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Canopus menouthis herakleion.jpg
Map of Nile Delta showing ancient Canopus, Heracleion, and Menouthis
Heracleion is located in Egypt
Shown within Egypt
Location near Alexandria, Egypt
Coordinates 31°18′15″N 30°06′02″E / 31.30417°N 30.10056°E / 31.30417; 30.10056Coordinates: 31°18′15″N 30°06′02″E / 31.30417°N 30.10056°E / 31.30417; 30.10056
Heracleion is also a spelling of Heraklion, Crete's largest city and capital.

Heracleion (Greek: Ἡράκλειον), also known by its Egyptian name Thonis (Θῶνις) and sometimes called Thonis-Heracleion, was an ancient Egyptian city located near the Canopic Mouth of the Nile, about 32 km northeast of Alexandria. Its ruins are located in Abu Qir Bay, currently 2.5 km off the coast, under 10 m (30 ft) of water.[1] A stele found on the site indicates that it was one single city known by both its Egyptian and Greek names.[2] Its legendary beginnings go back to as early as the 12th century BC, and it is mentioned by ancient Greek historians. Its importance grew particularly during the waning days of the Pharaohs.[3]

Heracleion was originally built on some adjoining islands in the Nile Delta. It was intersected by canals[3] with a number of harbors and anchorages. Its wharves, temples and tower-houses were linked by ferries, bridges, and pontoons. The city was an emporion (trading port)[2] and in the Late Period of ancient Egypt it was the country's main port for international trade[3] and collection of taxes. It had a sister city, Naucratis, which was another trading port lying 72 km (45 mi) further up the Nile. Goods were transferred inland via Naucratis, or they were transported via the Western Lake and through a water channel to the nearby town of Canopus for onward distribution.[2]

During the second century BC Alexandria superseded Heracleion as Egypt’s primary port. At the end of the century the soil on which Heracleion was built succumbed to liquefaction and its buildings collapsed into the water. A few residents stayed on during the Roman era and the beginning of Arab rule, but by the end of the eighth century AD what was left of the city had sunk beneath the sea.[2]

Legendary beginnings[edit]

Heracleion is mentioned by many chroniclers in antiquity, including Herodotus, Strabo and Diodorus.[2] The city was said by Herodotus to have been visited by Paris and Helen of Troy[4] before the Trojan war began.[5] They sought refuge there on their flight from the jealous Menelaus[2] but were rebuffed by Thonis, the watchman at the entrance to the Nile.[6] Alternatively it was believed[by whom?] that Menelaus and Helen had stayed there, accommodated by the noble Egyptian Thon[7] and his wife Polydamna. The 2nd century BC Greek poet Nicander wrote that Menelaus’s helmsman, Canopus, was bitten by a viper on the sands of Thonis.[3] According to Herodotus, a great temple was built at the spot where Heracles first arrived in Egypt.[5] The story of Heracles' visit resulted in the Greeks calling the city by the Greek name Heracleion rather than its original Egyptian name Thonis.[citation needed]

Ancient references[edit]

The stelae of Ptolemy VIII from the temple of Heracleion

Until very recently the site had been known only from a few literary and epigraphic sources, one of which interestingly mentions the site as an emporion, just like Naukratis.

— British Museum, 2013[8]

The city was mentioned by the ancient historians Diodorus (1.19.4) and Strabo (17.1.16). Herodotus was told that Thonis was the warden of the Canopic mouth of the Nile: Thonis arrested Alexander (Paris), the son of Priam, because Alexander had abducted Helen of Troy and taken much wealth.[8][9]

Heracleion is also mentioned in the twin steles of the Decree of Nectanebo I (the first of which is known as the 'Stele of Naukratis'), which specify that one tenth of the taxes on imports passing through the town of Thonis/Herakleion were to be given to the sanctuary of Neith of Sais.[8] The city is also mentioned in the Decree of Canopus honoring Pharaoh Ptolemy III, which describes donations, sacrifices and a procession on water.[3]

Sanctuaries in Heracleion dedicated to Osiris and other gods were famous for miraculous healing and attracted pilgrims from a wide area.[3] The city was the site of the celebration of the ‘mysteries of Osiris' each year during the month of Khoiak. The god in his ceremonial boat was brought in procession from the temple of Amun in that city to his shrine in Canopus.[citation needed]


Ptolemaic coins from the submerged Heracleion

The city had a large temple of Khonsou, son of Amun, who was known to the Greeks as Herakles.[10] Later, the worship of Amun became more prominent.

Heracleion flourished especially from the 6th to the 4th century BC, as revealed by numerous archaeological finds. Pharaoh Nectanebo I made many additions to the temple in the 4th century B.C.[11] Over time the city was weakened by a combination of earthquakes, tsunamis and rising sea levels. Finds of pottery and coins appear to stop at the end of the 2nd century BC. At this point, probably after a severe flood, the central island succumbed to liquefaction of the soil on which it was built. The hard clay turned rapidly into a liquid and the buildings collapsed.[2]

In 1933 an RAF commander flying over Abu Qir Bay saw ruins under the water. At that time, most historians believed that Thonis and Heracleion were two separate cities, both located on what is now the Egyptian mainland.[2] The ruins submerged in the sea were located by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio in 1999, after a five-year search.[12] Goddio's finds have included incomplete statues of the god Serapis and the queen Arsinoe II.[13] No more than 5% of the city's area was explored by the archaeologist.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Heracleion Photos: Lost Egyptian City Revealed After 1,200 Years Under Sea". The Huffington Post. 29 April 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Shenker, Jack (15 Aug 2016). "Lost cities #6: how Thonis-Heracleion resurfaced after 1,000 years under water". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 Feb 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Dalya Alberge (2 August 2015). "Ancient Egyptian underwater treasures to be exhibited for the first time". The Guardian.
  4. ^ Little, Reg (26 February 2015). "Oxford University and the rediscovery of the lost Egyptian city of Heracleion". The Northern Echo.
  5. ^ a b "Sunken Civilizations". Franck Goddio. Retrieved 4 January 2018.
  6. ^ Hammond, Andrew (2017). Pop Culture in North Africa and the Middle East. Entertainment and Society around the World. ABC-CLIO. p. 217. ISBN 9781440833847.
  7. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium. "Θῶνις". Ethnika kat' epitomen (in Greek).
  8. ^ a b c Naukratis: a city and trading port in Egypt, British Museum
  9. ^ Herodotus, Histories, 2.113-115
  10. ^ Anne Burton, Diodorus Siculus, Book 1: A Commentary. BRILL, 1972 ISBN 9004035141 p105
  11. ^ "Lost city of Heracleion gives up its secrets". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-06-06.
  12. ^ You won't believe what they found under the sea!
  13. ^ Sooke, Alastair. "Sunken Cities: the man who found Atlantis". The Telegraph. Retrieved 22 September 2016.

External links[edit]