THE UNDERWATER SITE OF QAITBAY – Initial conclusions

A monumental doorway
in the scale of the Pharos

Isabelle Hairy
May 2006

Above: Middle fragment of the lintel of the monumental doorway.
Right: One of the two uprights of the monumental doorway. (1)
Photos André Pelle & M-D. Nenna - © CEAlex – all rights reserved

If the stated aim of the study of this site is to explore a now disappeared space, of which the dismantled monuments are the fossils, one must understand why we are underwater in the first place. In effect, if we accept the idea that the sunken blocks were once parts of prestigious monuments, then what are they doing underwater? History and geomorphology can reply to that question. The site, as well as a large part of the Alexandrian coastline, are now underwater due to subsidence which most probably occurred at two moments: after the tsunami of 21 July, 365AD, to which several ancient texts refer, and around the 8th century, according to the conclusions of a recent geomorphologic study. This sinking of the littoral beneath the Mediterranean took much of the ancient city with it.
With this in mind, we can consider somewhat differently the seven fragments of the three red Aswan granite monoliths, which formed the monumental doorway discovered on the site. Despite an Egyptian technique and material, its dimensions – 12.77m high by 4.9 wide and 2.1m deep – and its Doric style would allow us to see a direct link with the Pharos. The Hellenic style is the cultural identity tag of its conceiver. What other clues can help us reply to the query as to its link with the Pharos of Alexandria?
The first clue would be the location of the fragments underwater. This fits with Strabo who places the Pharos, built between the reigns of Ptolemy I Soter (305-283BC) and Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246BC) on an islet situated off the eastern point of the island of Pharos.

But what is there to prove that our fragments are in place? This question meant checking the competence of our tools. Thanks to the Geographic Information System (GIS), the virtual maps have clearly shown how the pieces might join together, tracing out their fall pattern. This information coupled with a study of the seabed relief, allows for the proposed simulation of the mechanics of the doorway’s collapse. It fell in situ from its original situation near the two lower fragments of the western upright and middle fragment of the lintel.

From cartography to analysis

Part of the map of the underwater site : north-western zone

 
1 - Topography and descriptive inventory
of the ancient blocks.
2 - Topography of the seabed relief.
3 - Analysis of the seabed: to the west, a horizontal rocky plateau rising to 5 metres beneath sea level is separated by a deep fracture (north-west/south-east) from a second plateau that slopes gently downwards towards the north-east to a depth of 8 metres; to the south-east this latter has split into slabs that have slid down the slope.
4 - Analysis of the blocks: identification of seven fragments of a monumental doorway in red Aswan granite lying on both sides of the fracture. 5 - Analysis of the matches between blocks: putting together the elements of the two jambs and of the lintel, and then reconstituting the doorway from these pieces shows the line of collapse of the construction.
6 -The line of collapse indicates the orientation of the doorway, which leads to an initial hypothesis as to the emplacement of the Pharos.
Maps I. Hairy - © CEAlex – all rights reserved
Simulation of the collapse of the Pharos doorway

From the present position of the ancient blocks and deformations observed on the seabed, it is possible to recreate a simulation of the collapse of the Pharos doorway. This shows that the monumental doorway collapsed in situ from an original position situated close to the two lower fragments of the western upright and middle fragment of the lintel.

Drawings I. Hairy - © CEAlex – all rights reserved

The question as to what type of construction this door belonged is partly answered by its relative thinness, which would exclude the possibility of it being part of a defensive wall, something that might have been envisaged given the height. But then we come back to whether it was the doorway of the Pharos itself. A look at ancient texts can give an initial historical proof. The accounts of two medieval authors who both saw and described the Pharos, the Andalusian Arab Haggag Yussef Hamid al-Balawi al-Andalousi (1166) and the Moroccan traveller Ibn Battouta (1349), allow for the calculation of two measurements: the length of one side of the square ground plan of the first level and that of the thickness of this wall. This latter calculation corresponds perfectly to the thickness of our doorway.
In this way we can establish a connection between history and archaeology and this entranceway becomes the first known fossil of the ancient lighthouse. Standing on the scale of the Pharos, is it holding any further messages?

(1) The two fragments of the upright were lifted from the water in 1995. Placed upon the jetty by the Mameluke fort, they were not able to join the other lifted pieces in the open-air museum at Kom el Dikka because of their great size and weight.

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