Thonis—A Major Egyptian Port Swallowed by the Sea

Bible and archaeology news

“He came to Egypt, to the mouth of the Nile called the Canopic mouth, and to the Salters’. Now there was (and still is) on the coast a temple of Heracles … They laid this accusation before the priests and the warden of the Nile mouth, whose name was Thonis.”
—Herodotus, Histories 2.113

A monumental statue from Thonis Photo: Christoph Gerigk. Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Herodotus’s account of the detainment of Helen and Paris in Egypt tells more than a simple story; he subtly contextualizes the scene within (and accounts for the names of) the thriving Egyptian port city of Thonis, or Heracleion in Greek, at the mouth of the Nile.

Maritime archaeologists discovered the spectacular remains of the port city in the Mediterranean Sea off the Egyptian coast. Thonis was Egypt’s great port for much of the first millennium B.C.E. before Alexander the Great established the metropolis Alexandria in 331 B.C.E. While it is unclear how and exactly when the city sank into the sea (some time in the first millennium C.E.), the discoveries at Egypt’s primary customs port have been astounding. Archaeologists have uncovered monumental statuary, a temple to Amun-Gereb, gold coins, Athenian weights, the remains of more than 64 ships, dozens of sarcophagi and Greek and Egyptian inscriptions.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.

The spectacular preservation offers a glimpse into the ancient maritime economy and international trade, as well as the site’s unique characteristics, including a “ship graveyard” with intentionally sunken ships. In an Oxford University press release, Dr. Damian Robinson suggests that “this might not have been simple abandonment, but a means of blocking enemy ships from gaining entrance to the port-city. Seductive as this interpretation is, however, we must also consider whether these boats were sunk simply to use them for land reclamation purposes.” Originally discovered by French diver Franck Goddio in 2000, many of the finds were only brought to the public’s attention after a 2013 conference on the underwater site of Thonis at Oxford University. More discoveries are sure to come to light as archaeologists continue to search the Mediterranean seabed for more remains from the ancient city of Thonis.

An inscription from Thonis. Photo: Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Read the Oxford University press release.

In the free eBook Ancient Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, top scholars discuss the historical Israelites in Egypt and archaeological evidence for and against the historicity of the Exodus.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

A Monumental Underwater Structure in the Sea of Galilee

First Punic War Battle Rams Uncovered Off the Coast of Sicily

Archaeologists to Probe Antikythera Shipwreck with Hi-Tech Diving Suit


Interested in underwater archaeology? Learn more in the BAS Library:

Shelley Wachsmann, “Archaeological Views: Archaeology Under the Sea,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2006.

Shelley Wachsmann, “The Galilee Boat—2,000-Year-Old Hull Recovered Intact,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1988.

Osnat Misch-Brandl, “Ancient Seafarers Bequeath Unintended Legacy,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1985.

Robert L. Hohlfelder, “Caesarea Beneath the Sea,” Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1982.

Elisha Linder, “Excavating an Ancient Merchantman,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1992.

Lindley Vann, “News from the Field: Herod’s Harbor Construction Recovered Underwater,Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1983.

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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on May 1, 2013.


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  • Joseph says

    Beautiful article – however the word is “sank” not “sunk” unless of course, you are using the present perfect – which would be “has sunk”, or the past perfect, which would be “had sunk”.

  • Rick says

    Is this place available for recreational/tourist diving?
    Was it built on reclaimed land and therefore succeptible to earthquakes?
    Did the priesthood respond to the destruction of a temple with a shift in faith or practice?
    Is the destruction even mentioned in Egyptiann records?

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