Egypt’s sunken relics help tourism sector
Cairo - Thousands of ancient relics under water off the coast of Alexandria have turned diving into a professional obsession for Heba Abdel Salam.
Abdel Salam does not, however, dive in the Mediterranean Sea off Alexandria only because of a passion for diving but out of a love for exploration and archaeology, particularly for Egypt’s underwater treasures, which she described as “forgotten wealth.”
“Submerged antiquities have not received enough attention,” Abdel Salam said. “They can turn into a lifeboat for our tourism sector.”
Abdel Salam and her colleagues conduct daily diving tours near Egypt’s underwater treasures, something she said she hopes will help the country’s flagging tourism trade.
The great palaces and temples of ancient Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great, remain under water. This reportedly includes the submerged palace complex of Queen Cleopatra, the remains of the 137-metre lighthouse — one of the seven wonders of the ancient world — and numerous busts of Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, and her father, Ptolemy XII.
“If included in tourism promotion programmes, the sunken treasures can attract millions of tourists,” said Ashraf Sabri, the head of the Alexandria Sub Marine Diving Centre, which has started a campaign to promote Egypt’s submerged treasures. “Divers from around the world would love to come here and see these rare treasures,” he said.
Over the past two decades, divers and archaeology experts surveyed close to 11,000 antiquities of all types in one site east of Alexandria, known as Abu Qir Bay.
Only 20% of the artefacts were excavated, experts said, and displayed at national museums and abroad. “Sunken cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds” was an exhibition at the British Museum showcasing underwater discoveries that gained widespread popular and critical interest.
As for the remaining antiquities, which include many statues considered too heavy to excavate, the Alexandria Sub Marine Diving Centre is more than happy to take tourists to them.
One theory is that an earthquake hundreds of years ago caused the city to be submerged. Another is that a rising Mediterranean gradually engulfed the city of ancient Alexandria.
Regardless of the reasons, the remnants have lain under water for so long, Abdel Salam said, they provide a strong draw to millions of divers looking for a new challenge. There are, she said, close to 45 million certified divers in the world and they have the opportunity to see ancient sights that have remained relatively undisturbed for centuries.
“Divers would need a week, at least, to tour all the sites submerged under the water here,” Abdel Salam said. “Some sites would take several hours to tour.”
In 2008, Egyptian antiquities authorities considered constructing an underwater museum in Abu Qir Bay to protect the relics and give visitors the opportunity to tour them without diving.
The museum would have featured an inland structure in Abu Qir Bay with visitors reaching the sea floor through underwater fibreglass structures. However, the plan proved too costly, said Ehab Moussa, head of the Tourism Support Alliance, an independent union of tourism experts who work to promote Egypt’s tourism sector.
Moussa said there were sunken treasures in places other than Alexandria, including the northern city of Damietta. “There are also submerged antiquities in the Red Sea,” Moussa said.
“They [submerged antiquities] are an important part of the lost history of our country,” he added.
Egypt’s tourism sector started to see signs of recovery after a year of hardship induced by the downing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai in 2015. However, a knife attack at the popular Red Sea tourist resort of Hurghada, which left two German tourists dead and four others wounded, was expected to hit the tourism sector hard.
Egypt’s underwater treasures could still be a draw. “There are great relics lying under the water here… I know of people who are more than ready to come to visit the ruins of ancient Alexandria, an exquisite centre of ancient civilisation,” Moussa said.