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Egyptians lift pieces of a temple from Alexandria harbor

Ancient treasure may be focal point of new museum

A crane lifted an ancient tower yesterday from Alexandria’s harbor. The tower is part of a pylon from a temple dedicated to Isis. A crane lifted an ancient tower yesterday from Alexandria’s harbor. The tower is part of a pylon from a temple dedicated to Isis. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
By Katarina Kratovac
Associated Press / December 18, 2009

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ALEXANDRIA, Egypt - Egyptian archeologists yesterday lifted an ancient temple pylon out of the waters of the Mediterranean, where it had lain for centuries as part of the palace complex of Cleopatra, submerged in Alexandria’s harbor.

The granite pylon, which once stood at the entrance to a temple of Isis, is to be the centerpiece of an ambitious underwater museum planned by Egypt to showcase the sunken city, which is believed to have been toppled into the sea by earthquakes in the 4th century.

Divers and underwater archeologists used a giant crane to lift the 9-ton, 7.4-foot-tall pylon, covered with muck and seaweed, out of the murky waters. It was deposited ashore as Egypt’s top archeologist, Zahi Hawass, and others watched.

The temple, dedicated to Isis, a pharaonic goddess of fertility and magic, is at least 2,050 years old, but probably much older. The pylon was cut from a single slab of red granite quarried in Aswan, some 700 miles to the south, officials said.

It was part of a sprawling palace from which the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled Egypt and where Queen Cleopatra wooed the Roman general Marc Antony in the first century BC before they both committed suicide, following their defeat by Augustus Caesar.

The palace and other buildings and monuments now lay strewn on the seabed in the harbor of Alexandria, the second-largest city in Egypt. Since 1994, archeologists have been exploring the ruins, one of the richest underwater excavations in the Mediterranean, with about 6,000 artifacts. Another 20,000 objects are scattered off other parts of Alexandria’s coast, said Ibrahim Darwish, head of the city’s underwater archeology department.

In recent years, excavators have discovered dozens of sphinxes in the harbor, along with pieces of what is believed to be the Alexandria Lighthouse, or Pharos, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The pylon is the first major artifact extracted from the harbor since 2002, when authorities banned further removal of major artifacts from the sea, for fear it would damage them.

“The tower is unique among Alexandria’s antiquities; we believe it was part of the complex surrounding Cleopatra’s palace,’’ Hawass said, as the crane gently placed the pylon on the harbor bank. “This is an important part of Alexandria’s history, and it brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city.’’

Hawass has already launched another high-profile dig connected to Cleopatra. In April, he said he hopes to find the long-lost tomb of Antony and Cleopatra, which he believes may be inside a temple of Osiris about 30 miles west of Alexandria.

The pylon extracted yesterday was discovered by a Greek expedition in 1998. Retrieving it was a laborious process: For weeks, divers cleaned it of mud and scum, then dragged it across the sea floor for three days to bring it closer to the harbor’s edge.

Egyptian authorities hope that eventually it will become a part of the underwater museum.