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Nelson Island

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© University of Turin archeological mission at Nelson Island University of Turin

Presentation of the department

Nelson Island is located 4 km off Abu Qir Bay, and 18 km from the center of Alexandria. The Italian archeological mission, directed by Paolo Gallo from the University of Turin, started its work on the Island in 1998. The mission excavated more than two-hundred finds of high archeological importance, fundamental for understanding the life and culture of the ancient inhabitants of the site. The discovered monuments and artifacts date back to the 26th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt and to the Ptolemic Period. Among the finds are also some artifacts, graffiti and burials that date back to the British occupation shortly after the Battle of the Nile, in August 1798.

The BA Antiquities Museum houses 183 of the artifacts discovered on Nelson Island.

 

Historical Preview

During the period of the last Pharaohs (Dynasties XXVI–XXX), this bare promontory was used as a necropolis by the inhabitants of Canopus and Heracleion, two large and rich cities situated only a few kilometers away from the Islet and now sunk in the depths of Abu Qir Bay.
The Islet, now 350 meters long, was in the time of Alexander the Great connected with the mainland by a narrow strip of land. The ruins, found on the Islet, represent only a small part of a large archeological site now lost in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
 
At the end of the 4th century BCE, Greek colonists built a new settlement on the old Egyptian necropolis. This was a parting from ancient Greek customs that did not condone the building of towns on cemetery sites. The strategic position of the site explains this choice. The top of the promontory was certainly the best place in the Bay to control the maritime traffic from Heracleion, and Heracleion was then Egypt’s largest harbor before the foundation of Alexandria.
The Greek settlement on Nelson Island became especially important under the reign of King Ptolemy I. Its ancient name is still unknown, but the high level of interest shown by the newborn Ptolemaic Kingdom in this site is demonstrated by the construction of large public monuments. Huge stone walls (5 meters thick) were built to protect the eastern part of the settlement; while on the western side, a great Doric monument (probably a temple) was constructed, the columns of which were 7–8 meters high. Nearby, a massive public cistern was also built to provide the settlement with water. The structure is 26 meters long and 13 meters wide. With its four connected basins and a full capacity of 1000 cubic-meters, this is probably the largest early Hellenistic cistern of the collection of rainwater known anywhere in the Mediterranean region. As for the residential area, it consisted of large houses built according to the Greek style with decorated walls, complete kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. Since archeological activities in Alexandria did not reveal complete houses, the importance of the unique examples and debris on Nelson Island may be understood.
In spite of these governmental investments, the Greek settlement on Nelson Island had a very short life. For reasons still unknown, the site was abandoned at the end of the first quarter of the 3rd century BCE. Leaving their houses, the dwellers left many objects of daily life in their rooms, which archeologists found undisturbed. As the site shows no significant traces of occupation or burials dating to the Late Ptolemaic and Roman periods, this might suggest that the geological revolution that transformed the ancient Peninsula into an islet occurred during the first half of the 3rd century BCE, and may have been the reason of the site abandonment.
 
In the 5th century CE, the Island became a stone quarry where workers formed a poor settlement that was abandoned towards to the end of the 7th century, together with the cities of Heracleion and Canopus. 
 

Nelson in modern times

During the British–French wars, that were waged for the possession of the Mediterranean, Abu Qir Bay became a sensitive target, and Nelson Island played an important strategic role because of its geographical position. Following the Battle of the Nile in 1798, the British Navy occupied “Abu Qir Island”, which the soldiers re-named after their admiral, Horatio Nelson. In 1801, the British troops of General Abercrombie used Abu Qir Bay as a landing point for their campaign in Egypt. During the operations, the British suffered many casualties, and several were buried on Nelson Island. Part of the British “cemetery of war” was excavated, and in 2004, the remains of the British soldiers were reburied in the Commonwealth Military Cemetery, in Chatby, Alexandria.
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