Diving for Sunken Treasure -- of Stone
Off the coast of Egypt, ruins -- believed to be remains of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the World -- are competing for survival with a 15th-century fort
ALEXANDRIA, EGYPT — Some say there's an ancient monument under every square inch of Egypt. This is an exaggeration, but in some places more than one monument shares the same locale.
Just off the coast of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria what is believed by some to be the remains of the 2,000-year-old Pharos lighthouse -- one of the Seven Wonders of the World -- is competing for survival with a 15th-century fort. The fort was built in AD 1479 by the Mamelukes, a military caste beholden to Istanbul, who ruled Egypt from AD 1250 to AD 1517.
Last fall, a team of Egyptian and French divers working at the site saw 30-foot high Hellenistic statues of kings and queens, 12 sphinxes, and a huge red granite crown that stood six feet high. They saw obelisks, columns, and capitals, many thought to be Pharoanic pieces that the Greeks and Romans brought from the ancient cities of Memphis and Heliopolis, near present-day Cairo.
What was even more interesting to archaeologists were some 70-ton blocks that lay 26 feet under water among the more-ornate ruins. Another level of blocks was found 10 feet below the first and a third level around 10 feet lower. Archaeologists believe these blocks, some as big as 20 feet long and eight feet wide, are the remains of the Pharos lighthouse, the first and tallest in the world.
The 400-foot marvel, 40 stories high and visible by ships 25 miles away, became the symbol of Alexandria after Greek General Ptolemy built it in 279 BC. The lighthouse, with a white marble exterior and a maze-like interior of stairways, entrances, and numerous rooms, deteriorated over the years and finally toppled into the sea during an earthquake in AD 1307.
Looking for proof
The Egyptian government, questioning whether the underwater ruins just east of Qait Bay Fort are in fact part of the lighthouse, has asked the archaeological diving team to investigate again in May.
If this group doesn't find definitive proof of the Greek marvel, the government will continue a project to lay concrete blocks over the ruins to protect the fort from incoming waves.
Archaeologists have argued that both monuments should be preserved. They have suggested developing other methods to save the fort and constructing an underwater archaeological park of the lighthouse ruins.
''Why should we choose between the Mameluke fort and the Greek antiquities?'' asks Jean Yves Empereur, director of the Center of Alexandrian Studies, a French archaeological organization.
''We have to protect both the ancient and the medieval monuments,'' he says.
Mr. Empereur led the team of Egyptian and French divers who studied the remains last fall. What they saw was incredible, they say.
''We saw more than two hectares [five acres] full of hundreds of capitals, columns, and colossal statues,'' Empereur says. ''And when the weather was very good you could go down between the stones on [the] upper level and see that there were two more levels.'' The team will resume its underwater investigations in May in hopes of concluding that the blocks were part of the lighthouse.
The Mameluke legacy
Qait Bay Fort, which today stands in its place, is a sturdy building with turrets, watch towers, and ramparts, built by Sultan Qait Bay. Inside are cavernous rooms filled with maritime paraphernalia from the Mameluke and Ottoman periods, including a suit of iron, guns, and nails. To the east of the fort and along the breakwater, some of the monstrous blocks that the government began laying in 1992 to protect the fort from the sea are visible.
The debate over which treasure should be saved began nearly two years ago when an Egyptian moviemaker, Asma El-Bakri, filmed the underwater remains of what is believed to be the lighthouse.
During the filming Ms. El-Bakri not only saw the supposed blocks of the lighthouse, which hadn't been viewed since an English woman dove at the site in 1968, but she also discovered the government project to lay the wall of concrete blocks.
After El-Bakri relayed this news to the local Egyptian press, the government stopped lowering the blocks. It planned to continue this project last fall, but before doing so, told archaeologist Empereur that if he could get financing and a team of divers together he could survey the remains for one month.
So Empereur got $100,000 from the French government and gathered the group of Egyptian and French divers to study the ruins and draw the first map of the area.
The team worked for six weeks before stopping in November because of rainy weather and wavy sea conditions.
The divers have raised the mystery of the Pharos lighthouse, but officials at the government's Supreme Council of Antiquities seem to have reached a conclusion already.
''There are no remains of the lighthouse,'' says Doreya Said, general director of Alexandria's archaeological sites and museums. ''Divers only found those objects [that the Greeks and Romans brought from Memphis and Heliopolis].''
Mrs. Said is already making plans to remove some of these monuments from the sea, preserve them, and place them in Alexandria's soon-to-be-opened maritime museum.
Meanwhile, archaeologists are urging the Egyptian government to consider opening an underwater park similar to the popular Red Sea diver's site of Sharm El-Sheikh on the tip of the country's Sinai Peninsula.
In Alexandria, scuba divers could see not only sea life, but Pharoanic, Greek, and Roman artifacts and the remains of the lighthouse, they say.
El-Bakri says she will not stand idle if the government begins laying the concrete blacks again.
''If they start again I'm going to start another scandal,'' she warns.