Construction workers carving out a road for an elite Mediterranean resort bulldozed their way into an ancient world under a blanket of seaside sand.
They had stumbled upon a city more than 2,000 years old and stretching for more than a mile along Egypt's coastline 125 miles west of Alexandria."It's unbelievable," said Ali Hassan, who controls Egyptian Antiquities Organization operations in the region. "Other countries get excited about finding an ancient house. We have a whole city. It's without equal in all of Egypt."
The bulldozers were stopped a month after the ruins were discovered in 1985. By that time, a road had been sliced through what appears to have been an ancient temple, but much more remained.
A few months later, Egyptian and Polish archaeologists began excavating the ruins, without letting word out, and what they've found over the past three years is in remarkable condition.
"What we have in hand is a golden egg, undisturbed, a complete city that changed with time," said Hassan, director general of Pharaonic monuments. "It's not only a city of the dead, but also a city of the living, side by side. It's something very rare and very important."
The city, believed to have been founded in the second century B.C., lasted more than 500 years. As excavators intruded on its serenity since 1986, antiquities officials have worked quietly in Cairo to save the site from further destruction.
The still-unidentified city now peeks in and out of its sandy grave.
To one side stands a row of ultramodern apartments built along the coastline by Egypt's Ministry of Housing. A new apartment complex was to have been erected on top of what turned out to be the ruins.
Only a small area has been excavated, but archaeologists already have discovered well-preserved houses, vast cemeteries with decorated and undecorated tombs, catacombs, a bath, a basilica and many artifacts, imported and local, including statues and frescoes.
Egyptian excavators are now at work. In February they'll be rejoined by 10 Polish archaeologists and restorers to make detailed surveys of the site and its needs.
They already have restored critical pieces that had begun to disintegrate since the bulldozing of the road.
Walking through the excavations, Feisal Mohammed Ashmy, the antiquities inspector in charge of the ancient city, pointed toward mounds of toppled marble columns. They lay beside a ditch cut 35 feet wide and 10 feet deep by the grading equipment.
"Before the bulldozers got here, this was a temple, I think. It's terrible, but we now have to focus on saving what's left," he said.
"There's so much. All you have to do is to look down, and history says, `Take me.' "