibility is earthquake-induced liquefaction of the sea floor. The enormous weight of water thrown ashore by a tsunami could then have driven the city below sea level.

The stela and statues are currently undergoing desalination treatments and will be sent on a worldwide tour in 2003 before eventually being permanently displayed somewhere in Egypt.

Meanwhile, excavation work continues. After all, we may never again have the opportunity to examine an ancient city essentially frozen in time.

Barring, of course, the discovery of Atlantis.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2001/06/herakleion/

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