A rider on camelback surveys the steep-sided pyramids of Mero in Sudan.

These four lost cities were jewels of ancient Africa. 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.

A rider on camelback surveys the steep-sided pyramids of Mero in Sudan.
Photograph by Robbie Shone/National Geographic Image Collection

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.

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. 

Read This Next

The great hunt for the world's first LGBTQ archive
Young adults are volunteering to get COVID-19—for science
This seventh-century Maya city was a glorious center of power

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet