At nearly 3000 years old, Heracleion is one of the most spectacular historical discoveries.
Can you imagine what would happen if one of the major coastal cities of the United States sank into the depths of the ocean, never to be seen again? This is precisely what archaeologists believe happened to Heracleion. Also known as Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names), this was the most important port city of ancient Egypt. Despite the best efforts of marine archaeologists to unlock the mysteries of its ruins beneath the Mediterranean Sea, the city still proudly guards it deepest secrets.
Rediscovering the Sunken Egyptian City
For more than a millennium, the city rested undisturbed some 31 feet beneath the sea. Statues of gods and pharaohs who once cast a stone eye upon all who entered Heracleion now ruled over a silent kingdom where fish bedded in the ruins. It would take the work of one of the world’s most respected marine archaeologists to reveal the city’s splendor anew to the world.
Franck Goddio is a renown maritime archaeologist and director of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM). In 2000 he made the discovery that would forever define his scientific labors when he located the ruins of Thonis-Heracleion. For thirteen years, Goddio and his team methodically excavated and explored the sunken city. While the artifacts they recovered are priceless, the most valuable treasure gained could be knowledge. Thanks to Goddio, a clearer picture of life in the ancient city now exists.
Franck Goddio also found more than 64 shipwrecks and 700 anchors in the Aboukir Bay, the present-day location of the city. The high number of vessels and anchors led researchers to believe that Heracleion was a mandatory port of entry for trade between the Nile and the Mediterranean. The concept of the city as perhaps the world’s most important trade port is also bolstered by the discovery of weights from Athens. Such weights would have been used to make important measurements of goods. Never before had such weights been found among archaeological sites in Egypt.
The History of Heracleion
For more than sixteen centuries, one location reigned supreme over the Canopic portion of the Nile River. Originally named Thonis by the Egyptians, the city is mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily in his Bibliotheca historica. Other ancient historians and geographers such as Herodotus and Strabo confirm its location and importance to the ancient world.
There is no definitive mention of this sunken city in the Bible according to Strong’s “Exhaustive Concordance”. However, it is certain that the port existed before and after the era corresponding to the life of Christ. If the man Jesus did in fact exist, it is hard to imagine he would not have known of the city or even visited it. The New Testament claims in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus’ parents were commanded to take their child to Egypt for an undisclosed period of time.
There are commonalities in the accounts of the old historians. Most prominent and significant of these is that the city boasted a huge temple constructed to honor the visit of a mythic hero, Heracles. Heracles inspired the Greeks to adopt the name Heracleion. The city’s association with Heracles conveys some important truths about myth and how it influenced the evolution of humanity throughout the ages.
Manifestation of the God Myths
The Egyptians had their own version of Heracles. Herodotus identifies Heracles with the Egyptian Shu. Still others claim Sesotris was the forerunner of the Greek hero. In all cases, this mythical god-hero signified strength.
It seems to reflect the belief of both the Egyptians and the Greeks that they were a strong, proud people, as unconquerable as the mighty Hercules himself. What better way to signify a city’s strength than to essentially deem it the seat of a god?
The famous mythologist Joseph Campbell said, ‘The myth is the public dream and the dream is the private myth’. The symbolism inherent in the name given to Thonis-Heracleion is difficult to miss.
And so it was that the myth of Heracles manifested the public dream. The city thrived. Officials collected taxes. They were able to defend the all-important Nile. Ships from many parts of the ancient world dropped their anchor and unloaded their merchandise there. Subsequently, they returned home laden with goods in trade. Is it so strange that a city founded on myth itself would ultimately transcend its geographical designations to join the ranks of gods, goddesses, heroes, and legends.
Temple of Worship
Despite the evidence of trade, there are strong indications that the temple of Heracles was also a center of worship and religious devotion. Sixteen-foot stone sculptures and sarcophagi believed to contain mummified animals were discovered. This would appear to reinforce the idea that this divine city was perhaps more important symbolically than it was economically. Additionally, the annual Mysteries of Osiris celebration took place there. The three large statues pictured below are a pharaoh, his queen, and the god Hapy, from left to right. They stood at the entrance to the temple.
The Demise of the Temple City
A hallmark of the mythical hero is a critical weakness, a chink in their otherwise impenetrable armor. Such vulnerability gave us the term “Achilles’ heel”. The hero-city also suffered from a flaw which undermined its overall strength.
The Egyptians built the city upon a portion of the Nile Delta. The region was particularly susceptible to subsidence, a rising sea level, and earthquakes that had the ability to trigger enormous tidal waves. As a result, these natural circumstances waged a centuries long battle with Thonis-Heracleion that the city was never going to win.
At some point in the second or third century, the splendid city sank into the depths of the sea. Some have theorized that the excessive weight of the city contributed to its sinking. The structures and religious statuary of which the Egyptians were so proud literally equalled millions upon millions of pounds. Additionally, the land under which those structures resided was in a perpetual state of flux due to the flooding common in the delta.
End of a City and its Myth
Goddio also theorized that it was weight which led to the city’s doom. It seems the sinking of this ancient Egyptian port and temple serves as a perfect metaphor for the sunset of mankind’s devotion to its old gods and reverence for ancient myths. As civilization evolved and the first millennium of the common era came and went, humanity approached the dawn of the Age of Reason and science became the great enemy of myth.
Joseph Campbell would likely have argued that science does not dispel myth. Perhaps he would say that it affirms it in the overall quest for truth. Hence, like the wonders of the sunken Egyptian city, the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe are waiting for discovery. Myth and symbolism serve as signposts on man’s journey, ever guiding him to answers as surely as ships were guided into the Nile harbor. What is observed in the ruins of Thonis-Heracleion is evidence that ancient man made an intentional effort to preserve those signposts.