Modern Alexandria, the main Mediterranean port of Egypt and the country’s second largest city, lies on a narrow strip of land between the coast and a lagoon known as Lake Mariut. Originally founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, the town became a busy port and centre for Greek culture during the Ptolemaic Period, during which time the famous Pharos lighthouse was constructed. It was also during this time that the Great Library of Alexandria was established to house what would become the largest collection of ancient manuscripts in the classical world. Sadly the library was reported to have burned down, along with an irreplaceable collection of papyri during the third century BC.
Many of the structures in the northern part of Alexander’s great new modern city have now vanished beneath the waters of the Western harbour. The major public buildings of the time were affected by subsidence, causing them to sink into the sea and they were lost to modern explorers before the early years of the 20th century when several major discoveries were made to the north and west of the present coastline. Recent excavations have brought to light many of the earliest monuments, thanks to the technological advances in underwater archaeology over the past decade. Teams headed by Jean-Yves Empereur and Franck Goddio, as well as the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities’ Department of Underwater Archaeology have already made many exciting discoveries, especially in Alexandria’s eastern harbour.
During the time of Alexander the city was divided up into five areas, including a royal quarter called the ‘Brocheon’. There is evidence that the city had been established near an existing Egyptian village with a small harbour called Raqote and it was probably in this quarter that the native Egyptians lived. From the time of Alexander’s death in 323 BC the city flourished, becoming the capital under Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers until the death of Cleopatra VII when the country was absorbed into the Roman Empire. The area around the eastern harbour became more important during the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods and it is these monuments which are the most prominent today.
It has recently been announced that the dream of the world’s first underwater archaeological museum may soon be realised in Alexandria Harbour, in order to make the monuments in the bay accessible to everyone. At present the planned museum is still at the funding and logistics stage, but happily, sewage outlets into the archaeological area of the harbour have already been closed off permenently in an attept to make the murky water clearer. The planned museum is to be on three floors, the first displaying statues and finds onshore, another with exhibits in an ‘aquarium’ environment and the last, along the sea bed into the bay, constucted as a plexi-glass tunnel that will provide a window onto Cleopatra’s sunken town. An ambitous project indeed, which is hoped to be completed around 2013.
For more information on underwater excavations in Alexandria Harbour see Frank Goddio’s website.
One of the most celebrated monuments of ancient Alexandria was the Pharos lighthouse, an architectural masterpiece commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter I around 297 BC and inaugurated by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus fifteen years later. Probably the earliest known lighthouse, the Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, stood on a small island 1.5 km off the coast in the eastern harbour and was connected to the land by a narrow causeway, the ‘Heptastadion’. The lighthouse is thought to have towered around 130m above the harbour, rising in three levels with a square base, an octagonal second tier and a round tower holding the lantern. The beacon was lit by a fire burning in the tower and shone onto a huge polished bronze mirror which reflected the light far out to sea. Strabo, writing in the first century AD, described how the light could be seen by sailors 50km offshore. It was mentioned by numerous classical, Arab and European travellers and continued to shine over the treacherous rocks of Alexandria harbour for more than fifteen centuries. The monument was somewhat neglected after the Arab conquest and by the 10th century it had greatly deteriorated due to earthquakes and subsidence. The lighthouse finally collapsed during a fatal earthquake in the 14th century after which it was no longer able to function. In the breakwater immediately north of Fort Qait Bey, Jean-Yves Empereur and his team have discovered what is believed to be many gigantic fallen blocks from the Pharos tower. Qait Bey, named after the Arab sultan who built the massive fort in the 1470s, marks the original position of the lighthouse and incorporated many of the original blocks in its construction. Qait Bey Fort can still be seen today after many enlargements and reconstructions and is the home of the Naval Museum. Nothing now remains in situ of the Pharos lighthouse but nearby at Abu Sir a 17m tall structure built as a funerary monument by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, apparently replicates the Alexandrian three-storied tower.
Necropolis of Anfushi
The small cemetery of Anfushi lies to the west of the eastern harbour on the Ras el-Tin peninsular. Five Greek rock-cut tombs dating back to the third and second centuries BC were discovered in the early part of the 20th century. Each tomb consists of an open courtyard surrounded by chambers containing one or more burials. The most interesting is Tomb I, part of the right-hand group, accessed by a rock-cut stairway painted with mythological scenes. The burial suites are elaborately decorated with Egyptian deities (Osiris, Isis, Anubis and Horus), crouching sphinxes and other Egyptian themes. The burial chamber of Tomb III in the left-hand group contains a large sarcophagus of pink Aswan granite. The Anfushi tombs are characterised by their decoration of geometric motifs in black, white, blue and red squares, lozenges and octagons.
The Serapeum and ‘Pompey’s Pillar’
On a hill in the oldest part of Alexandria in the south-west of the city, are the ruins of the Serapeum, bordered on the north by a large Muslim cemetery. Little remains today of the cult centre of the god Serapis who was created when the cult of Osiris was merged with the Apis cult (and several Greek gods) during the reign of Ptolemy I. The king built a small temple to Serapis, only to be replaced with a later temple by Ptolemy III and a gold plaque, now in Alexandria’s Graeco-Roman Museum, commemorates its foundation in two languages. The temple enclosure was thought to contain a tomb of the sacred Apis Bull and burial vaults for sacred jackals in subterranean galleries. It may also have housed a small library. The temple complex, which was destroyed by Christians in 391 AD is now an archaeological park containing several pharaonic and classical statues and sphinxes found in the area. The most famous monument in the park is the erroneously named ‘Pompey’s Pillar’, a column of red granite 30m tall, which was erected in 298 AD in honour of the Emperor Diocletian (seen on a Greek inscription on the base). It was named ‘Pompey’s Pillar’ when travellers during the Middle Ages wrongly attributed it to Julius Caesar’s rival Pompey, who they thought was buried here and it has since become one of Alexandria’s main landmarks.
The catacombs at Kom el-Shuqafa consist of a labyrinth of Graeco-Roman tombs dating to the first two centuries AD. This complex warren of tombs, discovered in 1900 on Abu Mansur Street in the Karmouz area, were cut into the rock beneath the modern city. Access down a spiral stairway leads to three levels of burials dating to different periods in antiquity, although the original tombs may have belonged to just one wealthy Alexandrian family. The central shaft leads to a vestibule with vaulted niches and to the Rotunda, a secondary shaft with a domed ceiling. A doorway to the left passes into the Triclinium, a large pillared hall with stone couches which was used for funerary banquets. To the east of the Rotunda is a separate large hall known as the ‘Hall of Caracalla’, said to contain the bones of young Christians who were massacred by that emperor in 215 AD (but with no historical basis). Beyond this hall is a burial chamber painted with scenes of Isis and Nephthys protecting the mummy of Osiris on a couch in the Egyptian style. To the north of the Rotunda a stairway leads down to a lower story which contains the most interesting tombs. Here are many galleries of loculi (where the deceased were placed) and the walls of the main tomb are decorated in a fusion of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman themes, dating back to the Emperors Domitian and Trajan. Egyptian symbols such as the winged sun-disc and uraeus mingle with Hellenistic elements such as the pine-cone staff of Dionysus. Flanking the entrance to the burial chamber are carved reliefs of Anubis and Seth-Typhon in the guise of Roman legionaries. Again we can see the image of the deceased lying on a funerary couch protected by Egyptian deities amid the decoration of floral garlands and Medusa heads. Not far from the entrance to the Kom el-Shuqafa catacombs are the ‘Tigraine Tomb’ and the ‘Wardian Tomb’ from the western necropolis complex which have been relocated and reconstructed here and again contain decoration in pharaonic and Greek style.
Roman Odeum at Kom el-Dikka
In a park in the centre of Alexandria, on the northern side of Midan el-Gumhureya is a Roman amphitheatre, the only example of this type of monument extant in Egypt. The small Odeum, dating originally from the 2nd century AD, was a roofed semi-circular theatre used for music and poetry performed on a stage paved with mosaic tiles and contained seating for more than six hundred people in thirteen tiers of white marble. The theatre was later remodelled, but destroyed during an earthquake probably in the 6th or 7th century. It was discovered during modern building work and excavated by a Polish team of archaeologists during the 1960s. More recent excavations at the site of Kom el-Dikka, which means ‘Hill of Rubble’, have revealed many remains of the Roman central city, including a bath-house, cisterns, a gymnasium and streets of the residential area. To the east of the Odeum, a large villa dating to the reign of Hadrian has been named the ‘Villa of the Birds’ because of the magnificent mosaic floor in the main room depicting various species of birds. The Villa of the Birds is one of the best-preserved examples of a large Roman residence in Egypt.
The el-Shatbi Necropolis is close to the waterfront of Alexandria to the east of the eastern harbour on Port Said Street. This is the most ancient necropolis in Alexandria, dating back to the third century BC. Although undecorated, the architecture is of great interest, the main tomb being modelled on a Greek house. The entrance leads into two corridors, with halls containing burials in loculi. An open courtyard leads to a vestibule and the main burial chamber beyond contains two sarcophagi in the shape of beds. Part of the main tomb at el-Shatbi is now flooded. Many important finds have been unearthed in the necropolis, including beautiful polychrome terracotta statuettes of two Alexandrian ladies, now in the Graeco-Roman museum.
Mustafa Kamal Necropolis
Also part of the eastern necropolis, four tombs, dating to the third and second centuries BC, can be found on Moasker Romani Street in Rushdi. Tomb I is the most impressive, comprising several chambers with loculi arranged around a central open courtyard. This is accessed by a stairway. In the middle of the courtyard, an altar faces the south wall and behind there are three doorways leading into a large transverse vestibule. The courtyard is decorated with engaged Doric columns, small sphinxes on plinths and above the central doorway, a painted frieze depicting ladies and horsemen in a libation scene. On the opposite wall a cistern for water was fed by a well in a chamber to the west.
There are many other attractions for the visitor in Alexandria. Apart from the many gardens, mosques, palaces, parks and of course the beaches, there is the Graeco-Roman Museum where many finds from the Alexandrian monuments are housed. The museum is open from 9.00am to 4.00pm and entrance costs EGP 8. The Bab-Rosetta, just past the museum, also deserves a visit – this is the Greek Quarter where wealthy Greek Alexandrians built their magnificent villas at the turn of the 19th century, in streets named after rulers from all periods of Egyptian history.
One of the city’s recent treasures is the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina, inaugurated in 2002. This new library aims to become a great cultural centre, going some way to replace the ancient Alexandrian library tragically destroyed some 2000 years ago. International aid has helped to develop the project, a huge ultra-modern structure consisting of eleven stories under a roof of glass and steel panels, which took ten years to complete. The Bibliotheca will contain eight million books on seven floors as well as a new antiquities museum comprising over one thousand artefacts, a large conference centre and a planetarium. The site, next to the University of Alexandria’s arts faculty, is thought to be close to the site of the original library.
The brand new Alexandria National Museum was inaugurated in August 2003 to document the history of the city during the Pharaonic, Roman, Coptic and Islamic eras. The museum is housed in a exquisite Italian-style former palace built in 1929 by Bassili Pasha, a prominent citizen of Alexandria. After being owned by the American Consulate for 37 years, the palace was bought by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, who have spent EGP 25 million on restoration and conversion into a museum. The antiquities from the historical periods are displayed on three floors and include over 1800 artefacts including several items from recent underwater excavations in the region. The building will also incorporate an auditorium and an open-air theatre. The museum can be found in the old American Consulate building on Fouad Street.