Sunday, February 22, 2009

Can Egypt bring Cleopatra's palace back to life?

-Taken from
-Alexandria - February 2009

Artist's impression by Jacques Rougerie Architect

Some of the world's most exciting sunken treasures could soon be on view after Egypt confirmed plans to build a giant underwater museum in the Mediterranean. But as preparation begins on the site of Cleopatra's Palace in Alexandria, funding and technical problems are proving as divisive and controversial as the famed queen herself.

Ancient Alexandria was one of the world's great centres of civilisation, and since excavations in the eastern harbour began in 1994, divers have unearthed thousands of historical objects. These have included 26 sphinxes, several vast granite blocks weighing up to 56 tonnes each, and even pieces of what is believed to be the Pharos of Alexandria lighthouse, one of the seven classic wonders of the world.

Remnants of Queen Cleopatra's palace complex are also submerged beneath the waves, after the island on which it stood fell victim to earthquakes in the 5th century.

Now ambitious but controversial plans are under way to open up this unique site via an immersed fibreglass tunnel which would enable close-up viewing of the underwater monuments. Described as a "beautiful dream" by the director of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities, Dr Zahi Hawass, the proposed museum complex features both an inland and submarine gallery space.

The latter will supposedly be crowned by four striking 'felucca sails' rising from the ocean, echoing the traditional sailboats that have long journeyed up the Nile. The designs were drawn up by the French architect Jacques Rougerie, a veteran of water-based construction projects, and have been backed by the United Nations cultural agency Unesco.

Next month a detailed technical survey will be launched. "If all goes according to plan, construction will begin in early 2010 and be completed within two and half years," says Ariel Fuchs, a scientific director at Rougerie's firm.

The idea is also being promoted by the high-profile marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, who is currently touring Europe with a selection of artefacts already dredged up from the Alexandrian coastline.

Yet before a single foundation stone has been laid on the ocean floor, the project is already running in to a host of obstacles. Funding for the museum, which will cost up to $140m, has not yet been secured; the government is hoping that with the help of Mr Goddio it can persuade private companies and organisations to foot the bill in exchange for a share of future revenues, but a member of the architectural team admitted privately that, "at present, nobody is clear about where the financing will come from."

Even if money does come through, a series of formidable technical challenges await the museum's builders, including the question of how to combat the bay's notoriously murky waters to improve visibility in the tunnel, and the problem of ensuring the structure is strong enough to withstand underwater currents and sea surges.

More worryingly the project has been accused by sceptical locals of being little more than a 'corporate theme park', with many doubting it will be built at all. "As an idea it's perfect," says Dr Ashraf Sabri, who runs a local dive centre specialising in marine heritage sites. "But you can't build an underwater museum in hotel meeting-rooms. You have to get down there and do the scientific work to see what is practical and what isn't. And month-in, month-out, this has not been done"

A local specialist in the local archaeological scene, who preferred not to be named, concurred: "The water down there isn't just difficult to see through, it's poisonous. And the designs put forward at the moment are for an underwater Disneyland, not a place where people will learn about heritage. If these corporate sponsors want to build a sunken theme park then fine, but don't try and pass it off as a serious archaeological endeavour."

Both the Egyptian government and Unesco have rejected charges that the museum is commercialising a site of great historical importance. "Culture can contribute to economic value, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," argues Ulrike Koschtial, from Unesco's underwater division. The UN agency held a convention in 2001 which concluded that sunken artefacts should where possible be left in situ on the seabed, rather than be carried up to shore; it's hoping that the Egyptian project will serve as a model for the development of similar sites around the world.

"Alexandria is such an important region for marine archaeology that the project here could set out some key international principles for how different countries deal with their underwater heritage," explains Ms Koschtial. "So it's obviously vital we proceed prudently, and that's why ethical considerations will be a key part of the technical study."

For Egypt, the stakes are high. Alexandria, the country's second city, has been long overshadowed by Cairo and Luxor, and the government wants it to become a new focal point for the 12 million foreign tourists that visit each year. "For too long Alexandria's great history and multicultural background hasn't been sufficiently respected," says Naguib Amin, local site manager for the Supreme Council for Antiquities.

Amin rejected claims that money would be better spent giving a makeover to the city's crumbling downtown buildings, most of which feature stunning colonial-era architecture. "We view the museum as an integral component of revitalising the city as a whole," he said. "Yes, Egyptology does make money but our only concern here is to produce the most captivating and beautiful experience for visitors whilst ensuring maximum safety for both the guests and for the artefacts themselves."

As the wrangling over Alexandria's seabed riches continues, residents of this ancient city are retaining a cynical approach to the whole saga. "The problem with Egypt is that we never work for the future," observes Dr Sabri. "Sustainable planning here works on the basis of 'I'll only have this job for a few years, so which vanity project can I use to impress the President today?' But look at the pyramids, they were made for eternity. We need to look back into our past to remind ourselves how to build for future generations."

No comments: