Ancient Egypt, back from the depths: Alexandria, Canopus and Heracleion
June 4, 2013 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Franck Goddio, an underwater archaeologist, shares the explorations of three recently re-discovered cities off the coast of Egypt, including Alexandria (1997 NOVA documentary *), Canopus, and Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names for the city, not to be confused with the ancient Egyptian city of Tanis). A new documentary on Thonis-Heracleaion was produced for the Franco-German TV network, Arte, and you can watch the German version here.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, there were rumors of strange ruins lurking off the coast of Egypt, but they weren't investigated until the commander of the local RAF base, Group-Captain Cull, noticed the outlines of structures beneath the bay from his airplane in 1933 (PDF, see pg 14 of Minerva Magazine, Vol. 18 issue 5, 2007). Cull informed Prince Omar Toussoun of what he had seen. Toussoun, an expert on the Nile Delta, explored the region from 1934 to 1940, but that was the last anyone inquired into the mysteries of the area for some while.

Franck Goddio was a financial advisor to national and international organizations and various governments for over 15 years. In the early 1980s, he shifted his life and focused on underwater archaeology. In 1987, he founded l’Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Ma­rine (IEASM), or the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, which has come to include specialists in the fields of archaeology, history, conservation, restoration, geophysics, geology and technology.

In 1992, the IEASM began to work in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities to research the ancient location and topography of the currently submerged ancient zones of the eastern harbor of Alexandria and of current-day Aboukir Bay. This lead to the discovery of archaeological sites that are still being excavated to this day, with each year bringing more findings about the ancient trading cities.

Around the year 2000, only two of the cities had been found, as described in this article on The article also notes:
Goddio, who gained notoriety with his work on what may be the remains of Cleopatra's palace on the now submerged island of Antirrhodos * in Alexandria's Eastern Harbor and the discovery of Napoleon's Lost Fleet, sunk at Aboukir in 1798, has spent two years looking for the cities. "With Herakleion, in particular, we have an intact city, frozen in time," said Goddio.
The cities were thought to be Menouthis and Herakleion, but it was later discovered that the underwater cities adjacent to the sunken portion of Alexandria were Canopus and Heracleion. The discoveries continue, as described in various publications, or highlighted in images and video from the explorations.
posted by filthy light thief (15 comments total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I was going to make a fpp about this, but yours is better than mine would have been.
posted by empath at 7:32 PM on June 4, 2013

Goddio is an invigorating speaker, and if you do have the chance to hear him lecture, you should jump on it. I don't think it was mentioned, but you may have seen some of the artefacts in the exhibit "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt" which was on tour in the last couple of years. Kind of a bit heavy on the Zahi Hawass and the stage effects, but the materials that have come up are really extraordinary. Egypt's Sunken Treasures, the bigger catalog for the exhibit, has more cool photos of the team exploring the ruins and of the objects themselves. Some of the best are of the transportation of the statues on land and trucks, having risen up from the water-- they're bloody enormous. Even better, maybe, are the smaller objects like gold wedding rings and oil lamps-- very minute traces of the thousands of people who lived in the cities beyond the ceremonial statuary and foundational deposits of gold plaques and coins. (The Archaeology review is pretty dead on about the scope of the book though.)

Goddio's IEASM collaborates with the University of Oxford's Centre for Maritime Archaeology on the excavations and explorations in Thonis-Heracleion.* Damian Robinson, the director of the Centre, is an absolute genius lecturer and his work on the area is really fascinating. Along those lines, Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (full disclosure, past academic connections to an editor) has some really great sections if any one is interested in seeing the bigger impact of these port cities.

*Not entirely without heated debate in 2005 when it was announced: "Oxford Center Raises Controversy", Science.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:33 PM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Here's a child question why are the cities under water? Rising ocean levels or sunken landforms? probably the former. was there less ocean volume then? bigger ice caps? Are there drowned cities all over that we dont know about? Will New york and amsterdam be next?
posted by Colonel Panic at 9:56 PM on June 4, 2013

Here's a child question why are the cities under water?

The first link covers that pretty well -- interesting stuff!
posted by eddydamascene at 10:05 PM on June 4, 2013

cthuljew, that link was fascinating, thanks! I couldn't help but focus on this sentence, though:

"It described for the first time how the extraordinarily stable compound – calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrate (C-A-S-H) – binds the material used to build some of the most enduring structures in Western civilization."

Yes. money does truly make the world go 'round.
posted by drinkyclown at 10:54 PM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

from the 2nd link (smithsonian):
But how had the city sunk? Working with Goddio, geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History examined dozens of drilled cores of sediment from the harbor depths. He determined that the edge of the ancient city had slid into the sea over the course of centuries because of a deadly combination of earthquakes, a tsunami and slow subsidence.

On August 21, in A.D. 365, the sea suddenly drained out of the harbor, ships keeled over, fish flopped in the sand. Townspeople wandered into the weirdly emptied space. Then, a massive tsunami surged into the city, flinging water and ships over the tops of Alexandria’s houses, according to a contemporaneous description by Ammianus Marcellinus based on eyewitness accounts. That disaster, which may have killed 50,000 people in Alexandria alone, ushered in a two-century period of seismic activity and rising sea levels that radically altered the Egyptian coastline.
posted by at 4:32 AM on June 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anyone know if there are plans to release the doc in other languages, or subtitles?
(or at least in a romance language I can limp along with. ;) )
posted by dreamling at 7:29 AM on June 5, 2013

There is a translation of the catalog in German, Versunkenes Alexandria - Tauchen im Reich der Sphinx, and some of the archaeological publications are in French-- Alexandrie, les quartiers royaux submergés. Goddio's IEASM website is primarily in French, and it has solid background on the Egyptian sites. Or was there a specific article in French that addressed something that you couldn't find in English?

ps: hooray for Roman concrete!!
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:41 AM on June 5, 2013

Oh, I mean documentary, the film. Pretty video, of course.
posted by dreamling at 9:18 AM on June 5, 2013

dreamling, if you're talking about the Arte documentary, this link claims that it has been dubbed into French and English, though I haven't been able to find any links for the English dub. It was supposed to have been broadcast in German and French already, so the issue might be that it hasn't been broadcast in English yet. Perhaps a German-speaking MeFite can provide a summary.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:20 AM on June 5, 2013

I was going to make a fpp about this, but yours is better than mine would have been.

Hear, hear.
posted by homunculus at 11:09 PM on June 5, 2013

Thanks! I saw a bit about Thonis-Heracleion posted by a friend on Facebook, and I found so much more interesting material on Franck Goddio and research in this area in general.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:02 AM on June 6, 2013

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