Egypt's sunken treasure moors in Madrid
dives into the Antiguo Matadero de Legazpi in the heart of Madrid to roam the Spanish leg of the touring "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" exhibition
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Stele of Thonis-Heracleion (top); the Spanish royalty touring the exhibition of the artefacts that were once on the Mediterranean seabed; King Juan Carlos and Murad with the Egyptian delegation (below) photos courtesy of the Hilti Foundation
"The ancient Egyptian Nile God Hapi extended its generosity and prosperity over Spain when it stepped into its capital." The heavy rain falling in Madrid after a long period of dry weather made such headlines in Spanish newspapers and television bulletins two days after King Juan Carlos and his wife, Queen Sofia, inaugurated the "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" exhibition at the Antiguo Matadero de Legazpi, Madrid's former municipal slaughterhouse now transformed into a cultural centre dedicated to contemporary creation. The transformation was part of Madrid City Council's strategic plan to build new, and improve current, cultural centres in partnership with private bodies, all seeking to convert a city centre plot of 1,500 square metres into an ambitious cultural centre housing the facilities of an expansive contemporary project. The Conde Duque Centre, La memoria and the Palacio de Comunicaciones, La Ciudad, are also key parts of the plan.
The centre, with its 20th-century architecture, is located at the junction where the southeastern continuation of the Prado-Recoletos axis meets the future great Manzanares Avenue. It has helped stretch Madrid's centre outwards towards the river Manzanares, giving an artistic identity to south Madrid as well as the Arganzuela and Usera neighbourhoods. It is hoped that this unique and beautiful setting will become one of Madrid's cultural symbols, complete with new facilities and cultural activities for residents and a new icon to help promote the Madrid brand abroad.
Egypt's ambassador to Spain, Yasser Murad, said that over the summer Matadero Madrid would be the setting of the Spanish stop of the "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" touring exhibition, which displays 489 remarkable artefacts excavated from beneath the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. The exhibition has already seen spectacular success in Germany and France with more than 1.5 million visitors.
"From 16 April to 28 September, the Spanish people can take a virtual dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and explore the lost treasures of ancient Egypt," Murad said, adding that the Matador centre was the most suitable place in Madrid to host such an exhibition since the height of its galleries meant they could house the three towering, red granite colossi of a Ptolemaic king and queen and the Nile deity, Hapi, each of which is five metres tall.
"The aura of the Mediterranean Sea is everywhere apparent," Murad told Al-Ahram Weekly. The ancient towns which lie submerged under the sea are resurrected in the Matadero. With waves echoing on the audio system and the sparkling black floor reflecting the seabed, audio-visual technology and visual effects are used to invoke the ambiance from which the antiquities were retrieved and the stages of the underwater excavation. "Visitors are taken on an imaginary voyage through time and space back to the Ptolemaic, Byzantine, Coptic and early Islamic eras, when those cities were the main commercial centres of Egypt," Murad pointed out.
Visitors to the exhibition will discover that it not only shows an era of Egyptian history before 600 to 800 AD, when geomorphic changes caused the submergence Egypt's north coast and the loss of coastal towns and monuments. The walls are covered with decorative scenes and electronic screens featuring different stages of underwater exploration -- interspersed with colourful, haphazard geometrical drawings and graffiti left by the former slaughterhouse workers such as "I am fed up", "I love Joseh", and names enclosed in hearts and circles.
King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia were very impressed with the display. The queen, who has a special interest in history and archaeology, stopped for a long time before the black stone queen with inlaid eyes, the diorite statue of Isis, the granodiorite statue of a Roman priest bearing in his veiled hands an Osiris canopic jar, and the Naos of the Decades, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient astronomical calendar. There, archaeologist Frank Goddio, who was responsible for much of the underwater recovery, explained to the royal couple the story of the Naos.
"The most spectacular find at [the drowned city of] Canopus was the missing main piece of the Naos of the Decades, the top of which has long been on display in the Louvre Museum. With the various pieces assembled, it can now be seen in almost complete form," Goddio said.
Queen Sofia, like all women, was fascinated with the gold allure of the jewellery on display. She took a long time looking at the various showcases displaying gold earrings, rings, bracelets, pendants and necklaces, but the object that most captured her attention was a small pendant of a very fine gold cross ornamented with semi precious stones.
During the royal tour King Carlos and Queen Sofia had their photographs taken with the Egyptian delegation led by legal consultant Mustafa Abdel-Moneim. Queen Sopia also had a friendly chat with the delegates, saying that she had always loved Egypt and had spent part of her youth in Alexandria where she attended school when her parents were in exile in Egypt. "I consider myself half Egyptian," she said.
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. These objects are the result of almost two decades of underwater excavation beneath the Mediterranean. Goddio and his team of French and Egyptian underwater archaeologists, with the support of the Hilti Foundation, explored the shallows off Alexandria's Eastern Harbour and Abu Qir, retracing the last centuries of ancient Egypt during the Late Period and under the Ptolemies, through the Roman and Christian periods, the advent of Islam, and even the sunken French fleet. It was a dream, Goddio told the Weekly, that began in 1992 when he first found proof that the remains of the ancient cities of Canopus and Herakleion, two Mediterranean cities contemporaneous with early Alexandria, lay under the waves at Abu Qir still waiting to be explored.
These remarkable finds point to the importance of three cities which, in antiquity, were among the most renowned centres for business, science, culture and religion. Here influences from Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome mingled with the age-old culture of the Pharaohs, from which emerged a new way of life that left an enduring mark on the religious and cultural landscape of Egypt.
The touring exhibition marks the first occasion in which artefacts from the legendary lost cities of Herakleion and Canopus and from the submerged part of the port of Alexandria have been seen outside Egypt. The two cities disappeared when they were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster which caused the seabed to subside.
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told the Weekly that the 489 objects had 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 Supreme Council of Antiquities (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 900,000 euros from the show, which will bring the whole revenue from the tour to four million euros, some of which will go towards financing the feasibility studies necessary to establish an underwater museum.
Hosni described the exhibition as good promotion for Egypt and its history, which in its turn will be reflected in the number of tourists to Egypt. "It is really a priceless revenue to Egypt," Hosni concluded.
Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said the exhibition was a good opportunity for all Europeans to admire an important time in Egyptian history. Among the objects on display is a customs stela from another sunken city, Herakleion, with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing Ptolemy XII, father of the famous Cleopatra VII, and head of the god Serapis. Detailed topographic maps showing the original location of Canopus and Herakleion are also on show, as well as others featuring the remains of palaces and temples still dormant on the seabed.
Hawass said that in addition to the four million euros in revenue from the touring exhibition, the French government would offer the SCA the architectural design for the underwater museum planned for Alexandria. The exhibition's fifth stop will be Turin in Italy and then will make long journeys to Japan and America where it will tour several states.
Wafaa El-Sadik, director of the Egyptian Museum and secretary-general of the exhibition committee, said the exhibition had attracted the attention of the whole world. Since it began its tour of Europe, more tourists had come to Egypt and visited Alexandria to see face to face the city which for centuries had housed these objects off its coast.
Two years before the exhibition started its tour comprehensive restoration work was carried out on the objects. Mansour Borek, head of the SCA's Luxor antiquities department, told the Weekly that the transportation of objects was carried out according to international security measures in order to insure a safe land trip from Bonn in Germany to Madrid. "This forced the truck drivers to keep their speed at no more than 80 km/h," he said.
Murad told the Weekly that the inauguration of the exhibition stood as testimony to the depth of Egypt's cultural, political ties and relations of friendship with Spain. He said the friendship and cooperation agreement signed last January between the two countries was the utmost bilateral collaboration between Spain and non-European countries. "Egypt is the third country to sign such an agreement with Spain after Morocco and Tunisia," Murad said.
Mohamed Abdel-Baset, press attaché at the Egyptian Embassy, said that news about ancient Egypt always caught the headlines of newspapers and TV bulletins. Before the underwater exhibition the press more than once highlighted Hawass's statements about sending experts to Barcelona Museum to check the authenticity of its statue of Nefret, and his suggestion that it be removed and exhibited in the Debod temple in Madrid. The temple was offered by the Egyptian government to Spain in the 1960s in gratitude for Spain's efforts to help in the Nubia monuments salvage operation before the construction of the High Dam.
Photographs of the exhibition decorated the corridors of Madrid's metro and bus stations. They also spread all over the shopping centres. Newspapers have also dedicated two and sometimes four pages to reviewing the exhibition and displaying photographs of its artefacts.