Sinking relics, hidden treasures

Ahmed Maged
5 Min Read

Underwater archaeology in the spotlight

CAIRO: The Supreme Council of Antiquities decision to set up an underwater museum to showcase artifacts discovered at the old eastern port of Alexandria, has boosted the importance of underwater archaeology in Egypt.

Once complete, the underwater project will be the fruit of nearly two decades of sub-marine archaeology which began in the early 1990s.

The planned museum is made up of transparent glass tubes that will worm through the submerged city. Floodlights fixed near each site will enable visitors to feast their eyes on the ancient architectural treasures.

Statues, treasures and ships were recovered from east Alexandria and the bay of Abu Qir, made headlines in the past few years. Some of these discoveries are already on exhibit at the new Alexandria Museum but a bevy will remain unseen until the new museum kicks off.

Dr Gaballah Ali Gaballah, former director of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, spoke Monday at the Great Cairo Library about the history and current status of underwater archaeology to an information-starved audience, illustrating his lecture with rare shots of archaeologists working on underwater sites.

“Long before any step was taken to officially set up the science, efforts of enthusiasts like Prince Omar Tuson and diver Kamel Abu Saadat should not go unnoticed, he said.

Tuson was the first to dive in Abu Qir bay and recover the shapeliest head of Alexander the Great; while Abu Saadat was the first to take a scientific approach by diving in the waters surrounding the Qaitbay Citadel – believed to be the location of the world-famous Alexandria lighthouse – and drawing maps of what he uncovered underwater.

Gaballah noted that as Egypt is located in the middle of the desert that shelters its ancient history, it is also overlooking 4,000 km of coastline, divided between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Naval trade and conflict dominated this shoreline in the past 6000 years, said Gaballah.

“Research has proven that it is important to leave the sinking artifacts in their place underwater. This is why an underwater display is a worthwhile idea.

Artifacts and sunken items which have been below water for a long time are encased in salt deposits which act as a preservative. When they are recovered, they must immediately be treated at a lab on the archeological site.

“This has to be followed with a second phase of treatment, all of which involves effort and cost, as well as diving and lifting, he continued.

Gaballah pointed out that Alexandria houses three main sites. The first is the old eastern port, the royal quarters facing the new Alexandria library, and the Abu Qir bay that contains the remains of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet as well as the two ancient Greek cities of Canopis and Herculeus

“There is a lot there. Practically we can’t recover every piece. Some are irrecoverable such as palaces, tombs, columns. They are entire cities that sank after several earthquakes, said Gaballah.

He points out that the challenges also include environmental factors that we only began to realize when we started to develop this science.

Gaballah laments the dumping of construction waste, sewage, and chemical waste from the cement and fertilizer factories in Abu Qir: “Chemicals are more harmful to the relics than other pollutants.

The problem with the concept of the glass tubes, warned Gaballah, is that the alluvial mud that flows regularly into the sea from the Nile as the High Dam gates open, will accumulate on the tubes and affect visibility.

He concluded: “The real challenge is cooperating with businesses that don t regard antiquities as a priority, especially in a free market economy where construction and demolition is constantly taking place.

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