Thursday, September 18, 2008

New underwater museum to highlight the treasures of Alexandria

The Ptolemies through plexi-glass
The committee to establish Egypt's proposed underwater museum will have its first meeting next month in Alexandria, Nevine El-Aref reports

The history of a city caught in a time-warp when it was submerged by the sea while it was part of a unique civilisation that once held sway over much of the ancient world will, in the near future, be accessible and visible to all visitors to Alexandria. The International Scientific Advisory Committee is meeting in October to discuss plans for Egypt's first offshore underwater museum.

On the seabed of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour lie the royal quarters of the Ptolemaic dynasty complete with temples, palaces and streets. Queen Cleopatra's Palace and Antirhodos Island, now near the centre of the harbour between Qait Bay fortress to the north, Silsila on the east and Mahattat Al-Raml to the south, were in the same position.

These magnificent monuments were hidden beneath the waves after sinking in antiquity until 1996, when a joint mission by the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology and the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), with sponsorship from the Hilti Foundation of Liechtenstein, began scientific and archaeological studies in the Eastern Harbour.

Initial discoveries included the remains of the submerged royal quarter, among which were columns, statues, granite blocks, a sphinx, pavements and ceramics. The mission also identified the island of Antirhodos, the site of one of Cleopatra's palaces, the peninsula where Mark Antony's palace stood, the Timonium, was located, the Poseidon sanctuary and the royal harbour of Cape Lochias.

In 1997 the mission continued its underwater excavations and discovered the reefs at the entrance of the Magnus Portus. They also found the ancient coastline with its ruins revealing the inner palace, temples and administrative buildings. Evidence was also discovered suggesting that ships were docking in Antirhodos even before Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great. Archeologists have previously assumed that the whole of the Ptolemaic city of Alexandria, built by Alexander and developed through to the Byzantine era, particularly the fourth century when Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, lay beneath the modern city. Excavations at Kom Al-Dikka and other areas in central Alexandria have thrown up only isolated historical cameos, but these latest discoveries will, one hopes, enable historians and archeologists to trace a continuity from before the settlement of the ancient city, through its growth, development and decline. Further excavations in the harbour uncovered a 2,000 year-old shipwreck, statues, columns, platforms, docks and ruins dating from the time of Cleopatra.

The mission then turned to underwater excavations at Abu Qir Bay, where they found the sunken fleet of Napoleon Bonaparte along with the submerged cities of Heracleion and Canopus. These two cities figure prominently in ancient history and Greek legend, but their discovery cast fresh light on urban areas of the Mediterranean that predated Alexandria.

The discoveries included the ruins of the great temple of Heracleion, dedicated to Amun and Heracles- Khonsu. There were also giant statues of gods, kings and their consorts; as well as stelae, domestic implements, pottery, jewellery, and even the ruins of the wall of the inundated city, not to mention no fewer than the wrecks of nine wooden ships.

These excavations revealed important parts of a lost world, not only the ancient city of Heracleion and the eastern reaches of Canopus but a sunken part of the Great Port of Alexandria and the city's legendary royal quarter. The finds shed new light on the history of those cities and on the history of Egypt as a whole over a period of almost 1,500 years, from the last Pharaonic dynasties in the Canopic region to the rise of the Ptolemies after the death of Alexander the Great, followed by Roman control, the advent of Christianity in Byzantine late antiquity and, finally, the dawn of the Islamic era.

Famed for its temples, especially those of the god-king Osiris, Canopus was the site where the goddess Isis was believed to have found the 14th and final part of Osiris's savaged body. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was murdered by his jealous brother Seth, who scattered the dismembered parts of his body all over Egypt. Isis, so legend has it, assembled the scattered pieces and placed them in a vase which was kept at Canopus. Osiris, who also summoned the annual floods, is often represented in the shape of a "canonic" vase with a stopper in the shape of a crowned head.

Following all these discoveries, all that was required was an underwater museum to make these monuments accessible to the public. However, setting up an offshore, submarine archaeological site anywhere is not an easy task, let alone in a city with the water pollution problems of Alexandria. Yet the remarkable discoveries made by underwater archaeologists over the last decade justify further serious efforts for what would be an invaluable cultural exercise.

The site and form gives cause for conjecture. Should it be in Alexandria's Eastern Harbour, the Sisila area or Abu Qir Bay? What will it look like? Should it resemble the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney or the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology at the spectacular Uluburun Wreck in Turkey, or the Musée de Marine in Paris? All these display a collection of sunken ship wrecks, flora and fauna.

These questions and more were raised at an international workshop held in 2006 to discuss the feasibility of constructing such a museum. On the table were a projected ground plan, an architectural design and a programme to study the environmental conditions of the Mediterranean Sea at Alexandria and its state of marine pollution, the socio-economic problems related to the success of the underwater archaeological museum project, and its urban impacts. The workshop was held under the umbrella of UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture at the Alexandria Art Creativity Centre, where a multidisciplinary team of 28 international and Egyptian experts were gathered.

During the workshop Culture Minister Farouk Hosni revealed that the aim of the workshop was not only to study the possibility of building the world's first ever underwater archaeological museum in Alexandria, but is also to set up international principles as a model or a pilot project for any country which wanted its own submarine museum. Singapore, China and Greece are on top of the list.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, described the initiative as a "beautiful dream" for Alexandria. He told the assembled experts that he had decided four years before to stop removing all ancient objects from the seabed with the exception of coins, jewellery and small artefacts that were vulnerable to looting.

"Hence, it is about time to think about an underwater museum to make such magnificent monuments accessible and visible to all," he said.

François Rivier, UNESCO's assistant director, reviewed UNESCO's efforts to protect and preserve the Alexandria monuments, especially the underwater sites. He also referred to previous attempts to establish an underwater museum between 1994 and 2001, the year UNESCO issued its convention on the protection of the underwater cultural heritage.

Rivier outlined the problems surrounding the establishment of a museum. Among the most serious issues was the sewage output into the sea, which obscured underwater visibility and led to a disturbing increase in pollution. Beyali Hosni El-Beyali, a consultant for the water and drainage company, said however that the Alexandria governorate had already closed the three main sewerage tunnels with outlets in the archaeological area. The closure was permanent, and they were only opened upon the governor's direct orders when it was considered necessary to let out rain water on stormy days. "For the last three years the tunnels have not been opened at all," El-Beyali pointed out.

El-Beyali told Al-Ahram Weekly that a new project aimed at upgrading Alexandria's sewage system was now under comprehensive study in order to find a way of separating the rain water drainage system from the city's waste water system, which would be diverted to a sewage station in the desert near king Maryut. "The on- land treated waste water will be used for cultivating woodland areas southwest of Alexandria," he said, adding that this project was scheduled to be implemented in three phases in cooperation with international experts and the International Monetary Fund.

Hosni explained that the projected museum would be one of the world's modern wonders. It would be on three floors, the first one an onshore building exhibiting the previously submerged objects from all over Alexandria -- not only the Eastern Harbour -- as well as any further items that might be discovered in the future and could not be left in situ. The second would contain important items from the sea that might be installed in their original environment and exhibited in aquariums. The third level would be an underwater plexi-glass tunnel providing a unique window on the sunken capital of the Ptolemies.

"This level would stretch only a few kilometres along the seabed, or round one area of the sunken city, in an attempt to provide us with a first experience by which we could judge the success of the technology and, if there are any disadvantages, avoid repeating them in further extensions," Hosni said.

"I would like visitors to be able to view this marvellous discovery in situ," Hawass said. "It would be the first underwater museum of its kind in the world and I'm sure we can meet the challenge."

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