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What Lies Beneath

ABDALLA F. HASSAN | Egypt Today | December 2003 | pp. 92–99

As rescue archaeologists race against time to document our ancient cities, modern construction threatens to bury them forever 

However inevitable it may have been, it was painful to stand there and watch the bulldozers fill in their site. After all, the team of archaeologists, planners, surveyors and laborers had worked feverishly from 6:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon on a rescue and salvage archaeology dig that lasted a full six weeks—light speed in a world where digs can take decades.

Their work had exposed the remains of a sixth century church. It was an impressive find, but not impressive enough to preserve. The bulldozers were followed by construction laborers, working on the foundation of what would become Aswan’s latest residential building.

“What was found was only a section of the church. The remainder was destroyed years ago during the construction of the adjacent court building, and another section extends below the modern street,” says Dr. Cornelius von Pilgrim, director of the Swiss Institute for Architectural and Archaeological Research in Ancient Egypt, which three years ago launched a joint project with the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to study and, in some cases, preserve Aswan’s antiquities. 

“During excavation, we recorded all the layers and architectural remains,” says von Pilgrim. “We took out all the pieces of interest, all architectural elements that were reused in later buildings on that spot; capitals and shafts of columns, stele, and the small fragments of former temple buildings with hieroglyphic inscriptions.

“But it wasn’t an exceptional find. It isn’t possible to map the structure’s layout, so it isn’t worth preserving at the cost of new construction,” explains the chair of University of Vienna’s Egyptology Institute. 

So if an ancient church doesn’t count as a heritage site worth saving, what does? A stone temple is a monument, but what about the mud brick wall of a private Roman dwelling? Is it a monument that needs to be protected? Or merely documented? That conflict is playing out throughout Egypt, with archaeologists trying to preserve that which private landowners, contractors and municipal councils want to develop into the cities of tomorrow. 

As is so often the case, “modern progress” is coming at the expense of the history that lies buried beneath the sand, earth and mud of today’s cities—history that could well draw cash-laden tourists to Aswan, Alexandria and other, more remote sites for open-air museum tourism.

Cities Beneath Cities
“Several decades ago, Egypt was known as the civilization without cities,” von Pilgrim notes. “Egypt was known for the temples and the famous tombs, but not known for the modern cities and towns.” 

Though the towns and cities cropping up are too often non-descript concrete pull boxes, the pace of urbanization is changing the national landscape. 

In Aswan, as in other cities once inhabited by ancient civilizations, concrete buildings with deep foundations are replacing mud brick dwellings. In a few years, what remains of the ancient city may be lost forever as the construction boom that accompanies hurried urban expansion pours an impregnable layer of concrete over the ancient sites.


“It was never our idea to take over this land because it makes no sense to convert such a big area into an open-air museum,” says von Pilgrim. But through careful and meticulous archaeology, his team is compiling a sketch of the textured, cosmopolitan history of the ancient city. “It is a jigsaw puzzle. We hope that after several years it will be possible to draw maps for each period of old Aswan,” he says. By comparing all the small pieces of the puzzle, many aspects of the ancient city might be reconstructed.

“We don’t know too much about the structure and shape of ancient Aswan,” explains von Pilgrim. “But we know from ancient records that there were at least three Babylonian temples. Particularly during the late period, the fifth century
BC, Aswan was a flourishing, multicultural town with a lot of foreign temples and people from all parts of the Old World.” Today, more than 500,000 people call Aswan home—making it Egypt’s third-largest urban center after Cairo and Alexandria.

Yet Aswan was neglected by archaeologists during the last century, mainly because the modern town stands directly above the ancient one, making it nearly impossible to access the ruins. Some years ago, an illegal digging took place in the bustling souq district. The owner discovered a Greco-Roman tomb eight meters below. When authorities found out, they arrested the man and seized three sarcophagi.

“Now we know that in this area was the ancient necropolis of Aswan. But it is not accessible because it is below the old souq area,” von Pilgrim notes. 

On the island of Elephantine, a declared antiquities area, the primary site is not built over, allowing a joint German-Swiss archaeological mission to work unhindered for more than three decades. Such ideal circumstances are not found in Aswan. Plus, working in settled urban areas poses a greater challenge for archaeologists. 

“We have problems all the time with leaking wastewater pipes in the street,” says Dr. Kai-Christian Bruhn, an archaeologist with the Swiss Institute, by way of example. “The wastewater is going underground and coming out in our excavations.” 

Layers of Time
Nowhere is the ancient past of a city beneath a city more at risk of disappearing than in Alexandria. Consider this: Archaeologists know far less about Alex, the greatest of the Hellenic cities—the only to rival Rome in affluence, size and cultural prestige—than they do about most of the Greek towns of the Mediterranean during antiquity. 

Even the tomb of Alexander the Great, believed to have been buried in the city he founded in 331
BC, remains a mystery. 

Dr. Jean-Yves Empereur, director and founder of the National Center for Scientific Research and the Center for Alexandrian Studies, has been working exclusively since 1990 on salvage and rescue archaeology in Alexandria’s shore side and in construction pits. 

“That is our only activity in Alexandria: rescue, rescue, rescue. There is so much to be done,” he says. Empereur’s team is the only one working on rescue excavation in Alexandria. “Rescue excavation is a specialized field in archaeology because you have to be trained with this kind of discipline,” Empereur explains. “You have to excavate quickly. It is not like going to Sakkara and excavating a tomb, where you excavate for two months, then come back a year later and find your place well kept and continue your excavation. 

“Here, each time you make a hole underground, you will find something—something interesting—because the city was very brilliant during antiquity.” To date, Empereur and his team, working with the Supreme Council of Antiquities, have made more than 20 rescue excavations. 

Among the most prominent have been the port city’s ancient cisterns and the underwater finds at Qait Bay. When Empereur arrived in Alexandria in 1990, only one cistern could be visited—the only one Alexandrians could remember. In ancient times, fresh water was brought to Alexandria by means of a deep canal that cut in from the Nile and filled the city’s network of cisterns. Scholars accompanying Napoleon had counted more than 400; a few decades later, there were no less than 700. The immense reservoirs, built with Gothic, multi-level columns, capitals, and arches, filled during the annual flooding of the Nile in late August and into September. 

Some older Alexandrians may still remember having used them during World War II as air-raid shelters against German and Italian bombardment in the battle of El-Alamein. 

After some sleuthing, Empereur came across dossiers with plans, section drawings and sketches of 144 of the city’s cisterns drawn up by the municipal water board in the late 19th century. “From one cistern to the next, we could discover 10 of them,” says Empereur. He is currently working with the Ministry of Culture and the SCA to restore the cisterns.

With the aid of canisters of compressed air and underwater vacuum cleaners, Empereur is also running rescue digs underwater. In 1994, his team’s work in an underwater ruin field uncovered several thousand blocks of the famous Alexandria Lighthouse, the beacon of the port city from the third century
BC until the 14th century and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. 

They’ve also raised colossal statues, sphinxes, obelisks, columns and capitals from the depths below Fort Qait Bey. 

Combing the area where a breakwater of concrete blocks was to be placed in October 1996, Empereur’s team came across a series of Greek and Roman shipwrecks, complete with well-preserved cargoes, resting a few hundred meters from the entrance of the Eastern Harbor—living testimonials to Alexandria’s trade with the rest of the Mediterranean from the fourth century
BC to the seventh century AD


But Alexandria has a life of its own, and the city is evolving and mutating faster than Empereur’s team can excavate. Today, developers drill deep into the bedrock, building multi-story underground garages beneath the city’s historical strata. 

Speed is critical to the rescue archaeologist. With their specialized teams of workers, they have to dig and document as quickly as possible down to the bedrock, where the settlements of the first Alexandrians first rose, cutting back through the eras of history: Mohammed Ali, Napoleon, the Ottoman, the Mamluk, the Fatimid, the Byzantine, the Roman and the Greek. At 10 to 12 meters below the surface of the modern city, archaeologists can read the 2,300-year-old story of Alexandria.

But Empereur stresses his objective is not to hold back the development of the modern city. Only in the event of an exceptional find would land be expropriated, he says, something that hasn’t happened in Alexandria—so far. In the last 40 to 50 years, not a single archaeological site has been preserved there. Compared with the handful of sites in Alexandria that can be seen today, much of the city’s ancient landscape has disappeared. 

Pompey’s Pillar is, in fact, the only ancient monument in all of the port city to remain standing since antiquity.

“Egypt is built above antiquities,” says Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the SCA, who himself headed a rescue archaeology campaign 12 years ago in the town of Nazlit Al-Simman, by the Pyramids, when a new sewage system was being constructed. “We did save and record the Valley Temple of Cheops,” he says. “We also found the remains of a large city that extended three square kilometers.

“If we find something valuable under private land, we pay compensation,” the nation’s top Egyptologist says. “If it is not valuable, we just record it and we really do not do anything else.” Yet Hawass acknowledges that Egypt’s antiquities are vast and the challenge of preserving everything is even greater, especially in a city the size of Alexandria. “We are trying to save what we can. But we cannot stop construction inside the city of Alexandria.” 

Empereur proposes that a new law be adopted for the sites in Egypt—Alexandria, Aswan, Luxor, the Pyramids Plateau—where rescue excavations are essential, perhaps making it easier to supervise and slow construction, while mandating that rescue operations take place. It’s a notion that makes large developers cringe.

“If you excavate in Port Said, for instance, or Ismalia or Suez, you will not find anything underground,” he says. “But Alexandria is a very special case because it is a very big town above a very big ancient town. This is Egypt’s patrimony. How many mosaics, how many necropsies have disappeared completely without having any idea of this loss?”

Both Sides of the Coin
In June 1997, during the construction of a flyover connecting the Cairo Desert Road to the Western Harbor and cutting through the west Alexandria district of Gabbari, bulldozers unearthed a Hellenic necropolis with a labyrinth of chambers, atriums, passages and staircases hewn in rock. 

“The construction of the bridge was stopped when the bulldozers discovered huge underground towns,” Empereur says. “These are underground collective graves.” 

But preserving the find would have meant another delay in the already-behind-schedule flyover project. A committee from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) urged authorities to find a way to build the bridge and save the necropolis. 

In the end, development beat preservation. “In fact, we left the excavation on February 29, 2000. On March 1, the bulldozers were working. The site disappeared completely. Only pictures, videos, books, and memories of the people who excavated there remain,” Empereur says. “When you have such antiquities below your feet, you can find a way to preserve them, I suppose. The bulldozer,” he notes, “runs much quicker than the archaeologist.”

Officially, an antiquities inspector monitors building excavations and looks for the presence of antiquities. If stonework is found, construction activity must stop immediately. But foundation pits are usually excavated by bulldozers, a process that in itself destroys ancient remains. 

“The general problem in Egypt is that construction activity is done during the night. It is often the case that some ancient walls are not recognized,” adds von Pilgrim. “Walls of the 10th century built from fired bricks are very difficult to differentiate from modern walls.”

“What can an inspector do during the night?” Empereur asks. “What is the inspector’s power to stop the work, to stop the bulldozers? When you work with a bulldozer, can you see what you are destroying during the night?” 

Developers simply want to avoid the hassle and delays—they have other interests in mind than preserving the cultural heritage of a bygone era. With each passing day, more is destroyed. 

The morning Egypt Today spoke with Empereur, the researcher had spotted another construction pit opened up just the night before. 

“You can go 50 meters from here,” says Empereur, gesturing out the Center for Alexandrian Studies’ library window, “and you will see a very big hole, which was excavated during the night with bulldozers, without our knowledge. That’s a pity. Maybe we can rescue one percent of what could be rescued, but most of these developers want to go quickly and avoid any rescue excavation.” 

What could have been saved is gone. Forever.

Sustaining Rescues
But sneaky developers are just one of a rescue excavation team’s worries. “When you make rescue excavations in Europe, the owner of the property pays for the procedure,” remarks Empereur. “Here, it is up to the Supreme Council of Antiquities or the foreign archaeologists to raise the money.” 

Rescue excavations are costly. In Alexandria, one square meter above ground means excavating 12 cubic meters below the surface. Empereur estimates that it costs $100 per square meter to excavate, study, and publish their discoveries—that comes to $100,000 for a 1,000 square meter plot of land. Funding for the Center for Alexandrian Studies comes from foundation and institutional sponsors including the French Ministries of Research, National Education, and Foreign Affairs, and private companies with an interest in Egyptian civilization, like Gaz de France. 

“But it is difficult to raise money,” Empereur admits. “I spend one-third of my time gathering money.” 

Limited resources mean bulldozers will destroy many sites before proper excavations can be mounted. It also means forgetting about rescue excavations in plots of land that may hold promising finds—such as artifacts of the Great Library or the fabled Gymnasium—or relinquishing sites to developers before they have been completely documented. Awareness of the irreversible losses isn’t strong enough to prevent the destruction of remains that have survived this long. 

Whose Land Is It Anyway?
As if limited funding and land developers are not enough, archaeologists in Aswan face yet another obstacle: questions about ownership rights. 

In 1999, for example, the Aswan antiquities inspectorate stopped work on a private building after a stone shrine built by Roman soldiers was found on the same plot of land. 

The find is a small, classic-style Roman chapel preserved up to the lintel, with only the roof missing. It is now in a deep hole in Aswan’s mud brick district of Sultan Aboul Ela. The Supreme Council of Antiquities is still mired in the cumbersome and bureaucratic process of securing the land from the landowner whose building stood above the ruins, as well as adjacent plots of land in order to make way for excavation work. 

“Everyone owning a house is well aware of what his house is standing on. They know there is something underneath that may cause problems,” says the Swiss Institute’s Bruhn. “Everyone is afraid we will find a temple. Even if it is only the lower courses, as soon as we find a temple, we have a problem. It is not only a problem for the immediate owner, because the temple will always be bigger than one of the houses.” 

That’s why many landowners smartly choose to rebuild their homes without basements. “As long as there are no antiquities visible, we don’t have the chance to go in. We only have reason to go in if there are antiquities,” says Bruhn. “We don’t lose the data: It is well preserved under his house.”

A Search for Middle Ground
The tug-of-war between archaeologists and developers has had a sharp impact on the lives of some Aswan residents. 

Rashidi Mohamed Khalil, 73, has lived in Sultan Aboul Ela since 1951. Each day on his way to the mosque, cane in hand, he paces the unpaved road where the Roman chapel is buried. While the SCA works to expropriate land, the site has become a dumping ground for the community’s waste, attracting flies and stirring health concerns. 

The steep, four-meter hole in the ground is a hazard to area residents, especially children, Khalil complains. “Please, talk to the officials,” he pleads. “It has been like this for years. The antiquities inspectorate is neither building nor preserving. Let them even make a museum. All we want is a wall.” And all neighbors can do now is stand guard. 

“You get an impression of the problems here,” von Pilgrim remarks. “But we couldn’t do anything before because it was not clear who is now the owner of the land.” 

Ragab is a police officer in Aswan. For
LE 25 a month, he and another 14 young men rent a crumbling, five-room mud brick house that abuts the Roman shrine. Huge cracks spiderweb across the walls, but the landlord has told his tenants that the antiquities inspectorate forbids any renovations. 

“By the way,” Ragab says with some trepidation, pointing to the temple remains that are the center of the property dispute, “this is Roman, not Pharaonic. I don’t think it counts as an antiquity.” 

Ragab’s dwelling to the north of the temple and another mud brick building to the east need to be demolished if the temple site is to be excavated. “At the moment it is dangerous for us to go and work there because you don’t know when the next wall is going down,” says Bruhn.

On the Nile Corniche, a short walking distance from the Roman chapel, is the site of Aswan’s old Grand Hotel, which burned down in 1985. Since then, the area has remained a vacant lot. More often than not, it is a parking lot for tourist buses. The owners intend to build a new hotel on the same spot. Sizeable and significant Roman remains are known to lie underground. 

In this case, it would be easy to start rescue excavation work without the construction companies. All von Pilgrim and his team need is the permission of the landowner, which would give archaeologists time to investigate and record the remains, allowing future construction to take place uninterrupted. Yet the owners won’t allow an investigation without a promise from the SCA that the land, worth tens of millions of pounds, will not be expropriated. 

But no one can give an absolute guarantee because no one knows for certain what lies beneath.

“We can be sure that nothing [very tall] is preserved beneath. I would guess we will find the foundations of some Roman structures,” says von Pilgrim. “I am convinced that there will be nothing of a preservation dimension—but no one knows exactly what is there.”

A Clash of Interests
While archaeologists are busy rescuing Aswan and Alexandria, other cities are in danger of disappearing through continued neglect. 

Deep in the silt on the site of Tell El-Dab’a in Sharqiya are the palaces of the Hyksos, the foreign kings who ruled Egypt for more than a century (1640–1530
BC). In the past decade, Cairo’s Austrian Archaeological Institute has excavated royal palaces belonging to warrior kings who launched enormous campaigns in the Near East. Fast-forward to the New Kingdom’s palatial quarters of Thutmose III and the fortress of Tutankhamun’s successor, Horemheb. At the time of Ramses II, this area on the Pelusaiac branch of the Nile was the foundation of a new capital, Piramesse, opening Egypt up to the outside world to the north. 

Today, fragile ancient settlement sites are being destroyed by mining, chemicals, deep tilling and ground leveling.

“Such treasures can be found in the Delta, badly preserved, unknown, unexplored,” says Dr. Manfred Bietak, director of the Austrian Institute. “Enormous masses of land have to be investigated, which in the best cases are under agricultural land. In the worst case, they’re covered by modern villages, which grow rapidly in the Delta.”

The walls of Bietak’s Zamalek office are lined with maps, geophysical images “x-raying” the land surface and virtual computer reconstructions of once-grand palaces towering 20 meters above the ground. 

“It is not easy to show the importance of this place because we excavate in agricultural land,” he continues. “We rent the land, we excavate it and then we refill it, and we give it back to the farmer and it is cultivated again.”

But it’s a technically demanding form of excavation. Most of the archaeological layers are under subsoil water, demanding huge pumps to keep the sites dry as workers dig. 

The Tell El-Dab’a region was explored by Edouard Naville in 1885. He described a much bigger ruin mound (tell) about two kilometers east–west. “In our days it is just 500 meters,” says Beitak. “There is a clash not only between the public demand and archaeology. There is an even stronger clash between the demand of building and the demand of agricultural land. All towns and villages in Egypt are surrounded closely by agricultural land. New building ground is very difficult to get. The population grows and the demand grows. Very often the only available ground are antiquities sites.

“Agriculture alone does not destroy ancient sites. This happens only if you level a tell. What is below the agricultural crust is more or less preserved on farmland. I don’t see as much danger in agriculture as I see in buildings. Building is the major enemy of archaeology: With a concrete building, what is covered now can never be investigated. It is sealed under concrete.” 

Even if government authorities have managed to curb illicit building—a ban on converting agricultural land into development property is still in effect—there is still some legal building.

And as long as land remains in short supply, illicit digging will never stop. 

“There are tremendous sites still unexplored,” says Bietak. “Egypt is still full of treasures in archaeology.”

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