From Legend to Reality
Thonis-Heracleion (the and Greek names of the city) is a between legend and reality. Before the foundation of Alexandria in 331 BC, the city knew glorious times as the obligatory of entry to Egypt for all ships coming from the . It had also a religious importance because of Amun, which played an important role in rites associated with dynasty continuity. The city was founded probably around the 8th century BC, underwent diverse natural catastrophes, and finally sunk entirely into the depths of the in the 8th century AD.
Prior to its discovery in 2000 by the IEASM, no trace of Thonis-Heracleion had been found. Its name was almost razed from the memory of mankind, only preserved in ancient classic texts and rare inscriptions found on land by archaeologists. The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BC) tells us of a great temple that was built where the famous hero Herakles first set foot on to Egypt. He also reports of Helen’s Heracleion with her lover Paris before . More than four centuries after Herodotus’ visit to Egypt, the geographer Strabo observed that the city of Heracleion, which possessed the temple of Herakles, is located straight to the east of Canopus at the mouth of the Canopic branch of .
Head of a colossal statue of red granite (5.4 m) representing the god Hapi, which decorated the temple of Heracleion. The god of the flooding of the Nile, symbol of abundance and fertility, has never before been discovered at such a , which points to his importance for the Canopic region. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk
Franck Goddio with the intact and inscribed Heracleion stele (1.90 m). It was commissioned by Nectanebo I (378-362 BC) and is almost identical to the Naukratis Stele in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The place where it was to be situated is clearly named: Thonis-Heracleion. ©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, photo: Christoph Gerigk
With his unique survey-based approach that utilises the most sophisticated technical equipment, Franck Goddio and his team from the IEASM, in cooperation with theEgyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, were able to locate, map and excavate parts of the city of Thonis-Heracleion, which lies 6.5 kilometres off today’s coastline. The city is located within an overall of 11 by 15 kilometres in the western part of Aboukir Bay. Franck Goddio has found important information on the ancient landmarks of Thonis-Heracleion, such as the grand temple of Amun and his son Khonsou (Herakles for the Greeks), the harbours that once controlled all trade into Egypt, and the daily life of its inhabitants. He has also solved a historic enigma that has puzzled Egyptologists over the years: the archaeological material has revealed that Heracleion and Thonis were in fact one and the same city with two names; Heracleion being the name of the city for the Greeks and Thonis for the Egyptians.