Swimming With the Sphinxes

    The ruins of the seventh wonder of the world, the Alexandria Lighthouse, could soon rival the pyramids as a tourist drawcard... underwater.

The waters around Pharos, off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, are peopled by strange creatures. Dive down six or eight metres and you’ll find yourself face to face with sphinxes and colossal statues of men and women. It’s easy to forget the brilliantly coloured fish swimming gaily among the enormous stone blocks...

diver and sphinx

Underwater archaeologists swim around just as blissfully, overjoyed by the certainty of having discovered what remains of the seventh wonder of the world: the Alexandria Lighthouse. Diving buffs will soon be able to share their enthusiasm if a project to turn this unique site into an underwater archaeological park takes shape. The project was discussed by archaeologists, marine environment specialists and decision-makers at a multidisciplinary workshop in Alexandria from 7 -11 April 1997, initiated by the University of Lille (France), UNESCO and the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities (SCA). Launched by Hassan El-Banna of the Alexandria University and Selim Morcos, a UNESCO consultant, the project is aimed at preserving the relics in situ.


The story of Pharos begins in the third century BC, when Ptolemy II built the lighthouse on an idea of his father Ptolemy I. It rose some 100 metres in a kind of courtyard of colonnades, set on a square base surmounted by an octagonal level, then a third cylindrical level. At its summit was a lantern crowned with a statue of Poseidon. From the fourth to 15th centuries AD, however, the mighty structure was destroyed by a series of earthquakes. When the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta visited Pharos in 1349, he found it "in such a state of ruin that it was impossible to enter". Over a century later, the Mameluke sultan Ashraf Quaitbay built a fort on the site.

Pharos lighthouse, Alexandria

What happened to the lighthouse? Certain parts were recuperated and integrated with the fort. But there was little interest, until recently, in knowing more about the main building and the statuary which lay underwater. In the early 1960s an amateur diver, Kamel Abul Saadat, pressured the navy to bring up a colossal statue of a Ptolemaic queen with the features of Isis.

At the request of the Egyptian antiquities authorities, a preliminary study sponsored by UNESCO was conducted by the British underwater archaeologist Honor Frost in 1968. It proved to be a false start; the site fell back into oblivion because of a lack of specialized archaeologists and the fact that the area was in a military zone.

It was only in the 1990s that the lighthouse resurfaced. While shooting underwater scenes for a film on Hellenistic Alexandria, the Egyptian director Asmaa El-Bakri noticed a concrete dike being built on top of the ruins to protect Fort Quaitbay. The subsequent press campaign led the SCA to suspend work and give the green light to an archaeological mission to save the vestiges. Begun in 1994 under the direction of Jean-Yves Empereur, head of the Alexandria Study Centre, the mission has thus far classified over 2,000 pieces. Funds were contributed by the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) and Gedeon – a multimedia company which has produced a documentary in cooperation with the Louvre Museum, the cultural foundation of Elf Aquitaine and Electricité de France.

The profusion of objects superposed from different periods – Pharaonic, Ptolemaic and Roman – complicate the job. But a computerized analysis of maps of the site and examination of each block has enabled them to distinguish two categories of findings. According to Empereur and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani, an IFAO Egyptologist, the presence of sphinx and hieroglyphic inscriptions can be explained by the Ptolemaic practice of reusing Pharaonoic vestiges, generally taken from Heliopolis (near Cairo). Some of these, mixed with Hellenistic and Roman elements were probably thrown into the sea at the end of the Roman period and at the time of the Mamelukes to protect the port of Alexandria from enemy attack.

The other category of findings consists of much heavier blocks of granite – 49 to 69 tonnes. The fact that some were broken into two or three pieces indicates that they fell from a great height. Empereur’s team is convinced that these are remnants of the lighthouse. Several dozen pieces have already been raised, restored and are currently on view in the open-air amphitheatre of Kom el Dikka, in Alexandria.

The discoveries opened new perspectives for Egyptian archaeologists. Just two months ago, the CSA created a department of underwater archaeology. Nonetheless, the project under consideration is making waves. The archaeologists want to dismantle the concrete dike to salvage the elements of Pharos underneath but the Egyptian antiquities department is turning a deaf ear. The department has also stopped the raising of more vestiges after being accused of privileging a pre-Islamic site to the detriment of the Mameluke fort. Hopefully, the April meeting, which will bring together all the actors concerned, will be able to pour some oil on the troubled waters.


with Hala HALIM, Alexandria

Published in UNESCO Sources, February 1997

Related link

Further reading

Archaeology, March/April 1999

Alexandria Rising, Time, June '98

Divers recover ancient wonders, CNN, Oct 1995

Jean-Yves Empereur: Alexandria Rediscovered (1998)

Franck Goddio: The Submerged Royal Quarters (1998)

Archéologia, No 345, mai 1998

Svenska Dagbladet 23.7. 2000

Article published on Nordic Underwater Archaeology, Apr '99, by permission from UNESCO
Photo © Christoph Gerigk/Discovery Channel. Page rev jul '12

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