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Diving on a Sunken City Volume 52 Number 2, March/April 1999
by Jean-Yves Empereur

When Egyptian cinematographer Asma el-Bakri decided to make a documentary about ancient Alexandria in March 1994, she wanted to film the fallen columns and sculptures that lay beneath the waters surrounding the fifteenth-century Ottoman fort of Qaitbay. It was here, after all, that the famous Pharos of Alexandria, the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World, once stood. Built between 285 and 280 B.C. at the eastern end of the island of Pharos, which gave the lighthouse its name, the Pharos guided sailors until it tumbled into the city's eastern harbor during an earthquake sometime between A.D. 1303 and 1349. I joined her team as team as scientific adviser.

The day we began filming, there wasn't a ripple on the sea, the wind was from the south, and visibility was unusually good. From the surface we could see hundreds of objects strewn across the sea floor only 24 feet below. During filming, el-Bakri noticed that silting caused by a breakwater of concrete blocks built to protect the Mamluk fort was threatening to bury the little-known underwater site. Her cries of indignation reached Cairo, and the authorities asked me to add an investigation of the seabed to the rescue digs I was already conducting in the city center. I reassembled the team of archaeologist-divers with whom I had worked on previous expeditions, adding architects, geologists, and photographers from the Center for Alexandrian Studies. Egyptologists Jean-Pierre Corteggiani and Georges Soukiassian also joined the project. In the early stages of our work, half a dozen columns with capitals in the form of papyrus stalks caught our attention. Some of them bore the cartouche of Ramses II, who ruled Egypt nine centuries before the founding of Alexandria in 332-331 B.C. We also discovered fragments of three obelisks belonging to Seti I, Ramses II's father. Two are made of calcite and appear to be a pair. On them, the pharaoh is depicted bringing offerings to the deities at Heliopolis, the ancient city of the sun-god, six miles south of Cairo, which, during the New Kingdom (1570-1085 B.C.), was the capital of Lower Egypt. The third is made of red Aswan granite. On two of its sides Seti is represented as a mythological animal with an erect forked tail, canine body, and anteater head, often used to represent Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos and confusion. On the other two sides the pharaoh is depicted as a sphinx seated before a deity.

In the five years since we began diving in the area of the Pharos we have discovered a colossal statue of a pharaoh as well as more than 25 sphinxes, hundreds of columns, and thousands of architectural blocks. If all goes well, the splendors of this submerged site may one day be accessible to all archaeology enthusiasts. The city is considering plans to turn the harbor site into an underwater archaeological park where visitors could explore the seabed in glass-bottomed boats or on guided diving tours. While there are many sphinxes and obelisks to be found on land in Egypt, viewing such objects in situ, as fish dart between ancient blocks, is a memorable experience.

* See also "Mapping Alexandria's Royal Quarters."

Jean-Yves Empereur is director of the Center for Alexandrian Studies, which he founded in 1990. This article is based on his book, Alexandria Rediscovered (New York: George Braziller, 1998).

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America