At Thonis-Heracleion in the Bay of Aboukir, an archaeologist carefully measures the feet and other fragments of a massive statue. These measurements are taken after the initial cleaning process conducted on-site. Image Credit: Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk.

Heracleion-Thonis: Egypt’s Underwater Legacy Beyond the Pyramids

We can say in a way that the sunken city of Heracleion-Thonis is ancient Egypt's very own "Atlantis."


As captivating as the majesty of the Pyramids of Giza and the grandeur of the Sphinx are, the archaeological wonders of Egypt stretch far beyond these illustrious silhouettes. Egypt is not all about pyramids; instead, it is a treasure trove of ancient cities, relics, and ruins that narrate tales of a past as deep as the Mediterranean itself. Of these many fascinating narratives, the sunken city of Heracleion-Thonis holds a unique position in Egypt’s chronicles. It is, in a way, Egypt’s very own Atlantis. Discovered in the year 2000 off the coast of Alexandria, the story of Heracleion-Thonis offers an underwater escapade into the annals of Egypt’s antiquity.

Heracleion-Thonis: History and Origins

Named after the hero Heracles (Hercules in Roman), Heracleion was one of the primary port cities of Egypt during the late Pharaonic and early Ptolemaic periods. Thonis, its Egyptian counterpart, was the gateway to Egypt for all Mediterranean maritime trade routes. The city, steeped in both Egyptian and Greek culture, was an essential cosmopolitan hub, bustling with the flow of goods and ideas.

Founded around the 8th century BC, Heracleion-Thonis was the obligatory port of entry for all ships coming from the Greek world. It was also the place where the annual “Mysteries of Osiris,” an essential religious ceremony, began. The city was a potent symbol of wealth and religious significance.


Heracleion-Thonis was not just a strategic trading port; it was a place of religious significance as well. The grand temple of Amun, an important god in the Egyptian pantheon, was located here. This made the city a crucial religious site for both Egyptians and Greeks.

The city’s strategic position allowed Egypt to control the entrance to the Nile, thereby regulating the flow of trade goods and levying taxes, adding to the national coffers. This function made Heracleion-Thonis a central player in the economic and political scene of ancient Egypt.


The Fate of Heracleion-Thonis

Underwater archaeologist imaged next to a massive slab in Heracleion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Underwater archaeologist imaged next to a massive slab in Heracleion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The precise circumstances surrounding Heracleion-Thonis’s sinking remain a mystery. It is believed that the city succumbed to a combination of natural disasters, subsidence, and rising sea levels. The gradual weakening of its foundation, due to the heavy stone buildings on the unstable clay and silt layers, and possible seismic activity, led to the city sinking in the 2nd century AD. The city then slipped out of human memory and into the pages of mythology.

Discovery and Unveiling

In 2000, underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, rediscovered Heracleion-Thonis. His team located the ruins nearly 6.5 km off the current coastline, submerged under 10 meters of water. The excavation unveiled not just the remnants of a lost city, but also numerous artifacts, including statues, coins, inscriptions, jewelry, and even entire buildings.

Egypt Beyond Pyramids

The discovery of Heracleion-Thonis underscores the fact that Egypt’s historical canvas is far broader and diverse than often perceived. Egypt is not all about pyramids; it’s about sunken cities, submerged histories, and secrets yet to be unearthed. Many incredible discoveries lie beneath our feet, buried by time and enveloped in the sands of the desert or beneath the waves of the sea.

Many cities like Heracleion-Thonis have been swallowed by the earth or the sea, their grandeur hidden under layers of sediment and silence. Cities like Menouthis and Canopus near Alexandria have met similar fates, reminding us of human creations’ fragility and susceptibility to the ravages of time and nature.

Our planet is teeming with submerged cities and hidden histories waiting for intrepid explorers and curious archaeologists. From Pavlopetri in Greece to Dwarka in India, from Baiae in Italy to Shi Cheng in China, the world beneath us is as rich and fascinating as the one we inhabit.


The saga of Heracleion-Thonis

The saga of Heracleion-Thonis epitomizes the power of exploration and discovery. It reiterates that history is not just a two-dimensional narrative, limited to known monuments and familiar timelines. It is a vibrant tapestry woven with tales from below our feet and beneath the waves. The discovery of Heracleion-Thonis is a testament to the multi-faceted legacy of Egypt that transcends its emblematic pyramids. It underscores the idea that Egypt, like the rest of our world, has myriad secrets yet to be uncovered. As we unearth these secrets, we not only expand our knowledge of the past, but also gain insights into our present and perspectives for our future.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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