East Canopus

East Canopus

general information

OTHER NAMES: Kanopos (Kanobos - Canopus); Abuqir (Abukir)
EGYPTIAN NAMES: pr-gwt; (pa-gwt); gnp
GREEK NAMES: Κάνωπος; Κάνωβος
AREA: Western Delta
TYPOLOGY: Settlement
STATUS: completed
EDITOR: Serena Guidone
LAST MODIFIED: 22/01/2019

East Canopus


The site of East Canopus was in a submerged area 1,8 km from the modern port of Aboukir, placed in the region extended westward from the mouth of the western branch of Nile called Canopic or Heracleotic branch. The name Canopus appears as early as the first half of the sixth century BCE in a poem by Solon (638-558 BCE) and from then on, the nearby branch of Nile and the region around it acquired that toponym. Literary sources mention the existence of a city with the same name: in Classic Greek period, Aeschylus refers of a settlement located near the mouth of the Nile branch called Κάνωπος (Prometheus Bound, 846-847); in Roman times, Strabo informs that the distance of the town of Canopus from Alexandria was about 125 stades (24 km), while, according to Ammianus Marcellinus, it was about … from the capital (Amm. Marc., History, XXII,16). Strabo also reports that the city was famous for a temple of Serapis and public feast days that attracted people coming from Alexandria down to the canal (Strabo, Geogr. XVII, 1, 16-18). Late antique literary sources refer the presence of an ancient sanctuary in the village of Menouthis, situated near Canopus. This place, in particular, became important during Christian times, attracting pilgrim and visitor because of a monastery of the Evangelist had inherited the pagan divinity’s functions (Rethor Zacaria, Life of Severus; Sophronios Laudes in SS. Cyrum et Iohanmen, 29).

Between eighteenth and twentieth centuries many explorations and discoveries of archaeological remains along the coastline of the region between Alexandria and Aboukir were attempted, inducting scholars to propose several hypotheses about the location of the places mentioned in the ancient texts (Goddio 2007, p. 3). In 1926 E. Breccia mentioned the discovery of several Greek inscriptions, architectural fragment, and votive artifacts as testimonies of the existence of a Greek sanctuary of Serapis at Canopus and one dedicated to Isis at Menouthis, later replaced by the pagan cult site of which the late-ancient literary sources speak (Breccia 1926, pp. 21-33). In 1929, G. Daressy advanced the hypothesis that the distances indicated in the ancient texts had to be transferred in the extension of the sideline from Alexandria to Aboukir and not following the actuarial shore of the bay (fig.1). On this base, in 1933 it started the excavations conducted by the Prince Omar Toussoun (Toussoun 1934). According to the results of the investigations, carried out between 1933 and 1940, part of the ancient site of Canopus-Menuthis had vanished beneath the sea (fig. 2).

This thesis was considered valid even later and was crucial to recovery the archaeological investigations along the Abukir coast carried out since 1996 by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) (fig. 3). They allowed to bring to light part of monumental buildings and structures probably pertaining to a pagan sanctuary and structures of Byzantine period (fig. 4).

Pharaonic period

The excavations carried out by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) along the coastline in front of the modern city of Abukir allowed to find a significant amount of statuary fragment of pharaonic period, while architectural structures are not known (Goddio, Fabre 2006).

Epigraphic sources

  • Naos of decades: The so-called Naos of Decades is a basaltic monolith of forth century BCE, 178 cm high and made to contain deity statue. On the inside and outside faces it presents hieroglyphic inscription related to an Egyptian calendar. Its fragments have been found by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) research in three different moments along the coastline in front of Abukir. The first fragment was found in 1773 and kept at the Louvre Museum. The second one emerged during the excavation carried out by the Prince Tousson in 1933, while the third fragment has been found during the excavations conducted by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) (Von Bomhard, in Goddio, Fabre 2006, p. 74; cat. N. 21-24, pp. 79-81).

Other sources and artifacts

  • Statuary: Black granite pharaoh’s head (XXX dynasty) (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat n. 26, p. 96); Quartzite pharaoh’s head (Probably XXV dynasty) (Goddio, Favre 2006, cat. n. 28, pp. 96-98); Sandstone sphinx (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 2, p. 100).

Hellenistic period

According to the research conducted by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM), the submerged site identified along the coastline in front of Aboukir could be identified as the site of East Canopus. The archaeological excavations bought to light a 101 m long wall that stretches for 38 m with a width of 3 m, and it is than reduced of a width of 2,20 m for the remaining 63 m, pertaining to a monumental building (called TW4) (fig. 5). The wall is built of squared limestone block of which three or four rows constitute the thickness, with the lowest one resting on an apron of large limestone chips. At 34 m from the south corner of the wall there is a squared platform of 10x10 m made of flagstone that represent the main entrance of the building. The original ground was higher outside the building than inside it. According to F. Goddio, who directed the explorations, this monument corresponds to a building of pre-Ptolemaic or Ptolemaic period, as could testimony the wall’s masonry and the archaeological materials discovered. In particular, the ceramics found suggest an occupation of the site from the fourth century BCE to the fourth century CE. The French scholar thinks that the imposing remains of the TW4 building revel that the submerged site on the coastline of Aboukir correspond to the temenos of the temple of Serapis at Canopus. This hypothesis seems to be also supported by the findings, consisting in a large amount of statuary, including the colossal statue of cult of the Serapis of the second century BCE, and some inscriptions mentioning the god. The excavations also indicate that the building has been destroyed by men and used as a quarry to reuse part of its structures for the construction of the Christian buildings in the same area.

To south-east of this building the archaeologists identified some other structures (site TW0, TW3, TW5, TW6) (fig. 4), corresponding to parts of different buildings and segment of an hydraulic system. Nowadays, it is not possible to have a specific chronology about their construction, but some data seem to attest a frequentation between second and first century BCE.

Architectonical Elements not in situ

Corinthian capital in grey and granite, worked on two faces, corresponding to the capital of an inset column (Goddio 2007, p. 43)


  • Statuary: White marble head attributed to Alexander the Great (Toussoun 1934, p. 344); Marble Colossal head of Serapis (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 4, p. 146); Pink granite heads of sphinx (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 29-34, pp. 98-99); Diorite heads of sphinx (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 35, 37, pp. 99-100); Pink granite sphinx (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. nn. 38, 39, 109, pp. 100-101); Black granite sphinx (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 3, p. 101); Diorite head of Berenice II (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n.36, pp. 102-104); Black granite queen’s statue (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 25, pp. 106-108); Marble stele depicting Isis-Thermoutis (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 11, p. 142); Pink granite man’s statue ((Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 20, p. 164)
  • Other objects: Lead amulet (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 9, p. 148); Black granite offering table (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 7, p. 150); Black granite table jamb (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 17, p. 162); Bronze door hinge (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 19, p. 163);

Roman period

A certain number of statuary fragment and archaeological materials attest the continuity of life of the site (Serapeum?) during Roman period, conforming what Strabo refers in first time BCE. Moreover, F. Goddio attributes to this time a circular construction of about 3,50 m of diameter, built from very finely carved limestone blocks. About 40 scattered limestone blocks surrounded the building on the outside, while other 18 of them were found inside it. As the excavator suggested, the building is probably identifiable as a saqqiya.

Literary sources

  • Sanctuary of Serapis: Strabo refers that the city of Canopus was famous for a temple of Serapis and of an oracle, which was the object of great devotion and produced healing. It was frequented even by men of the highest merit, who went to the sanctuary to sleep for their own healing (Strabo, Geogr. XVII, 1, 17).

Other sources and artifacts

  • Statuary: Marble base fragment with a foot (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n.14, p. 101); Diorite base fragments with a foot (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. nn. 15-16, pp. 101-102); Greywacke statue of Nile (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 12, p. 146); Mable calathus (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 5, p. 146); marble statue of Isis (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 6, p. 148); Marble statue of Harpocrates (Goddio, Fabre 2006, cat. n. 6, p. 148)

Late Antique period

Between the Greek and Roman structures and the Christian buildings there is not a structural direct connection, but it is interesting to note that they have practically the same orientation.

The archaeological investigations carried out by the Institut Européen d’Archeologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) at the site of East Canopus allowed to identify a large area (Sector T) frequented in the Late Antiquity. According to F. Goddio, it could have belonged to a place of pilgrimage or the monastery complex corresponding to that of the Metanoia. In fact, a great number of cross-shaped pendants in different materials (lead, gold, bronze), jewellery and lead seal indicate that some of the structures investigated are the remains of a Christian community settled close to an important religious place developed in Ptolemaic period. French scholars believe that this hypothesis would agree with what Rufinus of Aquileia informs about the presence at Canopus of a martyrium dedicated to St. John and S. Cyrus near the Pagan temple of Serapis. On this base, the archaeologists presume that the Christian places mentioned by literary sources must have been in the immediate surroundings of the monumental building identified as part of the Serapeum (TW4).

To the south-west of the buildings TW4 the archaeological excavations discovered the remains of a major square construction 30 m long, characterized by a heterogeneous masonry wall that includes big limestone blocks (so-called site TW2) (fig. 6). A 2,50 m squared platform is fitted into the centre of the eastern wall, protruding 2 m into the building. The establishment of this building, built in Byzantine period, seems to have benefitted from construction materials of all sorts taken from the pagan structures, which were used to occupy the immediate neighbourhood.

The Christian frequentation of the place manifestly prospered during the Islamic period. The rather weak density of construction blocks that all around the Byzantine complex show that they are been removed before the site was submerged.

### Literary sources

  • Serapeum destrucion: According the pagan philosopher Eunapius, the sanctuary of Canopus was destroyed in the fourth century by the bishop Theophilus’ will, when Theodosius was emperor (Eunapius, Life of philosopher, Aedius).

  • Christian Church: Rufinus of Aquileia reported that in Christian times in the site of the Serapeum took place a martyrium dedicated to S. John and S. Cyrus. (Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History, II, 26-27); At the beginning of the fifth century, Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria was irritated by the fact that Christians continued to make pilgrimages to the pagan sanctuaries of the region around Canopus and it seemed essential to him to establish a Christian sanctuary (Cyril of Alexandria, Homiliae diversae, 18B, PG 77, c. 1101B, c. 1105A). As reported by Sophronius, Patriarch Cyrill of Alexandria invented or rediscovered two martyrs, Cyrus and Ioannes. He translates their relics in a Christian sanctuary established in an older church, dedicated to Evangelists, located at Manouthis. It evolved rapidly into a much larger institution and became a famous place of pilgrimage (Sophronios Laudes in SS. Cyrum et Iohanmen, 29). Rethor Zacaria, Life of Severus

Architectonical Elements not in situ

Two red granite column bases with hexagonal pedestal and cylindrical upper section (Goddio 2007);


  • Gold ring with shaped oil lamp (Goddio, Fabre 2006, n. cat. 70, p. 172);
  • gold cross pendants (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 41, 91, p. 182);
  • lead cross pendants (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 42-44, pp. 182-183);
  • gold earrings (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 46, 7, p. 183; nn. 75-77, p. 246);
  • gold ring with Christian inscription (Goddio, Fabre 2006, n. cat. 45, p. 185);
  • gold necklace fragments (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 83-85, p. 185; n. 79, p. 246);
  • gold coins (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 54-62, pp. 185-186);
  • lead seals (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 47-53, p. 191);
  • gold ring (Goddio, Fabre 2006, n. cat. 66, p. 243);
  • gold and stones pendants (Goddio, Fabre 2006, nn. cat. 86-88, p. 245);
  • fragment of gold jewellery (Goddio, Fabre 2006, p. 246);