Raising Alexandria

More than 2,000 years after Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, archaeologists are discovering its fabled remains

A member of an underwater archaeology team inspects a sphinx that is at least 3,000 years old. (Stéphane Compoint)
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Arab forces under the new banner of Islam took control of the city a century later, and there is evidence that the halls were used after the takeover. But within a few decades, a brain drain began. Money and power shifted to the east. Welcomed in Damascus and Baghdad by the ruling caliphs, many Alexandrian scholars moved to cities where new prosperity and a reverence for the classics kept Greek learning alive. That scholarly flame, so bright for a millennium in Alexandria, burned in the East until medieval Europe began to draw on the knowledge of the ancients.

The Future of the Past?

The recent spate of finds would no doubt embarrass Hogarth, who at the end of the 19th century dug close to the lecture-hall site—just not deep enough. But mysteries remain. The site of Alexander’s tomb—knowledge of which appears to have vanished in the late Roman period—is still a matter of speculation, as is the great library’s exact location. Even so, ancient Alexandria’s remains are perhaps being destroyed faster than they’re being discovered, because of real estate development. Since 1997, Empereur has undertaken 12 “rescue digs,” in which archaeologists are given a limited period of time to salvage what they can before the bulldozers move in for new construction. There is not enough time and money to do more, Empereur says; “It’s a pity.” He echoes what the Greek poet Constantine Cafavy wrote nearly a century ago: “Say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.”

Passing a new gaudy high-rise, Empereur cannot conceal his disdain. He says that the developer, fearful that striking archaeological treasures would delay construction, used his political connections to avoid salvage excavations. “That place had not been built on since antiquity. It may have been the site of one of the world’s largest gymnasiums.” Such a building would have been not just a sports complex but also a meeting place for intellectual pursuits.

For two years, Empereur examined an extensive necropolis, or burial ground, until the ancient catacombs were demolished to make way for a thoroughfare. What a shame, he says, that the ruins were not preserved, if only as a tourist attraction, with admission fees supporting the research work.

Like archaeologists of old, today’s visitors to Egypt typically ignore Alexandria in favor of the pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor. But Empereur is seeking funding for his cistern museum, while the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities envisions a series of transparent underwater tunnels in Alexandria’s harbor to show off the sunken city. The dusty Greco-Roman Museum is getting a much-needed overhaul, and a museum to display early mosaics is in the works. A sparkling new library and spruced-up parks give parts of the city a prosperous air.

Yet even on a sunny day along the curving seaside corniche, there is a melancholy atmosphere. Through wars, earthquakes, a tsunami, depressions and revolutions, Alexandria remakes itself but can’t quite shake its past. Cafavy imagined ancient music echoing down Alexandria’s streets and wrote: “This city will always pursue you.”

About Andrew Lawler

Andrew Lawler is a contributing writer for Science magazine and author of Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization. He has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Smithsonian, National Geographic, and other publications. View Andrew Lawler's website.

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