It was lost beneath the waves for more than 1,000 years, a mysterious Atlantis of the Middle East that once guarded the mouth of the River Nile.
Now astonishing treasures from the sunken city known to the ancient Egyptians as Thonis, and to the Greeks as Heracleion, are to be revealed in a major international exhibition that brings back to life a forgotten era, and signals a new beginning for a nation battered by five years of upheaval.
When Sunken Cities: Egypt's Lost Worlds opens at the British Museum in London in May, 200 of the 300 objects on show will have come from Egyptian museums. Many have never been seen outside the country, and they are the first such loan of antiquities by Egypt since the revolution of 2011.
“It is very exciting for us to have these objects,” says Aurelia Masson-Berghoff, exhibition curator for the British Museum.
The show is equally important for Egypt.
“It shows a positive image of Egypt and, through this loan, they want to encourage people to come back and discover the wealth of treasures this wonderful country has to offer.”
To generations of historians and archaeologists, the cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion were known only from references in Egyptian decrees, carved in stone and excavated in modern times, and a handful of accounts found in Greek histories.
Both cities were believed to have been founded in the seventh century BC, 400 years before Alexander the Great’s conquest of Egypt and the foundation of Alexandria. By the eighth century AD they had been wiped from the map.
For centuries their locations remained forgotten, although they were generally assumed to have been somewhere off the Nile Delta, on land now submerged and most probably in Aboukir Bay.
This is the 30-kilometre bite out of the Nile Delta between Aboukir in the west and Rosetta in the east, into which flows the westernmost, Canopic branch of the river.
The first solid clue to the whereabouts of the cities came in the early 1930s, when a British royal air force pilot flying over the bay noticed what appeared to be man-made shapes in the water.
Word reached Prince Omar Toussan, an Egyptian geographer and amateur archaeologist whose estate bordered the bay, and on May 5, 1933, he set out in a boat with a diver.
Within minutes, at a depth of about 5 metres, they made an astonishing find.
“The diver went down and confirmed beyond any doubt the presence of several marble columns and others, probably of red granite,” Prince Omar wrote in 1934. “From time to time, he brought up some remains to the surface, among which was the white marble head of a statue.”
That proved to be a sculpted likeness of Alexander the Great.
Prince Omar had found the first traces of Canopus, the legendary city after which the Canopic branch is named, a few hundred metres off the present-day shoreline at Aboukir.
But “they had just discovered the tip of the iceberg”, says Ms Masson-Berghoff, and lacked the technology to probe much farther. “The bay of Aboukir is really difficult to investigate because the water is very murky. There is a lot of sediment and as soon as you move the water gets dark very quickly.”
Thonis-Heracleion was tantalisingly close, but would elude discovery for a few more generations, when technology found a way to see through the sediment and map what lay there.
In 1983 Jacques Dumas, a French marine archaeologist, arrived in Aboukir Bay in search of relics from an altogether different period of history.
In August 1798, British warships commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson caught and destroyed the French fleet at what would become known as the Battle of the Nile. Four French ships, including the flagship Orient, were destroyed, killing as many as 5,000 French sailors and scuppering Napoleon’s dream of conquering Egypt.
Dumas found the remains of the Orient and other ships under 11 metres of water 8km off the coast of Aboukir. His divers also found a Roman urn.
It was a clue as to what else might lie concealed in the mud of the bay. In 1985, before he could investigate further, Dumas died, but his torch was picked up by another French marine archaeologist, Franck Goddio.
In 1992 Mr Goddio’s European Institute of Underwater Archaeology, working with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, began an ambitious survey of 110 square km of Aboukir Bay – an area the size of Paris.
In a centimetre-by-centimetre survey using modern underwater imaging systems such as nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers, multi-beam bathymetry, side-scan sonar and satellite-positioning systems, it was slow work that finally paid off in 2001.
Buried in the mud under 6.5 metres of water, divers found a large granite block. Raising it to the surface, they saw it was a monumental stele, perfectly intact and bearing the words of a royal decree written in 380BC in Greek and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
It solved two mysteries – the text proved that Thonis and Heracleion were one and the same place, and that the site where it had been found was without doubt that of the ancient lost city.
The stele tells the story of the time when the Greeks first arrived in Egypt, as guests not rulers, privileged but controlled by the pharaohs. The decree, by pharaoh Nectanebo I, states that 10 per cent of taxes collected on all goods imported into Thonis-Heracleion from the “Sea of the Greeks” – the Mediterranean – would be donated to an Egyptian temple.
This stele will be making the journey to London in May, Ms Masson-Berghoff says.
“Previously, we knew these two names from ancient Egyptian decrees or Greek geographer-historians talking about them, and Egyptologists and classicists used to think they were two different sites. But when Franck Goddio discovered this stele in 2001, it was the key monument that said no, these two cities were the same.”
Mr Goddio’s painstaking underwater survey revealed a remarkable picture, showing that 2,000 years ago the Nile Delta extended out farther into the Mediterranean, and the city of Thonis-Heracleion had once stood guard at the mouth of the Canopic branch.
There, we now know, stood a colossal statute of the androgynous fertility deity Hapy, welcoming foreign traders to Egypt’s rich and fertile delta. For Ms Masson-Berghoff, this is the stand-out piece in the exhibition.
Hauled from the depths by Mr Goddio’s divers, the 5.4-metre-tall Hapy “is the personification of the flood of the Nile, and the fertility that this inundation brings to Egypt”.
“There are a lot of representations of Hapy, but never of a colossal size such as this. The fact this was placed at the mouth of the Canopic branch is for me like a welcome to the people who came from the Mediterranean world to benefit from Egypt and its wealth. I find this a really beautiful symbol.”
Thonis-Heracleion, occupied for about 1,000 years, was “a major international harbour town” that predated Alexander by three centuries and only slowly lost ground to his city in the west.
The city “remained extremely active as a major port at the beginning of the Greek rule of Egypt”, Ms Masson-Berghoff says.
Mr Goddio’s team also found the extensive remains of harbour installations and 69 shipwrecks.
But the sands of time were shifting beneath the foundations of Thonis-Heracleion.
The team has been able to reconstruct how the city must have looked and, built on a series of islands intersected by canals, it resembled a Venice of the Middle East.
Built not on stone but the silt of the delta, Thonis-Heracleion was a disaster waiting to happen.
Archaeologists believe it finally did happen towards the end of the second century BC, when evidence from the Goddio survey shows an earthquake most probably destroyed much of the city.
Records show that by the eighth century AD, all traces of the city had slipped beneath the surface of Aboukir Bay.
But it was the catastrophic loss of the city beneath mud and waves that protected stones, artefacts and coins from the elements and the attention of thieves and looters.
And Ms Masson-Berghoff says there is an even greater treasure trove yet to be found.
“It sounds incredible given the great treasure that has already come out of the seabed, but less than 5 per cent of Thonis-Heracleion has so far been excavated. There is work there for years and years to come.”
For now, the 200 pieces suffice to tell a fascinating story of a time when two cultures met, and in doing so perhaps holds a lesson for a world racked with anxiety over immigration. “People sometimes assume that when two cultures mix, the essence of each is diluted and as a result weakened,” Ms Masson-Berghoff says.
But clues given up by the sea tell a different story, of “the momentous intermingling between Egyptian and Greek communities in Egypt at this time”.
Together, they show ancient Egypt “not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward-looking, influential and inclusive society it was”.