Egypt: Heracleum: The Legendary Submerged City

Heracleum: The Legendary Submerged City

by The Egyptian Government

Following years of archeological and sonar surveys in the Gulf of Abu-Qeer, an Egyptian-French expedition recently discovered important antiquities in two sites; the first is Minotis, the eastern suburb of Canup lying 2km off-shore and the second is the city of Heracleum, 6.5km off- shore.

Thousands of artifacts, including bronze coins mostly belonging to the Ptolemic era, two gold coins, three colossal statues, two paintings with Greek inscriptions, some jewelry, several day-to-day utensils, earthenware and some amulets were found.

Experts have described this find, in economic and tourist terms, as next in importance to the discoveries of Tutankhamun's tomb and the solar boats. The finds were sent to the Roman Museum in Alexandria for restoration and treatment for salty contents.

Submerged civilization

When Alexander the Great founded a new capital named after him, the town of Abu-Qeer formed the eastern corner of Alexandria. Abu-Qeer comprised three suburbs, Canup, Heracleum and Minotis. The first lay in the hinterland, the second on the coast, serving as the main harbor and the third on the left. At Heracleum, which housed the Greek temple of Hercules for which the city was named, the extinct Canupian branch of the Nile flowed into the Mediterranean.

Over time, the coast at Abu-Qeer eroded, resulting in the submersion of the entire suburb and harbor of Heracleum and Minotis. Only some remains of old Conup, known now as Abu-Qeer, still survive.

So far, an area of almost 1000 m x 800 m has been explored. Remains of vast buildings, harbor basins and the wreckage of a dozen old sunken ships have been examined.. Various theories on why the area sank into the Mediterranean have been discussed, including theories of earthquakes and large waves.

Major discoveries

Heracleum: The Legendary Submerged City

According to both Egyptian and French sides, the most significant discoveries at Heracleum consist of a 195-cm-high black granite plaque, known as Necrates plaque. This is an intact replica of the famous Necrates plaque found in 1899 and kept at present with the Egyptian Museum. The plaque refers to a decree by king Nektanbu I (378 BC - 362 BC) ordering a 10 percent tax imposed on Greek trade passing through the harbor. The tax would be paid to the the treasury of the goddess Nut's temple. The plaque was to be placed at the harbor entrance. According to Herodotus, Heracleum was the mandatory port of entry to Egypt for all foreign ships arriving from the Greek Sea (Mediterranean).

The plaque provides some interesting insights. First, the plaque belongs to an era prior to the Ptolemic (Greek) kings. Therefore Heracleum and Abu-Qeer existed before the creation of Alexandria. Therefore Herodotus was probably accurate when he wrote that Herodotus' history began in the New Kingdom. Herodotus' assumption has remained unsupported by evidence, until this discovery was made.

Also, even though the 30th Dynasty of Nektanbu I is considered to be an era of weakness and decline, the empire still preserved its financial and religious systems.

The joint expedition also found three statues that lay for 2300 years in saline water but ultimately were in very good condition. These include a statue of the goddess Isis, shown as a female rather than a deity. The great detail of the deity's face and body indicates that the abstractionist trend of ancient Egyptian sculpture took a sensual turn, characteristic of Greco- Roman art.

The nearly 2m high statue, basically made of granite, reflects a combination of the features of both the ancient Egyptian and Greek schools of sculpture. This trend dominated Egypt and the entire Mediterranean basin after the invasion of Alexander the Great. Three colossal statues were extracted but their names and identities have not yet been determined. The three statues were completely buried in the sea bed nearby walls of the submerged city.

There is evidence of the Heracleum temple as well. The three statues, each 5m high and several ton in weight represent a king, queen and deity Hapi (god of the Nile and flood) respectively. Nearby there was a colossal coffin made of one whole piece of rosy granite dating to the Ptolemic era. Inscriptions on the coffin mentions the god Amun, the supreme deity of Pharaonic Egypt.

It was the habit of the Greeks to associate the god Amun with Zeus, their god of gods, and Amun's son, Khonsu with their god Hercules. Hence it can be said that the Hercleum temple had existed in this area.

Exquisite Finds

Heracleum: The Legendary Submerged City

A collection of sphinxes were also found, in addition to a rare gold coin dating to Ptolemy I, the founder of Ptolemic Dynasty.

The coin, one of two still in existence, clearly showed on one face his portrait and a cart drawn by four elephants led by Alexander the Great on the other. Also Found were some bronze coins belonging to the eras of Ptolemy II and Ptolemy IV, together with one coin dating back to Cleopatra's reign. Other finds included a large collection of tableware including well made bronze utensils of various sizes showing seals and logos. All these were indicative of elegant urban life at the time.

Among other discoveries were colored, elaborate earthenware, similar to Greek utensils, with exquisite Ptolemic inscriptions, a rare wooden headrest similar to those found in Pharaonic tombs, in addition to collection of gold earrings, small bronze rings and an elaborate bronze mirror. Other coins found showed portraits and names of kings and queens of the Ptolemic era, tableware and, earthenware and jewelry buried deep in the sea bed.

These discoveries, particularly the Heracleum plaque, colossal statues and the temple coffin, reveal the Egyptian name and location of this sunken city, together with significant and basic indicators of the topography of the Canup era. The discovery of Heracleum harbor and the wreckage of ten sunken ships promises more significant discoveries in the future.

Facts and legends

These recent discoveries give proof to facts earlier referred to in ancient texts mixed with legends. Although Hercules was known during his time for his adventures around the world, he had a role to play in Egypt. According to the Greek historian Diudor the Sicilian, once there was an overwhelming Nile flood that broke all barriers, whereupon Hercules soon blocked all gaps and restored the river back to its course. In recognition of his feat, the city dwellers built a temple named for him.

Greek historian Herodotus says that when the beautiful Helen eloped with her lover Paris from her jealous husband Menelaus, they tried to take refuge in this area. But Toins, guard of the Nile mouth refused to help them for moral reasons.

According to legend, Toins was a king of Egypt, after whom the city was named. This explains why the city had two names. Since the beginning of the New Kingdom and long before the rise of Alexandria, Heracleum-Toins was Egypt's gateway to the Mediterranean.