Underwater museum

Cleopatra's wonders to remain submerged

The world's first underwater museum could be displaying the treasures of ancient Alexandria as early as 2013, predicts E&T.

Submerged in the shallow waters of the Bay of Alexandria lies an treasure trove of unique splendour and breadth. Thousands of artefacts litter the sea bed, including sphinxes, huge 56-tonne stone blocks covered in hieroglyphics, and many spectacular religious statues from the era of Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony.

In the 4th and 5th centuries a series of earthquakes and tsunamis hit the area, condemning Cleopatra's palace to the murky depths of the bay. The location was rediscovered in the mid 1990s by marine archaeologists. The entire floor is packed full of ancient and historical sites - Greco-Roman remains, shipwrecks from the monumental battle between Napoleon and Nelson - and is also home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the lighthouse at Pharos.

"The wealth of this area is quite impressive," said Naguib Amin, the site-management expert from Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. "The whole ancient city of Alexandria is lying under the water, just metres away from the shore."

Since their discovery and initial survey by a team led by underwater explorer and archaeologist Franck Goddio, the Egyptian government has been keen to display the treasures submerged under the waters of the bay. But in 2001 a UNESCO convention decided that underwater artefacts should remain on the seabed where possible, to respect their historical context and enhance their preservation.

Rougerie design

The Egyptian authorities have chosen the design of French architect Jacques Rougerie, to build an impressive underwater archaeological museum in front of the new Alexandria library. The architects, who specialise in marine designs, are conducting a technical feasibility study during 2009. Structural engineers on the project are Peter Terrell, who hope to be doing field technical studies later this year, with a view to possibly beginning building in 2010. The technical studies are being sponsored by the Hilti Foundation who supported much of the original underwater surveys. However, no funding has yet been confirmed by the Egyptian government to enable the difficult, large-scale project to come to fruition.

The proposed design of the world's first underwater museum is dominated by four glass structures inspired by the shape of local felucca sails and standing at the main points of the compass around the circular museum. The split topside and underwater nature of the museum project is hugely ambitious and fraught with logistical difficulties, but Ariel Fuchs, project manager for the architects, is confident that the job will get done.

"We will not be trying to build underwater; the design sidesteps the expense and difficulty of that. The whole underwater section of the museum will be assembled in dry dock near by, sunk into its permanent place with ballast and anchored. This is simple, tried and tested technology," he says. "The whole structure will sit on a base of sand, which will cushion the building, rather than be pile driven into the bay itself and this, along with its prefabricated nature, will help dampen earthquake shocks."

The designers have also come up with an elegant solution to visibility in the famously murky and polluted waters of the bay. A central pool inside the submerged part of the museum will be filtered and display the finest antiquities, while lesser wonders will be visible close by through three viewing windows looking out into the bay itself.

It will be a battle over time to prevent sea creatures from using the whole structure as a skeleton for a new artificial reef. Algal and planktonic growth will naturally try and settle on the whole structure, including the clear polycarbonate or security glass windows, so there is likely to be a perpetual cleaning job. Over time, sand and particulate matter may scour the windows on to the marine scene. However, no major water pressure issues are expected, as the bay is very shallow, and the maximum depth of water is likely to be 12m.

Details of the new design are not available but it seems that earlier visions of a structure out in the bay - built over the artefacts - seem to have been dropped, in favour of sitting the museum inside a protective lagoon, perhaps due to concerns that the earlier site was too exposed. The antiquities to be displayed will be relocated into the museum.

So rich is the submerged heritage of the bay, that any site for the museum will have to be surveyed for buried treasures. Franck Goddio's archaeological team will return for a detailed survey of the proposed site, using nuclear magnetic resonance magnetometers and side scan sonar to detect objects buried beneath the silt. Huge care must of course be taken not to destroy any artefacts during the construction.

The finished structure will also have to withstand earthquakes and tsunamis like those that destroyed the great queen's palace 1,500 years ago. Once complete, Egyptian authorities hope that the museum will transform both Alexandria's tourism industry and the city's current landscape. "It will not simply be a museum as such. It is part of a vision to revitalise the whole city and its heritage," Amin said.

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