Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
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Coastal region and small island papers 14

Annex 7

GRECO-EGYPTIAN UNDERWATER ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY NEAR ALEXANDRIA

BY HARRY E. TZALAS

Carried out during 1998–2000 by the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition and the Hellenic Institute for Ancient and Mediaeval Alexandrian Studies (A preliminary report)

Introduction

As President of the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition, I was invited to participate at SARCOM ’97 and present a paper on ‘The Two Ports of Alexandria’ (Tzalas, 2000). During the course of the conference, I had the opportunity to experience first hand the progress made in the underwater archaeological work that had been carried out in Alexandria by the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines, under the direction of Prof. Jean-Yves Empereur, as well as of other foreign missions. Contacts with the Egyptian archaeological authorities resulted in the Institute being officially invited to apply for a license to undertake an underwater survey in the coastal area of Alexandria.

After much thought and careful planning, it was deemed necessary to form a Greek Institute for the research and study of the history and the topography of ancient and mediaeval Alexandria. Jointly with the Hellenic Institute for the Preservation of Nautical Tradition (already experienced in underwater archaeology), we submitted an application to the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt requesting a license to survey the underwater zone that extends from ancient Cape Lochias (El-Silsilah) to the promontory of Montazah (possible site of the ancient Small Taposiris). The license was granted and the work began in May 1998 as a co-operative venture of the Greek mission and the Department of Underwater Antiquities of Egypt. Six further campaigns followed in June 1998, October 1999, May 2000, November 2000, May–June 2001 and November 2001.

Each campaign lasted four weeks; a total of 15 to 20 scientist-divers (archaeologists, historians, architects, marine geologists, topographers, photographers) took part in the work, under the direction of Harry E. Tzalas, an historian, and Ibrahim Darwish. Leading members were George Koutsouflakis, archaeologist-diver, Phaedon Andonopoulos, chief-diver, and George Nomikos, diver responsible for the local organization.

The Laboratory of Marine Geology and Physical Oceanography, Department of Geology of the University of Patras, collaborated with our mission. Under the direction of Prof. George Ferentinos and Prof. George Papatheodorou, marine geophysical surveys for the detection of ancient wrecks and man-made structures were produced using a side-scan sonar and a subbottom profiler, which were of great assistance. The team also included the following marine geologists: Maria Geraga, Athina Chalari, Dimitris Christodoulou and Aristofanis Stefatos.

The area of the survey and its historical context

The area allocated to the Greek mission extends along the shore of Ramleh from the eastern boundary of the Eastern Port of Alexandria, known in antiquity as Μεγας Λιµιν and Magnus Portus, to the Peninsula of Montazah. The Greeks called this area Η προς Ελευσινι Θαλασσα [Αθηναιος .ειπνοσο.ισται, XII, 576f (Teubner)], the Romans Mare Eleusinium. Eleusis was later renamed Juliopolis and Nicopolis. Since knowledge of the topography of ancient Alexandria is imperfect and extremely confused, we can only assume that the Ptolemaic and Roman walls followed the littoral east of Cape Lochias perhaps to the extent of the present suburb of Ibrahimieh (El Falaki, 1872; Botti, 1898; Jondet, 1921). We know, however, that beyond the walls there were coastal suburbs with a diversity of constructions and activities. The remains of numerous burial grounds, military installations, villas and residences, shrines and small monuments of various periods, including the Tomb of Stratonice and the Martyrium of Saint Mark, were visible before the urban expansion that has obliterated most of the ancient ruins (Bartocci, 1995). A number of activities that would not be permitted within the city walls, because they were viewed as detrimental to the environment, were established extra muros. So it is to be expected that such a large city as Alexandria – which at the end of the Roman period may have counted nearly a million souls – had, on the shores outside its boundaries, various stone quarries, tanneries, mummification workshops, dying basins, salt works, as well as fish-salting and -drying industries.

One of the aims of the survey programme was to trace the ancient and possibly mediaeval shorelines and discover the faint remains of these activities, which due to the rise of the sea and the subsidence of the land are now partially or totally submerged, while in deeper water we expect to discover remains of maritime activities. The ports of Alexandria experienced uninterrupted use for over 2,300 years. Most of the maritime trade was with the East, so it is logical to assume that the sea area just outside the entrance to the harbours holds remains of shipwrecks, scattered cargoes and ship equipment lost over the centuries.

The two first dive surveys focused on locating sites where ancient remains of structures or ancient artefacts could be found. During the 3rd and the 4th campaigns, we solicited the co-operation of the Department of Marine Geology of Patras University. Their side-scan sonar revealed suspected targets in the deep that may indicate the presence of shipwrecks, man-made structures and artefacts.

The archaeological finds

The zone of our survey extends 14 km along the Alexandrian coastline and covers an approximate area of 44 km2. We started by spot dive surveys of the zone extending from Cape Lochias to Stanley Bay. There was also a superficial survey of the area off the suburb of Sidi Bishr near the remains of a deep ventilation shaft, probably part of an early burial complex, today submerged and called by local tradition ‘the devil’s well’ (Bir Maasoud). A complete survey of the same areas by side-scan sonar followed, in order to understand its geomorphology.

With the experience gained during our campaigns, we now have a better understanding of the area and can concentrate our efforts on five sites that have revealed submerged antiquities (Figure 14).

Figure 14.
Plan of the
zone allocated
to the Greco-
Egyptian
underwater
archaeological
survey,
showing the
5 sites of
interest.

 

Site 1 at Chatby

Figure 15.
Side- scan sonar mosaic showing elongated features which 
may represent man-made structures. Two of these features 
cross at point A. (Vectors indicate the elongated features.)
Source: G. Papatheodorou

This site is adjacent to the submerged eastern contour of the Royal Quarters, which were partly located on the Cape having at its tip the temple of Isis Lochias. Man-made targets were detected by the side-scan sonar survey. Some deep-water targets can be interpreted as shipwrecks (we must assess whether those are ancient or modern wrecks); others may indicate man-made structures (Figure 15). Our 5th campaign was most rewarding. The calmness of the sea during most of November 2000 meant that our divers were able to work very near the tip of the Cape. At a depth of circa 7 m, several architectural elements, most made of red granite, were located scattered on the sea floor. More important because of their size are three very large pieces. A complete pedestal weighing over 12 tons, part of the framing of a gigantic door preserved up to a length of 3,60 m, weighing some 10 tons and a complete architectural element that was part of a pylon of 2,60 m height, weighing some 4 tons. The pylon piece is of particular interest because it is known that such monumental entrances were placed in Ptolemaic times in front of temples imitating the pharaonic style; and this piece was found in the immediate vicinity where it is known that the Temple of Isis Lochias stood.

[These architectural finds are in the vicinity of other granite blocks and sculpted elements found in 1962 by the late Kamel Abul-Saadat. They include a mutilated anthropomorphous granite sarcophagus lid, now in the garden of the Maritime Museum at Stanley. Most of the objects noted on Abul-Saadat’s map, except for those raised, have probably been covered by the eastern extension of the El-Silsilah Promontory and the protective concrete blocks placed as buttresses to the action of the sea in the 1970s (Morcos, 2000, pp. 42–43 and plate 4).]

Site 2 at Chatby

This is a coastal area extending immediately southwards of site 1. Aerial photography has clearly shown man-made structures in the shallows near the beach. In the immediate northern vicinity of these structures, in deeper waters, the side-scan sonar has detected a number of abnormalities on the seabed showing elongated contours running parallel to the cape. There is also a line of structures parallel to the coast. The depth varies from 1 to 5 metres.

A preliminary excavation was carried out near the Chatby Casino in November 2000 and another in May–June 2001. The reason for this survey was to investigate if, as it is believed, the Casino stands on the ruins of the Martyrium of St Mark, a revered monument of the 4th century AD. Two trenches were opened under the stilts of the Casino in 2000 and, at a depth of 1.5 to 2 m, a large number of pottery shards as well as small pieces of broken marble, granite and other manworked stones were found. All can be dated from the end of the 4th to the 6th century AD. Two more trenches were opened in May–June 2001, 40 m west of the Casino, with negative results. In both cases, the infiltration of seawater makes any digging impossible under a depth of 2 m, so we will have to revisit this site with proper excavating devices.

Site 3 at Ibrahimieh

This is a reef surrounded by sand at a distance of 560 m from the shore. A very important concentration of small stone anchors and stone weights, the largest and densest known in the Mediterranean, was discovered there. Of the 55 stone anchors and weights found, thirty have been lifted and delivered for conservation to the Kom El-Dekkah Laboratory. A large number of pottery shards, mostly belonging to late Roman amphorae, are cemented in the cavities of the rocks. Thirty-four shards of different types of amphorae were lifted and delivered for conservation to the same laboratory.

Figure 16.
Stone anchor found 
on site 3 at Ibrahimieh.
Photo: Hellenic
Institute for Ancient 
and Mediaeval
Alexandrian Studies

Artist’s impression of the use of this stone 
anchor.
Drawing by: Y. Pantzopulos
Study by: H. Tzalas

We believe that the stone anchors – all of the ‘three-hole-composite’ type – as well as the stone weights belonged to small fishing vessels, and were lost when they became entangled in the rough seabed (Figure 16). Thin sections of a stone anchor were made and a sample of stone from the Ibrahimieh quarry were analysed at the Department of Geology of the University of Patras. They were found to be similar to oolitic limestone taken from the same quarry. The same analysis will be carried out on all stone anchors and weights. We can already say that at least one of the anchors was of local provenance, which may indicate that the ship that lost it was local.

The most important find on this site came at the very end of our dives when the lead elements of a very large composite anchor were found and raised. There is a lead stock of 2 m length weighing over 250 kg and a heavy lead assemblage collar to secure the two arms to the wooden stock. The wood has been lost over the centuries of immersion in the sea, but we calculate that when the anchor was complete, its height must have been over 3 m and its weight around 600 kg. This is one of the largest anchors of this type ever found in the Mediterranean Sea, and it may be dated as between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD.

After conservation, all the material will be drawn and studied, and the results published.

Site 4 at Ibrahimieh

In the shallows neighbouring the Corniche, we found the remains of an unusually large stone quarry, extending along the coast for some 300 m and northwards into the sea for circa 70 m. The depths vary from 0,25 to 5 m. An artificially cut channel runs through the quarry and was probably used for removing stone blocks on rafts. The void resulting from quarrying has formed basins of various sizes and depths. These basins may have had a secondary use as tanneries and/or dying tanks. A number of cist burial sites coexist with the quarry and also some coastal constructions that are partly submerged and need further study to be understood. The whole of this site is being carefully surveyed and a topographic plan is being drawn. Sand has amassed in the basins and will have to be removed by hydro-lift to ascertain the depth of the carvings and eventually trace ancient remains that may hold valuable information for understanding the use of this site after its quarrying activities were abandoned.

On the beach between the quarry and the wall of the Corniche, superficial removal of sand has exposed an enormous quantity of large and small stones. Some of these limestone blocks are similar to the ones found in the sea and are the remains of the final quarrying activities before the quarry was abandoned. However, pieces of granite, basalt, marble and some limestone constitute the remains of architectural elements. At this early stage of study, it is premature to say which are ancient or mediaeval and which are modern. We believe that a number of years will be needed before a definitive publication on this site is possible.

Site 5 at Sporting

This site was discovered during our last survey and was noted when taking aerial photographs of the coastal area of Sporting. A large zone in the shallows is covered with the foundations and remains of a complex of man-made structures. The main building, of which the foundations can be seen deeply cut into the levelled rock, is square shaped and divided longitudinally into three parts. The total dimensions are approximately 57 by 18 m.

The direction is approximately east to west. There is an adjacent structure to the west that is a nearly circular elliptical shape with a diameter of circa 50 m. All structures preserve the deep cuttings in the rock as well as scanty remains of masonry. There are also some broken drums of columns and capitals. The area between the rectangular building and today’s shore is covered with deep carvings, which are the result of stone quarrying activities that probably preceded the large constructions and may have been part of the levelling of the site. Preliminary drawings were made of the submerged structures, but it will take a lot more time to completely study, draw and understand the nature of these very extended and important ancient remains. No dating can be advanced at this stage.

Recent finds and observations

During our 6th campaign of May–June 2001, besides excavating Site 2 at Chatby, we continued our survey of Site 1 at Chatby, and eight more architectural granite elements weighing circa. 1,000–3,000 kg were found. More stone anchors were detected and raised from Site 3 at Ibrahimieh while the stone quarry (Site 4 at Ibrahimieh) was extensively aerial-photographed and drawn. From Site 5 at Sporting, we raised two small stone capitals which were found in some unidentified submerged structures. We expect that, after conservation, these capitals will help in dating the submerged complex. Our 7th campaign followed in November 2001.

Concerning the ongoing project of widening the Cornish, there is no doubt that this has destroyed and/or covered ancient remains. At Chatby in particular (although the Casino will not be removed), irrevocable damage will affect the ancient coastline and the existing ancient remains. The submerged quarry at Ibrahimieh is, at this moment, being affected by the widening of the coastal road, and all ancient remains will probably be irrevocably destroyed. We were however pleasantly surprised to note that the work did not affect Site 5 at Sporting.

The site environment and local dynamics

It is known that, since the melting of the glaciers some 10,000 years BP, the sea-level of the Mediterranean has been raising steadily by an average of 1 m for every thousand years. Of course there cannot be a uniform pattern because other natural phenomena (such as tectonics, sliding of the continental sea shelf, subsidence of land due to the weight of sedimentary formations) can drastically modify the pattern. The shores of Alexandria, as well as those of the Nile Delta, are the result of sedimentary deposition and, although we know that the ancient littoral is submerged, there is no uniformity and no continuity in its submergence. Underwater surveys carried out recently in Alexandria by French missions at the Pharos site, as well as in the Eastern Port, indicate that the subsidence of the land could reach 5 m in certain areas. It will be the task of geologists, specialized in the study of the rise of the Mediterranean and the subsidence of the Alexandrian shores, to study the morphology of the submerged ancient coast.

The mission also focused attention on understanding the local environment and the dynamics that influence the various points of interest. The Alexandria coast is exposed to weather from all directions – with the exception of southerly winds. The combination of wind exposure and the influence of the open waters of the Mediterranean, which impact directly on the coast, are therefore primary factors in the understanding of any site of interest. Depending on the depth of individual locations, the marine environment can affect the topography and distribution of material on the seabed. This is more pronounced on the immediate coastal zone where wave action and erosion have serious impacts. There are numerous examples, but suffice it to say that the stone anchors located on the Ibrahimieh reef, according to the map produced by the dive team during the previous campaign, could not be found later on, as they had been removed by the action of swells and currents. The artificial rock cuttings at the Ibrahimieh quarry represent another indicator of the local marine dynamics which affect not only this location but any other unprotected coastal site along the Alexandria littoral. The rock cuttings were covered and uncovered several times by sand. With regard to the deeper rock cuttings lying approximately 40 to 50 m from the shore, the depth when checked two years ago was 2 m, but the depth of the same cuttings is now only one metre.

The marine dynamics of the area may, however, also be assessed from the side-scan surveys carried out by the marine geologist who re-scanned several targets of possible shipwrecks. Because in some areas the marine dynamics had shifted large quantities of sand and material, some points where covered and invisible to the re-scanning, while at the same time new materials were exposed in other areas.

In conclusion, it is evident that the marine dynamics both along and off the coast of Alexandria affect the individual sites and the distribution of material found on them. The large swells, experienced in the area and noticeable to divers at depths of as much as 12 m, are primary factors in the redistribution of material on the sea bed. Similarly the effects of longshore drift and erosion play an important role in the visible topographic features and the overall nature of the sites.

Taking into consideration the extent of the area of our survey, as well as the difficulties encountered by the divers because of its exposure to strong winds, we believe that at least 15 years of assiduous work will be needed in order to complete the general survey of the entire area. Depending on the finds that may come to light, lengthier periods may be justifiable to individually excavate sites of interest and proceed with the publication of scientific results.

References

Bartocci, M. (1995). Alexandrie, Plan de la Ville Ancienne et Moderne. In: André Bernand, Alexandrie des Ptolémées. Paris.

Botti, G. (1898). Plan de la Ville d'Alexandrie à l'Époque Ptolémaïque. Mémoire présenté à la Société Archéologique, Alexandria.

El Falaki, M. B. (1872). Carte de l'Antique Alexandrie et de ses Faubourgs. Copenhagen.

Jondet, G. (1921). Atlas Historique de la Ville d'Alexandrie et de ses Ports. Société Sultanieh de Géographie, Cairo, pls XXXVI, XXXVII and XXXVIII.

Morcos, S. (2000). Early discoveries of submarine arhaeological sites in Alexandria. In: Mostafa, M. H. et al. (eds.), Underwater Archaeology and Coastal Management: Focus on Alexandria. UNESCO, Paris, pp. 33–45.

Tzalas, H. E. (2000). The two ports of Alexandria. Plans and maps from the 14th C. to the time of Mohamed Ali. In: Mostafa, M. H. et al. (eds.), Underwater Archaeology and Coastal Management: Focus on Alexandria. UNESCO, Paris, pp. 22–32.

 

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