Magazine article Geographical

Remains of the Day

Magazine article Geographical

Remains of the Day

Article excerpt

Doug Alexander takes us beneath the waves to glimpse the sunken secrets of Alexandria's ancient past, where plans are afoot to build the world's first underwater museum

PICTURE THIS: You've just plunged into waters where undersea life flourishes and history lurks. Nearby, waves crash against an aging stone fortress which guards a Mediterranean harbour that has existed since the days of Egypt's mighty pharaohs. It's the last sound you hear as you descend into the depths, where silence reigns.

Below lies an ancient world drowned by catastrophe. Fish flitter around large stone blocks and strange shapes that litter the seabed. Ahead, a haunting dark form beckons from its watery tomb. You swim closer. A black face emerges from the turbid waters, its pitted eyes gazing at you through your facemask. A feline body anchors this stoic visage to the bottom of the sea -- where this sphinx has rested undisturbed for hundreds of years. You've come face-to-face with a hidden past in a place where currents flow with the history of the pharaohs and memories of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. This is the stuff of diver's dreams.

Egypt's seaside city of Alexandria offers enough to fuel such dreams for many years. This city of 4.5 million people smacks of European charm -- with public squares protected by heroic statues, sidewalk cafes, patisseries and hundreds of shops crying for attention with signs in French, English and Arabic. Colonial-style buildings weathered by the salty air majestically face the Mediterranean, overlooking crowded beaches and a bustling promenade that hugs the Eastern Harbour.

A stone citadel stands like a sentinel on the rocky jetty of this crescent-shaped harbour -- a landmark since Mamluk ruler Qait Bey erected this fortress 530 years ago on the foundations of an ancient wonder.

Wooden boats bob in these sheltered waters as fishermen bring in the daily catch while children wade nearby hoping to find crabs, barnacle-encrusted junk or other treasures. Yet Alexandria's greatest treasures lie six to eight metres beneath these waves. The waters conceal the ruins of the Pharos of Alexandria, Cleopatra's palace, colossal columns and drowned stone gods. This underwater scene strikes awe among those lucky enough to dive here.

"When you see small fish playing with the sphinxes it gives a more powerful impression of these sacred monsters of Egypt," says Jean-Yves Empereur of the Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines. "When you see [ruins] underwater it's even more impressive than on land." The find that left the greatest impression on this underwater archaeologist was in 1996, when he stumbled across a regal red granite head of Ptolemy II, staring into the sand. "You are in front of a big moment of history when you come face-to-face with the person who opened the lighthouse and the Library of Alexandria," Empereur said.

Stirring secrets have also been released from Abu Qir Bay, a fishing port just east of Alexandria. Artefacts from the legendary cities of Canopus and Menouthis have been recovered and, earlier this year, underwater archaeologists pinpointed a city entombed in sediment six kilometres offshore. Abu Qir also marks the watery grave for Napoleon's fleet, sent to the bottom of the bay by British Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of the Nile in 1798.

DIVE SIGHTS

Divers and underwater archaeologists have been fishing artefacts from Egypt's coastal waters for years. It's no surprise: The history of this region flows back thousands of years when Pharos Island harboured ships laden with goods from Crete, Phoenicia and the Aegean islands. Greek historian Herodotus wrote of great cities along the Nile Delta when he visited Egypt in 450 BC, more than a century before Alexander the Great swept through the area and founded Alexandria.

Alexandria prospered as the Mediterranean's most glorious city under the Ptolemies, the dynastic Greek family that reigned as pharaohs over Egypt. …

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