Exhibition
Franck Goddio
Robert Wilson
Information
Press Office
Contacts
    Cities and sunken treasures | Visit | Catalogue | The Hilti Foundation | La Venaria Reale
 
 

The ancient cities of the Nile Delta western branch and Greek influence

Greece and Egypt were in contact via this strategic zone: the mouth of the western branch of the Nile was the gateway to Egypt for ships from the Greek world.

Ever coveted for its riches, the Nile delta had seen its civilisation influenced by a succession of conquerors: the Persians, Greeks and the long dynasty of the Ptolemies; then the Romans; the rise of Christianity, which led to the destruction of the figures of pagan deities but also to their unconscious assimilation; and lastly the Arab conquest. A slow process of acculturation revolutionised the divine pantheon, bringing an emphasis on the worship of Isis, Osiris and Serapis, and infiltrated everyday life, affecting the way Egyptians saw a world that was to become the cradle of Western civilisation.
Economic growth came early to the Bay of Aboukir, well before the founding of Alexandria. The city’s location at the mouth of the Nile made it a crossroads between Egypt and the other civilisations along the Mediterranean.
The Greeks had been trading with Europe since the 8th century BC and Greek communities had been established at Naucratis and at Thonis-Heracleion, on the western branch of the Nile. These cities were not only trading centres, but also venues for cultural exchanges between the two civilisations.
The foundation of Alexandria by Alexander the Great in 331 BC was the real trigger for the rise of Greece in the delta. This period has been variously called Hellenistic Egypt, Ptolemaic Egypt and Lagid Egypt: it coincides with the Lagid Dynasty, founded by the Macedonian captain Ptolemy, son of Lagos, who was made governor after the death of Alexander the Great and became king of Egypt under the name Ptolemy I Soter.
Characterised by a cultural mix, the Ptolemaic Dynasty lasted until 30 BC and the conquest of Egypt by the Roman emperor Octavian.
The Roman period was marked by military occupation and colonisation – a very different situation from that of the interchange and cross-fertilisation that had characterised the Hellenistic period.
Alexandria, with its own distinctive spirit, retained a degree of independence, but the rest of Egypt was thoroughly dominated and exploited by Rome. In the 2nd century AD the emperor Hadrian and the Antonines made an effort to revive the Ptolemaic heritage, but the later emperor Caracalla and his successors kept on exploiting and plundering Alexandria, tyrannizing the Alexandrians for refusing to take his pretensions seriously.

The coming of Diocletian in 284 AD brought the beginning of the Byzantine period. Administrative unity was disrupted by the simultaneous founding of provinces and Christian dioceses. When Arab conquerors arrived in the 7th century, they were welcomed as liberators. It was at this time – in the second half of the 7th century – that a mix of natural phenomena led to the submersion of the archaeological sites of the Nile Delta area.
pixel graphic

Canopus East

Legend has it that the shore was named after helmsman Canopos, who died after bringing Menelaos and Helen here at the end of the Trojan War.

Canopus was founded before Alexandria. Canopos also gave his name to the area situated to the west of the westernmost mouth of the Nile: the Canopic region. The city of Canopus, called Pegouti or Pekuat by the Egyptians, is 35 km northeast of Alexandria and in the time of the Ptolemies was linked to that city by a canal.
Canopus was a religious centre and part of the Ptolemaic power network.
The IEASM excavations in the western zone of the city led to the discovery of the Serapeum, a temple dedicated to Serapis.
Famous throughout the Mediterranean world for the cures and oracles attributed to Serapis, Canopus was also a city of pleasure. As such, it continued to attract visitors during the Roman era, and was christianised in the 4th century. The monastery of Metanoia (from the Greek verb metanoein, repent), whose remnants have also beendiscovered, was founded near the ancient temple after the latter was destroyed by the Christians in 391 AD.
Part of Canopus has become the site of present-day Aboukir, while Canopus East, site of the Serapeum, is now submerged.
pixel graphic

The Serapeum

The Serapeum dates from the early Ptolemaic period, Serapis being in name and form a Greek version of one of the old gods of the dead in Memphis, Egypt. Associated with Isis, he took on some of the functions of Osiris.
Worship of Serapis gradually spread through the Greek and Egyptian worlds, becoming
extremely popular both inside and outside Egypt – especially during the imperial epoch, when it took on a more universal dimension. The main temples to Serapis were in Alexandria and Canopus.

The Lagids adroitly managed to associate the worship of Egyptian gods with that of their own. The resultant deities had a range of powers, functions and attributes and also provided the advantage of reconciling religion and politics. The statuary points up this merger, following the hieratic character of Egypt while corporating Greek attributes: the animal forms the Egyptians conferred on their gods ultimately gave way to Greek anthropomorphism.
pixel graphic

The Naos of the Decades

The naos was a small, monolithic chapel housing a statue of a god and placed in the most sacred part of the shrine. Under the reign of Nectanebo (380–362 BC) this naos was dedicated to Shu, god of the air and the atmosphere. It is unique in that the inscriptions on its outer walls make up an Egyptian calendar divided into decades, or ten-day segm ents. Each decade opens with the rising of particular stars, called decans. There are 36 decades in a year, together with five extra days – called epagomenes by the Greeks – to round off the 365-day cycle. Here each decade is accompanied by a brief astrological text, which makes this calendar a forerunner in the field of astronomy.

The Naos of the Decades is also an extraordinary puzzle. Its base and back wall had been discovered by Prince Omar Toussoun who carried out excavations in the Bay of Aboukir around 1940. In 1952 Egyptologists had established a link with a naos roof discovered in 1776 and kept in the Louvre since the 19th century. The four fragments recovered by the IEASM team represent a significant new addition: one of them is the left wall of the naos and bears an incised text of which no other version exists – an account of the creation of the world and the decans.
pixel graphic

Representations of power

The Lagids proclaimed themselves pharaohs – gods on earth – and appropriated the latters’ representations, mixing Egyptian formalism with more naturalistic details or Greek symbols. Alexander the Great had already established the notion that victory brought with it divine rank and this idea was perpetuated by the Ptolemaic monarchs, who made it one of the linchpins of their power. The Caesars held to this tradition.
pixel graphic

The Christian presence

The destruction of the Serapeum in 391 was the work of Christians, who then built the monastery of Metanoia. Underwater excavations also led to identification of the Christian monastery of Metanoia. The remaining buildings are under water, but numerous pieces of jewellery, crosses and seals bear witness to the Christian presence in Canopus. Not far away, a martyrs’ shrine; here were deposited the remains of St. Cyrus and St. John, endowing the site with the same curative powers attributed to their pagan predecessors.
pixel graphic

Thonis-Heracleion

Known from ancient texts and inscriptions, the position of the city of Heracleion remained unknown for many centuries.

Before the creation of Alexandria, it had been the trading centre the Greeks had to pass through before following the Nile up to Naucratis, a prosperous city further south.
It was, in fact, the growth and spreading influence of Naucratis that lay behind the Heracleion’s economic decline. Heracleion was also famous for its temple of Amon, supreme deity in the Egyptian pantheon. After the founding of Alexandria, the sovereign ordered that Heracleion’s trade be transferred to the new capital.
The excavations allowed for precise situating of Heracleion, identified by the remains of its temple. Most importantly, the discovery of a stone offered proof that Heracleion and Thonis – the city that Diodorus of Sicily designated as the compulsory port of entry to Egypt – were one and the same.

A religious centre until the time of the Roman occupation, Thonis-Heracleion was abandoned and declined dramatically. All that remained in Byzantine times was a small convent. Heracleion takes its name from Herakles (Hercules). According to legend it was founded on the very spot where the demigod stepped onto Egyptian soil. A temple was erected on the site and dedicated to Amon, whose son Khonsu was identified with the Greek hero. Herodotus associates the site with the arrival of beauteous Helen of Troy, fleeing with Paris, her lover, and being refused hospitality by Thonis, guardian of the Nile.
pixel graphic

A port is born

Heracleion was situated in an area of dunes east of Canopus, near the mouth of the western branch of the Nile, and was linked to the river by passages among the dunes. Thanks to the excavations we now have the outline of a large port city with docks to the east; a broad canal linked it in the west to a lake which was in turn connected to Canopus by another canal. The works carried out point out the importance of what was a border city and key customs post for Egypt. Numerous wrecks and anchors dating from the 6th–2nd centuries BC have been found in the ports and canals.
pixel graphic

The great temple of Amon

The remains of this gigantic temple over 150 metres long were found on an enormous esplanade bordering the central canal. The deciphering of its naos has led to the conclusion that it was consecrated to Amon. Other gods were also venerated there: a host of liturgical objects indicates that this was a busy shrine dedicated to numerous deities.
The temple retained its rank under the Lagids, for it was here that the rites underpinning the divine power of the new pharaohs were performed. This also made it a political force, since it was the foundation for the dynastic continuity of the Ptolemies. This is probably the reason why the Romans abandoned the city.
Closed in by a wall, the temple’s many buildings were laid out along a broad avenue lined with sphinxes, some of which have been found. The avenue led to the entrance to the shrine, which was flanked by colossal statues. The naos was found in the heart of the temple. The temple being a sacred place, only those officiating had the right to enter; the laity remained in the forecourts.
pixel graphic

Ritual objects, offerings and amulets

The quantity of objects found testifies to the intense religious activity in the temple and the importance of ritual for the Egyptians. Stone and metal items – vases, pots, cauldrons, dishes, mortars, lamps, perfume burners, ladles and tongs – suggest the kinds of rites carried out in honour of the gods. In addition to these ritual pieces, indications of individual piety have been found: numerous amulets engraved with the sacred bestiary and ex votos, miniature objec ts offered as signs of gratitude or devotion.
pixel graphic

The colossi

Three colossal statues have emerged from the sea. The first two, from 4,9 to 5,4 metres high, portray a royal couple of the Ptolemaic period. The king is wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, embellished with the uraeus, the cobra bearing the solar disc that was the pharaonic emblem. The queen’s headdress is a solar disc set against two feathers from a bird of prey and framed by the horns of the cow Hathor, identified with Isis. An upright cobra is placed on the forehead. The face and the prominent breasts are typical of the Greek period. The couple has not been identified, but a study of the statue of the queen has established that it had already been broken and repaired in ancient times. The third statue is of Hapi, god of the flooding of the Nile and symbol of fertility and abundance. Round-faced, he is carrying a dish of offerings and wearing a papyrus crown representing the Nile. This is the largest known statue of this god.
pixel graphic

The Stone of Ptolemy

This monumental stone was found not far from the colossi, to the north of the temple. The 6-metre monolith weighing 16 tons had broken into many pieces, which were recovered from the site. The partly obliterated inscriptions make specific mention of Ptolemy VIII and allow us to date the stone to the second half of the 2nd century BC.
pixel graphic

The Stone of Nectanebo I

This black granite stone is one of the finds from the temple site, and its form and content make it the twin of the one found at Naucratis over a century ago. The inscriptions link it to the pharaoh Nectanebo I (380–343 BC) and proclaim his decision to impose a tax on Greek merchandise coming through Thonis for the benefit of a temple in Naucratis. The stone confirms the common identity of Heracleion and Thonis, and the city’s role as a customs post.
pixel graphic

Everyday life in Ptolemaic Egypt

The Ptolemies saw Egypt as their property, exploiting its wealth as a source of income via taxes and royalties collected by an omnipresent administration on the imperial model. With the advent of the Lagids, agriculture, the oldest and most significant source of income, was supplemented by the movement of imported and exported merchandise: craft items and products from Africa and the East which passed through the country’s ports. Egypt was by then a world trading centre. This enormous wealth drew the covetous eye of the Romans, who considered Egypt as one of their grain stores.
The Greek and Roman occupations brought profound change to Egypt, yet everyday life did not change. Commonplace objects tell us of the modest existence of these humble fisher folk and of the anonymous craftsmen who had made them.
pixel graphic

Time and history: an accumulation

The site of Heracleion, as the discoveries attest, had a lifespan of almost 1500 years, with historical accumulation indicated by the dating of the objects found and the fact of their reuse. The religious pantheon changed too, the deities evolving through contact with other systems of belief while retaining certain permanent aspects.
The apogee of the New Empire, marked by the Rameses of the 10th century BC, was followed by a long descent into darkness, marked by the Assyrian and Persian invasions of the 6th–4th centuries BC. A number of Hashemite-inspired pieces found at Heracleion are evidence of the Persian influence in Egypt.

Egypt was a satrapy (in the ancient Persian age, a region where different populations coexisted) when Alexander the Great conquered it with help from the centuries-old Greek colonies in the Delta. His faithful follower Ptolemy governed as satrap before proclaiming himself pharaoh. The Lagids relied on powerful armies of Greek mercenaries to whom they gave land: these colonists – or “cleruchs” – were a reserve force that could be called on as needed. Later native-born Egyptians would also be conscripted.

The Lagid dynasty was accompanied by a rise in Egyptian power that lasted until the Roman conquest in 30 BC. Egypt was then reduced to the status of a Roman province, until it fell into the hands of the Byzantines – who would themselves be driven out by the Arabs in the 7th century.
A host of ceramic items recount this story in their own way. They also bear witness to trade between the various regions of the eastern and western Mediterranean, the Peloponnesus, continental Greece, Asia Minor, Phoenicia and Italy; and give us an idea both of what was imported and of the work of local potters who set out to imitate the art of their Greek counterparts.
pixel graphic

Alexandria

Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, the city owed him its name, as did so many others along his triumphant itinerary. It was created on a narrow strip of rock between the Mediterranean and Lake Mareotis, a vast inland sea fed by the Nile. It was based on a checkerboard pattern that spread with the passing of time, a Greek city with its agoras, its gymnasium and its temples. Behind its 15 kilometres of walls lay a complex of palaces and gardens: here were the court, the seat of royal power and a port complex that knew no rivals.
This trading post or “emporion” was also a cultural mecca. Alexandria was famed for its museum – which was in fact a scientific study centre – and its library, which concentrated the knowledge of the entire world.
The influence of the Lagid capital extended to the entire Mediterranean in terms of commerce, architecture and learning. With a population estimated at 50,000 it was, too, a cosmopolitan city, a meeting point for peoples and cultures.
Linked to Alexandria by a canal, Canopus would become its suburb during the Ptolemaic period.
Alexandria retained this cosmopolitan character under the Roman occupation, but at the same time was shaken by revolts and rioting and was considered by the Romans as unruly to the point of being ungovernable.
Imagining himself the true successor to Alexander the great, the emperor Caracalla (211–
16) was a figure of fun for the inhabitants; in 215 he responded by killing the delegation of dignitaries – among them the Prefect of Egypt – who had come to welcome him. A year later he ordered the creation of a Macedonian phalanx in honour of Alexander. As soon as it had been formed, he had it massacred, depriving the city of its best citizens in the flower of their manhood. Hewas assassinated soon afterwards. Columns of pink granite bearing his name – they were used a bases for his statues – survive as a reminder of this sinister time.
pixel graphic

The ports of Alexandria

Alexandria was at the interface between two worlds: that of the Mediterranean and that of the hinterland, which led to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Thus it had two ports separated by a dyke – known as the “heptastadion”, being the length of seven stadiums – created by Ptolemy II (284–246 BC) to link the city to the island of Pharos.
To the east the Great Harbour gave onto the Mediterranean, with its famous lighthouse on an islet at the tip of Pharos. This port was home to the royal and military and trading docks, and to warehouses. To the west was the combined sea–and-river port of Eunostos, linked to the Nile by a network of canals. Two openings in the heptastadion allowed for passage between the ports.
Exploration of the seabed in the Great Port revealed complex shipping facilities, together with the royal quarters that overlooked them and substructures that divided the eastern part into several dock areas.
The royal galley port was built on Cape Lochias, where the Ptolemies had numerous palaces. A large peninsula known as the Poseidion was home to shrines and a substantial dyke led out from it, at the end of which was the Timonion, a small palace built by Mark Antony to “get away from it all”. West of the Great Port, other harbour facilities allowed ships to unload their merchandise or await the transit to Eunostos. The navalia, enormous shipyards, were available for shipbuilding and repairs.
The IEASM excavations have revealed the topography of the Great Harbour as it was at the end of the Roman period. Exploring these sunken structures and land areas, the archaeologists have brought to light rare testimony to the splendour of the Ptolemaic era.
The royal island of Antirhodos was home to a palace and a small shrine to Isis, and with the Poseidion and the coast it marked out a magnificent harbour basin.
pixel graphic

Gods and temples

The exhibition takes an especially close look at the traces of temples found in the royal sections: a Roman temple on the Poseidion peninsula, and a shrine dedicated to Isis on the island of Antirhodos. The city itself possessed numerous other shrines, including the famous Serapeum, dedicated to Serapis and one of the largest in the Hellenistic world.
The rulers had their own places of worship, among them the Arsinoeion, dedicated to Arsinoe II, and the Caesarion, built by Cleopatra in honour of the Caesars.
pixel graphic

The clergy and the gods

The clergy were a caste related to a particular god or temple. A statue, found on the island of Antirhodos, represents a shaven-headed priest is carrying a vase topped with a head of Osiris, the revived Egyptian god of the dead. The priest is careful not to touch Osiris with his hands. The silhouette, the folds and the expressiveness of the face make this a fine illustration of Egyptian syncretism.
pixel graphic

Massacres and destruction

The city of Alexandria had its share of hard times. In the later 4th century the Empire had to cope with the growth of Christianity, until the emperor Theodosius made it the state religion in 380. There was violent conflict between Christians and pagans in the city, with attacks by fanatics on places of worship and the pillaging of the temple of Serapis. In 391 Theodosius banned pagan worship and the ruins of the temples were plundered of their stone. However, the destruction of Canopus and Heracleion and the disappearance of a part of Alexandria were mainly due to a succession of natural disasters that ultimately saw the cities submerged.
In the course of the underwater explorations no material from after the late 8th century was found.
pixel graphic

Changes in the configuration of the Nile Delta. Age and causes of sinking phenomena

Heracleion-Thonis, Canopus and Alexandria were struck by natural catastrophes. Ancient authors wrote about cities disappearing from this coast, also known as Lybian coast. Earthquakes and tidal waves struck the Canopic region several times. For instance, on the 21st of June, 365 a.D., a tidal wave ravaged south-eastern Mediterranean shores. According to Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, in the second half of the 6th century the inhabitants of Canopus knew that the ruins of a sanctuary were lying on the seabed, and still remembered a violent natural disaster which, in the past, had swept away a part of their land. This might have happened after 486 a.D., when the worship and the oracle of Isis were still practiced in the region. Even the earthquake taking place at the half of the 8th century is likely to have caused serious damage.
Modern Alexandria still stands on the site of the city founded by Alexander the Great, but does not occupy it entirely: the ancient port, among other sections, has been submerged by the Mediterranean Sea during the second half of the 8th century. In the same period, Canopus East, with its magnificent temples, was submerged as well, and the city became associated with hedonism, often condemned by the Roman propaganda; Cleopatra was called the “prostitute of incestuous Canopus” (Propertius, The Elegies, 3, 11). According to Christian accounts, about three kilometers east, in a small city called Heracleion, there was a convent which, in the same period, shared the same fate. No one knew anything about Thonis from that moment.
It is believed that the Mediterranean has submerged these cities in the bay of Aboukir for more than 12 centuries.

The eastern coast of the Mediterranean was sinking slowly but surely. Submersion of the archaeological sites was due to a combination of natural phenomena:

  • the slow subsidence of this eastern part of the Mediterranean
  • a constant rise in sea level since ancient times
  • collapses and landslips due to seismic events
  • local phenomena: liquefying of local clay deposits, especially at spots where heavy monuments had been built. The trigger for this was excess weight due either to disastrous flooding by the Nile or a tidal wave.

The combination of these factors led to a fall in the land level of some 8 meters compared to that of early times. Due to this subsidence, worsened by a significant amount of alluvium deposit transported by sea currents, the world lost all visible trace of sixteen centuries of life of one of the richest civilizations in Egypt’s history.
pixel graphic

 
  pixel graphic
| Sitemap | Imprint