What happened to them? Thonis-Heracleion, Alexandria, Meroë, and Jenne-Jeno were once centers of sophistication and wealth, but their fortunes waned over time. Although their ancient splendors disappeared from sight, archaeology is now revealing their glorious pasts.
The massive monuments of Giza and the glorious temples of Thebes bear witness to the greatness of the African cities that built them. But other ancient places in Africa rivaled their greatness, yet traces of these magnificent urban centers have been harder to find. These once-thriving cities, located in present-day Egypt, Sudan, and Mali, slipped into obscurity, their splendor remaining lost to history until modern times, when archaeologists made some surprising finds.
Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt: a booming port
Ancient Egypt’s lost city of Thonis-Heracleion is one of the greatest submerged finds ever discovered by archaeologists. For thousands of years it lay hidden under water, with its existence recorded only in a few rare inscriptions and ancient texts. This port at the mouth of the Nile rose after Egypt’s power faded in the seventh century B.C. Known as Thonis to the Egyptians and Heracleion to the Greeks, it thrived as a vital center of trade and culture, and then disappeared.
In 2000, maritime archaeologist Franck Goddio of the European Institute of Underwater Archeology discovered why no trace of it was visible along those shores. The entire city had sunk beneath the Mediterranean Sea by the eighth century A.D. Searching some 4 miles off today’s coastline in Abu Qir Bay, under 33 feet of water, Goddio’s team found the remains of a temple to Amun and a system of canals that would have interlaced the city.
More than 70 sunken ships and hundreds of anchors revealed Thonis-Heracleion as a bustling trade center on a par with Babylon and Pompeii. Underwater discoveries included figures of sphinxes and rulers, rings, coins, and a huge red granite statue of the Egyptian god Hapy, a symbol of abundance. Among other treasures were luxury Greek ceramics and 2,400-year-old wicker baskets filled with fruit.
How did this vibrant city vanish beneath the waves? Investigators believe a combination of earthquakes, accompanying tidal waves, and soft, liquefying soil led Thonis-Heracleion to sink under its own weight.
Alexandria, Egypt: epicenter of learning and culture
The Mediterranean port of Alexandria, on the edge of Egypt’s Nile Delta, was the most famous city founded by Alexander the Great, king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. Today, much of the old city has sunk into the wet ground and sits under roughly 20 feet of water. Established in 332 B.C. during Alexander's travels, the city was accessible to Mediterranean trade, quickly becoming a crossroads of learning and culture. Greek, Egyptian, and Jewish scholars mingled among Alexandria’s temples of learning.
The Mouseion district included the Great Library, founded to collect, according to Aristeas, “all the books in the world.” (It was largely destroyed by fire during wars with Rome). Some of the greatest minds of the ancient world made their homes in Alexandria, including Euclid, Archimedes, and Ptolemy. It was from Alexandria that the geographer Eratosthenes first measured the dimensions of the Earth. Hundreds of scholars there produced the first translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek. Alexandria flourished until the seventh century A.D., when it fell to Persian and then Arab conquerors.
A major tsunami in A.D. 365, among other things, wreaked havoc. Rather than being abandoned as so many other cities had been when disaster struck, ancient Alexandria was swallowed up as a new, modern city was built on top of it. The precise locations of some of Alexandria’s most famous monuments, such as the tombs of Alexander the Great and Cleopatra, still remain a mystery.
Meroë, Sudan: city of warrior queens
Not all powerful cities reigned in Egypt. Leaders of Kush, an ancient kingdom in Nubia along the southern Nile Valley, established a capital city at Meroë in the sixth century B.C. in present-day Sudan. Surrounded by fertile land and located amid African trading routes, the city supported a metalworking industry that produced beautifully shaped gold pieces.
Kushite culture blended Egyptian and other African influences. In some temples, carvings depict important Egyptian gods and goddesses such as Amun and Isis; in others, they portray lion-headed Apedemak, a Kushite war god often featured with a bow and arrow. Egyptian heritage shows up most strikingly in Meroë’s 200-plus steep pyramids and tombs, found in the city’s two main burial grounds. Here, kings, queens, and nobles were interred, sometimes accompanied by the bodies of sacrificed animals and servants. (Rival to Egypt, the Nubian kingdom of Kush exuded power and gold.)
Kush was also famous for its strong female rulers. Known as kandakes, these queens and queen mothers were not averse to taking up arms. Greek historian Strabo refers to Queen Amanirenas (referring to her mistakenly as Queen Candace), who battled the Romans in the first century B.C., as “a masculine sort of woman, and blind in one eye.” Queen Amanitore, who ruled early in the next century, is depicted on temple walls holding a long sword.
By the fourth century A.D., the kingdom waned, possibly after an incursion by the nearby kingdom of Aksum. A proud part of Sudanese history, Meroë was largely overlooked by the West until the 19th and 20th centuries, when tomb robbers and then archaeologists unearthed its riches.
Jenne-Jeno, Mali: home of artisans
The Sahara Desert sprawls across northern Africa, creating a barrier that, Western historians believed, blocked cities from thriving until the ninth century A.D., when merchants from the north set up trading routes through the formidable sands. The discovery of the vibrant ancient city of Jenne-Jeno, near Djenné in modern Mali, proved them wrong.
In the 1970s, aerial photography revealed the remains of a mounded settlement in fertile lands near the Niger River. On this site, archaeologists Susan and Roderick McIntosh uncovered what was once a crowded community dating to around 250 B.C., making it one of the oldest cities found in sub-Saharan Africa.
The inhabitants farmed rice, sorghum, and other cereals; crafted iron, copper, and bronze ornaments; and shaped fine pottery and expressive terra-cotta sculptures. Hundreds of little clay animals found there may have been crafted as toys to keep children amused.
Perhaps 7,000 to 13,000 people lived in its mud-brick dwellings and probably traded with towns clustered nearby. Its tightly woven layout, lacking palaces or other grand structures, suggests that the city’s inhabitants were relatively egalitarian. Jenne-Jeno hummed along for almost 1,000 years.
In the 11th and 12th centuries, the city declined, possibly as other cities, such as Timbuktu, began to boom and draw away the population. Today, Djenné and its neighboring sites are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Portions of this work have previously appeared in Lost Cities of the Ancient World. Copyright © 2021 National Geographic Partners, LLC. To learn more, check out Lost Cities of the Ancient World. Available wherever books and magazines are sold.
Photo. More than 200 pyramids and tombs remain at Meroë © Fabian Von Poser/Robertharding