Long before Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, a number of cities dotted that part of the northern coast of Egypt. Thanks to a French-Egyptian underwater survey conducted off the coast of Abu Qir Bay, we now know more about three of these cities.
On Saturday, Egyptian and foreign dignitaries, a large press and media contingent, archaeologists from around the world and geologists converged on Abu Qir where the results of the survey were disclosed at a grand event.
A French yacht was to transport visitors to the site where the underwater archaeologists had discovered the ruins, but the trip was cancelled due to unsuitable navigational conditions. Nevertheless, backup plans enabled the French-Egyptian team responsible for the discovery to compensate for this loss.
|A black granite torso of Isis lifted from the seabed.|
|A basalt head of a pharaoh.|
A rapt audience was able to admire objects raised from the seabed, including a magnificent black granite torso of the goddess Isis wearing diaphanous dress fastened with the so-called "Isis knot" below her breast.
Meanwhile, underwater television footage revealed the cities of Canopus, Menouthis and Herakleion in all their detail. Well-preserved houses, temples, walls, a harbour and colossal statues reflected the wealth and luxury of the communities that once inhabited the area.
"The significance of the discovery of these major sites cannot be overestimated," said Franck Goddio, president of the European Institute of Marine Archaeology. "The systematic survey and underwater excavations have already revealed the foundations of numerous monuments and adjoining buildings," he said.
The rare artefacts brought to light include magnificent statues, principally linked to the Isis cult, along with ceramics, jewellery and coins, Goddio added.
"The most important discovery is the long missing section of the famous 'naos of the decades,'" said Goddio. The 'naos of the decades' is a black granite shrine, shattered in ancient times, that was covered with Egyptian figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar.
"The 'naos' is a unique discovery," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who explained that this fragment "allows us to better understand a monument of immense historical significance, and to date it with some certainty to the fifth century BC."
The texts provide evidence that the origins of astronomy go back to Ancient Egypt, and are not solely Assyrian. The earlier segments of the naos were discovered on land in Abu Qir in the late 18th century and are now on display at the Louvre in Paris.
Goddio explained that the new discovery lay six kilometres from the coastline where the remains of another entire submerged city, Menouthis, have been found. These cover an area of nearly 1.5 square kilometres, in a remarkable state of preservation.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Gaballa enthusiastically compared the significance of this discovery to that of the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Ibrahim Darwish, head of the underwater archaeology department at the SCA, also stressed the importance of the discoveries "which provide tangible evidence that these cities, known only through the writings of classical historians like Herodotus and others, actually existed."
Underwater archaeologists were also able to locate the exact position of the city of Herakleion named after the classical hero Hercules, and to determine the position of the Canopic branch of the Nile -- one among seven branches five of which have dried up.
"From literary, papyrological and epigraphic accounts," explained Darwish, "it is known that one of the branches, the Canopic, met the Mediterranean Sea in the region of today's Abu Qir."
The city of Herakleion was situated at the mouth of the Canopic and it was Egypt's maritime port on the Mediterranean under the New Kingdom. It was a customs port where commerce flourished until the founding of Alexandria.
"Once commerce shifted there, Herakleion lost its economic importance," he added. Strabo, the geographer and historian who came to Egypt in the first century AD, described the cities of Menouthis and Herakleion as luxuriant both in construction and lifestyle. However, Seneca, another classical historian, condemned the moral corruption of their inhabitants.
These cities were famous for their wealth; arts flourished, numerous temples were dedicated to the gods Serapis, Isis and Osiris, and they attracted people from all over the Mediterranean world. These were pilgrimage sites, where visitors came in search of miraculous cures or to consult the oracle.
"It was a meeting place between East and West," said Darwish. "In the Christian era, in the fourth century, a basilica was built in Menouthis, near the temple of Isis, in honour of two saints, Saint Cyrus and Saint John, whose relics were housed there."
Amos Nur, director of the department of geophysics at Stanford University who carried out the magnetic mapping of the offshore area, said that the cities were most probably destroyed by an earthquake, as suggested by the position of the collapsed columns and walls which appear to have fallen systematically in one direction, although he also added that "the exact reason and dates of the destruction of these cities remain unclear."
He referred cautiously to the geologic and climatic change, which resulted in a rise in the level of the Mediterranean, along with the slow swamping of land. Golden coins dating from the Byzantine and Islamic Ayyubid periods have also been identified offshore. Gaballa said that these objects provided clear evidence that the region was not submerged until after the eighth century AD.
Previously, only Prince Omar Tousson, a pioneer of underwater research in Abu Qir Bay, had identified a 100-metre long section of Menouthis in 1934. The most important of the objects he recovered was the base of the 'naos of the decades,' now in the Graeco-Roman Museum. With the discovery of the greater part of this highly significant object, new light has been cast on the area.
According to Goddio, the excavations by the French-Egyptian team raise many exciting questions which will be answered only after further investigation over the coming years. For example, what was the exact topography of the area? What was the layout of the cities like? "The enigma of this sunken world can only be resolved through close collaboration with experts from complementary disciplines," Goddio said.
As a result of these discoveries in Abu Qir Bay, Darwish anticipates that the area will become one of the most active sites in Egypt, likely to provide the richest historical and archaeological returns.
It contains both ancient and modern antiquities. Its sunken cities extend from Pharaonic through Muslim times -- not to mention the shipwrecks of Napoleon's fleet, which sank in Abu Qir during his battle with Britain's Lord Nelson.