Saturday, June 4, 2016

Holidays at Al-Alamein - Al-Ahram Weekly

Holidays at Al-Alamein

Holidaymakers may finally be able to visit the Marina Al-Alamein archaeological site on Egypt's north coast this summer

Roman baths at Marina Al-Alamein site

Holidaymakers on Egypt's north coast always enjoy the sun, sand and sea during the summer vacation. But this year, writes Nevine El-Aref, they may have other entertainments to go to in the evening apart from cafés and the Luna Parks. They may also be able to explore the archaeological site of Marina Al-Alamein, known 2,000 years ago as the Graeco-Roman city of Leucaspis.

During an inspection tour of the archaeological site on Saturday Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enany gave the go-ahead for the resumption of the restoration and development work that was suspended in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution. He also promised to solve the problems that have stood in the way of opening the archaeological site.

The area will now be made more tourist-friendly, Al-Enany said, with debris removed, landscaping work done, and the existing monuments integrated into a more accessible and recognisable historical site for visitors.

There will be a new visitor route with signs, maps and billboards bearing information about the site. A parking area, entrance gate and ticket and information office will also be provided. A lighting system is to be installed to make the site accessible at night.

The site's director will establish an excavation school for children during the summer months in a bid to increase the awareness of younger generations about the country's heritage.

Elham Salah, head of the Museums Department at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that an enclosed area on the site will be converted into a museum displaying artefacts that were recovered from the site in recent years.

Lighting the monuments at night is the only thing now needed before the site can be opened to visitors," said Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud. He is the coordinator of the archaeological site development project at the Suez Canal and was also responsible for the previous marina project.

 He said the site should be kept as it is as much as possible as part of the development of a new tourist attraction on the north coast. Holidaymakers presently spend their days enjoying the sun, sea and sand, but in the evenings they have little to do aside from taking a promenade along the corniche or sitting in café.

When the Marina Al-Alamein site opens, Abdel-Maqsoud said, all this will change, and it will become a new cultural and entertainment centre. "Lighting the monuments and paving a visiting path, as well as establishing an open-air cafeteria and bookshop, are the measures needed to develop the site, and these can be done in a short space of time," he said.

Marina Al-Alamein 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 of the ancient site of Leucaspis, as well as rudimentary plans of its layout, these had been forgotten by the 1990s when construction work 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 since 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, and archaeologists believe 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 Abdel-Maqsoud, 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 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, and often 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 "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 can 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.

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.

 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," Abdel-Maqsoud said, adding that a further room to the east of the complex was also partly restored.

 In 2009, the comprehensive restoration and development of the site was launched, and in 2010 a large section of it 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 focussed 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 focussed 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.

During the work the team uncovered an ancient latrine that experts say was carefully and elegantly built. Remains of polychrome plaster were found, together with a collection of small bronze rings with inscriptions. Conservation of wall paintings that had been kept in storage for several years, including fragments showing the figures of Helios, Harpocrates and Sarapis, was also carried out.

In 2014, the development work resumed, but slowly. Al-Enany's recent visit is now sure to speed things up.