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Alexandria picks up pieces of its ancient past

City hopes to attract tourists, revive economy

Archaeologists in this north coastal city are recovering pieces of ancient history - a faceless Pharaonic statue, a Greek torso, a black granite stela that stands 6-1/2 feet tall and is covered with hieroglyphs. They are remnants of the recently discovered city of Heracleion, an ancient port city known for its extravagant architecture and decadent lifestyle. An earthquake razed it around 1,000 years ago, eventually sending it to the bottom of the sea.

Recent discoveries here, like Heracleion, have been a boon to Alexandria, a city reeling from decades of economic troubles, cultural stagnation, and neglect that began when Egypt nationalized its private businesses four decades ago.

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After Alexander the Great discovered Alexandria in 332 BC, it became a commercial and cultural center, with its Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the most famous library of antiquity, and the towering Pharos lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the world. Later it was the scene of Cleopatra and Antony's illicit love affair.

Even in modern times, Alexandria was one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. Its diverse population of Greeks, British, French, and Egyptians lived in a city of stately villas with lush gardens, theaters, and elegant tea rooms. But today, only remnants of that past - an old pastry shop, a sidewalk cafe - peep out from the masses of people, metallic high rises, and jammed thoroughfares in this city of 4.5 million.

The tide changed in 1995, when a French archaeological team announced its discovery of the 500-foot Pharos lighthouse that sank 1,000 years ago. City officials and the business community seized on the discoveries, hoping to draw tourists and business here. They are investing in infrastructure and beautifying the city. One of their proudest achievements has been the rebuilding of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which was believed to have been destroyed by fire in 48 BC. It is due to open in April.

Since these efforts began, hotel occupancy has nearly doubled during the slower winter months. Eight documentaries have since been made of the city, and numerous books written. At least two diving centers opened recently, bringing visitors to the underwater discoveries. And authorities are considering opening an underwater museum by putting plastic tubes around the monuments for people to walk through.

Heracleion is but the first of many recent discoveries along Egypt's north coast, where the Nile valley meets the sea. After finding the Pharos lighthouse, archaeologists found what is believed to be the Royal Quarter of the Ptolemites (including Cleopatra), who ruled Egypt from 332 to 30 BC. Two years later, they found the fleet of Napoleon, which sank after his 1798 defeat by the British. East of ancient Heracleion lie other lost cities that once dotted the coast, including Menouthis and Canopus, which archaeologists will explore later.

But in the flurry to exploit these treasures, some people wonder about safety of the artifacts. Underwater excavation and preservation is a new science, and some conservationists question the government's decision to remove objects from the natural protection of the sea and desalinate them for months before exposing them to the air. They also wonder if regulations for diving around the monuments are strict enough.

"I'm not happy," says one conservationist, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of government reprisal. "Everything that is going on in the field of [Egyptian] conservation ... everywhere there's a problem."

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Government officials say they are following United Nations standards for underwater preservation. "We are doing our work as a science, and studying all the details with UNESCO," says Ibrahim Darwish, director of Egypt's Department of Underwater Archaeology. Only objects that can be lifted or stolen are being removed from the sea, authorities say. Also, they say government inspectors accompany divers.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor


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