Film, TV, music and literature have explored the legend of Atlantis, but what about the real sunken cities there? Over the centuries, the ocean has swallowed up many cities due to climate change or natural disasters. Below is a metaphorical deep dive into seven of the world’s most iconic sunken cities.
In 1933 an RAF pilot flew over Abu Qir Bay near Alexandria and spotted something peculiar. Beneath the azure of the Mediterranean, he could make out ancient ruins.
It wasn’t until years later that archaeologists excavated the ruins. In the 1990s and early 2000s, marine archaeologists discovered an entire city, Thonis-Heracleion. Once a bustling port, Thonis-Héracleion now sits five meters below sea level. The town dates back to the 12th century BC.
It featured an intricate network of waterways, temples of the Egyptian gods Amun-Gereb and Khonsu, storehouses, and other structures. Archaeologists have found stelae, statues, gold, bronze and lead amulets, as well as lesser objects like bowls and tools. Many of these artifacts were well preserved. In recent years, archaeologists have found two shipwrecks and another temple.
Most historians agree that Thonis-Heracleion sank into the sea due to a succession of natural disasters. Earthquakes and tsunamis have caused the soil to gradually liquefy, causing structures to sink into the sea over time.
Dwarka, the earthly abode of Lord Krishna, is one of the four holiest Hindu sites. Hindus believe it is 10,000 years old. Legend has it that after Krishna’s death, his beloved city and its occupants fell into oblivion.
Hindu sources describe the unparalleled beauty and extravagance of Dwarka: palaces of precious metals, stones and jewels. Apart from its mythical statues, Dwarka had great importance as a trading port and a vital trade gateway to the Arabian Sea.
Archaeologists began searching for the city in the mid-20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that they unearthed any promising ruins. Excavations have revealed pillars, walls, pottery, streets and anchors.
Possible causes for the city’s demise include an earthquake, tsunami, or climate change.
In 1959, the Chinese government decided to create an artificial lake as part of a major hydroelectric development project. Disadvantage ? They were to overwhelm an ancient city dating back to 25 AD.
The decision was controversial. Critics have denounced the displacement of 300,000 residents of the region and the flooding of a priceless historical site. Others hailed the move as it created one of the most magnificent dive sites in the world, ‘Atlantis of the East’.
Shicheng, or Lion City, was one of the major trading centers of Imperial China. It culminated in the 16th century as a cultural, economic and political center. You can see its power and wealth in the large, highly detailed arches, walls, gates, and statues depicting Chinese mythology. The city is extremely well preserved, thanks to stable temperatures at 40 m under water.
It wasn’t until the 21st century that China allowed divers to explore the city.
Atlit Yam, Israel
In Israel, 12 meters below sea level, there is a 9,000-year-old Neolithic village. It is the oldest submerged site in the world and contains one of the oldest cases of tuberculosis on record.
Archaeologist Ehud Galili discovered the village in the 1980s. Researchers then found 65 human remains in tombs, houses, tools and seven megaliths forming a semicircle. They also found plant remains, animal bones and grave goods.
But it is the evidence for bovine tuberculosis that remains the most startling discovery to date. Scientists discovered the disease in the skeletal remains of a mother and a baby. This outbreak was likely the result of animal domestication and animal husbandry practices.
According to Italian researcher Maria Pareschi, a possible volcanic eruption in Italy and the resulting tsunami could have been responsible for the destruction of the city. However, others believe that sea level rise could be the cause.
The Western Scheldt estuary in the Netherlands is a large nature reserve and marshland, full of plants and birds. Long before twitchers and wildlife photographers flocked here, this swampy area was home to a thriving village that came to a troubled end in the 16th century.
By the 1200s, the area was already waterlogged and marshy, so monks from a nearby abbey drained the land to prepare the ground for farming. They succeeded and a few centuries later, the village of Saeftinghe experienced rich harvests.
During the Eighty Years’ War – when the Netherlands fought for independence from Spain – armies often broke through the village walls and the village suffered severe flooding. The most famous and catastrophic of these was the All Saints’ Day flood of 1570. Faced with these catastrophes, the inhabitants left.
According to legend, the bad luck of the village was the result of the curse of a newt. The newt denounced the village for its cruelty and decadence, resulting in the All Saints’ Day flood.
Today, it is now called the Drowned Land of Saeftinghe. It is the largest marshland in the Netherlands, encompassing 36 km² of marshland. Hundreds of bird species breed here and Saeftinghe is now a nature reserve.
The village itself, which included a castle, an abbey, a tollhouse and ordinary houses, remains submerged somewhere in the wet mud. None have yet appeared, although archaeologists have found several small artifacts over the years.
Port Royal, Jamaica
The famous town of “Pirates of the Caribbean”, where Jack Sparrow wreaked havoc, was not entirely fictional. In the 17th century, Port Royal became one of the most important cities in the Caribbean, a center of trade and commerce. Unfortunately, he also gained a reputation for immorality and piracy.
In June 1692, it seemed that the wrath of God had descended on the city. A 7.5 magnitude earthquake shook the island and wiped out Port Royal, killing more than 5,000 people. Those who survived reported that two-thirds of the city slid into the sea. After the quake, a tsunami and a major landslide from (ironically) Judgment Hill made matters worse.
Port Royal sank so quickly into the sea because it rested on loose sediment rather than bedrock foundation. These bad foundations prevented any reconstruction project of the city.
In 1981, excavations by Texas A&M University found the ruins well preserved. To dive here you need a special permit. While the former settlement lies beneath the waves, a fishing village also called Port Royal now sits on dry land nearby. Organizations on the surface advocated for the reconstruction and resurrection of the original city.
Ontario’s Lost Villages
The completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada in 1959 allowed access to the Great Lakes from the Atlantic. A major achievement, but at the cost of 10 submerged villages – Woodlands, Santa Cruz, Wales, Aultsville, Dickinson’s Landing, Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Farran’s Point and Sheek’s Island. Collectively they are now known as the Lost Villages of Ontario.
Residents were rehoused but felt cheated, both financially and culturally. The inhabitants had to abandon their family homes and move their businesses. Dating back to the 18th century, the historic villages are now a mecca for divers. They explore old buildings, houses, yards, still standing fences, old warships and boats.