In the waters off the coast of Alexandria in Egypt lies a submerged enigma that has captivated historians and archaeologists for centuries. The sunken palace of Cleopatra.
Built during the Ptolemaic dynasty, this architectural marvel was a testament to the grandeur and power of its namesake, Cleopatra VII, the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and one of history’s best known rulers.
Cleopatra’s palace, likely constructed in the first century BC, was a sprawling complex, embodying the pinnacle of ancient Egyptian opulence. Its size and scale were a reflection of the wealth and cultural sophistication of the era, adorned with luxurious amenities, intricate mosaics, and grand columns. The palace served not only as a royal residence but also as a political and cultural hub, echoing the influence of one of the most enigmatic, controversial and divisive leaders the world has ever known.
But what happened to the palace of Cleopatra, one of the ancient world’s most magnificent royal residences, home to the Queen of the Nile? Let’s take a trip back to the ancient world in an attempt to shed light on this Egyptian enigma.
Who was Cleopatra?
Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator reigned as a figure of unmatched political acumen and enigmatic allure from 51 BC until her demise in 30 BC.
Born in 69 BC into the Ptolemaic dynasty, a lineage descended from Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Cleopatra skillfully navigated the turbulent political waters of her era, restoring Egypt’s status as a significant power in the ancient world.
Fluent in multiple languages, she was renowned as much for her intellectual prowess and world-class political acumen as she was for the pivotal – and legendary – relationships with Julius Caesar and later Mark Antony. Relationships that shaped the political landscape of the Mediterranean.
Her reign, marked by economic prosperity and cultural flourish, was also fraught with familial strife and external challenges. Cleopatra’s dramatic life, from her strategic alliances and famed romances to her tragic end, symbolises the last gasp of Hellenistic Egypt before it succumbed to Roman conquest, leaving behind a legacy that has captivated historians, artists, and the public imagination for centuries.
A major part of that legacy is Cleopatra’s underwater palace.
The Fall of Cleopatra’s Palace
The demise of Cleopatra’s palace is as dramatic as its existence. Following the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC and the subsequent fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom to the Roman Empire, the palace faced centuries of turmoil.
It’s believed that a series of catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis around the fourth century AD were responsible for its destruction and eventual submergence beneath the Mediterranean Sea. The exact location of the sunken palace of Cleopatra remained a mystery for millennia, fueling both scholarly debate and public fascination. Its place beneath the waves has been a subject of speculation and wonder, with many doubting if the true location of the palace would ever be found.
The Island of Antirhodos
Named, according to Greek geographer Strabo, for its intense rivalry with the island of Rhodes, Antirhodos – or counter-Rhodes – was a small island in the harbour of Alexandria (Portus Magnus) in Egypt. It’s believed this was the site of a Ptolemaic palace – believed to be that of Cleopatra – and was occupied until the reigns of Roman emperors Septimus Severus and Caracalla in the early years of the third century AD.
By the fourth century, a series of earthquakes and tsunamis struck the coast of Alexandria, leading to the complete destruction and total submergence of Antirhodos, along with Cleopatra’s palace and temple complex.
For centuries, the exact location of the palace of Cleopatra remained a mystery, that is, until the early 1990s.
Cleopatra’s Lost Palace
Enter Franck Goddio. The world-renowned underwater archaeologist discovered the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion and the submerged site of the Egyptian coastal town of Canopus. He also excavated the Spanish galleon San Diego which sank off the coast of the Philippines in December 1600. It was Goddio’s groundbreaking work in the 1990s which found the island of Antirhodos and with it, Cleopatra’s underwater palace.
Goddio, with his team, embarked on an ambitious underwater expedition near Alexandria’s harbour. His findings were nothing short of extraordinary. The discovery of colossal statues, inscribed slabs, and architectural elements confirmed the presence of a significant Ptolemaic structure. His research and underwater archaeology techniques provided compelling evidence that these remnants were indeed part of Cleopatra’s lost palace. His work not only confirmed the location of the palace but also offered a unique glimpse into the life and times of the ancient Egyptians during Cleopatra’s reign.
Among the objects Goddio and his team found were columns, statues, and ceramics linked to the royal quarter of the Ptolemies, possibly even the palace of Cleopatra herself.
Among the artefacts found were a life-sized statue of a priest holding an Osiris-Canopus jar, two sphinxes, a falcon-headed crocodile-sphinx made out of Granodiorite dating back to the seventh or eighth century BC, a white marble torso of Hermes, and a granite head attributed to Caesarion, the son of Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar.
Other significant finds included a marble head of Antonia Minor, the mother of Roman emperor Claudius, a black granite statue head representing an elderly man, likely a priest from the Ptolemaic period, and a black granite sphinx believed to represent Ptolemy XII Autletes, Cleopatra’s father.
It’s also believed that Goddio’s team may have located the wooden foundations of Cleopatra’s palace. Wooden beams found at the site have been radiocarbon dated to around 200 years before her birth, leading researchers and academics to surmise that if indeed they are part of the structure of the palace, it’s possible she inherited it rather than built it herself.
Reports have also suggested that while looking for the sunken palace of Cleopatra, Goddio’s team found remnants of the Lighthouse of Alexandria, known as Pharos of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as the site of the Timonium, Mark Antony’s unfinished palace.
The Enduring Legacy of the Palace of Cleopatra
The discovery of Cleopatra’s underwater palace is a fascinating chapter in the annals of archaeology.
It represents a convergence of myth, history, and advanced scientific exploration. This discovery has not only illuminated aspects of ancient Egyptian architecture and royal life but also highlighted the fragility and transience of human creations against the relentless forces of nature.
As explorations of Cleopatra’s lost palace continue, each artefact offers a deeper understanding of the complex and the intriguing figure that was Cleopatra, her reign, and the era she epitomised.
This underwater odyssey, teeming with historical significance and enduring mysteries, continues to captivate the imagination, promising further revelations about one of history’s most fascinating figures.