CAIRO — Alexander the Great founded Alexandria to immortalize his name amid his quest to conquer the world — but his was apparently not the first city on the famed site on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
A Smithsonian team has uncovered underwater evidence pointing to an urban settlement at the site dating back seven centuries before Alexander showed up in 331 B.C.
The city he founded, Alexandria, has long been a source of intrigue and wonder, renowned for its library, once the world’s largest, and the 396-foot lighthouse on the island of Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
But little was known about the site in pre-Alexander times except that a fishing village called Rhakotis was located there.
Coastal geoarchaeologist Jean-Daniel Stanley of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History said his team’s work suggests there was a much larger community at Rhakotis than had been thought.
The discoveries, reported in the August issue of GSA Today, the journal of the Geological Society of America, came by accident when his team drilled underwater in Alexandria’s harbor, Mr. Stanley said.
“This often happens in science. We were not searching for an ancient city,” said Mr. Stanley, who has been working in the Nile Delta for 20 years.
Their project, part of a 2007 Smithsonian-funded study of the subsiding Nile Delta, also involved Egypt’s antiquities department and a French offshore group. Scientists extracted three-inch-wide sticks of core sediment 18 feet long under the seabed to try to understand what happened to cause later structures from the Greek and Roman eras to become submerged.
“One of the ways you do this is by taking sediment cores and examining core structures,” he said by telephone from Washington.
When his team opened the cores, they saw ceramic fragments that reflected human activity, but there was no immediate cause for excitement.
Then, more and more rock fragments, ceramic shards from Middle and Upper Egypt, a lot of organic plant matter and heavy minerals were found. Radiocarbon dating showed all the items to be from about 1000 B.C.
The scientists then analyzed the concentration of lead isotopes in the cores and saw that they, too, came from about 3,000 years ago.
“This was proof that there was significant metallurgy and human activity going on back 1,000 years B.C.,” Mr. Stanley said. “Alexandria did not just grow out from a barren desert, but was built atop an active town.
“We had five well-defined components that fit — and we had the story. And the story was that Alexander the Great did not come first to set up Alexandria; there was already something there.”
Mr. Stanley could not say exactly how big the community was, only that it appeared more developed than a small fishing village.
Mohamed Abdel-Maqsud, an Alexandria specialist from Egypt’s Council of Antiquities, was cautious, saying the work on uncovering Rhakotis was only just beginning.
“There are signs of a flourishing settlement going back to Pharaonic times, but it’s too early to say anything about it,” Mr. Abdel-Maqsud said. “We are still working.”