Franck Goddio

Photo: Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio

Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio illuminates the foundation plaque of Ptolemy III.

Photograph copyright Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation, Christoph Gerigk

On some of my first archaeological dives in the Bay of Aboukir northeast of Alexandria, in 1984, we were investigating the remains of L’Orient, the flagship of Napoleon’s fleet that was sunk by Admiral Nelson, but it soon became clear that these shallow waters contained much more than a Napoleonic shipwreck. Entire underwater cityscapes lay on the ocean floor, waiting to be restored to their former glory. The mystery of these waters immediately captivated me; the thought that further exploration might unlock some of the biggest questions about Egyptian history was too much for me to resist.

I knew that I would never be able to undertake an exploration of this scope by myself, and so, in 1987, I founded the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), an independent organization supported by private patronage. The primary goal of IEASM was to locate and excavate lost archaeological sites, and to study, restore, and present to the public the objects that underwater archaeologists discovered there. The foundation accumulated an outstanding team of archaeological divers, restoration experts, and researchers, and in 1992, with some generous donations and the permission of the Egyptian government, we began work in the ancient port of Alexandria.

Since then, IEASM research teams have uncovered exceptional works from Alexandria and the sunken cities of Canopus and Heracleion in the Bay of Aboukir. Statues of ancient Egyptian gods, sphinxes, ritual instruments, and gleaming golden vessels have been pulled up from underwater and returned to their native country. All along the streets of Aboukir and Alexandria, as the enormous statues of a Ptolemaic king and queen passed by on their way to restoration and study, crowds applauded and cried out, “Long live Ramses! Long live Cleopatra!” We were so proud to share with the Egyptians the heritage of their civilization.

Although I did not set out to search for Cleopatra, she surfaced in our excavations. Bronze coins bearing her face, ceramics and statuettes produced during her rule, and statues of Ptolemaic queens were all brought up from the ocean floor. Cleopatra’s royal palaces came to life before our eyes, as we developed the first map of the ancient Alexandrian port based on the structures we analyzed underwater.

As our work revealed more clues to Cleopatra’s life and times, I became more and more curious about this woman who was a permanent fixture in the collective imagination of Egypt and the world. Although I stumbled upon my search for this ancient queen, I, too, found myself inspired by her mystery, driven to keep searching for elements of her life in hopes that we might someday understand why she emerged as the most memorable queen of the entire Mediterranean, and why it is that we still know so little about her.

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