Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 May 2006
Issue No. 794
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mysteries of the deep

President Hosni Mubarak joins German President Horst Köhler today to inaugurate the exhibition Egypt's Sunken Treasures. Nevine El-Aref reports from Berlin

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Modernity and antiquity: sunken treasures of a lost age are retrieved by divers and flown to Germany for an exhibition celebrating Egypt's unique historical patrimony

The streets of Berlin, its shops, airport, train stations, buses and hotels are plastered with posters of granite colossi of the goddess Isis, the Nile god Hapi, Ptolemaic royal figures and the head of Caesarion, Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, half buried in the seabed. Magazine covers show divers face to face with monuments beneath the waves, while photographs of objects from Napoleon's sunken fleet dominate the front pages of newspapers. Berlin, it sometimes feels, has been cast beneath the spell of sunken treasure.

At the Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum, where an exhibition of 489 objects excavated from beneath the Mediterranean is today inaugurated by the Egyptian and German presidents, enormous care has been taken in recreating the Alexandrian theme. The central courtyard connecting the 16 rooms of the exhibition is designed to resemble the sunken cities of Heracleion and Canopus in Abu Qir Bay, while in the galleries the echoing sound of waves accompanies visitors to the exhibition. Giant plasma screens show films documenting the progress of marine archaeologists as they uncover the mysteries of Alexandria's ancient Eastern Harbour.

A prologue and an epilogue provide information about the underwater missions of the Institut Européan d'Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) and the natural disasters that led to the submergence of the area more than 1,000 years ago.

Hans Peter Nerger, Berlin's head of tourist marketing, has no doubts about the block-busting nature of the show in a city that already boasts one of the world's finest collections of Egyptian antiquities. "The first exhibition of these Egyptian treasures is one of the cultural highlights of 2006. This exhibition will attract and enthrall tourists as well as Berliners."

The exhibition is divided thematically. Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the Nile god Hapi, the statue of a Ptolemaic king and unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis, a customs stelae from Heracleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphs and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing Ptolemy XII, father of the more famous Cleopatra, a head of Serapis and the Naos of the Decades, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar.

Pots and pans, knives, forks, bottles and plates are exhibited alongside navigational instruments, cannons, swords and guns from Napoleon's fleet, sunk by Nelson during the naval Battle of Abu Qir in 1798. Golden rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are also displayed.

Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly that the inauguration by presidents Mubarak and Köler underlined the emphasis they both place on dialogue in containing conflict between cultures and religions. The exhibition, he said, stands as testimony to the depth of Egypt's cultural and political ties with Germany.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), stressed that President Mubarak's attendance comes within the framework of his unstinting support for the preservation of Egypt's ancient monuments. The exhibition foregrounds the skill of the ancient artists who carved these gigantic colossi: "I can see the blood beneath the skin of Isis... looking at her makes me feel that she is still alive," marvelled Hawass.

Franck Goddio, head of the IEASM and leader of the underwater archaeological missions that recovered the artefacts, describes the exhibition as "a dream come true". It's a dream, Goddio told the Weekly, that began in 1992 when he first succeeded to cast fresh light on Canopus and Heracleion, two Mediterranean cities contemporaneous with early Alexandria.

The exhibition, mounted in collaboration with the SCA and with the support of the Hilti Foundation, will remain in Berlin until September. In November it will travel to Paris where it is to be installed in the Grand Palais.

The 489 objects have been carefully selected from several Alexandrian sites. Thirty are on loan from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum, 39 from the Alexandrian National Museum and 372 have been drawn from the SCA storehouse of the General Underwater Monuments Department. The exhibition has been insured for a total of $41,692,000 and the SCA is expected to receive 400,000 euros from the show, in addition to $600,000 which will go towards financing the feasibility studies necessary to establish an underwater museum.

Amani Badr, who helped organise the exhibition in Egypt, said the preparations had involved three years of negotiations with the SCA in order to secure its approval and meet all its conditions concerning the safety of the exhibits.

The vertical presentation of the great royal stelae and the three colossal statues required considerable intervention since the objects had to be consolidated so that they could be safely transported and mounted in the context of a travelling exhibition.

"We had to respect the ethics of conservation, respond to various aesthetic criteria, fulfil the safety requirements laid down for public display, and facilitate the artefacts' transport to, and installation in, the exhibition space," says restorer Olivier Berger.

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