The great port of Alexandria was a bustling trade hub, a transit point for merchandise from throughout the ancient world — until much of it vanished into the Mediterranean Sea.
Treasure hunters have long scoured the Egyptian coast for vestiges of the port, thought to have disappeared about 13 centuries ago. Now an exhibit at Paris' Grand Palais brings together 500 ancient artifacts recovered from the area by underwater archeologists using sophisticated nuclear technology.
"Egypt's Sunken Treasures" features colossuses of pink granite, a 17.6-ton slab inscribed with hieroglyphics, a phalanx of crouching sphinx, pottery, amulets and gold coins and jewelry — all painstakingly fished out of the Mediterranean. Some of the oldest artifacts are estimated to have spent 2,000 years underwater.
The show, which runs through mid-March, spans more than 1,500 years of Egyptian history and traces the decline of the Pharaohs and occupations by Greeks, Romans and Byzantines.
"This is not your usual Ancient Egypt exhibit," said archaeologist Franck Goddio, who led the expedition for the European Institute of Submarine Archaeology. "The artifacts have been living together under the sea for millennia — not gathering dust on a museum shelf."
Goddio's team began its search in 1996, using such technology as sonar, depth-finders and sounding equipment. They worked with France's Atomic Energy Commission to develop a device that measures objects' nuclear resonance to pinpoint the exact locations of the port and two other sites, the lost cities of Herakleion and Canopus.
Television screens projecting videos of the excavations dot the exhibit, in the newly restored Grand Palais, a turn-of-the-century building with a vast glass cupola.
While some of the recovered artifacts were slowly swallowed by the Mediterranean as sea levels rose, others sunk during natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tidal waves. Experts think some heavy objects may have slid into the sea when the clay soil gave way under their weight.
A protective layer of sediment settled over most of the pieces, preserving them from corrosive salt water. Other artifacts were not as fortunate. Riddled with pockmarks or rubbed smooth by the tides, these objects clearly bear the mark of their centuries under water.
Some of the oldest pieces, such as a sphinx dating from the 13th century B.C., were brought to Egypt's coast from other regions of the country. Later objects clearly show the influence of the Greeks, who controlled much of Egypt starting in the fourth century B.C.
In an exquisite black-granite sculpture, the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis strikes a quintessentially Pharaonic pose, with one leg forward and arms pressed tightly at her sides. But the sensual drape of her gown, with its delicate folds, belies an unmistakably Greek touch.
The Stela of Ptolemy, a mammoth marble slab standing 19.5 feet high, bears inscriptions in both hieroglyphics and Greek.
Sculptures from the Greco-Roman period show the degree to which the European colonizers assimilated Egyptian culture, and vice versa. In a second century B.C. bust, the Egyptian god Serapis looks just like the Greek god Zeus, with a full beard and curly locks. With its wild expression and frizzy hair, a second century A.D. bust of an Egyptian water god is the exact image of a Roman Bacchus.
One of the most impressive objects in the show is the so-called Naos of the Decades, a hieroglyphics-covered prayer niche dating from around 380 B.C.
The roof of the niche was discovered in 1776 and taken to Paris, where it became part of the Louvre Museum's permanent collection. In the 1940s, archaeologists working under Egyptian Prince Omar Toussoun discovered two more bits — the naos' back and the base. But it wasn't until the recent submarine excavations, which uncovered several more fragments, that archaeologists finally managed to put the naos together again.
"Egypt's Sunken Treasures," which attracted some 450,000 visitors at its first stop, Berlin, closes March 16. After Paris, the show will return to Egypt. Authorities in Alexandria plan to build a museum of submarine archaeology to hold the artifacts as well as new items that archaeologist Goddio's team continues to discover during its twice yearly expeditions.
"There's enough in the three sites to keep us busy for a while — for about the next 150 years, at least," he said.