Standing on the corniche of this elegant but faded city, it is easy to visualize an ancient panorama:
To the left, built on a small island in the harbor past the Temple of Poseidon, was the palace of the Ptolemaic queen, Cleopatra, who became known as history’s most famous seductress.
To the right was the Timonium, the royal lodge at the end of a jetty where Roman general Marc Antony withdrew in remorse after throwing away an empire in his obsessive love of Cleopatra.
Beyond were the old palace, private harbor and public gardens of the Ptolemys, the pleasure-loving dynasty that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years.
And standing sentinel in the distance, at the entrance to the Portus Magnus, was the 500-foot-tall Lighthouse of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Now the city where Antony and Cleopatra lived and loved--the international crossroads that was the glittering and cosmopolitan Paris or New York of its day--is slowly being uncovered by a new breed of Egyptian and French archeologists.
Instead of working with shovel, pick and trowel, their tools are underwater cameras and computers, scuba gear and vacuums capable of sucking away centuries of accumulated sand and sediment, revealing fallen columns, sphinxes, obelisks and other debris of the ancient city’s architecture.
Late last year, an underwater archeology team of the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, organized by French marine archeologist Franck Goddio and sponsored by the Liechtenstein-based Hilti Foundation, announced that it had completed the first underwater map of the city’s Eastern Harbor, locating remnants of major buildings and thousands of artifacts from antiquity.
Having correlated their discoveries with a description of the city that Greek geographer Strabo wrote a few decades before the birth of Christ, scientists feel confident that they have identified a substantial portion of the old Royal Quarter of Alexandria.
It is, they say, a landmark discovery that will bring fresh insights into the life of the Roman and Ptolemaic city.
The most prized find was a single paved island, now submerged, that almost certainly bore the palace of the later Ptolemaic rulers, including the dynasty’s last sovereign, the alluring Cleopatra--lover of both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.
“She is still alive and living in this city,” said Ahmed Abdul Fattah, director of Alexandria’s Greco-Roman Museum. “You can never forget her.”
The 380-yard-long island was where Strabo said it should be. On the seabed beside it are huge pieces of granite columns, some nearly 4 feet in diameter, with their capitals lying nearby.
“The size of these columns, their numbers--more than 2,000 pieces have been discovered so far--plus the other artifacts, statues and thrones: These are all proof that there was once a palace there, not an ordinary building,” said Ibrahim Darwish, director of the underwater department in the Egyptian antiquities council.
The mortar used also marks it as Ptolemaic, as opposed to later Roman and Byzantine construction. Further proof is that some pieces had been brought as decoration from Pharaonic temples hundreds of miles to the south.
“It must be the ruler, to have the authority to do this,” Darwish noted. Besides the island, known as Antirrhodus, there is an important peninsula with remains of buildings, four piers and thousands of narrow-necked amphorae, jars used to carry wine or oil by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It seems the most likely site of Antony’s last dwelling.
Within the harbor are several smaller ports, including one related to an older palace of the Ptolemys. There is also the submerged ancient coastline, beautifully paved and once lined by columns.
Before the mapping, an effort that required more than 3,500 dives, “we had a guess more or less about the site,” Goddio said. “Now we will have proof and a perfect idea of these buildings.”
Already sphinxes, stele, statues and obelisks have been found, usually covered over with sediment so they looked at first glance like rocks. But parts of the white pavement were kept free of dirt by the current, appearing now just as they looked in Cleopatra’s day.
So far divers have cleared off promising-looking objects, but much more intensive explorations will begin in May.
“If we make a systematic exploration we will find the foundations of all the temples and palaces,” Goddio predicted.
A momentous chapter of history is being recovered.
Alexander the Great founded Alexandria in 332 BC, near the end of his life. After his death, Egypt became the possession of one of his generals, Ptolemy, who began the dynasty that ruled from 332 BC until 30 BC.
At this time, Alexandria flowered into the richest and largest city of the Mediterranean basin, a shining center of Hellenistic and Jewish culture, housing the world’s greatest library and university.
Cleopatra, the most famous Ptolemy, was more a charmer than a beauty, historians agree. She ensnared Julius Caesar and bore him a son. When he was assassinated, she won over Antony, one of the triumvirate ruling Rome and its dominions. Antony was so bewitched that he gave Cleopatra parts of Syria, Phoenicia and Cyprus, and announced that he was divorcing the sister of Octavian, the triumvirate’s dominant figure.
Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, declared war. Defeated first at Actium in 31 BC and completely at Alexandria, Antony fell on his sword. Cleopatra also killed herself, possibly by putting a poison snake to her bosom, rather than be sent in chains to Rome.
Cleopatra’s drama is well known, immortalized by the likes of William Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, but little archeological evidence of her era has been revealed.
“Although we know of the fame Alexandria obtained throughout the world in the Ptolemaic period, we had not discovered any of the buildings that made this fame,” said Fawzi Fakharany, professor of classical archeology at the University of Alexandria.
Amazingly, Cleopatra’s secrets were underwater only a stone’s throw from the heavily trafficked 20th century corniche, hugging the Eastern Harbor in this city of 6 million.
The harbor remains the heart of the metropolis, as it was in ancient times. Smoothly paved stone piers and barriers built by the Ptolemys, though submerged and out of view, still help tame the sea and reduce the swells for the fishing boats bobbing in front of the Hotel Cecil.
Cleopatra’s Alexandria is below the modern city by about 30 feet, Darwish explained.
Earthquakes in the 4th, 12th and 14th centuries sank the part of the city nearest the port and toppled the Pharos lighthouse into the sea. The Mediterranean flooded in and, in a sense, preserved ancient Alexandria in time.
On his first dive last year, Egyptian archeologist Mohamed Abdel Hamid decided to poke around what looked like blocks.
Once cleaned, he said, “I discovered that they were large columns, lying there on the seabed. I had not seen any similar columns in size, except in Upper Egypt.
“For me, it’s an indescribable feeling. I am doing something that is different from what all other archeologists do.”
Another team member, Ashraf Abdel Raouf, recalled his first find, a head from an imperial statue.
In his excitement, “I took off my mouthpiece and screamed under the water,” he said. It felt like “the delivery of a newborn baby.”
Darwish, Hamid and Raouf are three of the 14 Egyptian archeologists who have trained as divers to take part in the exploration.
Goddio sees marine archeology as a rich lode to mine for civilization’s roots.
“Land archeology in Egypt is an endless science, but the coast of Egypt also contains many, many very important sites,” he said.
The Alexandria harbor is the best example.
“Here you have 600 hectares [nearly 1,500 acres] of virtually virgin territory to explore,” he said. “Try to find that anywhere on land--all untouched since the 4th century. It is fantastic.”
A worldwide symposium on marine archeology is to take place here in April, sponsored by the antiquities council, UNESCO and the University of Alexandria. A key topic will be whether to raise to the surface the objects found. Some archeologists favor leaving them, so as not to disturb the site.
One possibility is to clean up the water--the last sewage outlet is due to be diverted in May--and turn the harbor into an archeological diving park for visitors to Egypt.
“This discovery will make a great future for Alexandria as a touristic center,” Fakharany predicted.