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Maritime Archaeologist Delivers Lecture on Ancient Alexandria

Emad Khalil Ph.D., of Alexandria University in Egypt, specializes in underwater archaeology unearthing sunken remains of the city in its ancient, founding days, the remains of which have been  preserved in silt from the flooding of the Nile and surrounding waterways. Khalil’s presentation, titled “Egypt: Crossroads of the Whole World,” documented the city’s progression from its early days, including the development of its main harbors and excavations of trade vessels as well as artifacts from the wine industry. The lecture was held on Wednesday, Jan. 31 in Auerbach Auditorium in St. Mary’s Hall, and was held by the anthropology and history departments.

Khalil began his lecture by noting the appearance of the island of Pharos in The Odyssey, in which Homer notes “Now, there’s an island out in the ocean’s heavy surge, well off the Egyptian coast—they call it Pharos … There’s a snug harbor there, good landing beach where crews pull in, draw water from the dark wells then push their vessels off for passage out.” The account of the city of Pharos dates from the 7th century B.C., around 400 years before the founding of Alexandria.

Khalil further noted the complex interactions between the flooding of the Nile delta and the locations of ancient harbor cities which were central points for trading in the ancient Mediterranean world. Alexandria’s immunity to the annual flooding of the Nile due to its elevation, according to Khalil, is responsible for its enduring prominence as a center of commerce and trade. In antiquity, the Nile delta had seven tributaries, and now only two exist.

The situation of ancient harbor cities in the lowlands of the delta subjected them to sedimentation, and they had to be cleared annually after floods. Canopus and Heracleion were notable centers of trade before the discovery of Alexandria, which was liquefied by tsunamis.

The burial of ancient artifacts in silt is advantageous for marine archaeologists like Khalil, as mud, like ice, preserves materials well, even over centuries. Among Khalil and his team’s notable discoveries are a total of 65 shipwrecks dating from the 5th century B.C. They also found a kiln 30 meters in diameter used for amphora production dating from the 7th century A.D. Amphora are a form of ancient pottery with two handles on either side, often used for wine storage and production. Another notable discovery from the Canopic branch of the Nile was the Decree of Nectanebo I, a document describing taxes levied on Greek merchants passing through the Nile, which specifies goods including grains and wine.

Khalil emphasized Alexandria as a center of commerce and a nexus of various cultures, noting the variety of languages one might have heard spoke there even in the ancient world. The basis for the title of his lecture and his conclusion is an excerpt from 1st century Roman scholar Dio Chrysostom’s “Discourses 32. To the People of Alexandria,” in which he notes, “for Alexandria is situated, as it was, at the crossroads of the whole world, of even the most remote nations thereof, as if it were a market serving a single city, a market which brings together into one place all manner of men, displaying them to one another and, as far as possible, making them a kindred people.

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