"Treasures of the Sunken City"

PBS Airdate: November 18, 1997
Go to the companion Web site

ANNOUNCER: Tonight, on NOVA, an underwater adventure. Beneath the Mediterranean, history beckons. Divers race against the clock to save remnants of a lost empire. But danger lurks in the deed. Could this really be the Seventh Wonder of the World?

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: It's very beautiful.

ANNOUNCER: Treasures of the Sunken City.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television. the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Twenty-three centuries ago, Alexander the Great founded a magnificent city in Egypt on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It was called Alexandria. Today little remains of his ancient capital. But in the harbor, there lies astonishing evidence of a glorious past. Some believe that these are remnants of the city's most spectacular monument, a structure so incredible, it was declared one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world: the lighthouse of Alexandria. It amazed the world for centuries until a catastrophic earthquake brought it crashing down. After its collapse, a medieval fortress was built over the ruins. All signs of the ancient building seemed to disappear. The Egyptian military restricts diving along the Mediterranean, so the intriguing evidence on the ocean floor has been off-limits to archaeologists, until now. The government is constructing a new breakwater to protect the harbor. Everyday a barge drops several tons of concrete onto the ancient stones. Within a few months, the unexplored ruins could be destroyed. Archaeologists and activists joined forces to make an urgent appeal to the authorities. As a result, permission is granted for a full scale excavation. After six hundred years of mystery, the underwater search for the Seventh Wonder of the World is about to begin. Before today, only a handful of divers have ever gotten a glimpse at the stones on the seabed. Now, a small regiment of thirty French and Egyptian archaeologists, artists and map makers will explore the site. The team will examine every inch of the area looking for evidence of Alexandria's long lost lighthouse. One of the divers is Egyptologist Jean-Pierre Corteggiani. As he gets his first look at the site, Jean-Pierre is stunned by the disorder that covers five acres of the sea floor.

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: And the first dive was, it was very impressive because it's a kind of huge chaos of hundreds and hundreds blocks mixed together with shells, with a lot of fishes all around. It was a strange impression because the water is almost never very, very clear. So probably the first impression was, I understand nothing.

NARRATOR: The man responsible for making sense of the chaos is very familiar with Alexandria's ancient mysteries. French archaeologist, Jean-Yves Empereur has spent the last five years excavating land sites in the city's urban center. Each dig brings new surprises.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: When we begin rescue excavation, we don't know what we shall find. But we know that everywhere we shall dig, we shall find something. And sometimes, it's very well-preserved, but everywhere you will find something in Alexandria.

NARRATOR: Jean-Yves is uncovering literally the foundations of Alexandria, a city built on Egyptian soil, but designed and governed by Greeks. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., he selected a site on the northern coast for his new capital. Alexandria soon became the most powerful city in the Mediterranean world. After Alexander's death, Egypt and its capital were governed by a series of Greek rulers. In the tradition of the great God-kings of ancient Egypt, they called themselves Pharaohs, the most famous of all, Cleopatra. In the 1963 film epic, Elizabeth Taylor became one of a long line of beautiful actresses to portray the ill-fated queen. But the real Cleopatra, shown on ancient coins and statues was remarkable more for her political maneuvers than for her looks. Like her predecessors, Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian. Her city was twice the size of Athens and filled with hundreds of palaces, temples and the greatest library of the ancient world. Almost all the ancient monuments had been destroyed, wiped out by centuries of war, fire and devastating earthquakes, like those that toppled the lighthouse. The search for this lost wonder will be Jean-Yves biggest challenge. His team's first task is to create a map of the underwater site. Each block is cleaned, carefully measured and drawn in detail. To determine the exact position of the blocks, the archaeologists in the water must coordinate with surveyors on the shore. The goal is to create a plan of the entire site, accurate to a single centimeter. At the end of each day, the drawings are delivered to project headquarters downtown. Block by block, the data is entered into an enormous computerized file. After four weeks, the team has surveyed about a quarter of the site and recorded over five hundred blocks. The archaeologists hope that the completed map will help answer their most pressing question: where did all these ancient blocks come from? Some historians doubt that the blocks are from the lighthouse at all. They believe that the stones were dumped into the water during the Middle Ages in an effort to blockade the harbor from invading crusaders. Others think that the underwater ruins are from a different ancient monument, perhaps a temple that gradually sank beneath the waves. But Jean-Yves believes that among the rubble may lie pieces of the lighthouse, itself, that fell into the sea when the enormous tower collapsed. Before he can prove it, Jean-Yves must first track down all available clues to the size, shape and decoration of the mysterious building. Dozens of ancient Greek, Roman and Arab writers proclaimed the wonders of the lighthouse. Unfortunately, their descriptions are lacking in specifics.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: The ancient sources speak many times about the lighthouse, itself, but they don't give many details on this building, they give only an impression. They say that it was impressive for the Greek people, after for the Roman and even for the Arabs.

NARRATOR: The lighthouse was so impressive, it became the symbol of Alexandria, appearing on coins, jars and souvenirs of the city. Built around 290 B.C., it was called "The Pharos," named for the small island on which it stood. It was said that the huge tower soared to a height of over three hundred feet, second only to the Great Pyramid of Giza. At its top, a blazing fire magnified by a gigantic mirror guided ships from seventy miles out at sea. After its collapse in the 14th century, depictions of The Pharos became less reliable, as artists created more romanticized and bizarre images of the Seventh Wonder. The real lighthouse was probably a much simpler construction. Perhaps the best clue to the shape of the tower is this ancient funeral monument, which stands about twenty-five miles from Alexandria. It's constructed in three stages: a square base supports an eight-sided tower with a round section at the top. This sixty-five foot structure is believed to be a scaled-down replica of the famous lighthouse. In the early 20th century, the German archaeologist, Hermann Thiersch, presented his version of the full-sized Pharos. Roughly shaped like the funeral monument, his imposing tower had over thirty stories and three hundred rooms. It's this image of the lighthouse that appears in the history books and in the movies. But this Hollywood set from "Caesar and Cleopatra" starring Vivian Liegh, is based on little more than speculation. To draw a more reliable picture, the team has to find pieces of the lighthouse, itself. The pressure is on, as they prepare for the next major phase of the investigation. Having mapped only the top layer of blocks, the divers now have to dig deeper and expose what lies below. This will require some complicated and highly dangerous underwater maneuvers. Each block must be carefully lifted with parachute shaped balloons. After securing the balloon to the block, the divers slowly release compressed air into the parachute.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: The balloon can lift up to two tons, three tons, twenty tons. Of course it's not without danger, suddenly a change in the air of the balloon, and so the stone would collapse again to the bottom of the sea. It could be very dangerous for the divers. They have to have a lot of experience and to be very careful, it's a very critical moment when the stone goes up slowly and more and more quickly to the surface.

NARRATOR: As the divers begin to peel back the top layer of blocks, they're on the look-out for stones that can be linked to the lighthouse. According to ancient accounts, the facade of the tower bore a dedication carved in large Greek letters. But in their search for the inscription, the underwater detectives uncover some very different evidence. At first, it appears to be a headless lion. But Egyptologists recognize the creature's true identity: it's an ancient sphinx that once had the head of a man. The divers immediately start work to free the sphinx with the air-filled balloons. By now, the procedure should be routine, but something goes wrong. The four ton statue breaks loose and falls to the ocean floor, barely missing the divers.

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: The rear part is broken on the left. It has, fall down on the back, but now it's OK, but it's less complete than I had hoped.

NARRATOR: Luckily, neither the divers nor the sphinx were hurt during the accident. But an entire day has been lost, a day that Jean-Yves can't afford. At the evening briefing session, Jean-Yves warns his team to exercise extreme caution with the balloons. Today's mistakes must never be repeated. The construction of the new breakwater just a few yards away, makes the divers' job even more dangerous. It's also a constant reminder that they're racing to uncover crucial evidence before it's obliterated by modern concrete. Today at the bottom of a pile of stones, they find three large blocks covered with inscriptions. But it's not Greek lettering. These are Egyptian hieroglyphs. The team decides to move the blocks to a cleared area of the seabed, so that the Egyptologists can get a closer look. The tapered shape of this block indicates that it was once part of an obelisk. These massive pillars, carved from a single piece of granite, stood at the entrances of Egypt's great temples. But where did this obelisk come from? Jean-Pierre hopes that the hieroglyphs carved into the stone will give him a clue.

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: The first inscription we found was almost faded completely because of the shells. Just to read the inscription, first you have to clean it.

NARRATOR: As he scrapes away the barnacles, the strange signs begin to form words. "Golden Horus, Great in splendor. Powerful arm who attacks hundreds of thousands." It's an ancient incantation, carved during the golden age of Egypt, a thousand years before the lighthouse was even built. Jean-Pierre is still translating the hieroglyphs when he's called away to investigate another mysterious discovery. It's a magnificent sphinx, carved out of a block of quartzite. And this time, the head is found nearby. Scraping the shells away from the inscriptions, Jean-Pierre reveals its original owner: it was the pharaoh Psamtik II, who ruled Egypt in the 6th century B.C.

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: It's very beautiful, tres beau. I mean, it's something wonderful to be the first to read the name. To be the first at least since 2000 years to say this sphinx belongs to someone. I mean, for me it's something. I mean, it's a personal pleasure.

NARRATOR: Every day, the divers discover more and more relics of ancient Egypt. In total, twenty-six sphinxes will be found, including this one, still intact, from the age of Ramses the Great. For a site that was expected to yield Greek ruins, the number of pharaonic statues is amazing. How did they get here? Deciphering the hieroglyphs on dozens of blocks, the archaeologists keep finding the names of Atum and Horakhte. These were the gods of Heliopolis, an ancient Egyptian religious center more than a hundred miles south of Alexandria. Some of these blocks were carved a thousand years before Alexandria was founded. What were obelisks and sphinxes from ancient Heliopolis doing in the Greek city? The answer may lie deep in Egyptian history, when pharaohs tore down the monuments of their predecessors and recycled the blocks. Even the great pyramids were stripped of some of their casing stones for use in new constructions. Some buildings became a hodgepodge of re-used elements, as statues, columns and obelisks were relocated to new temples in new cities. Centuries later, did the Alexandrians perform the same kind of recycling act?

JEAN-PIERRE CORTEGGIANI: It's an old way of the pharaohs. For instance, the son of Ramses II built his mortuary temple taking the block of the temple of Amenhotep III, which was very close to that. So it was something which was done all over the Egyptian history, and in that way, the Greek Ptolemies behaved exactly as pharaohs, and it's not a surprise. It's really an Egyptian way of being, I should say.

NARRATOR: And the Alexandrians were fascinated by Egyptian culture, even though they, themselves, were Greek. Seventy feet beneath the streets of the city, these catacombs reveal the unique, new style they created: a strange mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian motifs. Gods and goddesses from several religions are melded into new figures. A Roman soldier has the jackal head of the Egyptian god, Anubis. This blend of cultures was appropriate for a city whose population included Greeks, Jews, Romans, Egyptians, as well as Africans and Arabs. But what about the lighthouse? Did the Alexandrians use the same mixture of Greek and Egyptian designs when they built the most famous monument of the city? This is the question that Jean-Yves Empereur is struggling to answer. Up until now, the team has found few artifacts that date to the age of the lighthouse, so there's been little underwater work for Greek scholars like Jean-Yves. The older statues and obelisks have all come under the domain of the Egyptologists. But that is about to change, as the team prepares to explore a new area of the underwater site. Here, the divers finally discover evidence from the Greek period of Alexandria: remnants of a very impressive monument. This piece of granite once supported the hinge of an enormous door. Just a few yards away, a base for a gigantic statue. And further on, something even more colossal. Stretched out along the sea-floor, the divers find several blocks that dwarf all the others in size and weight. These pieces seem to fit together, as if they were once part of a single monolith that fell and snapped apart. Before it broke, this block was over thirty feet long and weighed seventy-five tons. In all, the team discovers about fifteen pieces that each weigh over thirty tons. They are all made of granite, one of the hardest stones available in Egypt. Some of the smaller blocks in the bay may have been dumped there in medieval times, but it would have been extremely difficult to drop these giant, thirty ton stones from a boat. Could these granite blocks be part of the lighthouse that toppled into the sea during a massive earthquake? According to historians of the time, the blocks from the collapsed lighthouse were used to build this medieval Arab fortress. The fort is mostly white limestone, but close inspection reveals a few decorative details in dark granite. Could this mean that the lighthouse was also made of both kinds of stone? A possible answer may come from the computerized plan of the underwater site. In analyzing the map, one of the first tasks is to highlight all the blocks weighing more than thirty tons. If the pieces form a pattern, it would provide further evidence that they were once part of the same building. Sure enough, the largest blocks all seem to lie along one line. For Jean-Yves, their size and position can mean only one thing.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: Some thirty pieces are of extraordinary size, some up to 11 1/2 meters long and more than seventy-five tons. They fall down in a line and some of them even are broken in two or three pieces, so it means that they collapsed from a certain height, and this is certainly due to a very strong earthquake. So we believe definitely that these huge blocks belong to the lighthouse.

NARRATOR: If Jean-Yves is right, it would be the first discovery of a piece of the lighthouse since its destruction six hundred years ago. In a meeting with officials who have come in from Cairo, Jean-Yves will report this exciting possibility. To continue working at the site, he must win the approval of Dr. Abdel Halim Nur-el-Din, then director of Egyptian antiquities.

ABDEL HALIM NUR-EL-DIN: So how are things going? Everything is all right?

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: We are very happy for the excavation and all of the things we have found. I have prepared for you a map that I think you received already one, showing the pieces we attribute to the lighthouse. Yes, yes. I think you got such a map?


JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: So this is a provisory map, it goes, we are marking on this one. And you see, yeah? We have all these stones, more than fifty to seventy-five stones. And it's just, that line we think collapsed from a monument which was situated in the eastern part of the island of Pharos.

ABDEL HALIM NUR-EL-DIN: Thank you for coming. Nice meeting you, sir.

NARRATOR: The meeting goes well, and the expedition can move ahead. The mapping of the site is almost complete, and the divers' mission now is to identify and bring to the surface the most important discoveries. But with summer drawing to an end, conditions in the bay deteriorate. Winds from the north bring pounding waves. Just getting in and out of the water becomes a treacherous ordeal. Even if the divers are able to swim out away from the rocks, the turbulence severely hampers their work. Despite the dangers, the team concentrates on salvaging the pieces that lie closest to the breakwater. Half-buried under the modern concrete, a very large and unusual block attracts the attention of the divers. It appears to be part of an enormous statue lying face down on the sea floor. No one can make out its identity. It takes five hours to free the twelve ton colossus. When the stone is finally released, the divers immediately recognize the significance of the find. Even without its head and feet, this is the statue of a king.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: The biggest surprise in this excavation was perhaps the biggest block. It was a colossal statue of this King Ptolemy, king of Alexandria, represented as a Pharaoh, so from the base of the neck to the mid of the leg, it's more than four and a half meters high. So it means with a head, with the legs, with the base, with a crown, it's twelve to thirteen meters high.

NARRATOR: Examining the colossus, Jean-Yves can see that it dates to the 3rd century B.C., exactly the age of the lighthouse, itself. It reminds the archeologist of another statue found in the same area thirty years ago. This female figure was removed from the bay in the 1960's. It was discovered by an Egyptian diver, Kamel Abdou el Sadaat. At the time, the only person who took his discovery seriously was an English archeologist name Honor Frost. Since the death of el Sadaat, she is the only person who can say exactly where the female statue was found and whether it lay near the male colossus.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: Miss Honor Frost is an old friend of mine. We dived together some twenty, twenty-five years ago in the early '70s. We needed her experience to learn more about the history of the site before we began the excavation, itself. So she came and we learned a lot from her experience and her fantastic memory.

NARRATOR: Honor Frost is able to recall details of the statues that she observed under the most difficult underwater conditions.

HONOR FROST: I made the list of the things that were found, including the crown, the Isis, but because, as you may have discovered, there of course you have all the proper apparatus, it's not easy to photograph things that size in that depth of water. And therefore I took the measurements as I had done, I had two lights and lamps, I believe is what you're still having, and I simply drew them.

NARRATOR: She used the drawings to create her own map of the site in 1968, long before the concrete breakwater was built. Now, the seventy-five-year-old diver is eager to resume her investigation. She takes a tour of all the latest discoveries: beautiful works that until now lay buried and hidden. A colossal head. The torso of a queen. Among the sunken treasures, the veteran diver notices a giant Egyptian crown. She wonders if it once belonged to the female figure salvaged years ago. When she last visited the site, this colossal statue lay face down in the sand. Viewing it only from the back, Honor Frost thought it was a goddess. Now, for the first time, she can see it is a king.

HONOR FROST: It was wonderful seeing the place again. Lots of things that I'd only seen from one side which you can now see from all around. And all nice and clean, I mean the statues, not the water.

NARRATOR: Honor is thrilled that the site is finally getting the scientific scrutiny it deserves. At Alexandria's Maritime Museum, she and Jean-Pierre Corteggiani reexamine the female statue, which lies broken in two pieces. From the style of her hair and clothing, Jean-Pierre identifies the figure as a Ptolemaic or Greek queen, dressed as the Egyptian goddess, Isis. Along with the statue, the earlier expedition retrieved the giant pedestal that once supported it. There's an identical one still underwater. After thirty years, Honor Frost can now confirm that the queen and the king once lay side by side on the sea bed. The statues possibly represent Ptolemy II, the builder of the lighthouse, and his wife, Queen Arsinoe. The team is convinced that the forty-foot royal couple stood facing the entrance of Alexandria's great harbor. For now, the expedition is over. And it is time for the team to present their discoveries to the world. At Qait Bay Fort, the mission's headquarters prepares for an invasion of international press and diplomats. Yesterday's enemy, the barge used to construct the breakwater is now recruited to lift the best-preserved artifacts onto land. All eyes are on Jean-Yves and his crew as they prepare to hoist their precious cargo.

JEAN-YVES EMPEREUR: Perhaps until the last moment we were very nervous because you know an accident could happen very easily. It's a problem of the sea, of the weather, of the wind, of the waves and everything could be against us. And so until the last moment, the last second, you are afraid that something could happen.

NARRATOR: Jean-Yves' fears are unfounded. Everything goes smoothly, and the crowd is thrilled by the ancient treasures. Exhumed from their watery grave, and stripped of their seaweed shrouds, the statues reveal the skill of the great craftsmen who carved these shapes over two thousand years ago. So powerful are these remnants of the past, the president of Egypt orders that the concrete breakwater be removed. The site is saved. These ancient wonders from the sea can finally be returned to the people of Alexandria. For the archaeologists, years of research and analysis lie ahead. But already, they've added another chapter to the story of the legendary lighthouse. Reflecting both the Greek and Egyptian heritage of Alexandria, their discoveries will help create a new image of the Seventh Wonder of the World.

ANNOUNCER: The lighthouse pointed the way, now what other wonders are being discovered beneath the ancient port of Alexandria? Search with us at

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Treasures of the Sunken City

Directed by
Andrew Snell
Thierry Ragobert

Narration Written by
Julia Cort

Hal Linden

Executive Producer for GEDEON
Stéphane Millière

Producer for GEDEON
Max Soussana

Producer for NOVA
Julia Cort

Additional Writing for GEDEON by
Daniel Rondeau

Thierry Ragobert
Stephanie Munroe

Original Music
Arnaud Devos

Frédéric Labourasse
Eric Turpin

Underwater Camera
Roland Savoye

Assistant Camera
Frédéric Garson
Pascal Morisset
Cyril Rouviere

Camera Test
Jean-Philippe Polo

Sound Recording
Yves Zlotnicka
Henri Maïkoff

Sound Editors
Emmanuelle Giry
Stephanie Munroe

Sound Mix
Richard Bock
Philippe Sorlin
Jean Lamoot

Production Manager
Catherine Cloarec

Location Manager
Isabelle Guerville

Production Coordinator
Catherine Le Roi

Production Assistant
Caroline Ronzier Joly-Popille

Research Assistant
Fiona MacLaughlin

Laurent Desbrueres
Lorraine Grant

Online Editors
Marc Desbordes
Bernie Clayton

Still Photographer
Stéphane Compoint/SYGMA

Archival Materials
Beinecke Library, Yale University
Mansell Collection

Special Thanks
Nicolas Grimal, Institut Français d'Archeologie Orientale
Divers, archeologists & topographers of the Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines
Dr. Nur el Din, Mme. Doreya Saïd, Supreme Council of Antiquities
His Excellency Ali Maher el Sayed, Dr. Fathi Saleh, Sharif Sadek, Egyptian Embassy in France
Nadine Saunneron, Thierry Vielle, Gilles Maarek, Peter Loukassian, French Embassy in Cairo
Jean-Pierre Castella, French Consulate in Alexandria
Press service of Alexandria
Asma El Bakri
Kirsten Beck
Ibrahim Atteya Darwiche-Sarapis
John Swanson
Cine Marine
Egypt Air
Ex Machina
Ken Morse
Look Euro Charter
Matin & Soir Films
Tohu Bohu
TransAtlantic Video
Virtuel Center

NOVA Series Graphics
National Ministry of Design

NOVA Theme
Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Closed Captioning
The Caption Center

Production Secretaries
Queene Coyne
Linda Callahan

Paul Marotta
Lisa Cerqueira

Nancy Marshall

Post Production Associates
Sandra Rizkallah
Caroline Thoquet

Post Production Editor
Rebecca Nieto

Post Production Online Editors
Mark Steele
Jim Deering

Post Production Directors
Jeanne Fabrice
Alison M. White

Unit Managers
Laurie Cahalane
Amy Trahant

Business Manager
Carolyn Birmingham

Science Editor
Lauren S. Aguirre

Senior Producer
Coproductions and Aquisitions
Melanie Wallace

Series Producer
Beth Hoppe

Managing Director
Alan Ritsko

Executive Producer, NOVA
Paula S. Apsell

A NOVA Production by GEDEON in association with WGBH/Boston, France 2, BBC, Le Musée du Louvre and Elf Aquitaine

© 1997 WGBH Educational Foundation and GEDEON

All rights reserved.


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