Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 July 2006
Issue No. 803
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Under the waves

Will Egypt build the first offshore underwater museum? Nevine El-Aref investigates

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: the head of the Nile god emerged from the seabed; a collection of the discoveries in situ and the great naos of Amun-Gereb's Temple (photos courtesy of Hilti Foundation and Franck Goddio)

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 Egypt's first ever offshore underwater museum.

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 last week in Alexandria 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 Alexandria's Mediterranean Sea and its state of marine pollution, the socio- economic problems related to the success of the underwater archaeological museum project and 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.

On the eve of the workshop participants were taken on a field visit to Alexandria's underwater archaeological sites, and listened to a presentation by Egyptian authorities on the current situation and recent activities carried out in the Eastern Harbour and around the Qait Bey Fort. This is also one of the suggested locations for the submarine museum.

The workshop was very well organised by the Cultural Development Fund (CDF). The opening session began with a short documentary relating Alexandria's ancient history from its inception by Alexander the Great up to modern times. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's speech, delivered by Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), 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.

For his part, Hawass 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.

Françoise 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 such 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.

However Beyali Hosni El-Beyali, a consultant for the water and drainage company, said 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 Ikingi 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.

"Establishing an offshore submarine museum in Alexandria is Egypt's obligation to protect its submerge antiquities," professor Ali Radwan, head of the General Union of Arab Archaeologists, told the Weekly. He suggests the museum might be built on two levels, the first on shore where the collection emerged from the seabed, and now on exhibition in Berlin, will be put on show. The second level could be a floating museum stretching out into the seabed through a U-Boat or a glass submarine that takes visitors on a tour of Alexandria's submerged ancient sites, the remains of which are scattered about the Eastern Harbour, the Qait Bey Fort, Sisila and Abu Qir Bay. "Such a submarine would be Egypt's open water museum," commented Radwan, who fears that building a fixed plexi-glass tunnel underwater could have serious repercussions. First, it could represent a threat to the safety of visitors in the case of seismic disturbance or any other natural disaster. Second, it would be a very expensive project which would cost the Ministry of Culture and the SCA a fortune to insure in respect of the safety precautionary measures, as well as for the required technology and the high level of annual maintenance. Third, it would give visitors access to one archaeological zone but prevent them from seeing others. Radwan explained that if the museum was built in the Eastern Harbour, where there were remains of the ancient capital of the Ptolemies with its paved roads, jetties, sphinxes and columns of temples and palaces, visitors would be unable to admire the site of Alexandria's ancient lighthouse at Qait Bey or the sunken Napoleonic fleet in Abu Qir Bay.

Alexandria's archaeological museums director Ibrahim Darwish believes that the site that really deserves a submarine museum is the Eastern Harbour, where the ancient city of Alexandria stood. He told the Weekly that, as an archaeologist, he could not draw a design for the underwater museum but could only provide a detailed map of the sunken monuments to the team of architects who will be responsible for the building.

Aymen Abdel-Moneim, head of the CDF and a director of the convention, said the workshop was organised as a result of a bilateral meeting which took place 16 months ago between the minister of culture and Rivier, who agreed on the need to protect Alexandria's underwater treasure from the threats it was facing such as damage, exploitation and the trade in objects found in wrecks.

Abdel-Moneim said all the experts, both foreign and Egyptian, agreed that the proper place for the museum was the Eastern Harbour, since it was the most suitable and simply the best location. This was not only because it was in a closed bay where the movement of waves was controlled, but also because it told the history of a unique civilisation in a now submerged city that once held sway over much of the ancient world. On the seabed lay the Ptolemaic royal quarter with its temples, palaces and paved roads. Queen Cleopatra's Palace and Antirhodos Island, located in the central port between Qait Bey fortress to the north, the Sisila area on the east, and Mahattat Al-Raml to the south, were also located there.

Abdel-Moneim 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 a plexi-glass, underwater 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," Abdel-Moneim said.

The suggestion of setting up a floating museum by providing a glass boat or submarine was rejected by the workshop members on the grounds that it would represent a threat to the sunken treasures, Abdel-Moneim said. All the experts agreed that such a boat might alter the topography of the sunken city while it was manoeuvring underwater. "That's why boats and yachts are forbidden to sail inside the bay of the Eastern Harbour, because their engines could hit a sunken block," he said.

The workshop also highlighted the need to reduce the amount of wreck diving in the bay. Diving would only be allowed under the total supervision of the SCA.

During the four-day workshop, professors from the Faculty of Science at Cairo and Alexandria universities displayed the results of their fully detailed inspection study of the sea water levels in the Eastern Harbour bay, the water wind speed and all activities within the bay. They said that over the last two decades the bay had been badly exploited, such as the filling of a part of the harbour's shore. That was why, Abdel-Moneim told the Weekly, the workshop had recommended putting on hold all maritime activities, development and investments within the harbour until the conclusion of the museum's feasibility studies and the completion of the master plan of the harbour site as a whole.

"The museum, in my opinion, will rescue the harbour and will put an end to its legendary problems," Abdel-Moneim pointed out. He added that when the museum was completed the authorities would always be keen to maintain the purity of the water.

The Ministry of Culture has now set up an executive team to follow up the execution of the workshop recommendations and take all necessary measures to put the project's feasibility studies into action step by step. This 18-month study will be financed by the revenue of Egypt's Sunken Treasure exhibition now in Berlin and later to move to France. "The museum will be Alexandria's 21st-century landmark," Abdel-Moneim says.

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