Saved from the sea, the treasures of Alexandria

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The Independent Online

It is as significant as Pompeii, yet its discovery began just a decade ago in polluted waters four miles off the Egyptian coast. Now, the priceless remains of the ancient port of Alexandria and its predecessor cities, Heracleion and Canopus, are being exhibited for the first time in Berlin.

Discovered by divers using probes and sonar "sledges" in 1996, an array of priceless artefacts from the forgotten empire have been hauled to the surface over the past 10 years. The divers had struck upon the remains of a vast metropolis that was home to half a million people, including Egyptians, Jews, Nubians, Greeks and Romans, from around 332BC until the time of Queen Cleopatra, three centuries later. The city's series of ports were capable of harbouring a fleet of 300 ships.

"In beauty, greatness and wealth, Alexandria surpasses all other cities," wrote the Greek historian and chronicler Diodor at the time of the city's heyday in around 100BC.

The divers' treasure amounted to thousands of artefacts, including ancient astronomical calendars, jewels, gold coins, vases, the remains of ancient temples, a five-ton granite statue of the Egyptian fertility god Hapi and the first verifiable gold images of Cleopatra.

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, and his German counterpart, Horst Koehler, were in Berlin yesterday as part of the sensational haul, comprising 500 artefacts, went on show at the Martin Gropius exhibition hall. The collection will later transfer to Paris and then London before being put on permanent display in Alexandria.

The discovery of "Cleopatra's sunken treasures" is the work of Franck Goddio, a 59-year-old Frenchman, nicknamed, "the Indiana Jones of the sea" who more than 12 years ago decided to pack up a comparatively mundane career as a financial consultant to the UN in order to devote more time to his passion for under-sea archaeology.

His collection sheds light on more than 1,500 years of ancient history beginning with the conquest of the Nile metropolis by Alexander the Great in 332BC. For the next three centuries the port city was governed by a succession of enlightened but barbaric kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Their rule ended with Cleopatra's failed attempts to enlist the support of Caesar and Marc Antony. The city's demise was finally sealed by Octavian during the naval battle of Actium in 31BC.

Mr Goddio said: "It has been astonishing to discover and handle artefacts that have been touched by Cleopatra herself.

"But so far we have only managed to investigate about two per cent of the undersea area that needs to be explored."

One of the team's most significant finds was a gold coin which casts considerable doubt on Queen Cleo-patra's legendary beauty. The coin, which bears her faded head, was subjected by Mr Goddio to computer tests which discovered that Cleopatra was endowed with a hooked nose and fat cheeks. "In all likelihood Cleopatra seduced Caesar and Mark Antony with charm rather than looks," he maintained.

Mr Goddio started his search using 19th-century maps and the findings of an early archaeological survey. Scale models were built to reproduce the city, which was destroyed over centuries by earthquakes and the flooding of the Nile delta. What emerged was a beautiful port criss-crossed by canals and furnished with temples, gardens, palaces and villas.

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