Thonis-Heracleion – Legendary Sunken City Discovered

From Legend to Reality

Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) 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 had also a religious importance because of the temple of Amun, which played an important role in rites associated with dynasty continuity. The city was founded probably 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 IEASM, no trace of Thonis-Heracleion had been found. Its name was almost razed 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 on to 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, 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.


Head of a colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a large scale, which points to his importance for the Canopic region.  ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

Heracleion3  Franck Goddio with the intact and inscribed Heracleion stele (1.90 m). It was commissioned by Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Naukratis Stele in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion.  ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk

The Discovery

With his unique survey-based approach that utilises the most sophisticated technical equipment, Franck Goddio and his team from the IEASM, 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 objects recovered from the excavations illustrate the cities’ beauty and glory, the magnificence of their grand temples and the abundance of historic evidence: colossal statues, inscriptions and architectural elements, jewellery and coins, ritual objects and ceramics – a civilization frozen in time.

The quantity and quality of the archaeological material excavated from the site of Thonis-Heracleion show that this city had known a time of opulence and a peak in its occupation from the 6th to the 4th century BC. This is readily 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. The intense activity in the port fostered the city’s prosperity. More than seven hundred ancient anchors of various forms and over 60 wrecks dating from the 6th to the 2nd 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 in and around the city must have given it a lake dwelling appearance. 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

TV Documentary on Thonis-Heracleion

Premiers Saturday, 11 May 2013 on Arte

The TV documentary Egypt’s Sunken City/ A Legend Is Revealed shows the rediscovery of the ancient city of Thonis-Heracleion that submerged more than a 1,000 years ago, on Saturday, 11 May, at 8.15 pm (German)/ 8.45 pm (French) on Arte.


Thonis-Heracleion was the gateway to Egypt, the obligatory port of entry and customs point during the Egyptian Late Period (664 BC until 332 BC).It was a vital node in the trading network of the eastern Mediterranean through which goods flowed into and out of Egypt. The first traces of it were found 6.5 kilometres off today’s coastline by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) under the overall direction of Franck Goddio in 2000. In cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry for Antiquities and the support of the Hilti Foundation, the team has recovered important information on the city’s ancient landmarks, such as the grand temple of god Amun and his son Khonsou and the city’s harbours.

The TV documentary provides a fascinating insight into the work of underwater archaeologists and presents the most important discoveries that have been made in the last 13 years in Thonis-Heracleion. The scale and the diversity of the results has amazed experts: “The archaeological evidence is simply overwhelming,” says Sir Barry Cunliffe, eminent archaeologist at Oxford University. “By lying untouched and protected by sand on the seafloor for centuries they are brilliantly preserved.” Among the finds is the largest known statue of the Egyptian god of the Nile flood (Hapi) and one of the largest known concentrations of ancient ships. Additionally, there are well preserved shrines from the heart of the temple area, votive items and jewelry, coins and finely carved official inscriptions on stone documenting life in the city and exchange with other cultures.

The TV documentary traces the various stages of years of painstaking survey and excavation work. Using 3D animation, the structures of the ancient city become again visible: buildings and temples, ships, piers and jetties and the channel systems are returning to the surface. But the work is far from over: “We are just at the beginning of our research,” says Franck Goddio, “we will probably have to continue working for the next 200 years for Thonis-Heracleion to be fully revealed and understood.” Egypt’s Sunken City/ A Legend Is Revealed is a co-production by Hoferichter & Jacobs Film and Fernsehproduktion mbH with MDR in collaboration with Arte, written and directed by Jan Tenhaven.



One of the finest finds from the bay of Aboukir is a remarkable Graeco-Egyptian product of the Ptolemaic era – a statue of a Ptolemaic queen in dark stone wearing the usual robe that identifies the sovereigns of Isis incarnate. Found at the site of Heracleion, the statue is certainly one of the queens of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Most likely, a representation of Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III, dressed as goddess Isis.

PS 3-D technology Preserves Ancient Treasures

Similar to how DNA banks are being created to store genetic data on endangered animals, archaeologists now are preserving archaeological treasures in the virtual world, for accuracy, ease of study, and in case real world problems, like erosion, lead to damage or destruction.

The new 3-D process, developed by a nonprofit organization Institute for Study and Integration of Graphical Heritage Techniques (called Insight), gradually is replacing old data-gathering techniques, which rely upon time-consuming single shot photography and hand-drawn images.

Insight’s developers use a variety of technologies, combined with custom designed computer software, to digitally recreate buildings and objects.

Many archaeological sites worldwide are in peril. Recently, for example, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, an American film crew damaged Machu Picchu, organized theft in Cambodia hurt Khmer antiquities and Egypt’s Aswan Dam led to erosion of buildings and hieroglyphics. There is a race to record and preserve such treasures, and sometimes the recorded data is the only hope for posterity. Political and financial obstacles often prevent restoration.

The new technology will record monuments that are fast disappearing due to a rising water table in the Nile Valley. Previous efforts at epigraphic (wall relief) recording have taken up to 90 years for a single monument. No tomb has ever been completely recorded digitally. The speed at which this laser technique operates promises that less information will be lost to history and researchers.

The Parthenon

This beginning model of the Parthenon was created by Jeremy Sears, one of the team members for INSIGHT’s 1999 Pilot in Egypt.  Picture(s): Courtesy of Insight

Palace of Fine Arts
For Bernard Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts — the current home of San Francisco’s Exploratorium — a prototype laser scanner was used to build this 3D model. 3-D data was combined with the Palace’s original blueprints to create a short animated sequence that reflects Maybeck’s unrealized design ideas for the building.  Picture(s): Courtesy of Insight

Machu Picchu
This image, showing the Incan site of Machu Picchu circa 1570, is based on existing archaeological research. Colors and texturing were drawn from research and photographs of the site. Picture(s): Courtesy of Insight

 A Sculpture in the British Museu. mPicture(s): Courtesy of Insight

Through Insight, researchers can obtain the necessary equipment without charge. Projects using the technology are underway at sites in Cairo, Alexandria, London
and San Francisco.

In Thebes, archaeologists are reconstructing a colossus of Ramses II that was destroyed by Christians hundreds of years ago. Like a puzzle, hundreds of pieces lay strewn on the ground. Cain and his team photographed each piece in 3-D on a revolving metal caster plate. Images were transferred to a computer program where the jigsaw puzzle was put together in virtual space. The new technology can record images accurate to 40 microns.  Virtual reconstruction can serve as a roadmap and can help a committee reach a consensus about whether or not the colossus should in fact be rebuilt.

The above segment contains copyright material. Text and images courtesy of  INSIGHT Reprinted with permission

Related Link/Source:  INSIGHT

Subject Related Links


  1. says

    “underwent diverse natural catastrophes, and finally sunk entirely into the depths of the Mediterranean in the 8th century AD.” What do you mean by sunk ? Land does not sunk. What you should do is write the correct meaning. Which is, “the ice around the Planet continued to melt, causing ocean levels to rise. Around the period of the 8th century AD the rising oceans slowly engulfed this city into the expanding Mediterranean Sea until the next ice age.”

  2. says

    See the Tesla Coil with a lamp directly sitting on top of it?
    On the left hand side
    This appears on page 22 of the Book of the Dead (Wallis Budge) along with the electric light pole – which is illustrated WITH EYES at the end of each “frond”.

    I have been waiting for someone in authority to connect the Seti 1 door lintel helicopter, aerial refueller, (which appears on another wall relief doing its job) one man jet, bathysphere, electric light pole etc to the means of constructing the pyramids.
    The large wasp means Wasp (The Fly, Musca other obsolete names) constellation now absorbed by Aries constellation – which appears to the left of the door lintel is the area the he-rod/J-Rod “grey” comes from.
    The one involved in assisting Senusret II and many others of the times.
    The same which was involved with Amenophis II – grandfather to Amenophis IV (Ikh.n.aten)
    These are NOT Zeta greys

    • Starheater says

      Hello H.C.

      What is “frond”, this word is not in my English/French Babylon dictionnaries.
      Don’t have the Book of the Dead too. The number 22 is my favorite number and it’s the number that I once had in class, I think it was in the first grade class.
      The name “Amenophis” is relate to us in a sense, like you have done with (Ikh.n.aten), we have “Amen-o-phis”. Amen, is the word that every Jews say at the end of a prayer, Christians say it also. Amen mean “thus it is”, and by extention; “thus it shall be”/”thus it shall is”.

      Here, I’m just playing with word, this is not what it is, and if it is, well, it an accident.

      Amen-o-ph-ish: The last particule of this word is Hebrew it mean: Ish=man.
      Ph=for the sound “F”, and by this differenciate certain word that could by pronounce the same, but written differently (I don’t speak about Amenophis)

      God Bless

      • JJM says

        this sounds like Atlantis… between the pillars of Hercules… hmmm could be a good start.. just saying..


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *