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

2. Alexandria's place in history

Ancient Alexandria

The site of Alexandria and its coastal environs appear to have possessed some significance even before Alexander the Great founded the city. Greek literary tradition dating back to Homer recognizes the island of Pharos as a landing stage for international navigation, and there is some evidence of Pharonic port facilities to the northwest of the island. Rhakotis, on the mainland, was one of several hamlets that guarded the Egyptian coastline from possible sea-borne incursions during the Pharonic period.

However, it was with the founding of Alexandria in 331 BC that the site steps into the full light of history. A causeway known as the Heptastadion, was constructed to link the mainland to the island of Pharos, thus creating two remarkable harbours: Portus Magnus to the east and Eunostus to the west. Within the innermost corner of the Eastern Harbour, close to the Heptastadion, a structure known as the Kibotos was built, and functioned as a lock connecting the sea with Lake Mariout to the south. The lake was in turn connected to the River Nile by canals, thus providing a link for maritime shipping to the inland waterways of Egypt and greatly increasing the possibilities for transport and commerce.

Due to its unique geographical position and man-made facilities, Alexandria flourished around the Eastern Harbour, where the lighthouse stood on Pharos to the west of the entrance, and the Royal Quarter spread over Cape Lochias and El-Silsilah (Al-Silsila) to the east (Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Positions of harbour
installations of ancient
Alexandria, superimposed
on a chart of the present
-day city (redrawn by M.
Turner after Morcos, 2000).


Perhaps the most picturesque description of the Eastern Harbour is one left by Strabo, a geographer of the first century BC. ‘On entering the great port, the island and lighthouse of Pharos lie to the right while on the left are seen a cluster of rocks and Cape Lochias, on whose summit a palace stands. As the ship approaches the shore, the palaces behind Cape Lochias astonish one because of the number of dwellings they contain, the variety of constructions, and the extent of their gardens …’ (Strabo, The Geography, Vol XVII).

From the time of its foundation by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, and continuing for almost one thousand years thereafter, Alexandria experienced uninterrupted growth and prosperity. It flourished and grew rich and productive and became, in Strabo’s words, ‘the greatest emporium in the inhabited world’ (El-Abbadi, 2000). Within decades of its foundation, it had become the major commercial centre of the ancient Mediterranean, and for more than three hundred years it remained the richest and most prosperous city of antiquity. Its eventful history has left Alexandria with a variety of archaeological remains, many of which are now submerged (Morcos, 1985).

The Pharos and the Qait Bey Citadel

Figure 2.
Reconstruction of the ancient Pharos 
Lighthouse (
Thiersch, 1909).

Figure 3.
Ground floor plan of the Qait Bey 
Citadel superimposed on the 
reconstruction of the ancient Pharos 
Lighthouse (
Thiersch, 1909).

The Pharos, the beacon of old Alexandria and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was built in the third century BC under Ptolemy I and Ptolemy II. A structure rising to a height of about 120 m (Figure 2), it cast a bright light that could be seen for 30 nautical miles. Strabo described it as being constructed of white marble. The task of constructing a building of such a height on such a narrow base has baffled archaeologists and engineers. The importance and grandeur of the building secured for the Pharos a position of pre-eminence in the annals of civil engineering (Hague and Christie, 1975). Al-Masudi left a reliable eyewitness account of the lighthouse as he saw it in 944, before a violent earthquake brought down the top part of the tower in 955. A series of earthquakes from the 10th to the 14th century completed the destruction. Its remains lie underwater near the entrance to Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour. The Qait Bey Citadel, built by Mameluk Sultan Ashraf Qait Bey towards the end of the 15th century, stands on the site of the former lighthouse. The re-use of the site was first suggested by Thiersch in 1909 (Figure 3).

Alexandrian archaeologists have been aware for a long time that a significant part of the ancient city is underwater, the result of local tectonic changes and global sea-level rise. Ruins dating from 500 BC are submerged 2–5.5 m below the surface of the sea. Some of the submerged monuments remained very obvious. Late in the nineteenth century, two magnificent obelisks (1500 BC), one lying and the other standing were facing the Eastern Harbour only 120 m from the shore. Of the two Cleopatra’s Needles that once adorned the entrance to the Cesarium temple, one now stands on the Thames embankment in London. The other was offered by Khedive Ismael in 1879 to the USA to be erected in New York’s Central Park (Figure 4). Gorring (1882), who transported the obelisk, noted that several other columns could be seen standing under the water on a clear day. Breccia (1914) maintained that the outline of Antirhodos Island and several monuments could be seen on a clear day under the waters of the Eastern Harbour. The coastal waters of Alexandria were a tourist attraction at the end of the 19th century. A one-day boat trip conducted by Abbé Suard allowed tourists to view many submerged structures and statues. The highlight of the excursion as it appeared in ‘Alexandrie ancienne et nouvelle’ (Suard, 1899) was a visit to the Pharos site, where divers equipped with ropes and harpoons attempted to lift pieces of marble and stone for the tourists.

Figure 4.
Cleopatra’s Needle facing 
the Eastern Harbour, 
in 19th century Alexandria, 
before its transport to 
New York in 1879 
(after Breccia, 1914).


In 1961, Kamel Abul-Saadat discovered a statue of Isis (Figure 6 and Figure 7) and other Pharaonic artefacts in Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour. He identified another 18 items scattered on the sea floor between the Qait Bey Citadel and Diamond Rock, a distance of 130 m (Morcos, 1965; Frost, 1975).

The submerged archaeological sites then remained relatively undisturbed until coastal erosion at the base of the citadel caused concern for its stability. In 1993, approximately 180 concrete blocks, of 7–20 tons each, were placed 30 m offshore from the most eroded section of the Citadel’s base, to create a submerged breakwater. Unfortunately the blocks were placed directly on top of antiquities found along the margins of the submerged Pharos site. The resulting furore in the national and international press ended further dumping of blocks until a more thorough engineering and archaeological survey could be carried out, and an integrated solution found to give optimum protection to all aspects of the site.

The coastal erosion threatening the Qait Bey Citadel and the controversy surrounding its protection led the Supreme Council of Antiquities to request the Centre d’Études Alexandrines of France’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique to study the area around the Citadel. A privately-funded Franco-Egyptian mission consisting of 30 divers and led by Prof. Jean-Yves Empereur was launched. The mission started its work in the autumn of 1995. Its aim was the full documentation of the whole site as well as the restoration of a number of important pieces. Since then the mission has continued its work for a number of seasons and located and recorded many archaeological pieces, mainly architectural elements, such as building blocks, columns and capitals, most of which are made of Aswan granite. Thirty-four pieces have been salvaged, restored and are now displayed in the archaeological gardens of Kom El-Dekkah in Alexandria.

The description of the 2,500 pieces scattered over an area of 2.5 hectares attests to an extraordinarily rich underwater archaeological site. Hundreds of columns of Pharaonic and Greek style, mostly in pink granite from Aswan but some in marble, ranging from small nodules to huge granite shafts 2.4 m in diameter, have been documented. Twenty-eight sphinxes bear the insignia of well-known Pharaohs from the 19th to the 6th century BC. There were four obelisks: three Pharaonic (end of 14th century BC), and one Ptolemaic from a much later period (early 3rd century BC). All these elements help to build-up a picture of the Pharos (Empereur, 1995, 1996a, 1996b, 1998, 2000).

The many interesting artefacts raised by Jean-Yves Empereur and his team since October 1995, the work of Franck Goddio’s group on mapping the Eastern Harbour since 1996 (La Riche, 1996; Goddio and Darwish, 1998; Goddio et al., 1998; Foreman, 1999; Goddio, 2000; ) and the threats posed to these sites by erosion, pollution and misdirected sea defence efforts, focused the world’s attention on Alexandria in the late 1990s.


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