Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 December 2009
Issue No. 978
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A piece of history resurfaces

After 14 centuries, a giant monolith from a submerged temple was raised from the seabed in Alexandria last week, Nevine El-Aref watched the dramatic recovery

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There was more activity than usual in Alexandria's Eastern Harbour last week as a team working offshore made preparations to ready the dock for the unloading of a giant piece of history. An enormous yellow crane stood ready to lift a pylon, or ceremonial entrance tower, belonging to the Ptolemaic temple of Isis Lochias which has been under the sea for 14 centuries.

Meanwhile, five underwater archaeologists in diving gear were inspecting the planned route on the seabed along which pylon tower would be moved.

The event was watched by 1,000 or so Egyptian and international journalists, TV anchors, photographers and producers as well as curious local people. It was planned that the media observe the event from the deck of a yacht, however, this wasn't possible due to the bad weather that hit Alexandria

The weather also interfered with plans for raising the pylon. After mud and scum which clung to the surface of the pylon, a huge, single block of granite was removed, the monolith was dragged across the seabed for three days from its original position at Shaba to bring it closer to the harbour edge for its final extraction.

At 2pm sharp the crane moved, and onlookers had their first glimpse of this hitherto virtually unseen piece of Ptolemaic architecture. Weighing nine tonnes and at 2.25 metres tall, the pylon looked beautiful as it surfaced, touching the air for the first time since the shoreline collapsed and the sea moved in at some time around the seventh century BC. The piece was a single slab cut from the red-granite quarries of Aswan and was once part of Isis Lochias Temple, which was located alongside Queen Cleopatra's intended mausoleum in the sunken Royal Quarter beneath the waters of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour.

After being raised and safely brought ashore, the pylon tower was transported to the Roman theatre where it will be fully cleaned and restored in preparation for becoming the centerpiece of an underwater museum which will eventually be constructed offshore in the Stanley area of Alexandria. The museum will exhibit more than 200 objects raised from the Mediterranean seabed.

"This is an important part of Alexandria's history and it brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city," said Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who was present at the event. He described the pylon tower as unique among Alexandria's antiquities.

The pylon was not discovered until 1998, when it was found along with 400 other artefacts by a Greek archaeological mission working with divers from the Underwater Archaeology Department in Alexandria. At the time they were conducting a comprehensive archaeological survey in the coastal area of Shatbi.

The pylon is the first submerged artefact to be lifted out of the sea since 2002, when the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) prohibited the removal of any submerged objects.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, explained that behind prohibiting the extraction of submerged historical pieces were two reasons. On the one hand, the SCA is conducting an extensive archaeological and cultural project with UNESCO to study all the procedures necessary to build a new underwater museum in Alexandria. On the other hand, extracting further pieces would require more time as would the cleaning of the objects from accumulated salts

When the planned museum is in place, visitors will be able to enjoy an underwater tour walking along special tunnels among the various sunken objects. "If the study shows it's possible, this could become a magical place, both above and underwater," Hawass said.

"If you smell the sea here, it means that you are smelling the history of ancient Alexandria," Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Ibrahim Darwish, head of museums in Alexandria and one of the archaeologist-divers, said the tower was part of an entrance to a temple dedicated to Isis Lochias and was located on Cape Lochias. According to ancient sources, Cleopatra's mausoleum stood near this temple. A door lintel and a coin bearing the image of a similar tower were among objects discovered there in 1998.

Archaeologist Harry Tzalas, who headed the 1998 underwater archaeological mission, told the Weekly that the lifted pylon was the most important artefact found in the submerged Royal Quarter as it is a symbol of an amalgamation of Greek and Pharaonic architectural styles. Tzalas pointed out that since the pylon, which is cut in the ancient Egyptian architectural style, was found at the entrance of the Greek temple of Isis Lochias, and shows that some of the monuments of Alexandria were not only in the Graeco-Roman style but Pharaonic as well.

Although the Eastern Harbour is the place where Mark Anthony died after being defeated by Octavian, and where Cleopatra tragically ended her life, Tzalas said, the couple were not buried there. He explained that the Cleopatra mausoleum was being built near the Isis temple but was not ready when she died, and she was not buried there.

The Hellenic Institute for Ancient and Mediaeval Alexandrian Studies has carried out 13 underwater archaeological surveys in Alexandria since 1998. The area of study extends for 14km east of the promontory of Silsileh (ancient Cape Lochias), to the peninsula of Montazah (ancient Taposiris Parva). The surveys focussed on a series of sites that were detected by preliminary diving and through the use of a side-scan sonar device.

At Shatbi, where the pylon was found, many architectural elements made of granite, each weighing several tonnes, have also been discovered. It appears clear that the archaeologist- divers are working on part of the submerged Royal Quarter that, in Ptolemaic times, among other buildings was a palace sanctuary of Isis and the mausoleum of Cleopatra.

This site is adjacent to the submerged eastern contour of the Royal Quarter that was partially located on the promontory, having at its tip the temple of Isis Lochias. Man-made targets were detected during the side scan sonar survey. Some deep-water targets can be interpreted as shipwrecks (it must be assessed whether these are ancient or modern wrecks), while others may indicate man-made structures. The mission's fifth and sixth campaigns were most rewarding, as divers were able to work very near the tip of the cape due to the favourable weather. Several architectural elements, most made of red granite, were found scattered on the sea floor at a depth of seven metres. Most important because of their size are three very large pieces weighing several tonnes each: a complete pedestal; part of the framing of a gigantic door preserved up to a length of 3.6 metres; and a complete architectural element that was part of a pylon 2.6 metres high. This architectural element is of particular interest because it is known that in Ptolemaic times such monumental entrances were placed in front of temples to imitate the Pharaonic style, and this piece was found in the immediate vicinity where it is known that the temple of Isis Lochias stood. Another 10 smaller architectural elements made of granite were also found there.

In the coastal area extending immediately south of the first site, aerial photography has clearly shown man- made structures in the shallows near the beach. In the immediate vicinity north of these structures, in deeper waters, side-scan sonar has detected a number of abnormalities on the seabed of elongated contours running parallel to the cape. There is also a line of structures parallel to the coast. The depth varies from one to five metres. During the mission's fifth and sixth campaigns, two trenches were dug in the sand under the stilt on which the Shatbi Casino stands. Numerous pottery shards, most dating to the Late Roman period, as well as small broken pieces of marble and granite, were recovered. The excavation will be resumed in the future, in order to establish if, as it is believed, the Casino stands on the ruins of the Martyrium of St Mark, a revered monument dating from the fourth century AD.

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