The ruins of the sunken Alexandria
More than 2,000 years after Alexander the Great founded Alexandria, archaeologists are discovering its fabled remains. There’s no sign of the grand marbled metropolis founded by Alexander the Great on the busy streets of this congested Egyptian city of five million, where honking cars spouting exhaust whiz by shabby concrete buildings. But climb down a rickety ladder a few blocks from Alexandria’s harbour, and the legendary city suddenly looms into view. Down here, standing on wooden planks stretching across a vast underground chamber, the French archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur points out Corinthian capitals, Egyptian lotus-shaped columns and solid Roman bases holding up elegant stone arches. He picks his way across the planks in this ancient cistern, which is three stories deep and so elaborately constructed that it seems more like a cathedral than a water supply system. The cistern was built more than a thousand years ago with pieces of already-ancient temples and churches.
History: With all its lost grandeur, Alexandria has long held poets and writers in thrall, from E. M. Forster, author of a 1922 guide to the city’s vanished charms, to the British novelist Lawrence Durrell, whose Alexandria Quartet, published in the late 1950s, is a bittersweet paean to the haunted city. But archaeologists have tended to give Alexandria the cold shoulder, preferring the more accessible temples of Greece and the rich tombs along the Nile. There is nothing to hope for at Alexandria. Hogarth was spectacularly wrong. Empereur and other scientists are now uncovering astonishing artefacts and rediscovering the architectural sublimity, economic muscle and intellectual dominance of an urban center that ranked second only to ancient Rome. What may be the world’s oldest surviving university complex has come to light, along with one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Pharos, the 440-foot-high lighthouse that guided ships safely into the Great Harbour for nearly two millennia. And researchers in wet suits probing the harbour floor are mapping the old quays and the fabled royal quarter, including, just possibly, the palace of that most beguiling of all Alexandrians, Cleopatra. The discoveries are transforming vague legends about Alexandria into proof of its profound influence on the ancient world. The forgotten cisterns of Alexandria were in particular danger of being filled in by new construction. During ancient times, a canal from the Nile diverted floodwater from the great river to fill a network of hundreds, if not thousands, of underground chambers, which were expanded, rebuilt and renovated. Most were built after the fourth century, and their engineers made liberal use of the magnificent stone columns and blocks from aboveground ruins. Few cities in the ancient or medieval world could boast of such a sophisticated water system. The granite-and-marble Alexandria that the poets thought long gone still survives, and Empereur hopes to open a visitors centre for one of the cisterns to show something of Alexandria’s former glory.
The Alexandria of Alexandrians: At the order of the brash general who conquered half of Asia, Alexandria like Athena out of Zeus’ head leapt nearly full grown into existence. On an April day in 331 B.C. on his way to an oracle in the Egyptian desert before he set off to subdue Persia, Alexander envisioned a metropolis linking Greece and Egypt. Avoiding the treacherous mouth of the Nile, with its shifting currents and unstable shoreline, he chose a site 20 miles west of the great river, on a narrow spit of land between the sea and a lake. He paced out the city limits of his vision: ten miles of walls and a grid pattern of streets, some as wide as 100 feet. The canal dug to the Nile provided both fresh water and transport to Egypt’s rich interior, with its endless supply of grain, fruit, stone and skilled labourers. For nearly a millennium, Alexandria was the Mediterranean’s bustling centre of trade. But less than a decade after he founded it, Alexander’s namesake became his tomb. Following Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323 B.C., his canny general Ptolemy who had been granted control of Egypt stole the dead conqueror’s body before it reached Macedonia, Alexander’s birthplace. Ptolemy built a lavish structure around the corpse, thereby ensuring his own legitimacy and creating one of the world’s first major tourist attractions. Ptolemy, already rich from his Asian conquests and now controlling Egypt’s vast wealth, embarked on one of the most astonishing building sprees in history. The Pharos, soaring more than 40 stories above the harbour and lit at night no one knows exactly how, served the purpose of guiding ships to safety, but it also told arriving merchants and politicians that this was a place to be reckoned with. The city’s wealth and power were underscored by the temples, wide colonnaded streets, public baths, massive gymnasium and, of course, Alexander’s tomb. By the time Napoleon landed at Alexandria as a first stop on his ill-fated campaign to subdue Egypt, in 1798, only a few ancient monuments and columns were still standing. Two decades later, Egypt’s brutal and progressive new ruler Mohammad Ali chose Alexandria as his link to the expanding West. European-style squares were laid out, the port grew, the canal reopened. For more than a century, Alexandria boomed as a trade centre, and it served as Egypt’s capital whenever the Cairo court fled the summer heat. Greek, Jewish and Syrian communities existed alongside European enclaves. The British Egypt’s new colonial rulers as well as the French and Italians built fashionable mansions and frequented the cafés on the trendy cornice along the harbour. Though Egyptians succeeded in throwing off colonial rule, independence would prove to be Alexandria’s undoing. When President Nasser himself an Alexandrian rose to power in the 1950s, the government turned its back on a city that seemed almost foreign. The international community fled, and Alexandria slipped once again into obscurity.
Underwater Excavations: No one knows exactly what the Pharos looked like. Literary references and sketches from ancient times describe a structure that rose from a vast rectangular base itself a virtual skyscraper topped by a smaller octagonal section, then a cylindrical section, culminating in a huge statue, probably of Poseidon or Zeus. Scholars say the Pharos, completed about 283 B.C., dwarfed all other human structures of its era. It survived an astonishing 17 centuries before collapsing in the mid-1300s. One column had a diameter of 7.5 feet. Corinthian capitals, obelisks and huge stone sphinxes littered the seafloor. Curiously, half a dozen columns carved in the Egyptian style had markings dating back to Ramses II, nearly a millennium before Alexandria was founded. The Greek rulers who built Alexandria had taken ancient Egyptian monuments from along the Nile to provide gravitas for their nouveau riche city. Empereur and his team also found a colossal statue, obviously of a pharaoh, similar to one the Egyptian Navy had raised in 1961. He believes the pair represent Ptolemy I and his wife, Berenice I, presiding over a nominally Greek city. With their bases, the statues would have stood 40 feet tall. In 2008, Goddio and his team located the remains of a monumental structure, 328 feet long and 230 feet wide, as well as a finger from a bronze statue that Goddio estimates would have stood 13 feet tall. Perhaps most significant, he has found that much of ancient Alexandria sank beneath the waves and remains remarkably intact. Using sophisticated sonar instruments and global positioning equipment, and working with scuba divers, Goddio has discerned the outline of the old port’s shoreline. The new maps reveal foundations of wharves, storehouses and temples as well as the royal palaces that formed the core of the city, now buried under Alexandrian sand. Radiocarbon dating of wooden planks and other excavated material shows evidence of human activity from the fourth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. But how had the city sunk? Working with Goddio, geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History examined dozens of drilled cores of sediment from the harbour depths. He determined that the edge of the ancient city had slid into the sea over the course of centuries because of a deadly combination of earthquakes, a tsunami and slow subsidence. On August 21, in A.D. 365, the sea suddenly drained out of the harbour, ships keeled over, fish flopped in the sand. Townspeople wandered into the weirdly emptied space. Then, a massive tsunami surged into the city, flinging water and ships over the tops of Alexandria’s houses, according to a contemporaneous description by Ammines Marcellinus based on eyewitness accounts. That disaster, which may have killed 50,000 people in Alexandria alone, ushered in a two-century period of seismic activity and rising sea levels that radically altered the Egyptian coastline. The recent spate of finds would no doubt embarrass Hogarth, who at the end of the 19th century dug close to the lecture-hall site—just not deep enough. But mysteries remain. The site of Alexander’s tomb—knowledge of which appears to have vanished in the late Roman period—is still a matter of speculation, as is the great library’s exact location. Even so, ancient Alexandria’s remains are perhaps being destroyed faster than they’re being discovered, because of real estate development. Since 1997, Empereur has undertaken 12 “rescue digs,” in which archaeologists are given a limited period of time to salvage what they can before the bulldozers move in for new construction. Passing a new gaudy high-rise, Empereur cannot conceal his disdain. He says that the developer, fearful that striking archaeological treasures would delay construction, used his political connections to avoid salvage excavations. Like archaeologists of old, today’s visitors to Egypt typically ignore Alexandria in favour of the pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor. But Empereur is seeking funding for his cistern museum, while the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities envisions a series of transparent underwater tunnels in Alexandria’s harbor to show off the sunken city. The dusty Greco-Roman Museum is getting a much-needed overhaul, and a museum to display early mosaics is in the works. A sparkling new library and spruced-up parks give parts of the city a prosperous air.
Religious Turmoil: Early Christians threatened Alexandria’s scholarly culture; they viewed pagan philosophers and learning with suspicion, if not enmity. Shortly after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, in A.D. 380, theological schools sprang up around the Mediterranean to counter pagan influence. Christian mobs played some part in the destruction of the Library of Alexandria; the exact causes and dates of assaults on the library are still hotly disputed. And in A.D. 415, Christian monks kidnapped and tortured to death the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia, long considered the last of the great pagan intellects. Most historians assumed that Alexandria’s learned glow dimmed as the new religion gained power. Yet now there is evidence that intellectual life in Alexandria not only continued after Hypatia’s death but flourished more than a century later, apparently for Christian and pagan scholars alike. Less than a mile from the sunken remnants of the royal quarters, in the middle of Alexandria’s busy, modern downtown, Polish excavators have uncovered 20 lecture halls dating to the late fifth or sixth century A.D the first physical remains of a major center of learning in antiquity. This is not the site of the Mouseion but a later institution unknown until now. What astonishes many historians is the complex’s institutional nature. The homes, those of wealthy patrons, city halls or rooms at the public baths. But the complex in Alexandria provides the first glimpse of what would become the modern university, a place set aside solely for learning. Though similarly impressive structures may have existed in that era in Antioch, Constantinople, Beirut or Rome, they were destroyed or have yet to be discovered. The complex may have played a role in keeping the Alexandrian tradition of learning alive. Majcherek speculates that the lecture halls drew refugees from the Athens Academy, which closed in A.D. 529, and other pagan institutions that lost their sponsors as Christianity gained adherents and patrons. Arab forces under the new banner of Islam took control of the city a century later, and there is evidence that the halls were used after the takeover. But within a few decades, a brain drain began. Money and power shifted to the east. Welcomed in Damascus and Baghdad by the ruling caliphs, many Alexandrian scholars moved to cities where new prosperity and a reverence for the classics kept Greek learning alive. That scholarly flame, so bright for a millennium in Alexandria, burned in the East until medieval Europe began to draw on the knowledge of the ancients.
Yet even on a sunny day along the curving seaside cornice, there is a melancholy atmosphere. Through wars, earthquakes, a tsunami, depressions and revolutions, Alexandria remakes itself but can’t quite shake its past.
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