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Ancient Alexandria Emerges From Mediterranean

After a nine-year search, archaeologists have located the centre of one of the Ancient World's greatest cities.

A team of French and Egyptian archaeologists, led by Franck Goddio, has discovered and mapped the sunken remains of the once bustling heart of the Roman Empire's second-largest city, Alexandria.

About 20 percent of the metropolis, founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., sank beneath the Mediterranean in a series of earthquakes between the third and eighth centuries. Now, the underwater investigations have located at least three roads and up to 30 buildings, including three main structures. The archaeological team is poised to rediscover the rest of the sunken heart of the city.

The seabed excavations have also unearthed the first dated evidence of a town that existed on the site before Alexander founded his great city. So far, they have discovered part of the stone and timber harbour wall of the pre-Alexandrian port. The investigations are revealing that the earlier town—known as Raqote—imported timber uprights and planking, made from elm and pine, for the harbour wall.

The former is thought to have come from Europe and the latter from Europe or Lebanon. Carbon dating shows the pre-Alexandrian stone and timber port was built in the fifth century B.C. The excavations have located the key strategic island that housed one of the royal palaces of the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt, from Alexander to Cleopatra.

In fact, this could be the place where Egypt's last queen seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But all that has been found of the palace so far has been a 60 metres by 21 metres rectangular mortar platform re-enforced with pine uprights and planking. It also has red granite columns with a diameter of one metre. The columns are thought to have come from a Roman reconstruction of the palace. The island, called Antirhodos, was Alexandria's strategic stronghold after the city became Egypt's capital.

At a conference at the British Museum yesterday, the team of archaeologists said they had produced the first accurate map of the submerged parts of Alexandria. Their underwater cartographic survey reveals how the island was not only the strategic pivot of the city, but was also a political and religious focus as well.

Archaeologists have found evidence that Cleopatra built or enhanced a temple on the island for the goddess Isis, with whom she identified.

On the mainland, a five-metre high statue of the queen's son, Caesarion, who was deified by Julius Caesar, faced the island. Also, a temple to the sea god Poseidon faced the island from the east. At the end of a 120-metre causeway, a palace hideaway for Cleopatra's final lover, Mark Antony, faced the island.

Mr. Goddio, president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, said the survey had revealed that "the topography of the ancient quarters of Alexandria were totally different from what had been assumed until now."

Research into the sunken centre of the ancient metropolis has a particular relevance today because of the social and ideological significance of ancient Alexandria. The city was founded as a political and ideological statement against nationalism and ethnic and religious chauvinism. It was based on multiculturalism and religious pluralism. Its initial population was deliberately imported by Alexander from all over the Hellenistic world.

It was this cosmopolitanism that appears to have been one of the key factors in allowing Alexandria to become the intellectual, artistic and trading centre of the ancient Mediterranean world.

The head of the statue of Caesarion, discovered by the Franco-Egyptian team, will go on display at the British Museum from today.