Perilous mission for underwater archaeologist

Ahmed Maged
9 Min Read

An excavator with diving skills and the courage to risk his own life

ALEXANDRIA: It was dangerously stormy weather and high waves lashed down on the small Pharos Island where the Qaitby Citadel is located. Despite the unfavorable weather conditions, some underwater archaeologists had to brave it to try out some equipment the antiquities department is due to purchase.

One of them had just adjusted his heavy diving belt and was preparing to put on the rest of his diving gear when he was suddenly hit by a fierce wave, which in less than a minute caused him to drift out to the middle of the sea.

“I really thought this was the end, recalled Alaa Mahrus, a senior underwater archaeologist and currently head of the Underwater Antiquities Department, Alexandria.

Mahrus continued: “It was virtually impossible to swim to shore and all indications showed that I was going to drown. I would have had it not been for the initiative of my colleagues.

“I immediately took off the heavy belt that was pulling me down. The other parts of my diving equipment had been scattered around me. The other divers jumped into the water, got hold of my oxygen tank and flippers and pushed them in the direction of the spot where I was struggling with the waves. This was how by the grace of God I was rescued.

But this was only a small part of the many risks these adventurers are taking daily to uncover the secrets of scores and scores of antiquities that remain buried under the sea bed.

According to Mahrus, neither winter nor summer is the ideal time for underwater excavations. Exceptionally, some have to dive during these seasons for different purposes like testing new equipment or getting a view of a potential target.

The senior archaeologist explained: “Currently the sinking antiquities teams are working at various sites of our coast. May and June, then September, October and November are the golden times for people working in this field. The climatic conditions, that are the biggest obstacles for archaeologists, are mostly propitious.

But Mahrus and his coworkers were speaking from an experienced discoverer’s perspective, beacuse, apart from climatic changes, working underwater is never risk-free and every time an underwater archaeologist should be ready to come face-to-face with death. He could lose his way within a wreck, be stuck in a heavy object or develop a fault with his diving set.

However, archaeologists’ fears are always overshadowed by their keenness to unravel one aspect of Egypt’s history that has become the focus and talk of the entire world after more than a decade of underwater excavations.

The Egyptian artifacts recovered from Alexandria are currently exhibited in Bonne after they toured Paris then Berlin. People have been left with the impression that the Egyptian coasts are as replete with history as Egypt’s deserts. But this can’t be dismissed without a number of inquiries about the driving force behind these perilous ventures that result in all these breath-taking discoveries.

Some might be familiar with what is happening in the desert. But they might not have figured how such excavations take place a few miles under the surface of the sea.

Ventures that led to all these findings were carried out in different parts of Alexandria including Abu Qir, the Pharos Island, the Poseidon Peninsula, the Eastern Port and the North Coast. They have placed Alexandria and other coastal cities on Egypt’s archaeological map.

Mahrus said: “Each of us should couple his knowledge of archaeology with diving skills. If you can’t pass the diving test, you aren’t eligible for this type of excavation.

Mahrus added: “But basically our work follows along the same lines as desert archaeology. A team of archaeologists begin searching a certain area after they find tell-tale evidence. Scanning is done but practically our work is different.

He detailed: “First we never work individually, as this is the law of diving. Second, contrary to the common belief that we find statues and other artifacts standing in the sea bed, most of these are buried under the sand.

“Of course, we work with electronic search equipment like hydro-lifts and scanners. But sometimes the rocks are mistaken for artifacts; before we start digging we examine the object to make sure it isn’t a rock. But rocks could prove deceptive, for after we begin to clear the sands thinking we’ve stumbled upon a big discovery, we end up realizing what we have been clearing is just a big rock.

But it could be the other way round, what the searchers dismiss as an insignificant rock could turn out to be an important discovery. Mahrus said: “That happened one time when we dived in Abu Qir. In Abu Qir we came across a rectangular flat rock that had settled on its front. The back [of it] appeared to be no different from other rocks. However, we continued to have our own doubts, because that rock was part of the sinking ancient city of Heraklion’s ruins.

“Making an effort to turn the rock, the surprise awaiting us was a black granite mural depicting a decree by King Nectabo, founder of the 30th dynasty. Obviously it was in very good condition because it remained reversed all these years. The decree stipulated that one tenth of the taxes levied on Greek trade would be allocated for the treasury and god Nebt. The decree is currently one of the highlights of the underwater exhibition.

But for Mahrus the Alexandria sites, unlike others, are located at very low depths and offer a lot in terms of discoveries as historically they are recognized to be the seat of the Greek Ptolomies of Egypt.

For Mahrus, the Red Sea was another experience. There is a high level of visibility but the discoverer can never make sound predictions about his findings. “In the Red Sea you’re fascinated by marine life, but the high depths are another concern. On the way to the target we have to make several stops to divert our mechanisms of the poisonous nitrogen, let alone the worry of being attacked by the fierce sharks specific to the Red Sea. The targets are mostly shipwrecks like one we went to explore near the island of Sadana, south of Hurghada.

But Alexandria and the Red Sea are not the end for Mahrus and other underwater archaeologists. Plans are underway to approach the deep parts of the Nile in Upper Egypt. “These were the sites of many quarries that the ancient Egyptians used. There could be sinking ships and quays. Who knows? There is too much and all searchers keep wondering if they will outlive the excavations or if there lifetimes will simply be one of the many phases that will unfold! No one knows.

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