Following an extensive restoration, an important archaeological site on the Mediterranean coast is to open next April, writes Nevine El-Aref
Holidaymakers to Egypt’s north coast will have more to entertain them than sun, sand and sea next summer: they will also be able to explore the archaeological site of Marina Al-Alamein, known 2,000 years ago as the town of Leucaspis.
Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, following a tour of the archaeological site, this week gave the go-ahead for a resumption of restoration work, suspended in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. Part of the site will be open to tourists next April.
The work is being carried out by a Polish-Egyptian team, led by archaeologist Erysztof Jakubiak from the Institute of Archaeology at Warsaw University. The aim of the project, said Mohamed Al-Sheikha, head of the projects section at the ministry, is not only to preserve the existing site, but also to develop it as a new attraction on the north coast.
The Taposiris Magna site, known as Abusir, is already a popular site with tourists. It is located on the shore of Lake Mariout, about 48 km southwest of Alexandria on the Alexandria-Matrouh road. The site includes the ruins of an ancient temple, a small lighthouse and a series of tombs.
The Marina Al-Alamein site is l96 km west of Alexandra and six km east of Al-Alamein, not far from the World War II memorial. The ancient town stretches over an area one km long and 0.5 km wide, making it the largest archaeological site on Egypt’s north coast. Although there were historical records for the ancient site of Leucaspis, as well as rudimentary plans of its layout, these had been forgotten by the 1990s, when construction began on the giant Marina holiday resort that today stands near the site. Early construction work soon revealed marble columns and other debris, and archaeologists stepped in to preserve the ruins.
The Polish Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the American Research Centre in Egypt have unearthed the ruins of more than 50 structures in the town and adjoining necropolis. The ancient town was a natural harbour, adjacent to which was a commercial quarter; further south was the town centre, which included baths, markets and a basilica.
The earliest archaeological finds, which date from the mid-second century BCE, have been located in the town’s necropolis. It is thought that the town was occupied until the seventh century CE. Archaeologists believed that Leucaspis was an especially important port during the Greek and Roman eras in Egypt.
The Greek name Leucaspis means “white shell” or “shield.” According to Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, former director of Lower Egyptian antiquities, the town was given this name because of the softness and white colour of the nearby sand. Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, was worshipped there, and statues found of her at the site show her emerging from a white shell. The Romans later called the town Locabsis.
The Polish Archaeological Institute began systematic excavations of the western part of the site in 1986 under the direction of Wiktor A. Daszewski, conducting a survey and documenting all of the monuments.
The ancient site is located between the slopes of an ancient beach and a lagoon, separated from the open sea by a narrow strip of sand and the modern Alexandria-Marsa Matrouh highway. At the northern area of the site, near the sea, several buildings were partly cleared by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation in the 1980s. The upper part of the site was once used as a cemetery.
Fieldwork by the original Polish team concentrated on the cemetery, where a series of important discoveries was made. Some well-preserved tombs were uncovered, of which there are four main types: rock-hewn tombs covered with limestone slabs; tombs cut into the bedrock but with step pyramid-shaped superstructures; and tombs like cubic structures built on the rock surface with two or four loculi, or burial niches, frequently surmounted by funerary monuments such as a column or sarcophagus.
Abdel-Maqsoud said that some of the third type of tombs consisted of a loculus covered by a structure similar to a huge sarcophagus and were similar in type to tombs found in Turkey and Cyrenaica, while others contained two loculi and were surmounted by a pillar decorated with two capitals in the so-called “Nabatean” style.
The fourth type of tombs found at the site are hypogea, or underground tombs, consisting of superstructures with monumental entrances that lead to vaulted staircases with burial chambers cut into the bedrock. Large vertical shafts provide the burial chambers with air and light, and these contain rock-cut benches, loculi and stone altars. These tombs have been dated from the late second century BCE to the late first century CE.
The Polish excavations also recovered lamps, glass vessels and pottery from Cyprus, the Aegean, Asia Minor and Italy. Several sculptures were also found. Among the most remarkable discoveries were a lead coffin and mummies in one of the side chambers of a tomb.
“These are similar to the well-known examples from the Fayoum, as the mummies found at the site have portraits painted on wooden panels like the Fayoum mummies,” Abdel-Maqsoud said.
In 1988, a joint Polish-Egyptian mission began restoration work at the site. Three monuments in the necropolis that had been toppled by an earthquake were restored, while several others were reinforced and repaired.
In the area of the town, a series of buildings, both private and public, was excavated. Several large houses in a good state of preservation were found in the central part of the site. The houses consisted of rooms grouped around one or two peristyle courtyards. Each house was originally equipped with underground cisterns and a well-developed system of aqueducts.
In the central part of the site, a circular-shaped bath was discovered, as well as structures located near the lagoon that seem to have served as storehouses. Lamps, coins, statues and pots were also unearthed.
According to Abdel-Maqsoud, the finds indicated that most of the excavated structures could be dated to the first and third centuries CE. The ancient town must have been a very prosperous community, he said, with a wide range of imported pottery found at the site, particularly amphorae, suggesting flourishing trade relations with the Mediterranean region.
The settlement was probably destroyed by an earthquake in the late third century CE, but was partially inhabited again in the fifth and sixth centuries. A small basilica church uncovered in the eastern sector is considered to be the best evidence of this later occupation.
From 2000 to 2005, the Polish archaeological mission continued research in this area, and in 2006 and 2007 Egyptian archaeologists continued the exploration of the ruins, partly clearing the main rooms of the houses located there.
“This work was done in collaboration with a site-presentation project carried out by a joint mission from the American Research Centre in Cairo and Egyptian archaeologists in 2006-2008,” said Rafal Czerner, deputy director of the Polish mission. He said that the Polish-Egyptian mission then embarked on the preservation and conservation of the ruins that had deteriorated following their uncovering.
The work was continued in 2009, when a portico courtyard in the western part of the baths area was cleared, preserving the walls and raising a few columns. “The conservation of the remains of the heating installation also proceeded,” Czerner said.
Research and preservation work also continued in another room of a house in the area that was paved with large slabs made of dark marble. “The base of the marble labrum [basin] was preserved in the western part and the labrum itself was lying next to it,” Czerner said, adding that a further room to the east of the complex was also partly restored.
In 2009, a comprehensive restoration and development of the site was launched, and in 2010 a large section of the site was equipped with a high-tech lighting system that allowed visitors to explore the site at night.
In 2011, a Polish conservation team led by Stanisław Medeksza concentrated on the central part of the town, as well as the necropolis and residential areas.
However, in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution, the restoration and development work stopped. Medeksza said the team then focused on research and documentation since work at the site had become impossible, and the site itself was closed to visitors.
Archaeological work resumed in 2013 and focused on the necropolis and the part of the site dating from Hellenistic and Roman times. The most interesting discoveries were made within the area of the ancient baths.
“Although Egypt’s transitional period was still ongoing, and the duration of the mission was limited, the mission continued its studies and restoration of the Roman baths south of the central square and connected city basilica,” Czerner said, adding that the remains of one of the largest tombs in the necropolis has been excavated and valuable wall paintings have been conserved.
During the work, the team uncovered an ancient latrine that experts said was carefully and elegantly built. Remains of polychrome plaster were found, together with a collection of small bronze rings with inscriptions.
“We have also undertaken the conservation of wall paintings that have been kept in storage for several years,” Czerner said. These included fragments showing the figures of Helios, Harpocrates and Sarapis.
Al-Sheikha said that work on the site had been proceeding slowly “but Eldamaty’s inspection tour has changed the situation,” with work now being sped up to meet the deadline of opening the site to the public next April.
The idea was to remove debris, landscape the area, and integrate existing monuments into a more accessible and recognisable historical site for visitors, he said. Facilities including a parking area, entrance gate, and ticket and information office will also be constructed. There will also be a new visitor route with signs and billboards bearing information about the site. An enclosed area will be constructed to display artefacts found at the site.