The Guardian has a series on lost cities, and today’s entry is a description of the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion, an Egyptian trading outpost at the mouth of the river Nile that sank under the sea in the year 200BC. It suffered a grisly though probably slow end, sinking into the sea in a liquefaction event as the weight of its temples finally became too much for the waterlogged sands on which it was built, which makes it a perfect analogy for the Egyptian empire at the end of its days, as the Greek and Roman empires began to eclipse it. Near its end Thonis-Heracleion was also eclipsed economically by Alexandria to the west, but in its heyday it appears to have been a bustling trade metropolis standing at the intersection of many great cultures. The Guardian’s description of the archaeological dig suggests a city that achieved almost-Talislantic levels of multi-culturalism:
The interplay between Pharaonic and Greek societies in Thonis-Heracleion is a constant feature of the city’s remnants: Hellenic helmets were nestled in the seabed alongside their Egyptian counterparts, as were Cypriot statuettes and incense burners, Athenian perfume bottles, and ancient anchors from Greek ships
and its description of the kinds of people who mingled in the ports and alleys of the city also suggests the kind of city that we love from Sword and Sorcery novels:
if you were a European merchant in the fifth century BC – an importer of grain, perfume or papyrus perhaps, or an exporter of silver, copper, wine or oil – then Thonis-Heracleion loomed large on your horizon. The same was true if you were a Carian mercenary, an educated Greek, a professional sailor, or a member of the Pharaonic court
This is a city that mingled Pharaonic nobility with vulgar traders from across the known world, soldiers and adventurers from Europe, Africa and Asia, and scholars from every major city in the mediterranean. Throw in some magic and you have a city brimming with intrigue and adventure, and bustling with gods from a thousand known religions. And the city itself has all the qualities of the kind of city you want to adventure in – Athens crossed with New Crobuzon and London before the Romans took it. It is a city of alleyways and bridges, canals and temples, where river boats from the Nile dock on one side to transfer their wares to Phoenician and Greek triremes on the other. It is easy to imagine its marketplaces and restaurants bustling with the people of a thousand nations: inscrutable dark-skinned warriors who drifted down the Nile from Ethiopia or Sudan, voluble traders from Greece, taciturn phoenician slavers surrounded by Turkish mercenaries, Bedouin camel merchants gathering for the trek across the great deserts to Timbuktu, and Roman explorers looking to map out new territories for the Republic. Over all this would loom the temples of a hundred clashing religions, calling their followers to prayer and supplication and, of course, plotting a thousand plots.
Adventures in the lost world of Thonis
The world of Thonis-Heracleion is a mixture of ancient societies competing for trade and power in the cauldron of the Mediterranean. The Greek and Roman Republics, Phoenicians, Egyptians and Persians were all in various stages of conflict or rebellion when Thonis-Heracleion was at its height, but they would also have been mingling with kingdoms from the African interior – the Nok from Nigeria, the Ethiopian successor states, the Kushites of what is now Sudan, and the many fragmentary and transient kingdoms of central Africa. In amongst these would have been permanent minorities, such as Jews fleeing from the Babylonians, and exotic people from as far afield as Carthaginian Morocco and Roman Gaul. With these people would come trade from every corner of Africa and Europe and near Asia, and also every political and religious intrigue they could muster. With the spies and agents of the scheming powers of Europe and Asia would also come their wizards, their priests and their assassins. The city would be ideal for either a sandbox campaign, based in Thonis but venturing down the Nile to Kush and Ethiopia, or along the coast to Palestine and Morocco; or it could be the centre of a story campaign focused around the conflicting ambitions of the imperial powers of the time, and also the increasingly desperate attempts of the last Pharaonic dynasties to remain independent and powerful in the face of growing Roman and Persian power. What kind of adventures could we expect to see in such a world?
- Tomb robbing: For the death cults of Egypt, tombs contain hidden magical treasures – and very real dangers. The last dynasties of the Pharaohs are still supported by their death cults, and in their desperation to regain their old powers they begin to loot the tombs of their own ancestors, sending in foolhardy adventurers to find the powerful relics buried therein. Of course they hire foreigners for the job – they know about the curse that befalls anyone who defiles those tombs, so why not send in one of the new Roman or Greek interlopers to take all the risk? Of course, they don’t tell their mercenaries, and when they find out they are doomed desperate measures are implemented …
- Blood for the old gods: People are going missing in the marketplaces of the city, and questions are being asked about who is responsible. In fact it is a Pharaonic death cult, preparing a dark ritual to bring back one of their ancient gods and purge the city of the enemies of Egypt. But who are those enemies, and is the death cult’s goal one of simple racial purity, or do they have more sinister political designs in mind?
- The old man’s fleece: Down in one of the poorer quarters by the river docks is an old Greek wanderer, long bereft of his mind, who sits in the blazing sun by the river and mutters to himself of golden sheep and women with snake hair whose gaze turns men to stone. The locals, poor fishermen and porters all, laugh at him but they treat him kindly – give him sweet pastries in the morning, and move him into the shade at midday, and because he is a gentle old man full of stories they leave their children with him when they go to the well. But then one day the prodigal son of a local porter returns to cries of joy – he was long thought lost in a storm on the Phoenician merchant ship he rowed for a paltry day’s wage. At the party he tells of how he was the sole survivor of his ship, whose crew were entranced by the songs of long-haired beauties in the water, who devoured them as they dived into the azure sea seeking love. He shows them the wax he stuffed in his ears to protect himself “because he heard the old man’s story down by the river when he was little.” Suddenly they realize that old man has been amongst them for too long, and could his stories be true? But the old man is gone, taken by two stern-looking Canari mercenaries. Why is everyone suddenly looking for him? The folk of that poor quarter club together their money and hire a likely looking band of adventurers – they want their old man back, because he was gentle with the children – and they want the treasure his stories speak of. From this builds a campaign with intrigue and a chase for riches – and a retracing of the steps of the Odyssey, as the characters attempt to recover all the wealth and power that the old man spoke of in those days down by the river.
- The golem in the old quarter: Since the Babylonians went mad Jews have been flocking to the city, which is the first stop on the way to safety in Egypt but for many also the last – why go further into unknown lands when Thonis-Heracleion holds the promise of a melting pot to rival the Persian capital? Just stay here and toil amongst the unnamed and uncaring hordes, because no one will ever do to a stranger here what was done in Babylon. But one old scholar nurses a grudge, and in the long, sultry evenings of the summer he stands on the roof of his house looking over at the Babylonian trader’s house, and thinks of devious ways of bringing about the end of that hated foe. Eventually he finds it, in the forbidden texts of his father’s. One night the golem breaks lose, kills the old man, and begins its rampage. Can the characters stop it before the authorities come with their sinister army of the dead, and lay waste to the whole quarter?
- The African expedition: A Roman scholar has heard rumours of riches beyond measure in the interior, a graveyard of elephants where there is so much ivory that one could build a castle from it. But between Thonis and that ancient grave lies a thousand kms of trouble and mad kings, and anyway he’s not sure exactly where it is. Will the characters go with him, and share in his wealth? Or are they soft, lazy fruit eaters like the rest of this town …?
A city beset by foes and surrounded by opportunities, ruled over by a crumbling dynasty propped up by death magic, and subverted from below by the teeming poor and the scheming new religions of the European empires. To its south lies the rich green and gold tapestry of Nile country, to its north the dazzling azure of the mediterranean. In the day it is blasted by the heat of the Egyptian sun, that gives way to long, warm evenings of song and wine and intrigue, nights of hashish dreams and ghosts. Thonis-Heracleion – explore it all before it sinks below the shifting sands of the Nile delta, and drowns the gods of four civilizations in the startling blue waters that held brought all its promise.