As Franck Goddio carefully brushed away layers of sediment from what appeared to be just a lone limestone brick in the waters off the coast of Egypt, he had no idea what historical treasures he was about to discover.
It was 1992 and Goddio, an economist by trade and underwater archaeologist at heart, had found the entrance to the ancient city of Thonis-Heracleion, an entire civilization missing for thousands of years. And it was only 4 miles off the coast of present-day Egypt.
In the decades since, Goddio and a team of about 60 people have continued uncovering the mysteries of Thonis-Heracleion and one other ancient city previously undiscovered, Canopus, which lies about a mile off the coast of Egypt.
About 1,200 years ago, these cities were known as bustling cultural centers of power, wealth, trade and artistry, but they fell casualty to rising sea levels, earthquakes and tidal waves.
More than 275 objects from these ancient metropolises are on display at Simi Valley’s Reagan Library as part of the new “Egypt’s Lost Cities” exhibit, which opened Oct. 5 and runs through April 20. Many of the pieces were discovered by Goddio and his crew while others are on loan from museums in Cairo and Alexandria.
“When we studied all the ancient texts we realized the two cities were not on land but at sea. They had been on land but sunk,” Goddio, the founding president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, said during an Oct. 3 tour of the exhibit.
“Those cities had been on land but sunk 18 feet in a fraction of a second due to catastrophic events. So, all these artifacts we’re finding are coming from a civilization like Pompeii, but underwater.”
About 27,000 artifacts have been recovered from the underwater sites—including precious gold coins and jewelry, bronze vessels, steles inscribed with hieroglyphs and ancient Egyptian and Greek, statues and a variety of tools used by priests and pharaohs. It’s an amazing trove, but Goddio believes these items are only 1% of what remains in the sunken cities.
“These cities haven’t been found because they were totally covered by sediment and you could only see sand or clay, which meant that visibility wasn’t always good while diving,” said Goddio, who’s been scuba diving since 1975.
John Heubusch, executive director of the Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, said “Egypt’s Lost Cities” brings to life two metropolises that time forgot.
“We’re privileged to bring this rich story of ancient cities from the time of ancient pharaohs and Alexander the Great . . . to the Reagan Library,” Heubusch said in a Sept. 30 news release. “It’s a find as magnificent as Atlantis, something you just have to see to believe.”
“Egypt’s Lost Cities” not only provides a glimpse into what life was like in ancient Egypt, but it does so in a way that’s never been done before. While other exhibits feature items excavated from tombs and pyramids that have been looted, Thonis-Heracleion has been completely untouched by looters because it’s been underwater.
One of the biggest mysteries solved was how pharaohs performed the life-and-death ceremony of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld who was murdered by his brother and is also the father of the first pharaoh, Horace.
Goddio said this ancient ritual was unknown to the public because only the priests and pharaoh were allowed to enter the temple. But now, with the discovery of these ancient cities, that ceremony has been brought to light.
Other finds include 16-foot sculptures of a god, a pharaoh and a queen. But towering over them is the 18-foot statue of Hapi (which means “happy” or “great flood”), the god of the Nile, associated with fertility and abundance. Goddio said Hapi is the largest Egyptian carving of a god ever recovered.
Also on display is a bronze bull and the Stele de Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, which is an 18-ton monolith never seen in the U.S. before.
“The exhibition tells the story of those two cities that were once upon a time the biggest and most important along the Nile River,” Goddio said. “I hope visitors will get the same moving feeling that we had when we discovered these items underwater. It was quite an experience.”
Admission is $29.95 for adults, $26.95 for seniors, $22.95 for youth ages 11 to 17, $19.95 for children 3 to 10, and free for kids 2 years and under.