Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
5 - 11 April 2001
Issue No.528
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Diving into history

It will soon be possible to explore the underwater treasures of Alexandria's eastern harbour. Rehab Saad peers into the deeps

Egypt is already famous for its diving. Travellers come from the four corners of the earth to explore the underwater realms of coral reefs and exotic marine life off Hurghada and Sharm Al-Sheikh. Now Egypt offers divers the chance to venture into a submerged city off Alexandria, and explore an eerie, waterlogged domain of ruined palaces, crumbling colonnades, ancient sphinxes and mysterious statues.

Tourist officials see Alexandria's underwater treasures as a potentially huge tourist attraction. The renowned city can now be promoted as uniquely combining tours of a submarine city with visits on dry land to Pompey's Column, the Catacombs and the Roman settlement at Kom Al-Dikka. In Alexandria's submarine museum, 7,000 Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman monuments from 300 BC are preserved under the waves, at depths of between eight and 15 metres.

'Alexandra-Dive' is the first and only diving centre in Egypt to offer this underwater historical experience. The centre was inaugurated in the Mediterranean seaport last Thursday and will be in operation in May.

The centre's owner, Ashraf Sabri, is an internationally recognised specialist in hyperbaric (deep sea) health care and a professional diver. Before setting up Alexandra-Dive, Sabri owned and operated a well-known diving centre in Nice, France for 15 years, which paved the way for his new enterprise in Alexandria. He combines long experience in dive centres, with the necessary contacts with foreign tour operators and travel agents.

The idea of a diving centre in Alexandria dedicated to exploring its underwater treasures came to Sabri in France, when he heard news reports about the excavations taking place in the eastern harbour.

"That was about seven years ago and the underwater discoveries were making headlines in the French press," he remembers. "It raised tremendous interest and many of my clients in France asked me about the diving opportunities. Unfortunately I had no answers. Neither the Alexandria governorate nor the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation could provide me with the information I sought." It was then that the idea of establishing a diving centre in Alexandria germinated in Sabri's mind.

"My dream came true when I visited Alexandria, my homeland, and met governor Abdel-Salam El-Mahgoub. El-Mahgoub listened to my ideas and encouraged me to pursue the project. It was as if he were awaiting an adventurer who could carry out such a project at the eastern harbour. From that time my career took a different course. I decided to quit France and return to Alexandria as an investor," Sabri recalls.

It took him two years to gather all the required papers and licences. "I had to deal with the governorate, the military, the antiquities authority, the Shoreline Protection Authority, marine authorities and others. While I was undergoing these formalities, I took a post in Sharm Al-Sheikh's new hospital as a hyperbaric consultant. But as soon as the papers were ready I took up permanent residence in Alexandria," Sabri explains.

Sabri says that travel agents are already attracted to the project and are booking places for their clients. Travel agents are sending representatives to explore the project's potential and see how it develops. "Among those interested are the British, Germans, Swiss and Americans," he confirms.

Submerged Antiquities Underwater divers who want an alternative to the coral reefs of the Red Sea can soon join the throng to explore submerged pharaonic and Greco-Roman treasures offshore Alexandria. A diving centre was inaugurated last week in Alexandria to offer divers a life-time underwater experience
Underwater divers Underwater divers

From May, "Alexandra-Dive" hopes to have 100 divers a day. Although Alexandria is unaccustomed to flocks of divers, most of the needed amenities are already there, argues Sabri. Most divers, he says, are attracted to the simpler three star hotels so abundant in Alexandria. "Divers use hotel facilities only for sleeping. They leave the hotel early and stay out until nightfall. To guarantee they have the right kind of accommodation we should ensure the cleanliness of three star hotels," Sabri advises. "We could also use the villas and hotels along the northern coast which only operate at full capacity in summer," he says.

Alexandra-Dive offers five diving spots in the eastern harbour. The first is called Qaitbay and is situated close to the Qaitbay fort at depths of between eight and 10 metres. It contains about 4,000 archaeological pieces that date from Pharaonic to Graeco-Roman times. To explore this site properly, two dives are recommended, each lasting 45 minutes.

The second spot is called Qaitbay 2 and is 200 metres north of Qaitbay fort. In this area, a diver will see dozens of amphorae around an ancient wreck. The area can all be explored in a single dive.

Qaitbay 3 is the third spot, 650 metres north-west of Qaitbay fort, at depths between 15 and 18 metres. Here divers can explore wrecks from the third century BC. A diver needs only one dive to explore the area.

The fourth spot is called East Harbour, Site One. It is found in the eastern harbour and is up to eight metres deep. The site includes relics of the royal zone from Ptolemaic and Roman times and several columns, sphinxes and royal statues. To see the area properly, two dives are recommended.

The fifth and last dive is East Harbour, Site Two. Here the dramatic remains of a downed World War II Italian fighter plane loom out of the gloom, surreally surrounded by a forest of ancient columns and statuary. The site only needs a single dive.

Alexandra-Dive's trips start early in the morning, preceded by a lecture on the site, its historical importance, and details of the objects there. The divers then board either a 20 metres long diving boat, designed in the Pharaonic style with an ex-navy officer as captain, or a second vessel, 18 metres long, that is always ready in case of emergency. The vessels are equipped with compressors, diving tanks, equipment for 50 divers, still and video cameras.

Divers are accompanied by professionals from Alexandra-Dive, a guide from the Organisation of Submerged Antiquities and a marine. "There is full cooperation," Sabri stresses. Those without diving experience will be offered a three-day course before their trip.

One thing tempers Sabri's optimism: the official fee imposed on every diver. "I have to pay 50 Egyptian pounds to the Organisation of Submerged Antiquities for each diver and five to the Shoreline Protection Authority,' he says. Sabri considers the tax excessive and hopes it will soon be lifted. "We should encourage divers by offering attractive prices at the beginning. This is a new kind of activity that should be promoted," he says.

Alexandra Dive's Web site is at

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