THE UNDERWATER SITE OF QAITBAY – Initial conclusions

The monuments discovered

Isabelle Hairy
May 2006
The extremely aggressive nature of the underwater site has caused the disappearance of any man-made layers and prevented any accumulation of sediment, what archaeologists traditionally call “stratigraphy”. At Qaitbay, the ancient blocks lie either directly upon the bedrock, from which all trace of construction has been erased by erosion, or under piles of sand that come and go with the seasons. Thus, the lay out of the pieces and fragments that will enter into our reconstitutions presents our last trail back through time and the way to advance our knowledge.
The information extracted from the site has led to the first reconstitution of certain monuments. Little by little we have rediscovered two monolithic tabernacles or naos, an obelisk of Seti I, a gigantic vasque almost two metres in diameter, a sarcophagus bathtub, two papyriform columns of the 19th dynasty, a Roman era honorific column, numerous sphinxes, certain of which are exhibited at Kom el Dikka, colossal statues and even a monumental doorway in the Doric style. These assemblies have allowed us to shine a light upon different events that have touched this site on the eastern point of the peninsula of Pharos, former island connected to the continent by a causeway that Strabo called the Heptastadion (meaning 7 stadia, a stadion being an ancient measurement of length).

By analysing the lay out of the elements on the site we can identify certain eras during which man has shaped this space.
Running parallel to the northern wall of the Mameluke fortress, the remains of a medieval breakwater (C3) composed of hundreds of fragments of columns demonstrate just how serious the problem of erosion was taken. Installed after the construction of the fort, which dates from the second half of the 15th century, the breakwater was still visible at the beginning of the 20th century. It has since been replaced by a modern barrier that was reinforced by the sunken concrete blocks, the laying of which was the reason for our initial archaeological campaign in 1994. The study of certain notable pieces, among others a column base, has shown that the builders of the medieval breakwater sometimes went considerable distances within Alexandria in order to gather their material, even as far as the then abandoned Serapeum. A branch of Alexandria’s canal allowed them to transport the required blocks by water.

Map for the spatial analysis of Qaitbay site - Zones C1, C2 & C3
Map I. Hairy - © CEAlex all rights reserved
The analysis of a circular area of mixed up ancient blocks situated to the north-east of the site (C2) has revealed different installations that probably took place throughout the 1st century AD (probable date of a Corinthian capital) and were occupied at least until the Byzantine period, as is suggested by a fragment of papyriform column bearing a Christian cross. Amongst this jumble one can note the remains of a little building in Doric style, a monumental honorific column that stood some 16.5 metres high and can be dated to 4th century AD by the Greek inscription on a block of its base, as well as the base of a statue. The shape of a socket carved into one of its faces which must have served to hold the body of the statue, distinctly recalls the posture of Isis Pharia, patron saint of seafaring whose image features on Alexandria’s coinage under Domitian (90-92AD). Could this be the first sign of the remains of a sanctuary mentioned by Ovid in his Metamorphoses that was dedicated to this Isis whose very epithet gives us the origin of her cult?

Isis Pharia standing to the left of the Pharos
Geißen 1121 - Photo I.Hairy

BStatue base that may have held a statue of Isis Pharia from the Pharos temple. In plan its dimensions are 1.78m by 1.32m with a thickness of 0.525m, that is 1 cubit.

Photo S. Erome - © CEAlex
And now let’s look at the last zone, in which was found a doorway in the Doric style that stood some 13 metres high, and an ensemble of nine statues representing kings as Pharaoh and queens as Isis. Everything would suggest that this monumental doorway dates from the Ptolemaic period, as with the nine royal statues, which despite their date as all in Pharaonic style. The fragments were all discovered within a small area situated to the south-west of the Roman zone on a relatively even and flat section of the seabed (C1).
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A graphic reconstruction of the elements of different monuments discovered in the underwater site.
CGD I. Hairy - © CEAlex – all rights reserved
And finally, I shall close with the thorny question of the discovery on the site of monuments from the Pharaonic period. Once again, the reconstitutions show that we are dealing with almost complete monuments even if they are in fragments. Sphinxes, obelisks, naos and papyriform columns are spread throughout the zones C1 and C2. A study of the inscriptions tells us that they come from other ancient Egyptian sites: Heliopolis and Memphis. Their relatively good state of conservation, as well as their proximity to the major ensembles of the Ptolemaic and Roman eras in this site demonstrate that they were generally used as decoration around the monuments. At Alexandria, as elsewhere, such an action was an attempt to assimilate the power of the ancient kings with that of the new dynasty.
The fate of certain pieces is complex. Such is the case for the papyriform columns. They were probably carved during the 18th Dynasty and then re-used at the time of Ramses II (19th Dynasty), according to the cartouches carved on one of them. Then they were dismantled and remounted around the Pharos (C1) as part of an ensemble that stood at least until the Byzantine period (as is shown by the bas-relief Christian cross carved on one). Subsequently they were cut up for building material in the later constructions of zone C2, thus demonstrating that at a certain moment in time there was an activity that linked these two sections of the site.
Once again, it is the lay out of the Pharaonic elements that helps in the interpretation of the space that they characterise. Concentrated around the elements of the doorway and statuary, they appear as the classic components of a ritual threshold as can be seen at Karnak and Medinet Habu. First established during the New Kingdom and then elaborated throughout the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, this development served a religious function.
This rapid overview should help us to understand how we can reduce those shadowy areas of our terra incognita. But going beyond the site itself, we will discover that these monuments allow us to face other questions, most notably that which regards the presence in situ of the remains of the celebrated Pharos.
Proposition de restitution de l'obélisque de quartzite de Seti Ier - I. Hairy - © CEAlex

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