The Pharos excavations


The Pharos excavations

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Land excavations


Jean-Yves Empereur

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The preliminary examination

In October 1994, Dr Jean-Yves Empereur, director of the Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines (CEA) responded to a call from the Egyptian Organisation of Antiquities (EOA) and began a preliminary examination of a stretch of sea just outside Alexandria's eastern harbour. His immediate mission was to evaluate the importance of a little known archaeological site lying under six to eight metres of water that was then being threatened by the construction of a modern concrete breakwater intended to protect the Mameluke fort of Sultan Ashraf Qaitbay, built around 1477. The campaign of autumn 1994 established an initial map charting some 30 important architectural fragments but the documentation gathered was not sufficient for a detailed interpretation of this veritable field of ruins. At first sight, there was a seemingly random and, in some areas, dense scattering of blocks over 2.25 hectares but with no clue as to their provenance nor how they came to be deposited in the sea. What was required was a better equipped and longer campaign to chart and illustrate all the architectural elements discovered.

From the outset, this project promised to be more than the average dig. Writers of antiquity, with Strabo to the fore, tell us that Alexandria's celebrated Lighthouse, constructed around 280 BC, stood more than 100 metres high on the eastern tip of the Island of Pharos. Its destruction is reckoned to have been caused by a series of earthquakes from the 4th to 14th centuries of the Christian era and it has long been supposed that Qaitbay fort occupies the site and perhaps the foundations of this Wonder of the World.

The first findings

During the winter of 1994-1995, Dr Empereur was approached by the Elf Foundation and Gedeon, a French multi-media company, who agreed jointly to finance the mission to the tune of US$350,000. Thus, in May and June of 1995, phase two began. An expanded team of divers, topographers, egyptologists and photographers set about the detailed marking, charting, illustration and analysis of approximately 1000 archaeological fragments lying on the sea bed. Their findings were exciting: amongst the hundreds of columns, both Pharaonic papyriform and Hellenistic, there lay capitals, sphinxes, sections of obelisks, parts of colossal statuary and inscribed blocks.

It soon became evident from inscriptions that many of the Pharaonic elements came originally from Heliopolis near modern Cairo. Their presence in Alexandria can be explained by the Ptolemies known habit of transporting ancient monuments to decorate their new capital, but just how they then ended up in the sea is not quite so obvious. It is, however, known that, after the Cypriot king, Pierre I de Lusignan, sacked Alexandria over two days in 1365, the Mameluke rulers of Egypt attempted to block the entry to the eastern harbour by jettisoning rubble from the crumbling ancient city. This fact might have provided a partial explanation for the wealth of remains lying in this patch of sea but it was not sufficient to account for the presence of certain massive blocks weighing between 50 and 75 tonnes. Any hypothesis as to their original provenance had to await the completion of painstaking computer-aided topographic work and the establishing of typologies.

By the end of June 1995 an intricate map of the site had been plotted and a certain pattern had emerged. Further study proved revelatory. There appeared to be two concentrations of blocks: one to the immediate north-eastern tip of Qaitbay fort; another more distant, in the eastern sector of the site. This latter zone held a rather heterogeneous collection of blocks, columns and other elements, generally small in size, mostly under two tonnes. The former zone, however, was characterised by huge, worked architectural blocks, many over five tonnes and some, as mentioned above, between 50 and 75 tonnes. It seems quite unlikely that the Mamelukes would have gone to the immense effort required to shift such weighty masonry from the centre of town in order to dump it in the sea. Moreover, the fact that some of these blocks are cracked in two, even three, adjacent fragments makes it even less likely that they were cast into the water from a vessel. Furthermore, the disposition of the largest blocks, running in a north-easterly line from the foot of the fort, firmly suggested a monument of considerable size and height falling in to the sea below. While Dr Empereur was initially wary of jumping to conclusions, he became convinced that he and his team had uncovered part of the remains of Alexandria's Pharos.

This third phase of the campaign (September/October 1995) involved a polishing of what had gone before. As the expedition has always been essentially a salvage operation, further documentation - photographic, sketching, video and topographic - was required along with the preparation of certain blocks for lifting onto dry land. Some thirty elements - sphinxes, columns, capitals, colossi, fragments of inscribed obelisks and two massive segments of the Seventh Wonder of the World - were removed from the sea to be desalinated and restored under the watchful eye of the EOA in co-operation with the Institut Francais d'Archeologie Orientale (IFAO). These pieces have since been exhibited in an open-air museum by the Roman amphitheatre at Kom el Dikka in central Alexandria and were much admired by President Jacques Chirac during his state visit to Egypt in April, 1996.

The work goes on

The progress and results of the work of 1995 excited a great media and scientific interest that was capped by the screening in France of an hour long documentary film of the project in spring of 1996. An English language version of this film was shown in Great Britain by the BBC in September of that year and screened by PBS Nova in the United States in November 1997. It is, perhaps, not too surprising that such an excavation, dealing as it does with a wonder of the world, should have captured the public imagination, however, after the show is over the work goes on.

Throughout 1996 and 1997 the CEA continued to dive on the site and to process the mass of documentation gathered. To date there are some 2250 blocks plotted and registered and it would appear that there are still around 500 to be added to the files. A specialist has begun a preliminary architectural analysis of the data and has refined the block identification sheets allowing for a better definition of the type of blocks discovered and the development of a descriptive terminology. In architecture, terminology is linked to the function of a block in the construction but here we are dealing with an essentially unknown construction or constructions and the majority of elements are lying out of context. The new terminology that is being established must be free of the idea of function and is built on four criteria: form, dimension, volume and decoration. Obviously, this very activity brings blocks together into identifiable groups and is the first step on the road to interpretation.

What is already becoming evident is that the site is primarily composed of granite pieces, many of them re-utilised elements and materials pillaged, in the time-honoured Egyptian fashion, from pre-existing structures in the Delta and at Heliopolis. There are clear signs of the application of Graeco-Macedonian technological savoir-faire to thoroughly Egyptian architectural forms and this, in itself, will throw light upon the style and method of construction of the Pharos. In turn, this information could well be extrapolated to be applied to the general study of Alexandria's architectural forms. In addition, the significant amount of statuary discovered and the growing evidence of other structures underwater could lead to a new notion of the Pharos as part of a greater complex and excite interpretations as to its civic and or religious function.

It must, of course, be stated that the architectural analysis of the Pharos site is greatly complicated by the its long occupation. Before any such activity can be definitively broached, the long, pain-staking, and at times tedious accumulation of data must be completed. At the same time, there is a need to polish and fine tune the established data base. However, the aim of the game remains eventually to produce hand-drawn and computer-generated reconstitutions of architectural ensembles that now lie in pieces on the bed of the Mediterranean Sea. Given the time and, frankly, the money, this is entirely possible.

It is to be hoped that the question of the modern breakwater of concrete blocks which runs through the site will be resolved in the near future It is imperative that a serious study is undertaken as regards the dismantling and repositioning of this wall. Given the location of the parts of colossal statuary found during the diving, it seems almost certain that those pieces still missing will be discovered underneath the concrete. It is also highly likely that further massive elements of the Pharos itself would be revealed. A recent (September 1997) visit by a delegation from UNESCO to look at this very problem might lead to the presentation of a feasible plan, elaborated by competent engineers, which would encourage the local authorities into direct action, and the wall will be removed.

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