The search for ancient Alexandria goes underwater

The greatest city of the Hellenistic age has been neglected by archaeology for decades. Now underwater survey techniques have provided us with glimpses of the centre’s greatness. But many decry the techniques being used


Few cities in the history of the world can be said to lie at the heart of our quest for knowledge. Alexandria could boldly make that claim. It was there that men first collected, seriously and systematically, the learning of the world. The city’s Ptolemaic library—home to the best minds of the age—was the first research institute in history.

Founded by Alexander the Great on the westernmost-mouth of the Nile in 331 BC, Alexandria became the greatest city the Western world had ever seen. After Alexander’s death, his Egyptian territories were inherited by the Ptolemys. They made Alexandria capital of their empire until the death of their last ruler, Cleopatra, and the city’s capture by Rome in 30 BC.

Built on a lavish scale to be the world centre of commerce and culture, Alexandria was graced with avenues thirty metres wide, elegant architecture and statuary, Alexander’s monumental tomb and a huge lighthouse—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The city’s librarians combed all the cultures and languages of the known world. They sent agents abroad to buy up libraries. Commercial ships docking in Alexandria were searched by the police—not for contraband, but for books. Scrolls were borrowed, copied and then returned to their owners. Ptolemy III Euergetes sent an enormous deposit of gold and silver to the Athenians in exchange for the loan of original manuscripts of the great ancient tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. When the plays arrived Ptolemy had them copied and then archived in the library. He sent copies back to Athens, forfeiting his gold and silver. Rarely has a State so avidly supported the pursuit of knowledge.

Today the remains of this ancient city lie partly underneath the modern metropolis and partly submerged in Alexandria’s Eastern harbour. It is here that two teams of divers and archaeologists led respectively by Jean-Yves Empereur and Frank Goddio have, for the last few years, been plunging into the murky depths in an attempt to recover vestiges of the city’s greatness.

Despite its former glory, Alexandria has been largely neglected by archaeology. Unlike Rome and Athens, the other great centres of antiquity, Alexandria has left few traces. The great Egyptologists of the nineteenth century were far more interested in the Pharaonic period linked to desert sites in the south of the country where weather conditions often preserved monuments and tombs intact.

In 1897, a British archaeologist, D.T. Hogarth, came to survey Alexandria and decided “there is little of interest here”. Even the greatest treasure hunter of them all, Heinrich Schliemann, passed it by with scarcely a second glance.

Only in this decade has underwater archaeology allowed a look at submerged ancient remains both of harbour installations and possible royal palaces known to have been by the sea or on a small island offshore. Although the entire harbour area has been subject to earthquakes since the fourteenth century, it is thought that the royal remains of the city lying twenty feet underwater have been preserved.

Despite this, the diver’s work has not been easy. For the last few decades, sewage from the city’s four million inhabitants has been dumped into the eastern harbour. The Supreme Council for Egyptian antiquities has promised that this will cease at the end of 1998.

For the last two years, Frenchman Frank Goddio, founder of the Paris-based European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, has been systematically sweeping the eastern side of the harbour. For four months each year, when conditions are most suitable, he provides technical support to a team of sixteen French and Egyptian divers.

In October, Mr Goddio presented the results of his findings to the world. His team has identified three basins on the eastern side of the harbour, located the island of Antirrhodos, site of the Ptolemaic royal palace, and discovered large quantities of architectural elements, statues, sphinxes, column drums, bases and capitals, many inscribed with hieroglyphics.

Using sophisticated Global Positioning equipment on his catamaran he has produced the first modern map of the ancient remains. His revised topography details the long-suspected but never confirmed location for the royal quarter.

On the occasion of his press conference, Mr Goddio proudly declared that his team had “been able to confirm what [the first century geographer] Strabo said—that Antirrhodos was the only natural island in the harbour and that it was completely paved in limestone blocks.”

Mr Goddio’s decision to go beyond surveying and begin excavating this season, with the full backing of the Egyptian authorities, has caused concern in the archaeological world.

His detractors are quick to point out that he is not an archaeologist but a diver by training. His achievements are often belittled and it is claimed that anyone with enough political backing and money could have discovered what he claims to have found—the location of the ancient remains was hardly a mystery. He is also described as a treasure hunter, but he insists that the objects he finds will be cleaned, examined and photographed in situ where they will remain.

Furthermore, Mr Goddio’s method of using suction hoses literally to vacuum the sandy floor is thought to be incompatible with meticulous archaeological investigation.

Working just across the harbour to the west of Mr Goddio for the last seven years, another French archaeologist, Jean Yves Empereur, has the broad support of the archaeological community. Director of the Centre for Archaeological Research in Alexandria, Mr Empereur has been studying Alexandria for the last two decades. He is well-known for his rescue missions in the city itself where he is often called in by the authorities when property developers expose ancient remains—most recently when a bulldozer struck ruins of one of the city’s great necropolises in September (see The Art Newspaper, No.75, November 1997, p.22).

In the harbour itself, Mr Empereur has been working near the island of Pharos, widely believed to be the site of the Alexandria lighthouse. He has discovered 3,000 carved blocks of stone and colossal statues—one of which was dramatically raised from the depths during Jacques Chirac’s visit to Alexandria in April 1996. Visitors will soon be able to view these through glass-bottom boats.

Many of Mr Empereur’s discoveries will be on view in March 1998 at the Petit Palais in Paris for the “Glories of Alexandria” exhibition that he is curating. On that occasion, the second episode of the documentary made on the excavation at Pharos will be released. Co-produced by France 2, Gédéon Programmes and the American channel, PBS, it has been instrumental in securing Mr Empereur the sponsorship he needs.

Both Mr Empereur and Mr Goddio have proved themselves skilled fund-raisers (Frank Goddio is sponsored primarily by the Hilti Foundation—a Lichtenstein-based engineering group) and political negotiators, securing the essential backing of the relevant authorities for their ongoing work.

As Mr Goddio and Mr Empereur continue their isolated explorations on opposite sides of the harbour, a group of Canadian and American psychics recently claimed that they had located Ptolemaic monuments and palaces in the area of the ancient harbour.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The search for Alexandria'