Skip to comments.ARCHAEOLOGY: Ancient Alexandria Emerges, By Land and By Sea
Posted on 02/26/2005 2:26:57 PM PST by Lessismore
Excavators are finding surprisingly late signs of intellectual life in the ancient capital of Hellenistic Egypt and discovering that geology played a dramatic role in the city's fall
OXFORD, U.K.--For centuries the massive Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, guided sailors to the busy wharves that made Alexandria a prosperous center of Mediterranean culture and home to the greatest library of ancient times. Yet while rivals Rome and Constantinople survived the chaotic period following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Alexandria faded from the historical record. By the 8th century C.E. the famed metropolis had fallen into oblivion.
Today the city of Alexandria, site of Alexander the Great's tomb and Cleopatra's death, attracts scholars the way it once drew merchants and philosophers, as shown by a recent conference at Oxford University.* Rescue archaeology amid rapid urban growth combined with new underwater mapping technologies are yielding new insight into the old city's role and history. Archaeologists have uncovered tantalizing hints of surprisingly early beginnings as well as signs that the city's vibrant intellectual life lasted far longer than anyone had expected. "Now we can imagine the functioning of a university in antiquity," says historian Manfred Clauss of Germany's University of Frankfurt.
New data also suggest that environmental disaster played an important role in ancient Alexandria's downfall, which has long been attributed primarily to religious and political turmoil; the fate of Alexandria could provide a warning for today's fast-growing cities built on deltas, researchers say.
An ancient think tank
Most of the new data comes from digs that began in the 1990s, when the Egyptian government lifted a ban on underwater archaeology and began to encourage salvage work on land as the city of 6 million expanded over its ancient foundations. Those foundations were officially laid in 332 B.C.E., when legend has it that the Greek bard Homer appeared to Alexander the Great in a dream and urged him to found a city along the narrow strip of land separating Lake Mareotis from the Mediterranean Sea. It seemed an unlikely choice; the mouth of the Nile was far to the east, where the major Egyptian ports were well established, and only small villages existed on the spot.
The city grew to prominence after Alexander died in 323 B.C.E., and his general Ptolemy made it the capital and largest port of Egypt. The vast wealth of Ptolemy and his Greek and Macedonian successors built a Greek-style city of temples, lavish palaces, and the famous library, says historian Gunther Grimm of Germany's University of Trier; scholarship in philosophy, physics, mathematics, and astronomy thrived. Under the Roman rule that followed Cleopatra's death in 30 B.C.E., Alexandria served as the nexus for grain exports for the vast empire. But within a few centuries, the city largely vanishes from the historical record.
Now nearly a dozen teams of excavators are sifting through what remains both in the city and in the harbor. Archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur of the Center for Scientific Research in Paris is working fast to salvage remains of the ancient city as the new one expands. "Ten to 12 meters beneath the modern city, the old one is very well-preserved," says Empereur, who was one of several scholars who declined to attend the conference because of their concerns about Oxford's ties to a private underwater archaeologist, Franck Goddio (see sidebar). Empereur adds that the houses, streets, and mosaics that have been uncovered represent "just 1% of what could be rescued."
Even that small percentage is rewriting the city's history. Most historians assume that intellectual life in the city withered with the destruction of the library--which likely occurred over hundreds of years--and the rise of Christianity. But among the most intriguing recent finds is a complex of lecture halls that appear to be "the center of [the city's] intellectual and social life in late antiquity," says Warsaw University's Grzegorz Majcherek of the Polish-Egyptian Archaeology Mission. Each hall includes a single central seat for a notable--likely the teacher--and often a smaller seat on the floor, perhaps for student recitations. The complex is part of the old city's most extensive area of urban architecture. Majcherek estimates that the halls were built in the late 5th and early 6th centuries C.E. and notes that a Roman theater was even converted into a lecture hall at this time. He speculates that what he calls "the Oxford of antiquity" could have survived into the era of Arab control--"surprisingly late."
The find intrigues historians, who say there has been little evidence that intellectual life in the city flourished for so long. "This is the most exciting find in years in Alexandria," says Clauss. "The buildings Professor Majcherek has found demonstrate the existence of a think tank" long after the fall of Rome. "It is surprising that it seems to function in a modern way," he adds.
Just a few hundred meters away, an important part of ancient Alexandria lies undisturbed underwater, meters from the modern breakwater lining the harbor. In the 1990s, Empereur uncovered statuary and blocks that may be portions of the Pharos lighthouse, which survived in ruins until an earthquake in the 14th century. Goddio found a sunken palace from the Ptolemaic era and brought up statues and other artifacts that he hailed as remnants of Cleopatra's palace. That claim, as well as the exact location of the Pharos, remains in dispute. More recent finds are less spectacular, but they shed important light on the evolution of the harbor that was Alexandria's heart. For example, Goddio's team now has found evidence of a dock that dates to about 400 B.C.E., predating Alexander. "We were surprised, took new samples, and got the same answer--this was most probably a pre-Ptolemaic structure [and is now] 7.5 m below sea level," says Goddio. Geologist and team member Jean-Daniel Stanley of Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institution told meeting participants he has found tantalizing hints that inhabitants smelted lead on the site as early as 2000 B.C.E.
The discoveries are part of an ambitious effort by Goddio to map the entire harbor bottom--one data point for every 25 centimeters--and conduct extensive radiocarbon dating of planks and pilings brought up by divers. The survey of the 2.5-kilometer-by-15-kilometer area will give researchers "quite a precise idea" of the location of docks and buildings that lined the harbor, says Goddio: "A ghost from the past is being brought back to life."
Meanwhile, geologist Stanley has examined dozens of cores from the harbor and uncovered evidence of the centuries-long battle that ancient engineers waged against both gradual and sudden subsidence. He says the subsidence was brought on by a lethal combination of earthquakes, tsunamis, and the slow but relentless sinking of heavy foundations into unstable soil, which defeated even savvy Roman engineers. Although several wharves appear to have been reconstructed over centuries, no amount of piling could long hold up heavy stone foundations and buildings, he says. "[Adding] on all that material was asking for trouble," Stanley says. "The additional weight of a wave surge could be powerful enough" to submerge part of Alexandria's shore.
The historical record also shows an unusually active period of tremors from the 4th to the 6th centuries C.E. Quakes and tsunamis could have transformed sediment into a more fluid state, says Stanley. Sixty-five cores taken from the western harbor show signs of ancient liquefaction, he said, and numerous pieces of red coral not native to the harbor suggest that a tsunami washed them into the basin. But he says it is too early to reconstruct details of ancient collapse and rebuilding. "We need better 3D images of harbor substrate" to understand what repairs were done and when, he said.
The impact of these geological forces extended beyond Alexandria--and with even more dramatic consequences. Stanley and Goddio also are excavating three submerged cities in nearby Aboukir Bay:Herakleion, Canopus, and Menouthis. The first was an important entrance point to the mouth of the Nile, and the others were well-known pilgrimage sites. The area received huge amounts of sediment from the Nile, which compacted and sank over time. This process, combined with a slow rise in world sea levels, pushed the water at least 2 meters higher between the 6th century B.C.E. and the 7th century C.E. "Arabic texts show a huge Nile flood in 741 and 742 A.D.," notes Clauss. And by the 8th century--the same time Alexandria slips into obscurity--the historical record on these sites goes silent.
Stanley's research supports a theory that combines catastrophe and gradual sinking to explain the disappearance. Submergence alone cannot explain why much of the area is now a full 6 meters under water, and Stanley posits that sudden shifts in the flow of Nile branches on the delta--perhaps brought on by the spate of earthquakes--may have triggered more dramatic changes. Unstable sediment would have been laterally displaced, causing sudden destruction as the Nile moved into a new bed. Goddio's team has found evidence of human remains underneath toppled walls at the three sunken cities, backing up this theory.
In an era of climate change and fast urban growth along coasts, this research may have implications today. Stanley notes that modern cities such as Venice, Bangkok, and New Orleans sit on unstable delta soils. "This is becoming a world problem," he says. "Understanding the subsidence threat might help such cities avoid the fate of Herakleion, Canopus, and Menouthis." Alexandria, at least, escaped with only a flooded harbor--a sign that Homer perhaps was as canny a geologist as he was a storyteller.
Triple G - ping!
The dates are the same, just change the extension to remove the reference to before/after Christ.
PC crap. Let us not offend anyone. I better go out and order my tombstone with AD and a date to be filled in later just in case this becomes the requirement.
Please FREEPMAIL me if you want on, off, or alter the "Gods, Graves, Glyphs" PING list --
Archaeology/Anthropology/Ancient Cultures/Artifacts/Antiquities, etc.
The GGG Digest -- Gods, Graves, Glyphs (alpha order)
"New data also suggest that environmental disaster played an important role in ancient Alexandria's downfall,"
Greenhouse effect from Oxcart SUV's?
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