Thursday, June 09, 2005


Alexandrias Submerged Archaeology


26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744

Diving in Alexandria amidst the ruins of the ancient past,
like this basalt head of a Pharaoh discovered in Abu Qir.

Rasha Sadek sinks into the depths of Alexandria's Mediterranean in search of the city's submerged archaeology.
Shakespeare's writings are immortal and so, too, are the settings of his plays. Cleopatra's Palace that once saw the most thrilling drama of Mark Anthony, Cleopatra and Octavius, has survived time and nature, standing haughtily underneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea of Alexandria.

Thanks to the earthquake that rocked Alexandria in 1323 the Mediterranean has preserved to divers one of the seven wonders of the world -- Alexandria's Lighthouse, the remnants of which now lie nine metres on the sea bed.

A new tourist attraction has found its way to historical Alexandria. Wreckdiving is a dive into history where entire cities, palaces and ships from Pharaonic and Graeco- Roman times -- dating as far back as 300 BC -- lie beneath the Alexandrian shore. With almost 8,000 monuments -- including fighter planes, light cruisers and submarines of WWII that sank along the coast of Alexandria, Abu Qir, Alamein, Marsa Matrouh to the Libyan border -- Alexandria has become the provider for a most interesting diving experience. How incredible it must be to dive amidst gigantic landmarks of history such as those. I wondered, until experiment provided me with the answer.

There is only one diving centre in Alexandria that caters to the growing interest in marine archaeology: Alexandra Dive. Ashraf Sabri, the owner, a hyperbaric consultant and a professional diver with an interest in underwater archaeology, has now made it possible to dive amidst the remnants of the ancient past.

Undoubtedly, Alexandria has been the muse -- writers and poets aside -- of lovers. The romantic ambiance of the Corniche, greenery of Montazah, historical aroma of the Roman Amphitheatre, Kom Al-Shokafa catacombs and Pompeii Pillar as well as the cultural influence of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, are all but one Alexandria, of which E M Forster said: "the best way of seeing Alexandria is to wander aimlessly." The other Alexandria, however, has a whole other dimension. It's a sunken city, the value of which is indeed worth exploration.

At Alexandra Dive, at the Eastern Harbour of Alexandria, I was welcomed as an old friend. I wanted to see what once stood as a wonder of the world, what I studied in a Shakespearean play and what it's like to dive with the Pharaohs.

I had never dived; it was like asking God for heaven when I'm plunged in sin. However, a 30-minute intro was all that I needed. And take it from an amateur, you don't have to be a pro to get the chance to see the sunken treasures.

It's utterly safe, especially with highly qualified, well trained instructors. The Alexandra Dive staff followed the intro with a slide show presentation, a lecture on the sites, their historical importance, and details of the objects to be found there. Together with an English couple, I thought the photos were only a show-off, something we'll only see on the monitor, just like the agenda of a politician running for presidency. But who would have thought.

An hour later, at 11am, we were boarding the ship. The English couple, having travelled the world diving in all seas, were accompanied by Sayed, an instructor who knew the sunken sites like the palm of his hand. While I, poor thing, too scared to jump off the deck, was entrusted in the good hands of Mahmoud Zedan. A reassuring look in his eyes told me I could trust this man with my life.

PHAROS ISLAND: And so it was. Our first stop at Pharos Island outside the harbour was nine metres deep. At the moment we were penetrating the Mediterranean water, I was preparing myself for the privilege of seeing a vanished wonder. Indeed a wonder for architects, the Lighthouse was the tallest building on earth (117 metres), the mirror of which dazzled scientists with its reflection that could be seen 35 miles offshore. And there it emerged on the sea bed.

Among a collection of Graeco-Roman and Pharaonic columns, big blocks of the Lighthouse just lay there in dignified silence. Made of red granite, the smallest part of the wonder was at least five metres wide. We further penetrated the water and spun around the Lighthouse and there was a window.

What are the chances of seeing a wondrous structure constructed in 270 BC, shattered by a series of natural disasters, immersed under the sea, and getting to touch it?

It was all so real that visualising the building during olden times was possible, especially with the opening of the window.

At the time of King Ptolemy II when the Greek Sostratus designed the Lighthouse on the eastern tip of Pharos Island, the structure was designed in three stages: the base was square, the middle octagonal and the top circular. Only the octagonal part, broken into pieces in the sea, survived. The base and the tip, however, became the victims of ruthless nature. The Lighthouse was a building of exceptional quality, guiding seafarers approaching Egypt's most important metropolis on the Mediterranean in the Ptolemaic era. For a little over 1,500 years, the mirror of the Lighthouse was used to reflect the sun's rays during the day and fire at night.

It was now time to dive further forward, to another 8,000 monuments in Pharos Island. As we approached the site, the excitement became too much and consequently, the bubbles I had been emitting lessened. It became an oxygen-less moment.

There was a pile of treasure in front of us. Six headless sphinxes -- the 14th century earthquake is of course to blame -- were scattered among columns from Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman times. They were of different shapes and sizes, leaning against each other. Something magical about them was inviting.

I instantly recalled what Sabri said the other day about the blind Englishman who dived some weeks earlier with him at the same site. "I was able to touch and feel what others couldn't see," said the blind man. As overwhelmed as he was, I was too. I closed my eyes, inviting none of the other divers to share what I was about to feel. Selfish I admit.

In gentle taps, I started "feeling" the scent of the past on a sphinx. Exotic. The body, the hands... I then moved to the base of a Pharaonic granite obelisk, curving my fingers to its twists and angles. Brushing away hashaf (seaweed) that grew on the obelisk, some hieroglyphic inscriptions appeared. Less bubbles.

It goes without saying that no matter how phenomenal the ruins of the ancient look in a video film or in photos, the real thing is awesome, especially under water.

The mild sea current brought us to a wine press, shattered into two halves, each, I was told, with a radius of 50cm and length of 75cm. Wine, grapes, red and green, the picture was colourfully evoked.

Thumb up. It's now time to go back to the surface. After 50 minutes of bedazzlement, the first thing I caught sight on land was Qaitbey Fort, a mediaeval citadel built by Mameluke Sultan Qaitbey in 1480 AD, using the fallen stone and marble of the Lighthouse. It is this fort that stands where the wonder once stood...

LOVERS' ISLAND: Legend has it that at this site, where Cleopatra's Palace sank, if a woman throws a penny or a flower, her wish about her beloved comes true, and he stays with her eternally. "Let love forever come true" was what I wished for although I didn't have a coin or a flower. Still, I can tell you the magic of the legend hasn't faded.

The sunken site of Cleopatra's Palace is filled with a passionate aroma carried by the waves from the time Mark Anthony and Cleopatra declared their love in 37 BC until today, five metres under sea level. The English couple caught it, and so did I. Limestone and columns of the summer palace are sprayed on the sea bed. With hieroglyphic and Greek texts, the site tells the sad story of the last queen of Ancient Egypt who took her own life in 30 BC immediately after Anthony took his under the impression that she had already died.

Inside the Eastern Harbour, where the palace is, also sank a number of Cleopatra's sun boats around which are littered dozens of clay amphorae in various shapes and sizes. "The round big ones were used for wheat, while the thin tall ones, resembling an elegant woman's body, were for carrying wine," Sabri told me earlier. Each foot we dived, we bumped either into an amphora half buried in the sand, all exposed, or broken ones. It got so exciting as we all, using body language, guessed "what the shape of that amphora was before we found its handle and what the royal goods it carried were". Some were of course covered in hashaf that is rich material for aquatic life and drew some small fish to wander next to us. I was lucky to find a piece of an amphora that, I don't know how, looked as new as the day it was made. Pure and clean, the original colour of the clay had been preserved. My guess was "wheat".

The day appeared to bear more surprises than expected. In a magical mixture made by accident between the ancient and near past, the remains of an Italian fighter plane shot down in WWII suddenly loomed out, surreally surrounded by a forest of ancient columns and obelisks. The body of the plane is split into two, the tail still preserving its shape.

The pilot's cabin, also in excellent condition, carried another eerie surprise; the pilot's mask. It laid there inside the cabin as if the dead body of the pilot was trapped inside. More bubbles came out around the English woman and I, followed by two cries. It felt like watching a thriller when the audience is suddenly shockingly taken aback. The yellow mask was found only a day earlier by the excavation mission while cleaning the 15-metre Italian plane.

ABU QIR AND BEYOND: Starting in 1992, the Department of Underwater Archaeology of the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology led by Frank Goddio has brought to light many findings of great historic interest, especially in Abu Qir.

In this site, northwest of Alexandria, Heracleion City was pushed down to the sea 15 metres deep. The temple of Heracleion was a sanctuary superbly honoured and maintained by the Ptolemy kings. Besides being one of the most prominent religious centres, the city was the main trading port as early as the sixth century BC.

Abu Qir's site provides for a rich diving experience especially with hundreds of amphorae from Greek and Roman times. The amphorae are one evidence left of the strong trading connection between Egypt and Graeco-Roman cities.

The ships carrying royal goods in those amphorae had turned a wreck, magnetising schools of fish. Not only that but an anchor which dropped down from one ship of Napoleon's fleet resides among the amphorae. It was here, in the 1798 Battle of Abu Qir between Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte that, as a result of serious logistical errors, 17,000 men perished. Eleven of the French fleet's frigates were either sunk or captured. The remains of the fleet can be reached by diving along the Med coast.

In 1942, during WWII, a C-class British light cruiser-turned-anti-craft cruiser was spotted and attacked by German dive bombers. Seriously damaged, the cruiser sank northwest of Alexandria. Together with destroyers, submarines and battleships, the remnants of WWII should not be missed. You can actually get in some of them, and take the pilot's or captain's place in command.

As long as wreckdiving is the issue here, Marsa Matrouh is opulent with WWII remains. One interesting story about a German submarine comes to mind. In 1941, the U-75 submarine's crew was proud of having sunk nine British ships in five missions. However, 14 of the crewmen were killed when the British destroyer Kipling spotted the U-75 and attacked it by depth charges. The remains of the submarine can be visited just off Marsa Matrouh.

ALEXANDRA DIVE: It is the only diving centre in Alexandria that responded positively to the treasures underneath the Med Sea. Ashraf Sabri, the man who took the passion for underwater archaeology from Niece to Alexandria, opened the club in 2001 and received divers from around the world. They found in Alexandria another magnificent aspect other than the usual "stroll of the Corniche".

Sabri's passion is obvious in the ambiance of Alexandra Dive. The centre is situated right on the port with a wonderful view where you can see the whole of Alexandria on the other side of the Eastern Harbour. Nature seems to be a keyword adopted by Sabri in the open-air centre.

The "Golden Book" is one interesting notebook dedicated to divers who narrate their diving experience among the ruins of the ancient. If you get the chance, you'll see that it's a multi-lingual book. Russian, German, French and Japanese are but a few of the translations. "I watched a documentary on the Natural Geographic channel about archaeologists finding the remains of the Lighthouse and palaces in Alexandria's Mediterranean Sea. And today I dived there myself," was part of a page signed by an Austrian. "Cool! Never expected to. The opportunity just presented itself."

For me, a born today diver, I would have never made it through the sunken palaces, cities and fighters had it not been for my guarding angels, the instructors who guarded me with their life. And in the Golden Book, there's a lot said about them. Signed by an Englishman was, "A history lesson that won't be forgotten! An awakening experience.

Our dive master was absolutely fantastic and helped us take some fantastic photos. The hand signals were really helpful in understanding the era each artefact was from. We will recommend this experience to all our friends back home."

Those 40 million divers out there are missing out on a treasure.


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