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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Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from its original form and updated to include new information for Smithsonian’s Mysteries of the Ancient World bookazine published in Fall 2009.

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There’s no sign of the grand marbled metropolis founded by Alexander the Great on the busy streets of this congested Egyptian city of five million, where honking cars spouting exhaust whiz by shabby concrete buildings. But climb down a rickety ladder a few blocks from Alexandria’s harbor, and the legendary city suddenly looms into view.

Down here, standing on wooden planks stretching across a vast underground chamber, the French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur points out Corinthian capitals, Egyptian lotus-shaped columns and solid Roman bases holding up elegant stone arches. He picks his way across the planks in this ancient cistern, which is three stories deep and so elaborately constructed that it seems more like a cathedral than a water supply system. The cistern was built more than a thousand years ago with pieces of already-ancient temples and churches. Beneath him, one French and one Egyptian worker are examining the stonework with flashlights. Water drips, echoing. “We supposed old Alexandria was destroyed,” Empereur says, his voice bouncing off the damp smooth walls, “only to realize that when you walk on the sidewalks, it is just below your feet.”

With all its lost grandeur, Alexandria has long held poets and writers in thrall, from E. M. Forster, author of a 1922 guide to the city’s vanished charms, to the British novelist Lawrence Durrell, whose Alexandria Quartet, published in the late 1950s, is a bittersweet paean to the haunted city. But archaeologists have tended to give Alexandria the cold shoulder, preferring the more accessible temples of Greece and the rich tombs along the Nile. “There is nothing to hope for at Alexandria,” the English excavator D. G. Hogarth cautioned after a fruitless dig in the 1890s. “You classical archaeologists, who have found so much in Greece or in Asia Minor, forget this city.”

Hogarth was spectacularly wrong. Empereur and other scientists are now uncovering astonishing artifacts and rediscovering the architectural sublimity, economic muscle and intellectual dominance of an urban center that ranked second only to ancient Rome. What may be the world’s oldest surviving university complex has come to light, along with one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pharos, the 440-foot-high lighthouse that guided ships safely into the Great Harbour for nearly two millennia. And researchers in wet suits probing the harbor floor are mapping the old quays and the fabled royal quarter, including, just possibly, the palace of that most beguiling of all Alexandrians, Cleopatra. The discoveries are transforming vague legends about Alexandria into proof of its profound influence on the ancient world.

“I’m not interested in mysteries, but in evidence,” Empereur says later in his comfortable study lined with 19th-century prints. Wearing a yellow ascot and tweed jacket, he seems a literary figure from Forster’s day. But his Center for Alexandrian Studies, located in a drab modern high-rise, bustles with graduate students clacking on computers and diligently cataloging artifacts in the small laboratory.

Empereur first visited Alexandria more than 30 years ago while teaching linguistics in Cairo. “It was a sleepy town then,” he recalls. “Sugar and meat were rationed, it was a war economy; there was no money for building.” Only when the city’s fortunes revived in the early 1990s and Alexandria began sprouting new office and apartment buildings did archaeologists realize how much of the ancient city lay undiscovered below 19th-century constructions. By then Empereur was an archaeologist with long experience digging in Greece; he watched in horror as developers hauled away old columns and potsherds and dumped them in nearby Lake Mariout. “I realized we were in a new period—a time to rescue what we could.”

The forgotten cisterns of Alexandria were in particular danger of being filled in by new construction. During ancient times, a canal from the Nile diverted floodwater from the great river to fill a network of hundreds, if not thousands, of underground chambers, which were expanded, rebuilt and renovated. Most were built after the fourth century, and their engineers made liberal use of the magnificent stone columns and blocks from aboveground ruins.

Few cities in the ancient or medieval world could boast of such a sophisticated water system. “Underneath the streets and houses, the whole city is hollow,” reported Flemish traveler Guillebert de Lannoy in 1422. The granite-and-marble Alexandria that the poets thought long gone still survives, and Empereur hopes to open a visitors center for one of the cisterns to show something of Alexandria’s former glory.

The Alexandria of Alexandrias

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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