Magazine article Geographical

Search for a Legend

Magazine article Geographical

Search for a Legend

Article excerpt

Beneath the murky waters of modern-day Alexandria, lay the ruins of Cleopatra's palace. Determined to find this lost world, a team of divers grapple with the underwater mysteries to reveal extraordinary sights

Two thousand years ago, Alexandria was the wealthiest city in the world - greater than Athens or Rome.

Under the leader of its most famous inhabitant, Cleopatra, the city boasted a powerful naval fleet. Today, this has been replaced by a humble fishing fleet.

Time has been cruel to Alexandria - four centuries after Cleopatra's death, earthquakes and a huge tidal wave toppled the palaces on the harbour front, scattering them into the bay and creating a massive underwater jigsaw puzzle.

Among the treasures submerged in these murky waters is the palace where she seduced the most powerful men on Earth - the mighty Julius Caesar and the ambitious Mark Antony.

Fascinated by Cleopatra and her lost world, French underwater explorer Franck Goddio has abandoned his successful career as a financial advisor to explore the scattered remains of her kingdom.

Using a faint voice from antiquity - a Greek scribe named Strabo who journeyed to Alexandria three years after Cleopatra's downfall and chronicled the wonders that he saw - Goddio, accompanied by a team of underwater explorers, has decided to concentrate his efforts on the area that was once the harbour front.

"We know from Strabo that all around this harbour were palaces and temples," says Goddio "Among them there was also an island with the palace of Cleopatra and a small harbour belonging to the king."

Many maps have been based on Strabo's writings but only underwater exploration can provide the missing details. However, visibility is a problem, divers can rarely see more than two metres through the murky waters, and the slightest storm churns up centuries of silt.

To locate the palace, Goddio's team uses a variety of sensors to detect the shape of the seafloor below. The harbour is scanned for changes to the Earth's magnetic field - indications that structures may lie buried here. The images are combined with sonar and depth soundings to produce a rough sketch of the submerged jetties and ancient ports.

Goddio assembles a multi-national team of divers and archaeologists. The team have only eight weeks to find the palace before the torrid Egyptian summer turns the water into an impenetrable soup. The divers have a hard time at first, chipping away at centuries of calcium deposits on rocks and relics alike.

By chipping away at the crust, the divers expose pieces of the ancient city's wealth and grandeur - a statue of the Greek god Hermes; a coiled serpent; a sacred bird of Egypt; and the head of a Roman empress.

But it is only with the help of astonishingly accurate technology in the form of a portable GPS receiver linked to two antennae that Goddio's team are able to draw an accurate map of the vanished metropolis.

Having mapped the port, Goddio then narrows his search to the sunken island of Antirhodos, where Strabo saw Cleopatra's luxurious summer house four years after her death. …

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