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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The First Skyscraper

The rediscovery of ancient Alexandria began 14 years ago, when Empereur went for a swim. He had joined an Egyptian documentary film crew that wanted to work underwater near the 15th-century fort of Qait Bey, now a museum and tourist site. The Egyptian Navy had raised a massive statue from the area in the 1960s, and Empereur and the film crew thought the waters would be worth exploring. Most scholars believed that the Pharos had stood nearby, and that some of the huge stone blocks that make up the fortress may have come from its ruins.

No one knows exactly what the Pharos looked like. Literary references and sketches from ancient times describe a structure that rose from a vast rectangular base—itself a virtual skyscraper—topped by a smaller octagonal section, then a cylindrical section, culminating in a huge statue, probably of Poseidon or Zeus. Scholars say the Pharos, completed about 283 B.C., dwarfed all other human structures of its era. It survived an astonishing 17 centuries before collapsing in the mid-1300s.

It was a calm spring day when Empereur and cinematographer Asma el-Bakri, carrying a bulky 35-millimeter camera, slipped beneath the waters near the fort, which had been seldom explored because the military had put the area off limits. Empereur was stunned as he swam amid hundreds of building stones and shapes that looked like statues and columns. The sight, he recalls, made him dizzy.

But after coming out of the water, he and el-Bakri watched in horror as a barge crane lowered 20-ton concrete blocks into the waters just off Qait Bey to reinforce the breakwater near where they had been filming. El-Bakri pestered government officials until they agreed to halt the work, but not before some 3,600 tons of concrete had been unloaded, crushing many artifacts. Thanks to el-Bakri’s intervention, Empereur—who had experience examining Greek shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea—found himself back in diving gear, conducting a detailed survey of thousands of relics.

One column had a diameter of 7.5 feet. Corinthian capitals, obelisks and huge stone sphinxes littered the seafloor. Curiously, half a dozen columns carved in the Egyptian style had markings dating back to Ramses II, nearly a millennium before Alexandria was founded. The Greek rulers who built Alexandria had taken ancient Egyptian monuments from along the Nile to provide gravitas for their nouveau riche city. Empereur and his team also found a colossal statue, obviously of a pharaoh, similar to one the Egyptian Navy had raised in 1961. He believes the pair represent Ptolemy I and his wife, Berenice I, presiding over a nominally Greek city. With their bases, the statues would have stood 40 feet tall.

Over the years, Empereur and his co-workers have photographed, mapped and cataloged more than 3,300 surviving pieces on the seafloor, including many columns, 30 sphinxes and five obelisks. He estimates that another 2,000 objects still need cataloging. Most will remain safely underwater, Egyptian officials say.

Underwater Palaces

Franck Goddio is an urbane diver who travels the world examining shipwrecks, from a French slave ship to a Spanish galleon. He and Empereur are rivals—there are rumors of legal disputes between them and neither man will discuss the other—and in the early 1990s Goddio began to work on the other side of Alexandria’s harbor, opposite the fortress. He discovered columns, statues, sphinxes and ceramics associated with the Ptolemies’ royal quarter—possibly even the palace of Cleopatra herself. In 2008, Goddio and his team located the remains of a monumental structure, 328 feet long and 230 feet wide, as well as a finger from a bronze statue that Goddio estimates would have stood 13 feet tall.

Perhaps most significant, he has found that much of ancient Alexandria sank beneath the waves and remains remarkably intact. Using sophisticated sonar instruments and global positioning equipment, and working with scuba divers, Goddio has discerned the outline of the old port’s shoreline. The new maps reveal foundations of wharves, storehouses and temples as well as the royal palaces that formed the core of the city, now buried under Alexandrian sand. Radiocarbon dating of wooden planks and other excavated material shows evidence of human activity from the fourth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. At a recent meeting of scholars at Oxford University, the detailed topographical map Goddio projected of the harbor floor drew gasps. “A ghost from the past is being brought back to life,” he proclaimed.

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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