Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands
colbartn.gif (4535 octets)

Coastal management sourcebooks 2

Underwater archaeological investigations of the ancient Pharos

Centre d’Études Alexandrines, Alexandria

During 1994–1998, a Franco-Egyptian team conducted a salvage inspection of the submerged ruins of the famous ancient lighthouse of Alexandria – the Pharos. The need to protect from the northerly storms the fortress constructed at the end of the 15th century AD by the Mameluke Sultan Qait Bey on the Anfouchy peninsula at the eastern tip of the ancient island of Pharos, led to the construction of a submerged concrete wall at a distance of several dozen metres in the sea. It was quickly realized that this wall would cover an ancient archaeological site at a depth of 6–8 m. In the autumn of 1994, the Egyptian Antiquities Service asked the Centre d’Études Alexandrines [Centre for Alexandrian Studies] to undertake an urgent underwater investigation, a near-natural extension of our rescue activities on land in the centre of modern Alexandria.[1] Thanks to the means placed at our disposal by the Director of the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) since 1994, then, in 1995, by the ELF Foundation, later joined by the EDF Foundation, we have been able to undertake a major underwater archaeological investigation covering more than twelve months of field work, occupying on average some 30 divers.[2]

The objective of the salvage operation was to delimit the archaeological zone and to determine its nature. We therefore plotted a topographic map and developed graphical and photographical documentation for each element. Obviously, even before the first dive, we already had some idea of the site, thanks to the pioneer work of Kamel Abul-Saadat in 1961 and a UNESCO mission in 1968, following which Honor Frost published a preliminary report with some drawings which revealed the importance of the site.[3] However, in spite of these indications and those of amateur divers[4], the site remained more or less forgotten, owing to the nearly permanent state of war in which Egypt found itself since the beginning of the Second World War. Coastal surveillance led to a general prohibition of diving, with rare exceptions, and if underwater tourism has developed in the Red Sea, the turn of the Mediterranean [coast of Egypt] has not yet come.

It was, therefore, with surprise that we, in turn, discovered the extent of the site: over an area of 2.5 hectares, 2,500 pieces of stonework of archaeological interest were scattered about: columns of all sizes, in their hundreds, column bases and capitals, sphinxes, statues, and some immense blocks of granite which, given where they lie, certainly came from the famous lighthouse.

Hundreds of columns, mostly in pink granite from Aswan, but some of marble, range from the small modules of the small columns of Proconnesis up to the huge granite column shafts which reach 2.40 m in diameter; that is, the width of Pompey’s Column. This column was erected in honour of Diocletian and is one of the few monuments of [ancient] Alexandria still standing. This monolith is made of pink Aswan granite; it is 29.7 m high with a diameter between 2.7 m at its base and 2.4 m at its peak. The capitals belonging to these columns are of composite-Alexandria style, with floral volutes, sometimes in white marble or black granite. There were also several large bases of Ionic form in white marble. Alongside these architectural elements of Greek style, there were some pieces from pharaonic monuments, notably six papyriform columns, of which one bears Ramses II’s insignia. There were four obelisks; three were consecrated by Sethi I (Fig. 1) and the other is from a much later period, belonging no doubt to one of the Ptolemies. The first three thus date from the XIX dynasty, near the end of the 14th century BC, and the latter, from the early 3rd century BC.

Figure 1. An obelisk of Sethi I at the moment 
of its discovery.
Photo: Stéphane Compoint/Sygma.
Sethi I
Figure 2. Site of the Pharos of Alexandria: raising a 
fragmentary sphinx with no inscriptions.
Photo: Stéphane Compoint/Sygma.
fragmentary sphinx

Several sculptures belong to the pharaonic era; there were 28 sphinxes, bearing the insignia of the Pharaohs Sesostris III (XII dynasty), Sethi I, Ramses II (XIX dynasty) and Psammetic II (XXVI dynasty) (Fig. 2). Their dates therefore range from the Middle Kingdom up to the last dynasties, or the mid-19th century BC to the early-6th century BC.

The presence of some pharaonic elements cannot fail to surprise us. Fortunately, two egyptologists from IFAO, Jean-Pierre Corteggiani and Georges Soukiassian, were team members; underwater, they deciphered the hieroglyphics that most of the monuments bear. Several facts must be pointed out immediately: each sphinx is different from every other, so we must exclude the possibility that they formed part of an approach to a monument. All the inscriptions describe scenes of offerings to the divinities of Heliopolis, as do the inscriptions on the obelisks found at the underwater site. In the Hellenistic era, the venerable sanctuary of Rê was no more than ruins; Strabo described them as being abandoned. The sanctuary was burned down and thereafter became a veritable quarry. Strabo tells us, ‘Among the obelisks, two that had not been totally destroyed were transported to Rome’.[5] This was about 25 BC, and this exploitation of the Heliopolis site [as a quarry] had begun during the reign of the Ptolemies. Obviously, the transportation posed hardly any problems, crossing the Canopic Branch of the Nile then the canal that arrived at Alexandria between Lake Mariout and the southern part of the city wall. Given the good state of conservation of some of these monuments, we must suppose that they served to decorate the city, as did certain discoveries at the terrestrial archaeological sites.[6] Cleopatra’s Needles, the two obelisks that had been placed in front of the Caesarium in 13 BC, also came from Heliopolis.[7] It is not the place, in this paper, to draw up a list of the pharaonic monuments of Alexandria that we know from the ancient authors or archaeological discovery; we need simply note that the excavations at Qait Bey contribute a new group belonging to this ensemble. Some of the monuments had apparently been transported whole from Heliopolis, as one of the obelisks of Sethi I shows (Fig. 1): in one part of the excavation, we found three fragments and two larger parts of the base. It seems unlikely that they would all have arrived at the one place by coincidence.

Other pharaonic pieces have been re-cut; for example, papyriform columns, two sides of which have been cut smooth, and a sphinx well and truly quartered. They have visibly been re-used as building material. The quarry of Heliopolis was responding to other, less glorious, demands.

It may be concluded that the Greek city founded by Alexander the Great must have seemed exotic in the eyes of its citizens and its visitors, with monuments in the Hellenic tradition decorated with pharaonic elements. Even if these discoveries show us an unexpected aspect – not one we were hitherto unaware of, but on an unexpected scale – the presence of pharaonic monuments older by several centuries, indeed, by one and a half millennia for the sphinx of Sesostris III, does nothing to change the foundation of Alexandria or its history. We are clearly dealing with monuments taken from outside the city, as the inscriptions prove. Nothing has changed the traditional image we have of the Egyptian fishing village, which no new archaeological discovery at the terrestrial excavations can put in doubt.

Fragments of five colossal statues were found. First, there was the body of a Ptolemy represented as a pharaoh, in rose granite from Aswan. In its present state it measures 4.55 m from the base of the neck to the middle of the thigh. The visit of French President Jacques Chirac to the site in April 1996, provided us with the opportunity to bring up a colossal head which proved to fit the body just mentioned. It was a Ptolemy with young features and an almost female form. If one aligns this statue with one of the bases and adds a double crown, the total height of the original would have been close to 13 m. This reminds us that a colossal statue of Isis had been found at the same site by Kamel Abul-Saadat in 1962. We learned from Honor Frost that the Pharaoh Ptolemy had lain parallel to this royal spouse represented in the form of the chief deity of the Ptolemaic world; and their bases (2.2 m high) were found only recently under water, next to each other. They were one of the royal couples whose images stood at the foot of the Pharos. At least three such couples were so represented, judging from the fragments (two other heads wearing a nemes, and a female bust) and from the bases of half a dozen colossal statues that were found during the excavations (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Crown of Isis of Athyr; the crown was worn 
by one of the female colossi.
Photo: Stéphane Compoint/Sygma.
crown of Isis of Athyr

These royal colossi stood at the foot of the Pharos and bore witness to the care the Ptolemies took to associate their image with the most celebrated monument of the city. Each traveller entering the port passed in front of the statues. The place was very well chosen for this royal publicity. Was it to the ‘Saviour Gods’ that Sostratos of Knidos dedicated the Pharos? That would mean getting involved in a very long-lived debate, which would require much more development. Even so, it is remarkable that, in this Greek city of Alexandria, the Ptolemies chose to represent themselves as pharaohs. Of course, this way of representing royal figures was not unknown, as, for example, the couple representing Cleopatra with her husband, which was found in the last century in the suburb of Hadra.[8] No doubt, the idea was to point out to visitors to the city that they were entering the realm of the Ptolemies, masters of all Egypt, the pharaohs of their country, divinities standing above the ordinary kings of the region. These new discoveries reinforce even more the Egyptian-like decoration of the Greek city. It was a deliberate choice of the Lagide kings, the significance of which would require deeper consideration using the body of knowledge represented by the Aigyptiaka now being prepared in Alexandria.

Besides these statues, among the thousands of architectural elements, there is a series of granite blocks that catch the eye by their extraordinary size: they are often more than 11 m long, weighing 75 tons each. Twenty or so of these blocks are arranged in line starting from the foot of the Mameluke fort (Qait Bey) and running for about 60 m towards the north-west. Some of them have been broken into two or even three pieces, which indicate that they have fallen from a certain height. Being thus of an extraordinary size, arranged in a line, and broken in several fragments after falling, constitutes a strong temptation to attribute them to the famous Lighthouse, when it is known from ancient and Arab authors that these blocks stood precisely at the eastern tip of the Island of Pharos[9] and that tradition – which is not so very old, after all – recounts that the Sultan Qait Bey built this fortress on the ruins of this same tower. True, we have not found the statue of Zeus that stood on top of the tower, nor the dedicatory inscription of Sostratos of Knidos, which would remove all doubt. Yet, to what other extraordinary monument could we attribute these extraordinary blocks? The fact that they were of white stone (but not necessarily of marble, an unfounded deduction transmitted from one interpreter to another) [10], does not appear to be an obstacle to recognizing them as elements of doors – jambs and lintels – or window frames of the Lighthouse, parts that required the use of more solid material for pieces of this size. It is possible to produce larger elements from granite than from marble, and the use of this local material reduced the need to import it, while allowing the traditional techniques of Egyptian builders to be applied.

Obviously, we can never reconstruct the Lighthouse from the objects the archaeologists have found so far, but the desk-top work now underway allows us to hope that soon we shall have a more precise image of this tower, thus refining and correcting the image given to us by Hermann Thiersch at the beginning of this century.[11] The German scientist fixed our vision of the Lighthouse for nearly a century; now we can add new information from documents published since his book came out. They include newly found ancient representations of the Lighthouse (of mosaics, glass, precious stones etc.) and descriptions by writers who visited the monument.[12] These documents, as well as some information from our own archaeological investigations, show that this building was, far more than expected, a mixture of Greek and traditional pharaonic styles, illustrating well the particularity and originality of the Alexandrian world. The representations of the bas-reliefs of temples and pharaonic tombs describe for us the mastery of transportation and erection of obelisks and monoliths, the biggest of which exceeded 300 tons.[13] Thanks to these decorative scenes, to the perennity of the pharaonic techniques that allowed the erection of the magnificent Ptolemaic temples of Upper Egypt, and doubtless thanks also to the huge effort to translate Egyptian texts into Greek, starting at the time of Ptolemy II or even from the reign of his father [14], the Greek engineers profited from this experience. One therefore saw the multiplication of treatises on applied science, especially mechanics, in Alexandria. The architectural result is this tower, destined to guide travellers arriving at the Egyptian coast; a tour de force that greatly impressed its contemporaries who were soon to consider the Lighthouse one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

The 1998 campaign of underwater investigations on the Lighthouse has lead us to think, together with geophysicists, about the constitution of this site; apparently, subsidence is particularly strong in this region – from 5 to 7 m since Antiquity. It is therefore quite probable that, in ancient times, a good part of the site east of the Qait Bey Fort was above sea level and that, at the end of the age of antiquity, a dump had been established there, a sort of quarry where all the bits and pieces of dismantled monuments from various parts of the city had been accumulated. Only a few of them had been reassembled at this place and it is very difficult to distinguish these from the rest. The blocks of the Lighthouse were exceptional because of their great size which must have made their transportation difficult. It is notable also that nearly all the blocks at this site are made of Aswan granite, the marble and limestone having disappeared, probably into the lime kilns or to be used in new buildings. They were incorporated into construction work for the Qait Bey fort or even for the city the Ottomans started to build in 1517 on the isthmus that had developed on either side of the Heptastadium. The pieces of granite, a material much harder to work, were left, to become covered by the sea little by little at a time that is difficult to specify.

This subsidence phenomenon is corroborated by a discovery made in the autumn of 1996: about 350 m to the north of the Lighthouse, we found about forty Greek and Roman ship hulls dating from the 4th century BC to the 7th century AD. Their preservation was remarkable and, besides the usual wine amphorae, there were oil lamps, bronze vases and even ship anchors (Fig. 4). These vessels, which came from all over the Mediterranean – Crete, Palestine, Rhodes, Asia Minor, Tripolitania, Italy etc. – provide first-rate information for retracing the commerce of Alexandria. Here, I shall only deal with the conditions under which they were sunk: all sank within about 350 m of the entrance to the port of Alexandria, at a time when the Pharos was operating. The danger of the Egyptian coast arises from its lack of relief, so that mariners only see it at the last minute – and in that respect the Lighthouse was primordial in averting such danger – but also, as Strabo pointed out [15], from rocks at the sea surface or only slightly below it. We were able to follow this rocky bar parallel to the coast; it is now at a depth of 12 m. Given that the maximum swell is about 5 m, we must suppose a subsidence of 7 m to be able to imagine how, in a heavy storm, the unfortunate ships’ captains ran aground on this bar even though they could see the monuments of the capital of the Ptolemies on the horizon.[16]

Figure 4. An area about 300 m north of the Pharos: a lead 
anchor stock from one of the sunken ships.
Photo: Stéphane Compoint/Sygma.
lead anchor
[1] See Leclant, J. and Clerc, G. (1995). Fouilles et travaux en Égypte et au Soudan, 1993–1994. Orientalia, 64:229–233.
[2] See the preliminary report published in BCH, 119:424–457 (1995). Other accounts will appear regularly in forthcoming issues of the BCH and of the BIFAO.
[3] Frost, H. (1975). The Pharos Site, Alexandria, Egypt. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 4:126–130.
[4] See Mondo Sommerso (1980 ) and Schwartz, S.A. (1985). Opération Alexandrie. pp. 237–270.
[5] Strabo, XVII(27).
[6] For example, a lintel of Ramses II discovered in the emergency excavations to the north of the Radio Cinema, BCH, 119, p. 425 (1995).
[7] Gorringe, H. H. (1909). Egyptian Obelisks. The engraved inscription on a bronze crab which served as a support for one of the two Cleopatra’s Needles gives the date of their transportation and erection as 13 BC.
[8] The male head decorates the garden of the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria, and the upper part of Cleopatra can be seen at the Mariemont Museum. See also M.-C. Bruwier (1989), Chronique d’Égypte, pp. 224–237 and Musée Royal de Mariemont, Choix d’OEuvres: 1, Égypte, No. 40. (1990).
[9] Strabo, XVII(6).
[10] Ibidem.
[11] Thiersch, H. (1909). Pharos.
[12] A useful review of these new documents is given in Daumas, F. and Mathieu, B. (1987). Le Phare d’Alexandrie et ses dieux: un document inédit. Academiae Analecta, 49:43–55.
[13] The obelisk of Hatshepsut at Karnak weighs 323 tonnes, not to mention the incomplete obelisk still half cut in a quarry at Aswan; its weight is estimated at 1,168 tonnes! See Habachi, L. (1984). The Obelisks of Egypt, pp. 17, 60, 94, 155 etc., for their weights, and pp. 27–37, for their transportation and erection.
[14] See the article by Alain Le Bolluec, Sagesses barbares: Alexandrie IIIe siècle av. J.-C. Autrement, 19:63–77 (1992), evoking Greek translations from Jewish writings since the reign of Ptolemy I (p. 76).
[15] Strabo, XVII (6).
[16] The excavations of the Lighthouse and its surroundings is underway and we have only given the preliminary results. Two new campaigns are foreseen and the field work should be finished by the end of 1999.
start     Introduction    Activities   Publications     word
Wise Practices   Regions   Themes