Ancient Egypt Cities Leveled by Massive Volcano, Lava Find Suggests

Dan Morrison in Cairo
for National Geographic News
April 2, 2007
Egyptian archaeologists today announced that they have unearthed traces of solidified lava on the northern coast of Sinai that date to around 1500 B.C.—supporting accounts that ancient Egyptian settlements were buried by a massive volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean, they say.

The archaeological team, led by Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, found houses, military structures, and tombs encased in ash, along with fragments of pumice, near the ancient Egyptian fortress of Tharo, on the Horus military road. Tharo is located close to El Qantara, where the Nile Delta meets the Sinai peninsula (Egypt map).

According to Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the council, the lava and ash hail from Santorini, an eastern Mediterranean volcano that has been linked to the myth of Atlantis. (Related: "'Atlantis' Eruption Twice as Big as Previously Believed, Study Suggests" [August 23, 2006].)

The new find seems to confirm accounts from ancient artwork and documents that recount the destruction of coastal cities in Egypt and Palestine during the 15th dynasty (1650-1550 B.C.), when foreigners known as the Hyksos ruled Egypt.

The scientists suggest that trade winds may have carried a blizzard of ash to Egypt from Santorini, located about 700 miles (1,100 kilometers) from Tharo.

The archaeologists also theorize that the volcano created a giant tsunami that swept the lava all the way to Egypt. A Santorini-caused tsunami is believed to have helped wipe out the Minoan civilization, based on nearby Crete.

But other experts doubt that lava from the volcano could have reached Sinai that way and suggest the deposits were carried in sometime later by regular ocean currents.

"Very Significant" Find

The archaeological mission also found a fort with four mud-brick towers dating to Egypt's 18th dynasty (around 1550 to 1307 B.C.).

Hawass said the fort corresponded to reliefs found in the ancient temple of Karnak in Luxor. The sculptures describe Egypt's strategy to defend its eastern borders against future invasions by the Hyksos, who are thought to have been Semitic nomads from Syria and Palestine.

"It's very significant," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "There are only a limited number of sites linked to the Hyksos."

Ikram said the archaeological team had used "holistic archaeology"—incorporating geology and climatology in addition to archaeology, linguistics, and art history—"to bring a more concrete tale of the past."

Ikram added that the site also contains some of the earliest known remains of horses found in Egypt.

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