Underwater study provides evidence of much older city

CAIRO (AP) – Alexander the Great founded Alexandria to immortalize his name on his way to conquer the world, but this may not have been the first city on the famed site of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. A Smithsonian team has now uncovered the first underwater evidence pointing to an urban settlement dating back seven centuries before Alexander showed up in 331 BC. The city he founded, Alexandria, has long been a source of intrigue and wonder, renowned for its library, once the largest in the world, and the 396-foot (119-meter) lighthouse on the island of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. But little was known about the site in pre-Alexander times, other than that a fishing village by the name of Rhakotis was located there. Coastal geoarchaeologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History said the work by him and his colleagues suggested there had been a much larger community than had previously been believed. The discoveries, reported in the August issue of GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America, came by accident when his team drilled underwater in Alexandria’s harbor, Stanley said. Their project was part of a 2007 Smithsonian-funded study of the subsiding Nile Delta and involved extracting 3-inch-wide sticks of core sediment some 18 feet long (5.5 meters), from up to 20 feet (6.5 meters) under the seabed. Egypt’s antiquities department and a French offshore group were involved in the project. The goal was to understand what happened to cause later structures, from the Greek and Roman eras, to become submerged. «One of the ways you do this is by taking sediment cores and examining core structures,» he told The Associated Press by phone from Washington. «This often happens in science. We were not searching for an ancient city,» said Stanley, who has been working in the Delta region for 20 years. When his team opened the cores, what they saw were «little ceramic fragments that were indicative of human activity.» But there was no immediate cause for excitement. Then, more and more rock fragments, ceramic shards from Middle and Upper Egypt, a lot of organic matter plant matter and heavy minerals were found. All the materials were found by radiocarbon dating to be from around 1000 BC. The scientists then analyzed concentration of lead isotopes found in the cores and saw that they too matched the dates of around 3,000 years ago. «This was proof that there was significant metallurgy and human activity going on back 1,000 years BC,» Stanley said. «Alexandria did not just grow out from a barren desert, but was built atop an active town. We had five well-defined components that fit – and we had the story. And the story was that Alexander the Great did not come first to set up Alexandria, there was already something there.» Stanley could not say how big the community was, only that it appeared more developed than the small fishing village long believed to be at the site. Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud, an Alexandria expert from Egypt’s Council of Antiquities, was cautious and said the work on uncovering Rhakotis was only in the early stages. «We can’t give a wealth of information out now, we are still working,» Maqsud said. «There are signs of a flourishing settlement, going back to Pharaonic times, but it’s too early to say anything about it.» Stanley hopes that a study of Rhakotis may one day prove as inspiring as other recent offshore discoveries – such as finds by marine archaeologists of the 2,500-year-old ruins of the cities of Herakleion, Canopus and Menouthis, Pharaonic cities built on different parts of the coast near present-day Alexandria. «There is an awful lot more of history to know,» Stanley said, adding that geologists would have to drill more intensely on land, around the shores, and in Alexandria itself to shed more light on the ancient world. «I’m sure they will find artifacts of Rhakotis someday,» he said. «And we will know more about the people who lived there.»

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.