Egyptian Alexandria - Ancient underwater finds revealed the Pharaonic roots of the Ptolemaic City
Alexandria, located on the Mediterranean coast in Egypt, has seen many changes in its 2,300 year history. Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., at its height it rivalled Rome in its wealth and size, and was the seat for the Ptolemaic dynasty. However, through history not all agreed on the how to regard the Hellenistic city with a royal Egyptian past. An underwater temple discovered by marine divers off the eastern coast shed light on the pharaonic nature of ancient Alexandria.
Ptolemaic Alexandria has been regarded, in academic circles, not as part of Egypt, but as a separate Greek polis, or city-state, by the borders of Egypt. Peter Green, Professor of Classics at the University of Texas, Austin, confirms that Alexandria was not regarded as part of Egypt during the time of the Ptolemies, writing “Alexandria was ‘by’ Egypt, yet not of it.”1
Alexander the Great founding Alexandria. Public Domain
This view, however, appeared only since the mid-19th century. Before that date, Ptolemaic Alexandria had always been looked at as being an Egyptian city, representing ancient Pharaonic civilization. “In a decree passed by the people of Delos in honour of a Naxian, at a time when the island lay under the influence of Philadelphus (Ptolemy II), the honorand is described ‘resident in Alexandria of Egypt’. Alexandria was evidently regarded by the Delians … as a normal part of Egypt. ” None of the classical sources spoke of Alexandria as being a Greek city. Polybius, Diodorus and Strabo, three authors who visited Ptolemaic Alexandria and wrote about its early history, spoke about the Egyptian nature of this first cosmopolitan city in history.2
In 1998, an important archaeological discovery was made in Alexandria which confirmed the pharaonic nature of Egyptian Alexandria. Under the heading “Sea gives up Cleopatra’s treasures”, the London Sunday Times reported the story on 25 October 1998: “Secrets of Cleopatra’s fabled royal palace, in which she wooed Julius Caesar, have been retrieved from beneath the waves of the Mediterranean sea, where they have lain for more than 1,600 years”
Location of Cleopatra’s Palace. (virtual-egypt.com)
This remarkable discovery came about after the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) had been given permission in the 1990s to work in the east part of the Eastern Harbour, where the Ptolemaic royal quarter was situated.
Statue of Cleopatra as Egyptian goddess; Basalt, second half of the 1st century B.C. George Shuklin/ Wikimedia Commons
After some years of mapping and searching the area, Frank Goddio, the French leader of the underwater team of archaeologists, was able to announce before the end of 1998 that he had discovered the royal palace of Cleopatra (51-30 B.C.), the last of the Ptolemaic rulers.
Goddio’s divers found marble floors on the seabed which he believes established for the first time the precise location of Cleopatra’s palace. They also found lumps of red granite and broken columns on the submerged island of Antirhodos, which provided Goddio with further evidence of the site of the royal quarters. Remains of Cleopatra’s royal palace were retrieved from beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea where they had disappeared for 17 centuries. The divers reported seeing columns and capitals in disorder, kilns and basins - some of which were described as the so-called ‘Baths of Cleopatra’; great blocks of dressed limestone, statues of Egyptian divinities, and even walls. (click here for pictures).
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Days later the international press started to give more details about the discovery. A sphinx and an important religious statue appeared for the first time after about 2,000 years, when they were dragged from their resting place in the submerged royal city of Ancient Alexandria. The dark-gray granite sphinx, which has been identified as Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, was one of a pair flanking the statue at the entrance to a small temple set within the area of Cleopatra’s Royal Palace on the island of Antirhodos, in Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour.
Black granite sphinx made of stone, thought to represent Ptolemy XII, father of Cleopatra. Discovered by Frank Goddio during underwater investigations of underwater ancient Alexandria. (Source)
Egyptian King Ptolemy XII Auletes, father to Cleopatra. Temple of Kom Ombo. Hedwig Storch/Wikimedia Commons
As this temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis was not mentioned by Strabo, the ancient authority on Ptolemaic Alexandra, Frank Goddio, who led the international team of divers and archaeologists that lifted the relics 20 feet (6 meters) to the surface, was delighted at the discovery. Goddio was reported by the Sunday Times as saying, “It’s totally unknown … but of course we should have expected such a temple in close proximity to the Royal Palace. It’s an astonishing discovery.”
The lifting of these statues brought to an end five years of exploration of the Royal Palace area by Goddio and his team. During this period they were able to make clear the layout of royal quarter of the Ptolemaic kings, which lasted for about 300 years, stating “We have been able to pinpoint the palace and the temple guided by the ancient writers, and to correct that writing in some cases.”
Pharos of Alexandria: Idealized representation of the Bay of Alexandria. Public Domain
“We have concentrated this year on Antirhodos, the sunken island that is the site of the Royal Palace and it is almost a miracle that we found the sphinx and the statue in such close relationship,” he continued. “The undersea surface has been subsiding slowly for centuries, forcing buildings to tumble, and in AD 365 there was a severe earthquake, followed by a tidal wave. We have been amazed at how much has been left in place.”
The discovery of an ancient Egyptian temple within the area of the Ptolemaic palace came as a complete surprise. This small temple to the goddess Isis was discovered 20 feet (6 meters) from the surface in close proximity to the residence of Cleopatra.
At the entrance to the temple, a dark-grey granite pharaonic statue remains. The sphinx, showing Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII (51-47 BC), was also found. Next to that lays a life-size granite statue representing a shaven-headed Egyptian priest of the goddess Isis carrying a jar topped with an image of Osiris, ancient Egypt’s god of the dead.
As a result of these archaeological discoveries, the pharaonic nature of ancient Alexandria, especially the royal quarter, became abundantly clear.
Goddio’s archaeological researches were backed by a group of top European historians who were able to comment on these important discoveries. Professor Zsolt Kiss, of the Polish Academy of Sciences, was able to identify the discovered sphinx as Ptolemy XII, noting, “It is a very striking resemblance with a characteristic appearance of hair under the Egyptian Headdress.”
However, it was Zsolt’s final comment on the nature of the ancient city of Alexandria that caught the interest of the press and got their headlines. The Polish professor was overwhelmed by the many Pharaonic remains discovered in the city which made him conclude “We can certainly say in light of these discoveries that Ptolemaic and Roman Alexandria were less Hellenistic and much more Egyptian than we thought.”3
Featured image: Ancient Egyptian statues found beneath the waves of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour. Credit: The Hilti Foundation
- [Alexander to Actium, University of California Press, 1990, p. 319.]
- [P. M. Fraser, Ptolemaic AlexandriaI, Oxford, 1972, p. 108.]
- [The Times 29.10.1998]
By Ahmed Osman
Swallowed by the Sea Ancient Egypt's Greatest Lost City BBC Documentary 2014