A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By the mid-fifth century A.D., the royal palaces and buildings within Alexandria's Great Harbor, which the Greek geographer Strabo so eloquently described, had been destroyed by a series of earthquakes and tidal waves that Stanford University geophysicist Amos Nur believes centered on a fault line stretching from Sicily to Cairo. According to written sources, no fewer than 23 earthquakes struck the Egyptian coast between the years A.D. 320 and 1303, a particularly severe one occurring in the summer of A.D. 365. Over time, the harbor floor dropped more than 20 feet, the Royal Quarters collapsing and sinking beneath the waves.
Fallen columns, capitals, statues, stone blocks with hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions, the remains of streets, lead ingots, and amphorae litter the floor of the modern harbor, encrusted with 16 centuries of deposits and bombarded daily by sewage pumped into the water. Surprisingly, enough of the ancient quarters have survived to allow archaeologists to map them.
"Many classical authors--Strabo, and even Julius Caesar in his commentaries on his campaigns in Alexandria--described the city," says Franck Goddio of the Paris-based Institut Européen d'Archéologie Sous-Marine, "but it is impossible to determine what it may have looked like from the texts alone." He notes that, since Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798, historians and archaeologists have made more than 30 maps of Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria, all of which have proven inaccurate, primarily in the area of the harbor. Goddio and his team, in cooperation with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (Department of Underwater Archaeology), began mapping the remains in the eastern harbor in 1992, identifying the site of the palace of Cleopatra VII, the most famous of the Ptolemies, on the now submerged island of Antirrhodos, a royal property throughout the Ptolemaic period (305-30 B.C.).
Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.