Could an ancient Nile Delta shipwreck be an environmental omen for modern-day Egypt?

Special n 2016 this imposing five-metre-tall pharaoh was discovered on the seabed at Thonis-Heracleion. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
n 2016 this imposing five-metre-tall pharaoh was discovered on the seabed at Thonis-Heracleion. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
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Updated 23 July 2021

Could an ancient Nile Delta shipwreck be an environmental omen for modern-day Egypt?

n 2016 this imposing five-metre-tall pharaoh was discovered on the seabed at Thonis-Heracleion. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)
  • Archaeologists have discovered an ancient ship designed for navigation on the shallow waters of the delta
  • The discovery among the ruins of the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion serves as a stark environmental warning

LONDON: The very existence of the low-lying Nile Delta, created by sediment deposited by the mighty river even as it is eroded by the waters of the Mediterranean, has always been one of nature’s great balancing acts.

Now, as fears grow over the extent of the threat to Egypt’s coastline posed by climate change, a stunning new archaeological find from the sunken ancient Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion serves as a stark warning of the dangers of humankind and nature working in disharmony.

A ship, a rare example of a Ptolemaic galley, has been discovered by Franck Goddio, a French marine archaeologist who, working with Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, has been leading underwater excavations in Aboukir Bay for the past two decades.

Once Egypt’s most important port, predating the foundation of nearby Alexandria by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., the ancient city of Thonis-Heracleion — a combination of its ancient Egyptian and Greek names — dates to the eighth century B.C. It was lost to the sea some 1,600 years later, after a series of natural disasters, including an earthquake and tidal waves, took a great bite out of the Egyptian coastline.

The city’s remains, painstakingly uncovered since 2000, are spread over 110 sq km of seabed, some 7km off the modern-day shoreline.

The loss of the ship would have been a cinematically spectacular moment. According to the Paris-based European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), which was founded by Goddio, the recently uncovered vessel “sank after being hit by huge blocks from the famed temple of Amun, which was totally destroyed during a cataclysmic event in the second century B.C.”

The marine archaeologists discovered the ship had been moored at a landing stage along the south face of the temple when disaster struck. The heavy stone blocks that were the instruments of its destruction also proved to be the key to its survival for over 2,000 years.

“The fallen blocks protected these precious naval remains by pinning them to the bottom of the deep canal, which was then filled with the debris of the sanctuary,” said a spokesperson for the IEASM.

The galley, which lies under 5 meters of hard clay, its woodwork jumbled with the remains of the temple, was detected thanks to the use of cutting-edge technology: A prototype “sub-bottom profiler” that allowed the archaeologists to see what lay beneath the mud and buried blocks of stone.

What they found was a 25-meter-long rowing ship, which, with a flat-bottom and keel, was designed for navigation on the Nile and the shallow waterways of the delta. It was also equipped with a large mast step, suggestive of a tall mast and a large sail.

“Before this discovery, Hellenistic ships of this type were completely unknown to archaeologists,” said Franck Goddio. Preliminary research showed that the hull was “built in the classical (Greek) tradition … However, it also contains features of ancient Egyptian construction and allows us to speak of a mixed type of construction.”

In another part of the city, the archaeologists have also discovered a large submerged burial mound, “covered with sumptuous funerary offerings,” that dates back to the first years of the 4th century B.C.

This discovery, says the IEASM, “beautifully illustrates the presence of Greek merchants and mercenaries who lived in Thonis–Heracleion, the city that controlled the entrance to Egypt at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile.”




The newly discovered remains of a galley, found beneath the mud in the sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion. The ship was moored alongside the temple of Amun and sunk by huge blocks of stone when the building was dramatically destroyed in the second century BC. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Greek traders were allowed to settle in the city during the late Pharaonic period. There, they built their own religious sanctuaries, close to the huge temple of Amun, on the banks of a canal that ran through the city. These too were destroyed in the same cataclysmic event that toppled the great temple. Just as the two cultures once thrived side by side, the remains of their respective temples lie together in the mud at the bottom of the bay.

Archaeologists believe these and other buildings, which were discovered in pristine condition, slipped suddenly into the deep canal during a landslide. This was likely caused by several earthquakes, followed by tidal-waves “which triggered land liquefaction events (and) caused a 110 sq km portion of the Nile Delta to collapse under the sea, taking with it the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.”

Today, Egypt faces an even greater, if somewhat slower-moving, environmental catastrophe than the one that swept away Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. According to research over the past decade, the sea is not yet done with swallowing the delta.

Excluding Cairo, which sits at its southernmost end, the delta is home to over 40 percent of Egypt’s population and more than 60 percent of the country’s agricultural land. More than 12 percent of the delta is no higher than a meter above sea level. Another 18 percent, temporarily protected by coastal defenses, which also serve to divert problems of erosion further along the coastline, is actually below sea level.

The delta, the source of most of modern Egypt’s food and the backbone of the country’s economy, was formed and refreshed over millennia by the rich sediment carried down the Nile during the annual floods from the river’s origins south of the equator in the headwaters of the Blue and White Niles.

This timeless process of renewal was first interrupted in 1902 by the construction of the first Aswan Low Dam, and again more seriously in the 1960s by the building of the Aswan High Dam.




This gold image of the god Bes is among the latest finds from the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion. Bes was considered to be the protector of the people in their daily life and was also worshiped as the protector of pregnant women. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

This, concluded researchers at Maryland University’s Department of Geographic and Environmental Systems, writing in the journal of the Geological Society of America in 2017, led to “a marked reduction of Nile water and sediment below the Aswan High Dam that can now reach the delta coast.”

Even as climate change is seeing the level of the Mediterranean rise inexorably, so the lack of sedimentary deposits is causing the delta itself to gradually sink — a problem, they added, “likely to be seriously exacerbated in years ahead by construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).”

Ethiopia is even now pressing ahead with filling the GERD reservoir, despite a lack of agreement on how the process should be managed with its downstream neighbors, Sudan and Egypt.

And the delta is under attack on two fronts.

The vulnerability of the Nile Delta to rising sea levels was highlighted as long ago as 2010 by an environmental scientist at Egypt’s Mansoura University. Analyzing imagery from NASA’s 2000 Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, carried on board the Space Shuttle Endeavor, Mohamed E. Hereher concluded that a rise in sea levels of just 1 meter “would inundate more than a quarter of the Nile Delta area, while a 2 meter sea level rise should relocate the shoreline 60-80 km southward of its current position.”

Back in 2000, as Hereher wrote in the journal Geomatics, Natural Hazards and Risk, it was thought that the more significant threats to the delta were the “blocking of sediment delivery to the coast, possible increased rates of subsidence and the removal of coastal dunes.”




Precious offerings, including imported Greek ceramics, were deposited for funerary purposes by the Greek settlers in Thonis-Heracleion. (Christoph Gerigk, Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

Then, the rate of rising sea levels was not considered a major concern. Thanks to the subsequent global research focus on climate change, however, that has changed.

In a paper presented at the Cairo Water Week conference in 2019, Egyptian researchers concluded that “climate change-related sea level rise has exerted significant impacts on coastal zones and Nile Delta is considered one of the most affected areas. (Potential) coastal inundation, destruction of infrastructure, land cover and displacement of millions of people are among several impacts of sea level rise in the Nile Delta coastal zone.”

The loss of the vital, life-giving land of the delta to the sea is a scenario that would have been painfully familiar to the inhabitants of the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, now mere memories preserved in the mud and rubble of a once great civilization.

The Hilti Foundation, a non-profit philanthropic organization based in Liechtenstein, has supported Franck Goddio’s marine archaeology in Egypt since 1996 with the motto: “Exploring the past to understand the present.”

As the story of the destruction of one of the glories of ancient Egypt emerges from the depths of Aboukir Bay, for modern-day Egypt those words carry a message of great urgency.

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Twitter: @JonathanGornall


Groups in Spain and Morocco push for border deaths inquiry

Groups in Spain and Morocco push for border deaths inquiry
Updated 7 sec ago

Groups in Spain and Morocco push for border deaths inquiry

Groups in Spain and Morocco push for border deaths inquiry
MADRID: Human rights organizations in Spain and Morocco have called on both countries to investigate the deaths of at least 18 Africans and injuries suffered by dozens more who attempted to scale the border fence that surrounds Melilla, a Spanish enclave in North Africa.
Moroccan authorities said the casualties occurred when a “stampede” of people tried to climb the iron fence that separates Melilla and Morocco. In a statement released Friday, Morocco’s Interior Ministry said 76 civilians were injured along with 140 Moroccan security officers.
Local authorities cited by Morocco’s official MAP news agency said the death toll increased to 18 after several migrants died in the hospital. The Moroccan Human Rights Association reported 27 dead, but the figure could not immediately be confirmed.
The association also shared videos on social media that appeared to show dozens of migrants lying on the ground, many of them motionless and a few bleeding, as Moroccan security forces stood over them.
“They were left there without help for hours, which increased the number of deaths,” the human rights group said on Twitter. It called for a “comprehensive” investigation.
In another of the association’s videos, a Moroccan security officer appeared to use a baton to strike a person lying on the ground.
In a statement released late Friday, Amnesty International expressed its “deep concern” over the events at the border.
“Although the migrants may have acted violently in their attempt to enter Melilla, when it comes to border control, not everything goes,” Esteban Beltrán, the director of Amnesty International Spain, said. “The human rights of migrants and refugees must be respected and situations like that seen cannot happen again.”
APDHA, a human rights group based in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia, and a joint statement released by five rights organizations in Morocco also called for inquiries.
A spokesperson for the Spanish government’s office in Melilla said that around 2,000 people had attempted to make it across the border fence but were stopped by Spanish Civil Guard Police and Moroccan forces on either side of the border fence. A total 133 migrants made it across the border.

Iranian girl, 4, dies after being left in car under summer sun

Iranian girl, 4, dies after being left in car under summer sun
Updated 43 min 58 sec ago

Iranian girl, 4, dies after being left in car under summer sun

Iranian girl, 4, dies after being left in car under summer sun
  • Parents forgot the girl due to ‘stress’ about the funeral they were attending

LONDON: A 4-year-old Iranian girl has died after her parents left her in their car for hours while they attended a funeral service, local government officials reported.

The child, whose forename Sadia has been released, traveled with her family to Ramhormoz, a city in the east of the country, as temperatures hit 49 degrees Celsius.

Her parents allegedly left her in the car for the entire service because she fell asleep on the way to the funeral.

Local media reported that they forgot about her because they were “stressed” about the funeral.

Dr. Gholamreza Haidarnejad, from the city’s forensics department, said Sadia died from heat stroke and suffocation, which was complicated by stress. A police investigation has been launched.


EU’s Borrell says Iran nuclear talks to resume in coming days

EU’s Borrell says Iran nuclear talks to resume in coming days
Updated 37 min 54 sec ago

EU’s Borrell says Iran nuclear talks to resume in coming days

EU’s Borrell says Iran nuclear talks to resume in coming days
  • France urged Tehran to take advantage of Borrell’s visit to restore the pact while it remained possible

DUBAI: Talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal will resume in the coming days, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Saturday during a visit to Tehran.
“We will resume the talks on the JCPOA in the coming days,” Borrell told a news conference in the Iranian capital, referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

Borrell met Iran’s top diplomat on Saturday, Iranian state TV reported, as the bloc seeks to break an impasse between Tehran and Washington over reinstating a nuclear pact.
The United States said earlier in June it was awaiting a constructive response from Iran on reviving the 2015 deal — under which Iran restricted its nuclear program in return for relief from economic sanctions — without “extraneous” issues.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian last week called on Washington, which exited the deal and then imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran during the Trump administration in 2018, to “be realistic.”
It appeared on the brink of revival in March when the EU, which is coordinating negotiations, invited ministers to Vienna to seal it after 11 months of indirect talks between Tehran and President Joe Biden’s administration.
But the talks have since been bogged down, chiefly over Tehran’s insistence that Washington remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), its elite security force, from the US Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list.
Two officials, one Iranian and one European, told Reuters ahead of Borrell’s trip that “two issues including one on sanctions remained to be resolved,” comments that Iran’s foreign ministry has neither denied nor confirmed.
France, a party to the deal, on Friday urged Tehran to take advantage of Borrell’s visit to restore the pact while it remained possible.


Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in West Bank: Palestinian sources

Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in West Bank: Palestinian sources
Updated 25 June 2022

Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in West Bank: Palestinian sources

Palestinian killed by Israeli forces in West Bank: Palestinian sources
  • Mohammad Hamad, 16, was shot and wounded near the village of Silwad

RAMALLAH: A Palestinian teenager died from his wounds hours after being shot by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank, Palestinian sources said Saturday.
Mohammad Hamad, 16, was shot and wounded on Friday evening near the village of Silwad, near Ramallah in the northern West Bank, and died hours later, a Silwad councillor told AFP. The Israeli military did not immediately comment.
The teenager was near a road leading to the neighboring settlement of Ofra when he was wounded by Israeli soldiers, the councillor said.
His death comes amid a spike in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
Nineteen people, mostly Israeli civilians — including 18 inside Israel and a Jewish settler — have been killed in attacks by Palestinians and Israeli Arabs since late March.
Israeli security forces have responded with raids inside Israel and in the West Bank in which three Israeli Arab attackers and at least 46 Palestinians have been killed.
Among those killed were suspected militants but also non-combatants, including an Al Jazeera journalist who was covering a raid in Jenin.


Donors pledge $160 million, Palestinian refugees need more

Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, lining up to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria. (AP)
Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, lining up to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria. (AP)
Updated 25 June 2022

Donors pledge $160 million, Palestinian refugees need more

Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, lining up to receive food supplies, in Damascus, Syria. (AP)
  • UNRWA was established to provide education, health care, food and other services to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948

UNITED NATIONS: Donors pledged about $160 million for the UN agency helping Palestinian refugees, but it still needs over $100 million to support education for more than half a million children and provide primary health care for close to 2 million people and emergency cash assistance to the poorest refugees, the agency’s chief said Friday.
Briefing reporters on the outcome of Thursday’s donor conference, Philippe Lazzarini said the pledges when turned into cash will enable the UN Relief and Works Agency known as UNRWA to run its operations through September. But “I do not know if we will get the necessary cash to allow us to pay the salaries after the month of September,” he said.
“We are in an early warning mode,” Lazzarini said. “Right now, I’m drawing the attention that we are in a danger zone and we have to avoid a situation where UNRWA is pushed to cross the tipping point, because if we cross the tipping point that means 28,000 teachers, health workers, nurses, doctors, engineers, cannot be paid.”
UNRWA was established to provide education, health care, food and other services to the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948.
There are now 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, including their children and grandchildren, who mostly live in camps that have been transformed into built-up but often impoverished residential areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. But UNRWA only helps the more than 500,000 in school and close to 2 million who have health benefits.
Lazzarini said the more than $100 million shortfall in funding for 2022 is about the same as the shortfall that UNRWA has faced every year for almost a decade, but while income has stagnated costs have increased.
In past years, UNRWA has been able to absorb the shortfall through austerity and cost control measures, he said, but today it’s not possible because there is very little left to cut without cutting services.
“Today, we have some classrooms with up to 50 kids,” the UNRWA commissioner-general said. “We have a double shift in our schools. We have doctors who cannot spend more than three minutes in medical consultation. So if we go beyond that, it will force the agency to cut services.”
Lazzarini said UNRWA’s problem is that “we are expected to provide government-like services to one of the most destitute communities in the region, but we are funded like an NGO because we depend completely on voluntary contributions.”
Funding the agency’s services has been put at risk today because of the “de-prioritization, or maybe increased indifference, or because of domestic politics,” he said.
Lazzarini said the solution to UNRWA’s chronic financial problem requires “political will” to match the support for the agency’s work on behalf of Palestinian refugees.
He said UNRWA has a very strong donor base in Europe and last year the Biden administration resumed funding which was cut by the Trump administration, but he said the overall contribution from the Arab world has dropped to less than 3 percent of the agency’s income.
Donors have also faced financial difficulties stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and now there’s a major effort to help Ukraine in its war with Russia, he said.
“We will know better at the end of the year how much it will impact the agency,” Lazzarini said.
Some donors have already warned UNRWA “that we might not have the traditional top-up at the end of the year, which would be dramatic” for the agency, he said.
Ahead of Thursday’s donors conference, Israel’s UN Ambassador Erdan Calls on countries to freeze contributions until all UNRWA teachers that it claims support terrorism and murdering Jews are fired.
Lazzarini said UNRWA received a letter from Israel’s UN Mission Friday which he hadn’t read, but he said all allegations will be investigated and if there is a breach of UN values and misconduct “we will take measures in line with UN policies.”