The Alexandria Underwater Museum Project
The seas surrounding the more than 2,000 year old city of Alexandria have been witness to numerous important historical events. Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic dynasty and Cleopatra VII as well as Napoleon and Nelson are famous names connected with this region. While the Bay of Alexandria still houses the remains of the famous Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the world, as well as the ruins of the Ptolemaic palace, the nearby Bay of Abukir saw the sinking of the ancient cities of Canopus and Herakleion into the ocean and, more recently, in Napoleonic times, it was the site of three naval battles which left numerous shipwrecks on the sea floor.
The first indications of the existence of important underwater cultural heritage in the Western and Eastern Bays of Alexandria were found at the very beginning of the 20th century. It took however many years for real archaeological excavations to begin.
UNESCO’s engagement since the 1960s
UNESCO has been interested for more than 40 years in the preservation and protection of the underwater sites in Alexandria. Its attention was first drawn to the sites by scientific studies, and particularly by Kamel Abul-Saadat, Egypt’s first and self-taught underwater archaeologist, who was one of the pioneers having discovered the remains.
Following the 1967 war, which made the coastal area of Alexandria a military zone and made exploration impossible, in autumn 1968, UNESCO sent a survey mission, composed of the pioneer archaeological diver Honor Frost and the geologist Vladimir Nesteroff, to Alexandria. They dived the site and confirmed that both the ruins representing a part of the Pharos, as well as the remains of submerged buildings representing the lost palace of Alexander and the Ptolemy, were of great historical and international interest. In the aftermath of the war, activities ceased for more than ten years, but the detailed report of Frost and Nesteroff laid the groundwork for later excavations of the sites.
Excavations of the Pharos and of the Palace of Ptolemy
In the early 1990s, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities took measures to protect Alexandria’s Quait Bey Citadel, located in the Eastern Bay, from sea erosion. 180 cement blocks, each weighing several tons, were deposited on the sea floor along the vulnerable north-eastern perimeter of the site. However, unwittingly, the cement sea wall was being raised on the vestiges of Alexandria’s ancient lighthouse, the Pharos.
Recognizing this dilemma, the Egyptian authorities and UNESCO organized in 1997 a workshop on Submarine Archaeology and Coastal Management. It resulted in a plan of action to protect the Citadel without destroying the Pharos remains and to remove the submerged breakwater that defaces the Pharos site.
From 1994 to 1998, a Franco-Egyptian team inspected the submerged ruins of the Pharos and other remains in the Alexandria Bay in order to develop a topographic map clarifying the charts of Abul-Saadat and the UNESCO reports by Honor Frost. It became aware of the enormous extent of the site, covering an area of 2,5 hectares, and comprising approximately 2,500 pieces of stonework of archaeological interest.
In the following years, another international team completed archaeological work on the site of the palace of Ptolemy, establishing its location. It gathered valuable historical information and found huge pieces of mortar and limestone, evidence of an important earthquake.
The Problem of Pollution
The bay hosting Alexandria’s underwater heritage is heavily polluted. This not only clouds the water, making it difficult to view the artefacts, but also accelerates their erosion. The mission of UNESCO’s International Hydrological Programme, organized in 1998 and 1999 in cooperation with the Egyptian authorities, was to evaluate the situation focusing on the management of water resources and wastewater. International experts discussed the results at an international conference and formulated recommendations for a comprehensive solution.
Plans for an underwater museum
In 1998, a second mission of international experts was sponsored by the Egyptian authorities and UNESCO. Its mandate focused on conservation and development options for the underwater archaeological sites of Alexandria. In consultation with Egyptian experts and authorities, it was recommended to develop the Quait Bey Fort, and eventually the Eastern Harbour sites, as underwater museums. Also, their nomination for World Heritage Status was considered.
In consequence, UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture of Egypt convened an International Workshop in 2006 to study the possibility of the establishment of an Underwater Museum which resulted in the recommendation to undertake the necessary feasibility study.
This feasibility study will start in 2009. It will discuss the practicability of a museum placed partly under water, exhibiting the heritage of the Bay of Alexandria in sit, in compliance with the ethic and scientific principles of the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. UNESCO has established an International Scientific Advisory Committee, gathering eminent international experts, which will accompany the feasibility study.