The Egyptian city lost under the sea for 1,200 years

The amazing story of the mysterious lost city of Heracleion.

Peter Iantorno December 3, 2014

More than 1,200 years ago, the Egyptian city of Heracleion was one of the most important and wealthiest cities in Egypt. A bustling international trade hub and the only way for ships from the Mediterranean to access the Nile, the city was thriving.

What happened next is unclear, but the result was that this once-great port city, which is thought to have been a temporary home for Helen of Troy, began to slip under the water and was eventually swallowed up by the sea. As the years became decades and the decades became centuries, memories of the city began to fade and the only evidence of its existence was a few sparse mentions in the record books.

As the centuries turned into millennia, the lost city of Heracleion became a legend, then nothing more than a myth.

For more than 1,200 years, Heracleion lay dormant, seemingly consigned to be lost forever. But as fate would have it, in the year 2000 French underwater archaeologist Dr Franck Goddio led a team conducting a geophysical survey of the Mediterranean Sea. The survey led them to the Aboukir Bay area near Alexandria, and it was there were Dr Goddio and his team made a startling discovery: the mythical lost city of Heracleion was real and its ruins were laying right there on the ocean floor.

One of the most stunning archeological discoveries known to man, the ruin showed just how grand and important the city must have been. Huge limestone sculptures and sarcophagi thought to have contained mummified remains indicate that the city was an important religious site.

Some 64 ancient shipwrecks and more than 700 anchors were unearthed from the heavy silt and mud on the site, and countless other artifacts such as giant tablets engraved in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and gold coins were found.

One particularly revealing find was a set of weights which are known to have come from Athens - something never before found on any ancient Egyptian site. This shows that the city was an international hub for business, with traders coming from far and wide to pedal their wares.

Such is the extent of the city's great ruins that even now, 14 years after it was discovered, work is still being done on the site to discover more about it, and answer the important question: how did such a large and wealthy city sink into the sea?

Dr Goddio and his team believe that rising sea levels, combined with a collapse of the sediment the city was built on caused it to sink underneath the waves. It's a theory that is far from certain, with the possibilities of earthquakes or tsunamis also being reason for the city's disappearance.

Last month the BBC aired a documentary on the ruins, which attempts to explore the reasons why the city sank and was then forgotten about so quickly, suggesting that the rise of the then-new port of Alexandria contributed to Heracleion's downfall.

At this stage relatively little about the mysterious city is known, but what is for certain is that it has a lot more secrets to reveal. As Dr Goddio says, "We will probably have to continue working for the next 200 years for Heracleion to be fully revealed and understood".