Egypt lifts huge 'Cleopatra temple' block from sea

Alexandria, Egypt - A huge granite block thought to have once formed part of a temple pillar in a sunken palace of Cleopatra has been raised from the sea at Alexandria.

The nine-tonne stone, said to be from a temple to the goddess Isis, was lifted by crane out of the waters which have covered the palace for centuries.

It was cut from a slab of red granite quarried in Aswan, some 1,100km (700 miles) to the south, officials say.

There are plans to exhibit it in a new museum devoted to the sunken city.

Earthquakes are thought to have toppled the city in the 4th Century.

"This is one of the most important archaeological finds in Alexandria, among the 400 items recovered by the Greek archaeological team that has been engaged in underwater research since 1998," Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni said at the scene.

Laborious operation

Cleopatra's palace and other buildings and monuments lie strewn on the seabed in harbour of Alexandria, the country's second-largest city.

In recent years, excavators have discovered dozens of sphinxes in the harbour, along with pieces of what is believed to be the Alexandria Lighthouse, or Pharos, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

The block is the first major artefact extracted from the harbour since 2002, when authorities banned further removal of major objects from the sea for fear it would damage them.

It was discovered by a Greek expedition in 1998.

To retrieve it, divers had to spend weeks cleaning it of mud and scum before dragging it across the sea floor for three days to bring it closer to the harbour's edge.

A lorry stood by to ferry the block to a freshwater tank where it will lie for six months until all the salt, which acts as a preservative underwater but damages it once exposed, is dissolved.

Zahi Hawas, Egypt's top archaeologist said the block was unique.

"We believe it was part of the complex surrounding Cleopatra's palace," he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying as he watched the block being brought ashore.

"This is an important part of Alexandria's history and it brings us closer to knowing more about the ancient city."