Underwater Museum Planned for Egypt's Alexandria

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
September 16, 2008
Cleopatra's palace sank long ago into the Mediterranean, but visitors to Alexandria, Egypt, may eventually view the complex's remnants via the world's first underwater museum. (See photos.)

A site for the museum has been proposed near the New Library of Alexandria, where the famed queen of Egypt is believed to have sheltered herself with her lover Marc Antony before taking her own life.

In early September the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, announced it is funding a team to determine if such a museum would damage the submerged artifacts.

If built, the museum could display treasures and monuments of her palace, which once stood on an island in one of the largest human-made bays in the world but were submerged by earthquakes from the fourth century A.D. onward.

(Read related story: "Ancient Mediterranean Tsunami May Strike Again" [March 10, 2008].)

The bay is filled archaeological sunken treasures. In the 1990s archaeologist-divers found thousands of objects: 26 sphinxes, statues bearing gifts to the gods, blocks weighing up to 56 tons, and even Roman and Greek shipwrecks.

Sunken Treasure

The proposed museum could include pieces believed to be from the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.

(See a photo gallery of the seven ancient wonders of the world, along with the "new" seven wonders.)

Archaeologists have mapped more than 2,000 submerged objects in the area of the bay where they believe the lighthouse once stood.

"The wealth of this area is quite impressive," said Naguib Amin, the site-management expert from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

"Sort of the whole ancient city of Alexandria is lying under the water, just meters away from the shore."

Better Than a Movie

The proposed museum would be both inland and underwater. The dual nature is intended to create an experience like that of a traditional museum while also allowing visitors to witness artifacts in their submerged states.

"When you go to an archaeological site, you have an irreplaceable emotion. It's not like going to see a movie," said Paris-based Jacques Rougerie, the leader of the feasibility study.

"It's like the astronaut who cannot share with other people what it is like to be in space."

Rougerie has designed a building with four tall structures shaped like the sails of fellucas, the sailboats (photo) that have journeyed the Nile since ancient times. These glass sails represent the four points of a compass and are illuminated with blue light in Rougerie's illustrations.

"Those four points will be like the lighthouse of Alexandria that illuminated the library and the world," Rougerie said. "I want to do the same thing with this museum."

The larger, inland museum will have underwater fiberglass tunnels to structures where visitors can view antiquities still lying on the seabed.

But the bay's murky waters could obscure the views of submerged monuments. The builders of the museum will either have to clean the water or replace it entirely with an artificial lagoon.

"As it stands, we have an ingenious idea," said Amin, the Supreme Council expert.

"Try to picture a glass tube. And you simply put it over the main monuments that we need to highlight. It's almost like putting each of these monuments in this tube."

Logistical Concerns

The proposed museum is planned to be underwater not only for aesthetic value but also because it follows the 2001 UNESCO convention for the preservation of underwater heritage.

The convention decided that submerged artifacts should ideally remain on the seabed out of respect for their historical context and, in some cases, because water actually preserves artifacts.

But building directly over submerged artifacts could damage them—just one of a number of logistical issues that a feasibility team of archaeologists, architects, engineers, economists, and bureaucrats will examine in the next two years.

If the feasibility study concludes that the museum can be built safely, planners are optimistic it could be constructed in three years. The cost of the museum, however, has not been determined, and funding has not yet been secured.

"Underwater construction costs much, much more and has many more technical problems, so the idea was to divide the museum in two so it could host the maximum amount of people," Rougerie said.

In addition to cost concerns, the logistics of visitor safety are under investigation.

The structural integrity of the building, however, is considered only a minor problem because the Alexandria bay is only about 16 to 20 feet (5 to 6 meters) deep, architects will not face strong water pressure on the walls of the museum.

Once complete, Egyptian authorities hope, the museum will transform both Alexandria's tourism industry and the city's current landscape.

"It will not simply be a museum as such. It is part of a whole vision to revitalize the whole city and its heritage," Amin said.

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