Canopus, Egypt

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This article is about the ancient Egyptian seaport and present Catholic titular see. For other uses, see Canopus (disambiguation).
Map of Nile Delta showing ancient Canopus, Heracleion, and Menouthis
Aa18 U33 X1
Peguat — Canopus
in hieroglyphs

Canopus or Canobus was an Ancient Egyptian coastal town, located in the Nile Delta. Its site is in the eastern outskirts of modern-day Alexandria, around 25 kilometres from the centre of that city.

Canopus was located on the western bank at the mouth of the westernmost branch of the Delta – known as the Canopic or Heracleotic branch. It belonged to the seventh Egyptian Nome, known as 'Menelaites', and later as 'Canopites', after it.

It was the principal port in Egypt for Greek trade before the foundation of Alexandria. Nevertheless, it was rivalled in this respect by Naucratis, and by Heracleion, the latter city only discovered by archaeologists in 2000.

Its old Egyptian name was Pikuat; the Greeks called it Kanobos, or Kanopos (Greek: Κάνωπος), after a mythological commander of a Greek fleet supposedly buried there.

Pre-hellenistic history[edit]

The name of Canopus appears in the first half of the 6th century BC in a poem by Solon.[1]

Early Egyptological excavations some 2 or 3 km from the area known today as Abu Qir have revealed extensive traces of the city with its quays, and granite monuments with the name of Ramesses II, but they may have been brought in for the adornment of the place at a later date.

The exact date of the foundation of Canopus is unknown, but Herodotus refers to it as an ancient port. Homeric myth claims that it was founded by Menelaus, and named after Canopus, the pilot of his ship, who died there after being bitten by a serpent.[2] Legend describes how Menelaus built a monument to his memory on the shore, around which the town later grew up.

The real origin of the name Canopus is said to be Ancient Egyptian Kah Nub = "golden floor", referring likely to the profits made by merchants trading through the port. There is unlikely to be any connection with "canopy".

A temple to Osiris was built by Pharaoh Ptolemy The Good (the third ruler of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty), but, according to Herodotus, very near to Canopus was an older shrine,[3] a temple of Heracles that served as an asylum for fugitive slaves.

Osiris was worshipped at Canopus under a peculiar form: that of a vase with a human head. Through an old misunderstanding, the name "canopic jars" was applied by early Egyptologists to the vases with human and animal heads in which the internal organs were placed by the Egyptians after embalming.

Hellenistic Canopus[edit]

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Genp – Gauti (?)
in hieroglyphs

In Ptolemy III Euergetes' ninth regnal year (239 BC), a great assembly of priests at Canopus passed an honorific decree (the "Decree of Canopus") that, inter alia, conferred various new titles on the king and his consort, Berenice. Three examples of this decree are now known (plus some fragments), inscribed in Egyptian (in both hieroglyphic and Demotic (Egyptian)) and in classical Greek, and they were second only to the more famous Rosetta Stone in providing the key to deciphering the ancient Egyptian language. This was the earliest of the series of bilingual inscriptions of the "Rosetta Stone Series", also known as the Ptolemaic Decrees. There are three such Decrees altogether.

Roman Canopus[edit]

In Roman times, the town was notorious for its dissoluteness. Juvenal's Satire VI referred to the "debauchery" that prevailed there.

The emperor Hadrian built a villa at Tivoli, 18 miles away from Rome, where he replicated for his enjoyment architectural patterns from all parts of the Roman empire. One of these (and the most excavated and studied today) was borrowed from Canopus.

Modern Aboukir[edit]

The modern Arabic name is Aboukir, "Father Cyrus", in honour of the first of the two celebrated martyrs. It is a village (around 1900 with 1000 inhabitants), at the end of a little peninsula north-east of Alexandria. It has a trade in quails, which are caught in nets hung along the shore.

Off Aboukir on 1 August 1798, the French Mediterranean fleet was destroyed within the roads by British Admiral Horatio Nelson on 25 July 1799. Napoleon Bonaparte destroyed there a Turkish army 18,000 strong; and on 8 March 1801, the French garrison of 1800 men was defeated by 20,000 English and Ottoman Turks commanded by Abercromby.

Ecclesiastical history[edit]

Egypt had many martyrs in the persecution of Diocletian, among others St. Athanasia with her three daughters, and St. Cyrus and John. There was here a monastery called Metanoia, founded by monks from Tabennisi, where many a patriarch of Alexandria took shelter during the religious quarrels of the 5th century. Two miles east of Canopus was the famous Pharaonic temple of Manouthin, afterwards destroyed by monks, and a church on the same spot dedicated to the Four Evangelists. St. Cyril of Alexandria solemnly transported the relics of the holy martyrs Cyrus and John into the church, which became an important place of pilgrimage. It was here that St. Sophronius of Jerusalem was healed of an ophthalmy that had been declared incurable by the physicians (610–619), whereupon he wrote the panegyric of the two saints with a compilation of seventy miracles worked in their sanctuary (Migne, Patrologia Graeca, LXXXVII, 3379-676)

Canopus formed, with Menelaus and Schedia, a suffragan see subject to Alexandria in the Roman province of Aegyptus Prima; it is usually called Schedia in the Notitiae episcopatuum. Two titulars are mentioned by Lequien (II, 415), one in 325, the other in 362.


  1. ^ PDF file Research by Franck Goddio
  2. ^ The first reference to Canopus as the helmsman of Menelaus seems to be by Hecataeus of Miletus.
  3. ^ This may have been a reference to the newly discovered Heracleion.

Sources and references[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 31°18′N 30°5′E / 31.300°N 30.083°E / 31.300; 30.083