Raising the lost city of Cleopatra
By: Brahm Rosensweig
In 1998, after an exhaustive 6-year search of the bottom of Alexandria's East Harbour, the silt yielded up the fabled palace of Cleopatra. The royal city of the Ptolemies, thought lost after it was submerged by tidal waves and earthquakes in 335 A.D., also emerged from the deep.
A sphinx carved to the likeness of Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII, an excellently preserved 250 kilo statue of a priest of Isis, and what may be the royal barge that Cleopatra used to seduce Mark Anthony, were among the startling finds.
The project is the handiwork of Franck Goddio, the French-born marine archeologist and president of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology. "It's rather fantastic because it explains the ancient world, he enthuses. "Everything that was described by Plutarch and the ancient authors about when Cleopatra was reigning and living on this island with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony can be beautifully understood now from the map that we have achieved."
Goddio had long been intrigued with the idea of finding the lost city of the Pharoahs, archaeologists assumed still lay somewhere beneath the sediment of Alexandria's huge East Harbour, an area around the size of Manhattan's Central Park. In 1990 he proposed the project during a chance meeting with Egypt's minister of culture, and the idea took hold. In 1992 Goddio began to map the East Harbour using a variety of techniques.
Initially, the team used nuclear resonance magnetometers, devices that could map the seabed and produce a magnetic profile that would signal the presence of objects of archaeological significance. "If we didn't have this, the work would have been impossible," says Goddio. The magnetometers allowed the team to rule out certain areas, but weren't precise enough to be conclusive. Sonar scanning fine-tuned the process, providing sonic pictures of the underwater area. Three months of relentlessly combing the harbour produced enough data to form a cyberscape image of the lost city.
Then came the divers. In 1996, Goddio assembled a team of 20 divers to comb a huge area of sea floor. They donned dry suits and protective headgear against the sewage and filth of the city's harbour, and began to search. After a few dead ends, the team struck gold.
Ancient sources such as Plutarch and Strabo describe in detail the city of the Ptolemies that commanded the harbour. There was the private island of Antirrhodos, and a private royal harbour (where the royal barge was found). Slowly, the divers mapped out the contours of the promontories and havens that corresponded to ancient descriptions. Marble floors, lumps of red granite, and broken columns on the seabed signaled the location of Cleopatra's royal palace. New latex molding techniques were devised in order to have prints of hieroglyphic and Greek inscriptions that were unreadable underwater.
"When you see Antirrhodos Island you see perfectly that this island was commanding the harbour," explains Goddio. "Julius Caesar said that whoever wants to conquer Egypt has to conquer Alexandria, and whoever wants to conquer Alexandria has to conquer the harbour of Alexandria. We can add to this whoever wanted to conquer the harbour had to conquer this island."
For Goddio, the positioning of the island and the royal city offers insights into the enigmatic character of Cleopatra herself. "She was not a lady of luxury," he says. "She was a very powerful lady. She had a very heavy sense of politics. This is one of the things you can learn from the topography of the city.
"We found a superb, nearly intact statue of a great priest of Isis. All of the scientists working here with us think that we are on the site of a small temple of Isis. It is important because as Plutarch says, at the end of her life Cleopartra used to represent herself, and consider herself, as the goddess Isis herself. We know now that close to her palace there is a small sanctuary of Isis. We thought we might find one, we were not hoping even to find one, but we were more than happy when we did find it."