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Egyptian Subway Has Archaeologists Digging In Their Heels

Efforts to modernize Alexandria threaten treasures dating from Hellenistic times

Few cities have as glorious a past as Alexandria, Egypt. After the Greek leader Alexander the Great founded the city that bore his name in 332 BC, it became a center for artists and scholars.

Among the gleaming marble buildings stood the most famous library of antiquity, one that attracted such brilliant minds as the mathematician Euclid and the geographer Strabo. The towering Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, guided ships from miles away. Alexandria was also the city of Antony and Cleopatra's infamous love affair before the Roman occupation in 30 BC.

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Today little is visible of Alexandria's rich history. Instead, Egypt's second-largest city is a thriving metropolis of 4 million people, with towering high-rises, shop-lined streets, and congested thoroughfares.

Still, beneath today's modern city lurk innumerable Hellenistic and Roman treasures, including the library, Alexander the Great's tomb, palaces, baths, and theaters. That's why when talk began recently in Egypt of a new 35-mile subway that would cut through the heart of the new and ancient city, archaeologists and conservationists held their breath.

"[Alexandria's] archaeology is always a concern," says Mohamed Awad, founder of the Alexandria Preservation Trust, established to preserve the city's archaeological and architectural heritage. "There must be some sort of salvage archaeology and this must be done prior to the realization of the project."

To accommodate the burgeoning modern city and relieve traffic and pollution, planners and government officials say the subway is a must. Construction of the $1 billion project is expected to begin in the fall of 1998 after consultants finish their preliminary studies. After its completion in 2007, the subway will run from Abu Qir on Alexandria's eastern coast through the city's center to El-Amreya district on the city's western outskirts.

Few argue against the need to save Alexandria's ancient ruins or allow the modern city to grow. But archaeologists say Greek and Roman cemeteries and temples, Greek harbors, and a Greek resort lie beneath the new subway's path. And they say they want to dig before construction starts to learn what they can of the history of this city. They are concerned by the government's seeming lack of commitment to protect the archaeological remains.

Government officials stress that the city's ancient monuments will be protected during the metro's construction by having several archaeologists at the site 24 hours a day in case builders discover any ruins. If they find any monuments, construction will stop and archaeologists will excavate and remove them to a safe area, according to Ali Hassan, secretary general of the official Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). "We will salvage what can be salvaged," he says.

Inadequate oversight

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But archaeologists and preservationists fear that too often this system breaks down. Some preservationists say the SCA inspectors do an inadequate job of protecting the sites, with oversight and bribery being problems. And while under Egyptian law, builders must notify the SCA if they discover a monument, too often they would rather destroy the ruin and leave no trace of it, rather than notify the authorities and risk stopping construction for excavations or losing money.

"It's a conflict of interest," says Mostafa al-Abbadi, president of the Archaeological Society of Alexandria, established to preserve Egypt's ruins. "Builders want to get along with their work. They believe archaeologists delay their work and that any delay means money. This is why they suppress any evidence."

The struggle to balance modernization and preservation occurs constantly. Four years ago, a dispute broke out between conservationists and the government when building began on the new Alexandria library (see story, right). It was designed to revive the image of its famous predecessor built by Alexander's successors, by Ptolemy I Soter, as a center of scholarship and research.

But while the new library was built in the center of the old city's Royal Quarter, in the vicinity of the old library, no excavations took place before digging began.

Up in arms, archaeologists and conservationists alerted the local and international media and the government finally acquiesced. An Egyptian team hired by the government dug in the area for what officials say was two years, while other conservationists swear it was only six months. The team discovered two intricate Greek mosaic floors and statues, a highly advanced sewage system, and other objects.

In a similar case, the Roman theater, one of the few ancient sites standing in its original location, was discovered when builders, while constructing a high-rise in 1965, uncovered a worn step. Still archaeologists said it took one year to convince the government to stop the building and allow the theater to stand.

Relics at risk

As Alexandria expands, the ancient Hellenistic and Roman monuments aren't the only relics at risk. Above them lie Islamic architectural remains from the Muslim occupation of the city in the 7th century, and above the surface, still standing, the 19th- and 20th-century buildings constructed when the city was a cosmopolitan port. Conservationists say these grand structures face the greatest risk of all.

"The real threat," says Mr. Awad, "is to our 19th- and 20th-century heritage, which is being disfigured and threatened with demolition and is likely to disappear within a very short time."

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