The redevelopment of the open-air underwater museum by the Roman Theatre of Alexandria

Jean-Yves Empereur
Latest update, November 2005

In the autumn of 2005, the Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA) requested the collaboration of the Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines in the redevelopment of the open-air underwater museum by the Roman Theatre of Alexandria. It should be remembered that some 36 pieces – sphinxes, obelisks, papyriform columns and fragments of colossal statuary – had been lifted from the waters of the Mediterranean by our team in 1995 and that the SCA had decided to exhibit them to the public on the occasion of President Jacques Chirac’s visit to Alexandria in October. Nine years had now passed and the layout of the site needed a serious rethink, especially as the unexpected closure of the Graeco-Roman Museum has meant a steadily increasing flow of tourists to the gardens of the Roman Theatre

On this occasion, Dr Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, Director of Excavations In Egypt, had decided to reassemble an obelisk dedicated to Seti I and so the three fragments of its shaft were placed upon its base. The engineer Wieslaw Kuczewski and antiquities inspector Hamed Sayed Moussa undertook this assembly, which is still of a temporary nature as the obelisk is missing a lower section, roughly 1m high, of the shaft. We have not yet given up hope of finding this piece one day underwater and inserting it where it belongs.

Dr Mohamed Abdel Maksoud and the engineer Wieslaw Kuczewski setting the fourth fragment of the obelisk of Set I in place.
photo CEAlex, all rights reserved
On the base of the obelisk one can see an image in hollow relief of Seti, the father of Ramses II, consecrating an offering to the divinities of Heliopolis. Another obelisk, a twin to this one, still lies in the Mediterranean on the underwater site of the Pharos. It is a pleasure to witness the return of an obelisk to Alexandrian soil some 126 years after the departure of the second of Cleopatra’s Needles. These latter, two obelisks of Tutmoses III, had been brought from Heliopolis to Alexandria by Augustus in 13 AD to be erected in front of the Caesareum. Given away by Mohamed Ali as gifts, they were carried off, one to London in 1877 and the other to New York in 1879.
The open-air underwater museum by the Roman Theatre in Alexandria: view to the south with, from left to right, the series of fragments of colossal statuary and the sphinxes. Photo CEAlex, all rights reserved
In a layout designed by Isabelle Hairy, architect-archaeologist with the CEAlex and in charge of the underwater excavation of the Pharos, the fragments of colossal statuary are gathered at the entry to the site followed by architectural and inscribed elements, then the sphinxes and lastly the obelisks. Next to the reassembled obelisk, stands the magnificent calcite sphinx of Psammetichus II. All of the pieces are placed on elegant bases covered in brick with explanation panels for each exhibit that complement the general introduction and plans featured on a large panel at the entrance to the site.
View to the north with the reassembled obelisk of Seti II and the sphinx of Psammetichus II
photo © CEAlex, all rights reserved

The erection of the obelisk of Seti I in the Roman Theatre garden comes a prelude to an operation on a much greater scale. We are now awaiting the reassembly of the Pharos doorway following the reconstitutions undertaken by Isabelle Hairy. There is little doubt that this monumental doorway will become a powerful symbol of modern Alexandria just as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has in recent years.

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