The delta of the Nile, the mouth of the sacred river of Egypt, has changed its course over time.
The eastern part of the Mediterranean coast is slowly sinking. The archaeological sites were submerged as a result of several different forces:
An initiating factor of the phenomenon is a local surcharge of weight due to a catastrophic flood of the Nile or a tidal wave. The result of any and all these factors has provoked a change of level of some 8 metres of submerged land in comparison to the level in antique times.
The cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus are today submerged, situated off the current shore of Aboukir Bay.
1500 years of history
One thousand five hundred years of Egyptian history: a long period marked by the end of the pharaohs and numerous foreign influences: Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab. An amazing cultural mixture develops in Egypt, to which the artefacts in this exhibition bear witness.
The Late Period and trade in the Mediterranean
The oldest items in the exhibition, dating from the VIIth century BC, take us back to the Egyptian Late Period. The era of the pharaohs has already lasted over two thousand years, but the era of territorial expansion under such great kings as Thutmose III (1490-1436 BC), Amenophis IV also called Akhenaten (1364-1347 BC) or Ramses II (1290-1224 BC) is long past. In the instability that characterises the Late Period, the XXVIth dynasty (664-525 BC) known as the Saïte dynasty stands out as an exception.
Once Egypt was liberated from the Assyrian occupation, with the particular help of Greek mercenaries, peace and economic prosperity return to the country. Trade with the Hellenic world, which had begun as early as the IInd millennium BC intensified. The town of Naucratis in the Nile Delta near Saïs, the capital of the Saïte pharaohs, becomes the foremost trading post of the Greeks in Egypt. To reach it, the Hellenic merchants must pay taxes and dues on their cargoes at Thonis-Heracleion, the customs post of Egypt situated at the mouth of the westernmost branch of the Nile. Considered the gateway of the country, this is the mandatory passage for all foreign shipping from the Mediterranean world to enter Egypt. In 525 BC, the Persians take control of the country for the next one hundred and twenty years, until a native dynasty comes into power in 404 BC. The victorious general Nectanebo I (380-362 BC) founds the 30th and last indigenous dynasty. Nectanebo II (360-343 BC), the last Egyptian pharaoh in history, capitulates to a renewed, albeit short-lived Persian occupation.
The location of the archaeological sites of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus in the Abukir Bay. The deepest parts of the submerged Canopic region are shown in green, changing to dark yellow near the current coastlin, and brighter for the shallowest remains lying just under the surface of the water surface. Altogether over 110 km2 sank beneath the waves.
Hellenic Egypt and the influence of Alexandria
Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who conquered Egypt, put an end to the reign of the Persian Darius III in 332 BC. In the following year, he founded the city of Alexandria, 35 kilometres away from Heracleion. Never before an Hellenic city outside of Greece attained such proportions. At his death in -323, his general and friend Ptolemy inherited Egypt.
Ptolemy takes the title of king in 305 BC under the name of Ptolemy I Soter and chooses Alexandria as his capital. The new sovereign relegates Naucratis and Thonis-Heracleion to the background by diverting port and trade activities to Alexandria. He develops the city into a place of science, creating the Museum (which originally signified a “temple dedicated to the muses”), the great library, and a university. The construction of the famous lighthouse of Alexandria at the tip of the island of Pharos – considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – is also begun under his rule. Hellenistic Egypt reaches its apogee under his reign (305-282 BC) and the reign of his son Ptolemy II (282-246 BC). In a few short decades, Alexandria grows to a city of over 100 000 inhabitants, becoming the greatest metropolis of the known world. Canopus, situated near Thonis-Heracleion, was linked to the new capital city by a canal. As a great religious centre reputed for its processions of Osiris and its miraculous healings, it included one of the greatest temples in the land, dedicated to Serapis. This cult probably originated in the region in the IIIrd century BC, and subsequently spread throughout the Hellenistic world. The Ptolemy or Lagid dynasty (after Lagos, Ptolemy I’s father) ends with the reign of Cleopatra VII, daughter of Ptolemy XII. After alliances with Julius Caesar, with whom she has a son called Ptolemy XV or Caesarion, and later with Mark Anthony, the “queen of kings” is forced to resign to Octavian – the future Augustus – whose legions have invaded the country. She commits suicide in 30 BC, and Egypt becomes a Roman province. Alexandria remains the capital and, although somewhat reduced, retains her predominant economic status.
Disappearance under the waves
For over 1200 years now, Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion have been covered by the waters of the Mediterranean. Their submersion was completed in the VIIIth century by an earthquake.This was not the only cause, however. Several upheavals, some of them associated with tidal waves, had already shaken the region. One of the most violent, in 365 AD, is said to have caused 50 000 casualities in Alexandria.
Other factors have over time also contributed to the submersion of these sites. The delta and the entire zone of the Mediterranean coast of Egypt are subject to a slow subsidence. In addition, the towns of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were built on limestone, and were particularly subject to subsidence through liquefaction of the soil. Altogether, the land lies today some 5 to 6 metres lower than in antiquity, and the sea has risen by approximately 1.5 metres.
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