An Underwater Museum in Egypt Could Bring Thousands of Sunken Relics Into View

The proposed site might revive tourism in Alexandria and also further research into the ancient ruins.


By Michelle Z. Donahue December 29, 2015

The Great Sphinx, the pyramids at Giza, the temples at Luxor—if you’ve been to Egypt, you’ve probably seen them. Next time, you might try putting the Lighthouse of Pharos on your Egyptian bucket list, and don’t worry that it’s at the bottom of a harbor. A new museum proposed for Egypt’s City of Alexandria aims to bring visitors to sunken treasures not seen by the public in over 1,400 years.
In the works since 1996, the plan to build an underwater museum in the Eastern Harbor area of Alexandria’s Abu Qir Bay has again been revived. Mamdouh al-Damaty, Egypt’s minister of antiquities, announced in September that the country was once again prepared to move forward with the ambitious scheme.

“This area was one of the most important areas in the world for around 1,000 years,” says Mohamed Abd El-Maguid, the head of the department of underwater activities at the Ministry of Antiquities. “In five meters of water, we have these remains of palaces and temples, but nothing people can see with their own eyes. Having a museum like this will attract more tourists that will help the economy move again.”

The idea for an underwater museum first came to the table 20 years ago, when Egyptian officials began studying how to better protect the valuable artifacts in Alexandria from further degradation. At the moment, relics are under threat by pollution in the bay, poaching by divers and damage by fishing boat anchors. A museum would help safeguard the remaining relics not only as a physical structure, but also as a protected area that could be monitored, El-Maguid says.

After 1997, UNESCO got involved, helping to define a potential museum project. In 2006, stakeholders convened at a roundtable workshop to further refine the project’s goals, but everything was put on hold in 2011 after the January 25 Revolution and ensuing political upheaval. Talks resumed in 2013.

El-Maguid had a meeting with al-Damaty this past September during which he says the minister affirmed the commitment to build an underwater museum in Alexandria, and that he anticipates site feasibility studies will start as soon as funding is secured. The Egyptian government, strapped for cash, isn’t expected to contribute any money towards the project, El-Maguid says, but private entities have expressed an interest in possibly helping out, including Chinese corporations. According to a policy report by the Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenboch University in South Africa, Hutchison Whampoa and other Chinese companies have already made significant investments in Egypt’s infrastructure and port redevelopment projects.

“The Chinese are coming in force,” El-Maguid says. “But part of the feasibility study would be how to finance the museum.”

In 2008, French architect Jacques Rougerie caught wind of the project and reached out to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities to offer his services to create conceptual renderings. What resulted is a spellbinding design that evokes a sense of Egypt’s deep connection to the past.

Rougerie’s design features an inland building on the shores of the Eastern Harbor of Abukir Bay, connected to a submerged structure in the water. A series of fiberglass tunnels brings visitors to the sea floor, some 20 feet below the surface, where more than 2,500 relics stand. Some, like the massive blocks that are believed to be the remains of the once 450-foot-tall Pharos lighthouse, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World before tumbling into the bay in the 13th century A.D., are partially buried.

Topped by four tall edifices shaped like the sails of a felucca, the traditional wooden sailboat of the Nile, Rougerie’s design would allow visitors to see the artifacts as they’ve stood for centuries, including what are thought to be the remains of Cleopatra VII’s palace—she of Shakespearean tragedy—as well as busts of her son, Caesarion, and her father, Ptolemy XII. Rougerie estimates construction would take about two years, plus time required to complete site surveys and planning.

“[A] long walkway opens under an immense aquatic space, inundated with sun and dancing flashes of an incredible collection of statues and relics in the Alexandria Bay and in Abu Qir,” Rougerie explains in a video that demonstrates his concept. “These moving signs from the past are enhanced by a scenography that combines the magic and beauty of the underwater world.”

Rougerie cites Jules Verne as the inspiration for much of his work, which includes underwater habitats, marine laboratories and research centers. He’s also put forward proposals to build some pretty fantastical designs, including the floating city of Mériens, shaped like a manta ray, and the SeaOrbiter, a half-submarine half-skyscraper intended to allow researchers to cruise and study the seas 24/7. The designs are intentionally pelagic and alien—by building structures reminiscent of sea life, Rougerie works to draw attention to the “beauty and fragility of the sea and its fundamental role in the story of humanity,” according to his website.

Rougerie says that a museum of this type in Alexandria would not only help revive tourism in the city, but also help facilitate further research into the ruins there. A final design will be solicited and chosen following further feasibility studies.

“We envisioned an underwater archaeology school with an international resonance to be part of the museum’s facilities,” Rougerie says. “The public could assist the work of the archaeologists on archaeological treasures like Cleopatra’s palace or the royal court that have been hidden from the public for thousands of years.”


Rougerie’s design would allow visitors to see the artifacts as they’ve stood for centuries. (© Jacques Rougerie Architecte)


Scholars still debate when and how Alexandria’s once-great palaces, lecture halls, homes and temples came to be submerged. In part through studies of sediment cores in the bay and excavations of remains beneath present-day Alexandria, it seems to have been a slow destruction wrought by earthquakes, tsunamis and gnawing erosion by the sea. It’s very possible the waters of the eastern Mediterranean Sea gradually inundated the city between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D.

The treasures there have been remarkably well preserved over the ensuing 14 centuries, even in relatively polluted water and despite a 1993 breakwater construction project that is thought to have destroyed many artifacts by accident. Recent dives by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio have revealed statues with the faces of Ptolemy and Cleopatra, falcon-headed crocodile sphinxes and priests holding canopic jars.

Ulrike Guérin is an UNESCO attorney responsible for the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, an agreement by UN member nations to strengthen the safeguarding and conservation of valuable submerged artifacts in their waters.

Guerin says she expects two or three years to pass before any real movement begins. But she adds the successful construction of a museum in Abu Qir Bay would change the landscape of research and education into the archaeological remains of an important part of Egypt’s history.

“This kind of museum could change the way we look at underwater heritage,” Guérin says. “It’s difficult, because you can’t go there, and it’s a real issue to see that authentic heritage without having to take it out and dry it up. You can never show all of Alexandria—it’s huge—but parts of it are mind-changing.”

Though it may be more logistically simple to exhume some of the artifacts and install them in an aboveground museum, El-Maguid says the fact that they’re underwater offers Egypt a chance at creating a completely new kind of museum to add to the collection of 37 land-based museums that already exist in the country.

“Fixed remains, like the pediments of the large buildings, can’t be taken out,” El-Maguid says. “We also have more than 2 million objects in Egypt, all above ground. If we were to take these out of the water, what would be the difference? Here we have something new.”

No other museum like this currently exists, though a smaller, proof-of-concept version of an underwater museum exists in China at the Baiheliang Underwater Museum near the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. Featuring concrete-clad tunnels with portholes, visitors can catch a glimpse of seven-foot-long carved stone fish that once helped measure river level changes.

In the meantime, UNESCO continues with plans to create several online exhibitions of underwater sites, such as at Pavlopetri in Greece. A project is underway to create a virtual recreation of the city’s ruins through photography and 3D scans.

“The underwater realm is a mystery, and underwater archaeology is also a mystery, so you have a mystery squared,” El-Maguid says. “If you cannot see, you cannot understand, and if you cannot understand, you cannot appreciate. We’re trying to draw attention to what we have here, keep it as intact as possible, make it available for everyone and try to add chapters to the history books.”


By Michelle Z. Donahue SMITHSONIAN.COM


Watch the Destruction of Pompeii by Mount Vesuvius, Re-Created with Computer Animation (79 AD)

A good disaster story never fails to fascinate — and, given that it actually happened, the story of Pompeii especially so. Buried and thus frozen in time by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the ancient Roman town of 11,000 has provided an object of great historical interest ever since its rediscovery in 1599. Baths, houses, tools and other possessions (including plenty of wine bottles), frescoes, graffiti, an ampitheater, an aqueduct, the “Villa of the Mysteries“: Pompeii has it all, as far as the stuff of first-century Roman life goes.

The ash-preserved ruins of Pompeii, more than any other source, have provided historians with a window into just what life in that time and place was like. A Day in Pompeii, an exhibition held at the Melbourne Museum in 2009, gave its more than 330,000 visitors a chance to experience Pompeii’s life even more vividly. The exhibition included a 3D theater installation that featured the animation above. Watch it, and you can see Pompeii brought back to life with computer-generated imagery — and then, in snapshots over the course of 48 hours, entombed by Vesuvius again.

As inherently compelling as we find the story of Pompeii, modern drama has struggled to capture the power of the disaster that defines it. The late-1960s BBC show Up Pompeii! offered a comedic rendering of life in the city before the explosion, but more serious interpretations, like the 2014 Hollywood movie Pompeii, met with only lukewarm critical reception. Best, it seems, to stick to the words of Pliny the Younger, witness to the destruction and still its most evocative describer:

“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.”

Source: by Colin Marshall

Dating back to 1400 BC, this is the oldest surviving melody and it sounds totally amazing

Tablet h.6, the tablet is in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus.


The Hurrian songs are a collection of music inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets excavated from the ancient Amorite Canaanite  city of Ugarit which date to approximately 1400 BC. One of these tablets, which is nearly complete, contains the Hurrian hymn to Nikkal ,making it the oldest surviving substantially complete work of notated music in the world. While the composers’ names of some of the fragmentary pieces are known, h.6 is an anonymous work.

The complete song is one of about 36 such hymns in cuneiform writing, found on fragments of clay tablets excavated in the 1950s from the Royal Palace at Ugarit (present day Ras Shamra, Syria), in a stratum dating from the fourteenth century BC, but is the only one surviving in substantially complete form. An account of the group of shards was first published in 1955 and 1968 by Emmanuel Laroche, who identified as parts of a single clay tablet the three fragments catalogued by the field archaeologists as RS 15.30, 15.49, and 17.387. In Laroche’s catalogue the hymns are designated h. (for “Hurrian”) 2–17, 19–23, 25–6, 28, 30, along with smaller fragments RS. 19.164 gj,noprtwxyaa, and gg. The complete hymn is h.6 in this list. A revised text of h.6 was published in 1975.

The tablet h.6 contains the lyrics for a hymn to Nikkal, a Semitic goddess of orchards, and instructions for a singer accompanied by a nine-stringed sammûm, a type of harp or, much more likely, a lyre. One or more of the tablets also contains instructions for tuning the harp.

The Hurrian hymn pre-dates several other surviving early works of music, e.g., the Seikilos epitaph and the Delphic Hymns, by a millennium, but its transcription remains controversial. A reconstruction by Marcelle Duchesne-Guillemin may be heard at the Urkesh webpage, though this is only one of at least five “rival decipherments of the notation, each yielding entirely different results”.

The arrangement of the tablet h.6 places the Hurrian words of the hymn at the top, under which is a double division line. The hymn text is written in a continuous spiral, alternating recto-verso sides of the tablet—a layout not found in Babylonian texts. Below this is found the Akkadian musical instructions, consisting of interval names followed by number signs. Differences in transcriptions hinge on interpretation of the meaning of these paired signs, and the relationship to the hymn text. Below the musical instructions there is another dividing line—single this time—underneath which is a colophon in Akkadian reading “This [is] a song [in the] nitkibli [i.e., the nid qabli tuning], a zaluzi… written down by Ammurabi”. This name and another scribe’s name found on one of the other tablets, Ipsali, are both Semitic. There is no composer named for the complete hymn, but four composers’ names are found for five of the fragmentary pieces: Tapšiẖuni, Puẖiya(na), Urẖiya (two hymns: h.8 and h.12), and Ammiya. These are all Hurrian names

The tablet is in the collection of the National Museum of Damascus.

The melody below is  performed by the very talented Michael Levy on the Lyre.




Source: The Vintage News

Giving new life to some of Pompeii’s dead


Archaeologists are using CT scans to study the plaster casts of the victims of Mount Vesuvius to learn more about Pompeii’s residents and their way of life.


(Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy/De Agostini Picture Library/L. Pedicini/Bridgeman Images) A wall painting from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii dating to the 1st-century B.C. or the 1st-century A.D. depicts a garden filled with dozens of local species of plants and birds, a birdbath, herms supporting plaques showing sleeping women, and theater masks.


The three-story House of the Golden Bracelet on the Vicolo del Farmacista was one of the most opulent in Pompeii, its walls covered with vibrant frescoes depicting theatrical scenes and imitating expensive marble paneling, its floors paved with intricate black-and-white geometric mosaics. At the rear of the house lay a verdant garden with a splashing fountain and quiet pools, its natural beauty echoed by wall paintings depicting oleander, viburnum, arbutus, bay, palm trees, irises, roses, daisies, and poppies, home to doves and house sparrows, a swallow, a golden oriole, and a jay. From the terrace was a view of the sea, whose breezes cooled the house during hot Mediterranean summers.

The morning of August 24, A.D. 79, was relatively quiet in Pompeii, perhaps disturbed only slightly by a series of earthquakes common enough to the region. But by just past noon things drastically changed, when, according to the first-century Roman writer Pliny the Younger, a cloud of “unusual size and appearance” spewed from nearby Mount Vesuvius. Soon ash, pumice, and stone began to fall, flames could be seen leaping from the mountain, buildings shook and swayed, and, in places, although it was still day, there was “darkness blacker and denser than ordinary night.” For two days, the volcano erupted ferociously, on the first day expelling millions of tons of debris, burying Pompeii at a rate of roughly six inches an hour. Thousands of people were trapped: “You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling to their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices,” writes Pliny. On the second day, surges of superheated rock, ash, and gases, called pyroclastic flows, rushed down the mountain at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour, flattening the buildings that remained standing, and scalding or perhaps suffocating those who had not already been buried. By the end of August 25, more than 2,000 people likely had died in Pompeii, and at least 15,000 had probably perished in the region.

(Araldo de Luca) A bracelet weighing more than a pound, composed of a two-headed snake holding a medallion depicting the moon goddess Selene, gives the House of the Golden Bracelet its name.


Giuseppe Fiorelli became director of excavations in Pompeii in 1860. Realizing that it was not just structures, paintings, mosaics, and artifacts that had been covered by volcanic debris, but also plants, animals, and people, Fiorelli developed a new method for recovering these once-living specimens. When excavators encountered voids in the hardened ash and pumice created by the decay of organic material, they poured plaster into them. They then left the plaster to dry, after which they removed the material around the plaster, revealing the bodies of victims at the very moments of their deaths.

In 1974 four people were discovered in voids under a flight of stairs leading to the House of the Golden Bracelet’s garden. Using the technique pioneered by Fiorelli, casts were made of the bodies, revealing them to be a man, a woman, and two small children who had likely died on the eruption’s second day, killed either by the collapse of the staircase or by the pyroclastic flow. The casts have now been moved to a lab in Pompeii as part of an ambitious project to study and restore 86 of the 103 that have been made, including the four people from the House of the Golden Bracelet. Some casts are more than 150 years old, and their surfaces have become marred and pitted. Iron rods used for reinforcement have rusted and expanded, cracking the casts, and preserved bones have decayed. Even some of the newer ones (the most recent was made in 1999) have shown need of immediate care. “We decided to undertake this project now because we need to maintain the casts’ structural integrity. It will also bring the story of Pompeii’s destruction to those living now, and to future generations,” says Stefano Vanacore, the director of the lab in Pompeii. None of the casts has ever been restored, presenting the team with a huge challenge. “There was no experience of how to restore the casts, and no single way to do so because they were made over such a long time using many different materials,” Vanacore says. “For example, Fiorelli used very high-quality plaster reinforced with wood, so his casts are in much better condition than those made later with poorer quality materials.”


(Pasquale Sorrentino) Casts of the man, the woman, and the two children found in the House of the Golden Bracelet


To begin the process, restorers brushed loose debris from the casts, cleaned their surfaces using quick-evaporating chemical solutions, and reattached loose fragments and broken limbs. To consolidate them, they used an acrylic resin suitable for both plaster and bone, and, where possible, replaced the iron rods with non-corrosive fiberglass. “We had to make sure that there were no adverse reactions between the different, old materials, and the new ones we introduced,” says Vanacore. The work did not stop there. All 86 casts have been scanned with lasers to create 3-D images that are giving researchers a highly detailed view of their surface deterioration. In addition, small copies of the casts were made using 3-D printing technology. Of the 86, 16 were moved to a lab for CT scans—the choice of which casts to scan was determined by which could fit through the scanner’s opening—allowing researchers to see inside them for the first time. “We don’t just want to restore the casts, we also want to better understand the eating habits, diseases, and even causes of death of these ancient Pompeians,” explains Vanacore. “For example, we learned that they didn’t have cavities or tooth decay, likely because they had a low-sugar diet and used only sweeteners derived from fruit.”

In addition to such new information about the overall health of the city’s inhabitants now being revealed by the scans, the work may also provide specific details of some individuals’ lives. For example, CT scans of the teeth of one of the children from the House of the Golden Bracelet, the only child to be scanned, shows that he was between four and five years old at the time of his death, not three as had previously been thought. Researchers also discovered that he wore an amulet around his neck—it had never been seen before because it was deeply embedded in the plaster. DNA testing currently under way may help determine the relationships between the four people hiding under the stairs on that day in August.

For anyone who sees the casts, it’s impossible not to be affected by them. “I have a lot of emotions when I look at the casts,” says Vanacore. “The restoration is a scientific intervention and an investigation of the deaths caused by Vesuvius, but I have respect for what and how unique these casts are. For example, I think of the family in the House of the Golden Bracelet, joined together until death. They aren’t just graphic representations of people, but actual people made of bones, teeth, and skulls. Though they lived a long time ago, they were people just like us.”

Jarrett A. Lobell is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

Casts of Pompeii

Of the thousands of inhabitants, buildings, and artifacts buried in Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August of A.D. 79—entire houses decorated with vibrant wall paintings, ovens with bread still baking inside, hoards of precious jewelry and coins—there are none so affecting as the people and animals who were the volcano’s victims. In 1860, Pompeii’s director of excavations Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a way to, in a sense, bring them back to life by creating plaster casts out of the voids left by the decay of organic materials in the hardened ash and pumice. Many of the casts are in dire need of conservation, and the current archaeological superintendency is now undertaking the task of moving, conserving, and restoring 86 of the 103 casts that were made, using both traditional techniques, as well as the latest technology, to ensure that they survive long into the future as well. Below are images of some of the most compelling casts.

For the first time in history, almost all of Pompeii’s casts have been moved from locations all over the city to an on-site lab where they will be conserved and restored.
Many of the casts preserve people in poses that appear as if they are crawling along the ground or hiding their faces to escape the eruption’s swiftly falling debris or the rush of poisonous gasses.
Likely as a result of the corrosion and expansion of the iron rods once used to reinforce the casts, entire limbs have broken off some casts. The rods are now being replaced with fiberglass wherever possible.
Surprisingly, despite the volcano’s tremendous power and the passage of nearly 2,000 years, some bone and teeth do survive as part of the casts. Ongoing studies have demonstrated that the ancient Pompeians had a diet low in sugar and had excellent teeth.
In addition to people and plants, and in particular tree roots of the species growing at the time, some casts were made of animals killed during the eruption. Here the dog’s collar is still visible.
After restoration in one lab, some casts were taken to a second lab to undergo CT scans. The 3-D images created by the scans are revealing details about the individuals’ remains, as well as the condition of the casts themselves.