How could two powerful and thriving ancient Egyptian cities just disappear? Or were they mythical, like the lost ancient city of Atlantis?
The Missing Cities
Thonis-Heracleion (don’t ask how to pronounce that) was totally submerged in the waters of the Mediterranean. But no one knew. It had been sitting there for over a thousand years, its massive temples serving as homes to fish, its hieroglyphs growing algae, its statues sinking in the sands, its treasures lost in the water.
Canopus, a neighboring city, was also known to historians from Greek mythology and Egyptian writings. And like Thonis Heracleion, it also sat beneath the water.
The two cities probably date back at least to the seventh century BCE (that means they were built sometime from 700 BCE to 601 BCE while the Bayis Rishon was still standing). Located at the intersection of the Nile and Mediterranean, Thonis-Heracleion was an important trade center between ancient Egypt, Greece, and other cities dotting the Mediterranean. This is where grain, perfume, and papyrus (a type of ancient paper) were imported, and where silver, copper, wine, and oil were exported. This city was Egypt’s urban gateway to the rest of the world. (Canopus was an important city to the ancient Egyptians, who came there to practice avodah zarah.)
Thonis-Heracleion was built on a bunch of interconnected islands in the Nile Delta, the place where the Nile River spreads out and drains into the Mediterranean Sea. The city contained a network of canals, harbors, wharves, bridges, temples, and towers. It controlled nearly all the water-bound traffic entering Egypt from the Mediterranean. This is where customs checks were carried out and taxes collected; it’s where goods were divided up and separated for transport deeper into Egypt.
But the location that caused them to thrive also led to their downfall. The sea levels rose. Earthquakes in the area triggered massive tidal waves (tsunamis!). And the ground beneath the cities began sinking down, down, down. Researchers think a severe flood finally did them in, with the hard clay soil beneath the buildings turning to liquid in a matter of mere moments. The buildings on top simply crashed into the water. Terrifying, right?!
By the end of the second century BCE, around the time that the Chanukah story took place and the Chashmonaim came into power, those entire cities, even with their 16-foot tall, 12,000-pound statues and massive temples were completely submerged, 32 feet beneath the sea, covered in layers of sand and silt… And nearby Alexandria, about 20 miles to the south, became ancient Egypt’s most important port city.
Diving for Treasure
In 1933, a Royal Air Force commander flew over the modern-day Egyptian city of Abu Qir. He glimpsed something in the turquoise waters below. That something looked like ruins. The pilot’s “glimpse” inspired teams of archaeologists to flock to the area. They began sketching some maps of what turned out to be Canopus. But the going was slow and tough. The waters were full of sand and mud and conditions only got worse and murkier every time there was a storm. It was so difficult to see what was down there. And there wasn’t great technology to assist back then, especially underwater.
In the 1990s, a French underwater archaeologist (yes, there is such a thing!) named Franck Goddio started exploring the area. Goddio had water exploration in his blood. His grandfather was a seafarer and navigator, and Franck Goddio is the founder and president of a European Underwater Archeology organization. He has spent most of his professional years exploring and excavating (digging out) at least 12 historically important shipwrecks, including several Spanish galleons (those ships that famously carried lots of gold and were used in war, too).
It took him five years of searching the Abu Qir Bay area, but Goddio struck gold (and I mean that literally, but gold wasn’t his first find). He made his discovery about 1.5 miles off the coast of Abu Qir. The first thing his team found was a large fragment of carved rock. It was the size of a bench and was made of a pinkish-red granite. And it had hieroglyphics on it that read, “Life forever.”
They brought it up to land (with a crane). It was a piece of a huge Egyptian statue (let’s be honest, an idol). After more exploration, they found six more rock chunks like the first. And then they started finding other treasures, from precious gems and ornate jewelry (that’s the gold), to coins, oil lamps, smaller sculptures, goblets, figurines, sarcophagi (stone coffins), and ruins of buildings.
Goddio had not only made headway in uncovering Canopus, but he had also discovered Thonis-Heracleion, which he found in 2001. His team has been exploring the underwater site (which is about the size of Paris!) for over 20 years. So far, they’ve only surveyed about five percent of the city’s area. That means 95 percent of the city’s secrets remain hidden in the depths of the sea.
Tools of the Treasure Hunt
How do archeologists find sunken treasure buried under the seabed? Well, for one, they send in a number of very experienced scuba divers. Then they bring in lots of special equipment. Don’t worry, there won’t be any quiz on these.
Sub-bottom profiler and satellite positioning system (DGPS) maps the seafloor. This is an underwater GPS system that pinpoints the exact location of archeological finds.
Side-scan sonar directs pulses of sound at the seafloor. The echoes are then analyzed to help researchers figure out how deep the ocean floor is.
Multi-beam bathymetry sends out sound signals that echo echo echo echoooo. Sensors in the equipment then use these echoes to take constant measurements of sea depth. This information is then used to create a relief map of the seafloor. (Relief maps show hills and valleys.)
Water dredges are like huge underwater vacuums that suck up and move layers of sand to reveal archeological finds beneath (hopefully). These could’ve been useful for Pesach cleaning.
Remote-operated vehicles (ROV) and deep rovers are mini-submarine robots that can operate in deep water (like 3,000 feet deep). They’re equipped with cameras, searchlights, and robotic arms, and can be controlled by people on shore (or inside them!). The submersibles used in this mission are named Jules and Jim. Cute, right? They can stay underwater for up to eight hours.
The Not-So-Glamorous Process
I always wanted to be an archeologist. True confession. Until I saw an actual archeological site (thanks, Israel!). It was blisteringly hot, and the site was, well, dusty. In the extreme. Not only that, the area was cordoned off with ropes to form a grid. The people working there were sifting through dirt. Very slowly. Each in only one small section of the grid.
I expected every scoop of sand to reveal gold and jewels … or at least some coins and ancient oil lamps. Alas! The whole thing looked painfully boring. And tedious. Very tedious. My archaeological dreams died there and then. In fact, they’re probably still lying in the sands of Negev, waiting for some archeology student to sift them out.
But surely being an underwater archeologist must be far more exciting! After all, Goddio has found Spanish galleons filled with ancient treasure… And he’s uncovered not one but two ancient Egyptian cities. So, is this the ideal fairy-tale job for an adventurer?
Well, most of the job is not the least bit glorious or glamorous. There’s a lot of sifting through sand and silt. Underwater. In polluted water. And not only that, the whole archeological process is quite painstaking… The team must cordon off the underwater search area the same as they do above ground. Then, each three-foot square of the grid is searched meticulously. Any little find must be photographed, labeled… and left in place. According to internationally approved standards for archeology, if the various groups and committees running the dig decide to bring the found objects to the surface, they must do so with numerous precautions and following exact procedures. (This is a very simplified explanation of the process that skips numerous detailed and complicated steps. Just FYI.)
These ancient objects have been sitting in a saltwater bath (i.e., the sea) for over a thousand years, so the teams must place them in special tanks when they’re brought to the surface, to “acclimate” them to a different environment. Special equipment must be used to carry the objects to the surface. It’s slow work. And many days go by when they don’t find anything. Remember, this dig has been going on for over 20 years! So, not only is it not a job for the faint of heart, it’s also not a job for the impatient!
Even though Goddio has only been able to explore five percent of the sunken cities, his team has managed to bring hundreds of objects to the surface. Some of the largest were statues measuring around 15 feet tall. They also successfully raised an ancient Nile riverboat called a baris.
A very unique find is known as the Decree of Sais. It’s a six-foot-tall shiny black stone surface carved with hieroglyphics. It reads (in part): “His Majesty [Pharaoh Nectanebo I] decreed: Let there be given one-tenth of the gold, of the silver, of the timber, of the processed wood and of all things coming from the sea of the Hau-Nebut [the Mediterranean] … to become divine offerings…” It dates to around 2,500 years ago, around the time the Jewish People were celebrating chanukas Bayis Sheini. The Decree of Sais also clarifies something important about Thonis-Heracleion: This was one city known by two names, Thonis being the Egyptian one, and Heracleion being the Greek one.
Other discoveries reveal how much the city was truly a crossroads of the Mediterranean. Greek helmets were found in the seabed, alongside the Egyptian treasures, nestled with statues from Cyprus, perfume from Athens, and 700 (!) anchors from foreign ships. Coins and bronze sculptures joined the mix. In July 2019, they even discovered a small Greek temple beneath the waves.
The finds that were brought to the surface (some 300 objects) have been traveling the world, having been put on exhibit in museums from the East to West Coast in the United States, and Zurich, London, and Paris in Europe, and beyond.
Still remaining beneath the sea are sunken boats and barges (at least 69 of them!) … and a lot of mysteries. Researchers hope to learn something about the lives of everyday people who inhabited these cities. “What we know now is just a fraction,” Goddio says. “We are still at the very beginning of our search.”
Lost in the Sands of Time
In the many centuries since they disappeared beneath the waves of the Mediterranean, these two ancient and powerful cities were remembered only by scholars of ancient writings. There was no trace of their former magnificence and their names were all but forgotten. Their people and builders and priests were lost to the ages.
How fortunate we are, as the Jewish people, to be continuing the ways of our Avos, rising up out of the sands of Egypt, observing the same mitzvos we received at Sinai, and thriving into modern times.
Hippopotamus-shaped carvings were found in the sunken cities. Hippos are no longer found in Egypt, but in ancient times, they actually posed a big threat to boats traversing the Nile. And you just thought hippos were cute, right?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 854)
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