Cleopatra ñ perhaps the most famous and romantic woman of antiquity ñ
enticed Franck Goddio beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. "More than
anything else, it was the drama of Cleopatraís life and loves that drew me
Photograph courtesy of
As the French archaeologist and his team explored the underwater city,
Goddio exulted: "We were touching stones and columns and thinking
Cleopatra had touched them." Cleopatra VII was Egypt's last pharaoh. She
ruled and plotted, and loved two of the world's most powerful men from 51
to 30 B.C., a turbulent time of violence and chaos. And Cleopatra's role
was not inconsequential.
She was a Ptolemy, heiress to a dynasty that traced its lineage to the
Greeks of Alexander the Great, who had conquered Egypt and founded
Alexandria in 331 B.C. The rich, cosmopolitan city became a hub of
commerce and the heart of science and learning. Its library was said to
contain 700,000 volumes - 10 times the number in all of Europe before the
printing press. It held such knowledge that its partial destruction in
A.D. 391 helped plunge Europe into the Dark Ages. Alexandria's mighty
lighthouse was among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
By Cleopatra's time, Egypt was controlled by Rome but was granted a
nominal independence, largely because the Empire feared so rich a nation
might put too much power in the hands of a Roman governor. Cleopatra's
short life was dedicated to maintaining that independence.
The dynasty that ruled Egypt was a murderous clan. The crown went to
the survivor of each generation’s bloodbath. Cleopatra's three sisters and
two brothers died on her way to becoming - and remaining - Queen of the
Nile at age 18. The siblings simply killed each other off: Cleopatra
herself had a sister killed and probably a younger brother.
Amid this brutal sibling rivalry, Cleopatra allied herself with Julius
Caesar, who had himself emerged from years of civil wars as emperor of
Rome. Caesar was her protector and lover - until his murder in 44 B.C.
Caesar's death threw Rome into a new round of warfare and left Cleopatra
with no one to save her throne. Enter Mark Antony, a prime pretender to
the Roman crown. Their love affair became the scandal of the empire. He
divorced his Roman wife, Octavia, and married Cleopatra. They basked in
the splendor of Alexandria and had three children. Then Octavian unleashed
his legions. After years of subtle plots and political skirmishes to
stifle his adversaries, Octavian, brother of Antony's spurned wife,
demanded title to the Roman Empire. His navy defeated Antony and
Cleopatra's royal fleet at Actium in 31 B.C. And the love affair of the
ages was over. Antony fell on his sword. Cleopatra invited the fatal bite
of an asp. Octavian became emperor of Rome, killed Cleopatra's beloved
son, Caesarion, and annexed Egypt to his empire.
But history never forgot Cleopatra.
And as historians dig beneath the legend of the temptress, a very
different woman emerges: an intelligent and well-educated ruler who was
the first of the royal line to learn the language of her Egyptian
subjects; a shrewd and visionary diplomat who used every means to hold her
nation and power in a time of brutal chaos; and, of course, a woman who so
enchanted at least two legendary womanizers that they accepted dangerous
scandal as the price of her company.
This was the woman Goddio was seeking. With assistance of the Egyptian
Supreme Council for Antiquities and with funding from the Hilti Foundation
of Lichtenstein and the Discovery Channel, he began brushing away the
centuries to map and excavate the royal harbor.
He first tested the waters off Egypt in 1984, as part of a team of
divers under Jacques Dumas who explored the wreckage of Napoleon’s fleet,
which was sunk in the 1798 Battle of the Nile. Dumas told Goddio of the
wonders that hid beneath 20 meters (66 feet) of ocean in Alexandria
Goddio returned in 1992, after winning permission to explore the harbor
and map the archaeology of its seabed. The starting point, for almost
anyone studying ancient Alexandria, is the work of Strabo, a prodigious
Greek geographer who, within the decade following Cleopatra's death, spent
five years describing and mapping the city.
Strabo reported a promontory, Cape Lochias, that held a royal palace
flanked by others on the nearby mainland. He described a small island,
Antirhodos, in the port with a grand palace and a small, private harbor of
its own. And he placed Antony's residence at the end of an elbow-shaped
breakwater that reached out into the harbor.
|Photograph courtesy of
That splendor is long gone from the surface. The region is plagued with
earthquakes and the tidal waves they often spawn. The tremors toppled the
last remnants of the fabled lighthouse in the fourteenth century. Most of
the original royal harbor had disappeared into the Mediterranean much
earlier - but slowly, with none of the drama that marked the halcyon days
of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The shifting, tectonic earth simply
subsided, gradually submerging the wealth and glory of the Ptolemic