Egypt discovers ancient warship in sunken city off Alexandria

Vessel was found beneath remains of Greek funerary temple dating back to 4th century BCE.

A diver examines the remains of an ancient military vessel discovered in the Mediterranean sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt. Reuters
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The remains of an ancient Greek warship have been discovered in the Mediterranean Sea off the city of Alexandria, Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry announced on Monday.

An Egyptian-French archaeological mission, made the discovery as part of a wider excavation of the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion.

The ancient Egyptian port city is located off Alexandria’s Abu Qir Bay.

The warship dates back to the Ptolemaic period of ancient Egypt and was found buried beneath the remains of an ancient funerary temple, the ministry’s statement said. The temple, however, dates to the 4th century BCE.

The mission also unearthed a number of artefacts, including pottery and metal items, as well as stones and other building materials left over from the temple's collapse.

The ship apparently sank as a result of the collapse of the funerary temple, which was destroyed following a strong earthquake, Mostafa Waziri, the secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, said.

Mr Waziri said the ship’s remains date back to the 2nd century BCE, which is when the temple reportedly collapsed into the Mediterranean.

Large stone blocks from the temple’s structure sunk the ship during the earthquake, but the temple's remains also helped preserve the ship under the seabed, said a ministry statement.

The ship was found buried beneath five metres of solidified mud, which forms the first layer of the seabed, said Ayman Ashmawy, the head of the ministry’s antiquities sector.

Bits of stone and other rubble from the temple’s collapse were found embedded in the mud.

The discovery was made possible through the use of automated drilling drones, which were controlled from the surface. The team also used a sub-bottom profiler, which uses sound waves among other mechanisms to analyse and create images of the sea floor.

There are not many archaeological examples of warships from this time period, said mission head Franck Goddio, a prominent French underwater archaeologist who discovered the city of Heracleion in 2000.

He said Greek ship remains from this period are virtually non-existent, pointing to the ancient Punic ship Marsala, whose wreck was discovered in western Sicily in 1971, as the only other example.

Though the ship’s remains are far from intact due to significant damage it sustained when it was sunk, preliminary studies of the site have been able to determine that the ship’s length was around 25 metres, the ministry’s statement said.

The ship's construction used a blend of ancient Greek and Egyptian building techniques and decoration styles.

Studies of the wood and shipbuilding techniques determined that the ship was built in Egypt, said the ministry’s statement.

The city of Thonis-Heracleion was for centuries the largest port in ancient Egypt, located on the Mediterranean. However, the city lost importance when Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 331 BCE.

A number of natural disasters in the area weakened the land and the city sank into the Mediterranean along with a number of other prominent settlements of Ptolemaic Egypt, including the city of Canopus, the namesake of the Canopic branch of the Nile.

Updated: July 19, 2021, 6:41 PM