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Discovering sunken city, gateway of ancient Egypt to outer world

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By Philippines News Agency

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — Around 16 years after his discovery of the submerged ancient Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion, French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio still recalls the discovery as one of the most “fascinating” moments in his life.

Manila Bulletin, Egypt, ALexandria, Sunken city

This intact stele, 1.99 meters high, bears the inscription of the Decree of Sais, which was commissioned by Nectanebo I (ruled 378-362 B.C.) The stele came to light in the city of Thonis-Heracleion and is almost identical to the stele of Naukratis from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Hilti Foundation photo) | Xinhua | Manila Bulletin

“I still remember the day we found an inscribed stele,” the archaeologist from the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) told Xinhua during the three-day Alexandria International Conference on Maritime and Underwater Archaeology starting Monday.

“It was beautiful and intact, and I think the discovery of the stele was one of the major archaeological findings since the 19th century,” he said.

The inscription on the two-meter high stele was later deciphered to be the Decree of Sais, which was commissioned by the ancient Egyptian King Nectanebo I, who ruled 378-362 B.C. The inscription clearly names the city where it was to be erected: Thonis-Heracleion.

Thonis-Heracleion was an ancient city lost in history for over 1200 years. Greek historian Herodotus said the Greek name “Heracleion” came from Heracles as the city was believed to be the first Egyptian city the Greek hero visited. There was also a legend that Paris and Helen of Troy temporarily stayed in the city to escape from Helen’s husband Menelaus before the Trojan War.

Archaeologists vaguely located the city at the mouth of the Nile from the eighth century B.C. to the eighth century. However, there was next to zero archaeological proofs of the city’s whereabouts or even its existence before Goddio and his team discovered the stele in the Abu Qir Bay 6.5 km off the coast in 2000.

Goddio used to work for the United Nations and the French Foreign Ministry, but decided to devote his entire passion to underwater archaeology in the early 1980s. He founded the IEASM and directed many excavations on shipwrecks worldwide.

Notably, his work off the coast of Egypt earned him an international reputation.

Since the initial success in 2000, Goddio and his team discovered numerous antiquities and treasures buried beneath the sands of the Abu Qir Bay, including a temple of the god Amun and his son Khonsu. The city’s enormous wealth had been resurfaced, its religious importance studied and made known.

Among the most significant findings were 72 relics of shipwrecks and over 800 of anchors, which proved the city an international trade hub for Egypt that attracts traders from both the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea, said Goddio.

“The stereotype of Egypt being a country not interested in maritime trade is certainly to be abandoned,” he said.

The city’s heyday lasted from the seventh century B.C. to the second century B.C. before it went into a gradual decline, destruction and the final submergence.

Thonis-Heracleion soon lost its economic importance after Alexander the Great ordered trade between Egypt and other countries to be transferred to the city of Alexandria, after the build of the new city around 331 B.C., said Goddio.

However, it was the liquefaction of the soil and occasional earthquakes and tsunamis that dealt a final blow, he said, adding that the survey and excavation works in the Abu Qir Bay are still ongoing, more exciting results expected in the future.

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