Discoverys Cleopatra Is a Treasure


Everyone knows about the pyramids and the Sphinx in the
Egyptian desert, but until now, few knew about Cleopatra's royal quarters in
Alexandria. That's because her palace has been submerged in the harbor off modern-day
Alexandria for some 1,600 years.

To me, the results of an underwater expedition by French
explorer Franck Goddio, due on Discovery Channel, are even more spectacular than the
network's much-ballyhooed Titanic specials.

Documentaries can be slow going, but this one, Cleopatra's
Palace: In Search of a Legend
, fortunately relies on eye-catching underwater
photography and computer-graphics recreations of Queen Cleopatra VII's royal
quarters, while mostly staying away from talking heads. (Unfortunately, one talking head,
Goddio's, wears a baseball cap with a blatant Discovery plug.)

Earthquakes and tidal waves swept the once magnificent
buildings into the harbor centuries after Cleopatra's death, according to narrator
Omar Sharif, the Alexandria-born actor. It's left to Goddio and his team to make
sense of the ruins strewn across the mile-wide bay, with high-tech gear helping to narrow
their search.

Despite having to contend with poor visibility in the murky
waters 30 feet down, director of photography Harry Makin's underwater images are
often striking.

Interest accelerates at the hour's halfway point, once
the divers find 20-foot columns believed to have formed the ceremonial gateway to
Cleopatra's royal island. Things get even hotter after they spot 6,000 square feet of
limestone pavement that presumably once led to the palace where Egypt's last queen
seduced Julius Caesar and where she killed herself rather than surrendering to Rome's

But Goddio goes on to find even more intriguing
discoveries, such as intact statues of a high priest and two sphinxes that were probably
located in the queen's personal shrine to the goddess Isis. Egyptian scholars later
determine that one sphinx bears the likeness of Cleopatra's father, King Ptolemy XII.

One of the most stirring moments in the hour occurs when
these statues are raised from their underwater graves to be seen by humans for the first
time in nearly 2,000 years.

The producers then close the hour with yet another nugget:
the head of what probably was a 15-foot statue honoring Octavius, Egypt's conqueror.

Kudos go to the special's executive producers, David
Lint and Maurice Paleau, and to producer/director Jane Armstrong.

Cleopatra's Palace debuts on Discovery March 14 at
9 p.m.