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Ancient "Lost" City's Remains Found Under Alexandria's Waters

Dan Morrison in Alexandria, Egypt
for National Geographic News
July 31, 2007
 
The first physical clues to a long-rumored town that existed on the site of present-day Alexandria have been uncovered—by accident.

While searching under the waves of Alexandria's East Bay for Greek and Roman ruins, archaeologists discovered signs of building construction 700 years older than Alexander the Great's invasion of Egypt.

The conquerer founded Alexandria in 332 B.C. (Related: "Alexander the Great Conquered City via Sunken Sandbar" [May 15, 2007].)

The new find is "the first hard evidence" of Rhakotis, a town mentioned in several histories of the region but whose existence had never been substantiated, said geoarchaeologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History.

And the results, which are published in the August issue of the journal GSA Today, were "a bit of serendipity," Stanley said.

Sunken Surprise

Stanley has helped the Franck Goddio Society and Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities search for clues to what might have caused the structural failure of Greek- and Roman-era buildings, roads, and piers now sitting at the bottom of the bay.

The team sunk a half-dozen vibracores—vibrating three-inch (eight-centimeter) hollow tubes—into the muck and silt of the bay's floor.

The tubes contained layered soil samples, or cores—some as long as 20 feet (7 meters).

Stanley took his samples back to Washington, D.C., and dated them using a radiocarbon technique.

Though he was searching for cracked or damaged rocks that might suggest how Greek-era structures had failed, he was surprised to find older signs of human endeavor.

The cores turned up lead and human waste that were more than 3,000 years old—evidence of a significant settlement centuries before Alexander stormed Egypt.

Stanley assembled a team of specialists in terrestrial magnetism, anthropology, paleobiology, and geology to examine the core samples.

After a few years of study, the team confirmed the findings did indeed point to Rhakotis.

In addition to the 3,000-year-old lead, which was used for construction, the cores contained stone building materials from central and southern Egypt.

"There are signs of a flourishing settlement going back to Pharaonic times, but it's too early to say anything about it," Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud, an Alexandria expert from the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the Associated Press.

Jean-Yves Empereur, director of the Center for Alexandrian Studies, said he had not yet read the findings and could not comment.

Sailor Haven

The city's bay, anchored by the island—now a peninsula—of Pharos, has long been known as a haven for sailors. The bay is even mentioned in Book Four of Homer's Odyssey: "Therein is a harbor with good anchorage, whence men launch the shapely ships into the sea. ..."

When Alexander arrived in 332 B.C., he apparently agreed with Odysseus's reasoning. His new Egyptian capital would be close enough to the Nile for southern travel, but far enough away that seasonal flooding wouldn't be a problem.

Ptolemy I, Alexander's political heir, built the nearly 500-foot (152-meter) Lighthouse of Alexandria on Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.(See an illustration of the lighthouse.)

The lighthouse served as both a beacon and a symbol of Alexandria's greatness until a pair of earthquakes sent it tumbling into the bay 1,600 years later. Alexandria today is a breezy Mediterranean city of five million people.

The next step for researchers will be unmasking the culture and people of Rhakotis, now the bay's earliest known inhabitants.

"Were they seamen, agriculturalists, traders?" Stanley said. "We don't yet know."

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