Sunday, January 17, 2016
Shot Story: Underwater Museum Back on Track
Egypt’s first underwater museum of ancient Alexandrian treasures is back on track after a decade of delays, writes Nevine El-Aref
Several international agencies and companies have been working in collaboration with Egypt and UNESCO, the UN’s cultural arm, since 2006 on the research and development of such a museum in Alexandria’s ancient eastern harbour.
In 2008, a design was proposed by French architect Jacques Rougerie and approved by UNESCO and Egypt. A feasibility study was conducted in 2009, but the political turmoil in the country since 2011 has not helped the museum’s establishment.
The aim of the project is not only to put on show Egypt’s sunken treasures and provide an opportunity for visitors to admire the remains of the sunken Alexandria Lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as the royal court of queen Cleopatra’s palace, of which over 60 pieces have survived, including a sunken sphinx.
It also aims to protect the treasures from underwater threats, including pollution in the bay and damage by fishing boat anchors.
The museum will enable archaeologists to further protect the ruins, which have been prominent targets for thieves and have been difficult to police without a permanent surrounding infrastructure and round-the-clock surveillance.
Alexandria’s ancient eastern harbour, the location chosen for the underwater museum, was one of the most important in the world for around a century. It was the location of the ancient cities of Canopus and Heracleion, two Mediterranean cities contemporaneous with early Alexandria, which in antiquity were renowned centres for science, culture and religion.
Many of the area’s treasures were submerged during the Middle Ages due to earthquakes, but now they will be able to be admired once again if the plans for the underwater museum are put into execution soon, as announced by Eldamaty.
According to Rougerie’s design, the museum will consist of a three-part building. One part will be onshore, another offshore, and the third under the waves, along with a large open-air terrace to act as a window so that visitors will be able to view the eastern harbour.
It will have four tall glass structures resembling the sails of a boat, which according to Rougerie will recall the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria that once illuminated the city’s famous Library and the world.
The onshore part will house objects raised from the seabed from several sites on the Alexandria coast, not only in the eastern harbour. There will be space for further items that are yet to be discovered and cannot be left in situ.
Fibreglass tunnels will help viewers to pass from the onshore area to the underwater section. To solve the problem of the bay’s murky waters that might make the monuments difficult to see, builders will probably have to replace the water with an artificial lagoon.
The offshore part will contain important items from the sea that may be installed in their original environment and exhibited in aquariums. The third level will be an underwater plexiglass tunnel providing a unique window on the sunken capital of the Ptolemies.
“This level will stretch a few km along the seabed, or round one area of the sunken city, in an attempt to provide us with a first experience by which we will be able to judge the success of the technology and if there are any disadvantages, allowing us to avoid repeating them in further extensions,” director of the Underwater Archaeology Department at the ministry Mohamed Abdel-Meguid said.
He told Al-Ahram Weekly that during a recent meeting with Eldamaty, the minister had confirmed the commitment to build the museum.
“A new feasibility study is to take place as soon as funding is secured,” Abdel-Meguid said, adding that the ministry was unfortunately suffering from a lack of funds but several private organisations and agencies had expressed an interest in helping out.
The underwater museum would be a marvellous new attraction for visitors to Alexandria, he said, showing the ancient monuments within their original context, especially those which cannot be taken from the seabed. The pediments of the large buildings, for example, cannot be removed from the seabed, but they will be visible from the new museum.