Friday,20 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Friday,20 July, 2018
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Sunken cities come to London

The beauty of Egypt’s submerged ancient cities has been resurrected in London at an exhibition at the British Museum, reports Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

Despite the heavy rain that hit the British capital this week, Britons with umbrellas were queuing outside the classical portico of the British Museum to enter this summer’s blockbuster exhibition, “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds,” which opened last week following its successful premiere in Paris.

For the next six months, Britons will be able to take a virtual dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and explore the lost treasures of ancient Egypt.

The remarkable finds on show in the exhibition point to the importance of the three lost cities from which they come, which in antiquity were centres of business, science, culture and religion. Here, influences from Mesopotamia, ancient 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 exhibition displays artefacts from the legendary lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus and from the submerged part of the ancient port of Alexandria. The two cities disappeared when they were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster which caused the seabed to subside in antiquity.

The aura of the Mediterranean is everywhere apparent in the spacious galleries of the British Museum in the exhibition. Waves echo on the audio system, and the sparkling black floors seem to reflect the seabed, with audio technology and visual effects being used to give something of the ambiance from which the antiquities were retrieved and the stages of their underwater excavation.

Enormous colossi are shown against dark green walls or on dark blue or warm red bases, while smaller artefacts are displayed inside fine glass showcases lying on black granite bases. Giant plasma screens showing films documenting the progress of the marine archaeologists as they uncovered the mysteries of Egypt’s sunken cities are placed in each gallery of the exhibition. A prologue and an epilogue provide information about the underwater missions of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) and the natural disasters that led to the submergence of the area more than 1,500 years ago.

Visitors to the exhibition are taken on an imaginary voyage through time and space back to the Ptolemaic, Byzantine, Coptic and early Islamic eras of Egypt, when the cities were main commercial centres of the country. To enhance the atmosphere, a gigantic statue of the Nile god Hapy has been erected at the entrance of the exhibition galleries, greeting visitors much as it did when it stood in antiquity at the front gate of the temple of the god Amun-Gereb as an impressive sight for visitors to Thonis-Heracleion.

During the official inauguration of the exhibition, Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enani highlighted the strong friendship and collaboration between Egypt and Britain in the fields of archaeology and museology, which started as early as the 1880s when the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered a collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in Naukratis in the Delta and at other archaeological sites.

Al-Enani said that the ministry was keen on strengthening all kinds of cooperation with international scientific and archaeological institutions in protecting and promoting Egypt’s heritage. He invited Egyptian antiquities lovers to come to Egypt to enjoy and admire more monuments and archaeological sites.

“It’s hugely exciting to be announcing the British Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries and to be welcoming these important loans to London,” said Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the British Museum. “As well as looking for partners to invest in the economy, Egypt is always searching for partners to help in exploring its heritage and the treasures which are still hidden under its lands and waters,” said Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

He continued by saying that the exhibition showed that despite what we know of its tremendous history and culture, Egypt has a lot more to offer the world. “We thank our partners in the UK, such as BP, for working with us in utilising our resources to develop our economy and through such an exhibition unravel our history as well,” Kamel said, inviting the people of Britain to visit the exhibition to get a glimpse of what Egypt has to offer and then to come to Egypt itself to relive that experience.

BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said the company was proud to support a fascinating exhibition that showcases the power of science and the pioneering spirit to discover what lies beneath the waters. “By sharing these underwater treasures, the British Museum is opening a whole new frontier for visitors to explore, and we are pleased to be a part of that,” Dudley commented.

IEASM President Franck Goddio said he was delighted that the exhibition with its discoveries from his underwater archaeological expeditions off the coast of Egypt was on display at the British Museum, a fact that had enabled him and his team to share with the public the results of years of work at the sunken cities and their fascination for ancient worlds and civilisations.

“Placing our discoveries alongside selected masterpieces from the collections of Egyptian museums, complemented by important objects from the British Museum, the exhibition presents unique insights into a fascinating period in history during which Egyptians and Greeks encountered each other on the shores of the Mediterranean,” Goddio commented.


CONTENT OF THE EXHIBITION: Elham Salah, head of the ministry’s Museum Sector, said that London was the exhibition’s second leg after its premiere in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe.

In January 2017 the exhibition is to be opened at the Riteburg Museum in Zurich, Switzerland, she said, adding that it had put on show a collection of 293 underwater artefacts carefully selected from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum and the Graeco-Roman Museum and the Maritime Museum in Alexandria, as well as the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Salah said that a bronze statuette of a pharaoh discovered in the temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis Heracleion was an undoubted masterpiece. It depicts a pharaoh in a striding, confident pose wearing the blue crown and royal headdress of ancient Egypt. His belt buckle is roughly inscribed with the pharaoh’s name. “It is difficult to read, but it suggests that the statuette was probably an already ancient object when it was placed in the temple of Amun-Gereb as a symbol of dynastic continuity,” Salah told Al-Ahram Weekly.

 Amun-Gereb was revered as the god who granted the pharaohs the sacred right to rule, she said, adding that masterpieces from several Egyptian museums, such as the Apis bull from the Serapeum in Alexandria, were shown alongside the magnificent recent finds from the sea. One such piece was a stunning sculpture from Canopus representing the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Arsinoe II. This Graeco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both the Egyptians and the Greeks after her death and she is depicted in this statue as the embodiment of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of beauty.

Neal Spencer, keeper of the Ancient Egypt & Sudan Section at the British Museum, said the Museum had made its own contributions to the exhibition with objects from various sites across the Delta, most notably from Naukratis, a sister town to Thonis-Heracleion and the first Greek settlement in Egypt.

Aurélia Masson-Berghoff, an exhibition curator at the British Museum, told the Weekly that sometimes people assumed that when two cultures mixed the essence of each is diluted and as a result weakened, but the exhibition demonstrated the opposite. She described the exhibition as being a rare opportunity to reveal the beauty and strength of Late Pharaonic art and culture, alongside the latest research on the momentous intermingling between the Egyptian and Greek communities in Egypt at the time.

“We are illustrating this vibrant cosmopolitan world through Egyptian, Greek and ‘hybrid’ artworks rarely ever displayed side by side. It shows ancient Egypt not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward looking, influential and inclusive society that it was,” she said.

The exhibition, mounted in collaboration with the Ministry of Antiquities with the support of BP and organised by the Hilti Foundation and IEASM, is divided into five sections. Berghoff said that the first section displayed the disappearance and rediscovery of the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, giving visitors background information about the location and appearance of these cities. It also shows how Goddio and his team had rediscovered these cities and how they looked on the day of their discovery.

The second section discusses the early encounter between ancient Egypt and Greece, showing a variety of traders and mercenaries moving between Egypt and Greece between the mid seventh and fourth centuries BCE. It shows that ancient Egyptians, Greeks and foreigners were living side by side and worshipping different gods in the country at the time. The third section is dedicated to the Ptolemaic period after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and until the suicide of Cleopatra in 31 BCE. It shows a variety of examples of how the originally Greek kings ruled the country and adopted traditions from the ancient Egyptians in order to legitimate their rule.

They tried to integrate themselves into the community of ancient Egypt and deliberately introduced Greek versions of Egyptian gods like Serapis, the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis. They also recognised the potential of royal propaganda and promoted the worship of the queen. Ptolemy II married his sister Arsinoe in a sacred union sanctioned by Egyptian and Greek mythology and made her a goddess celebrated by all.

The fourth section, Berghoff said, relates the Osiris mystery because he was the most popular god during the late Ptolemaic period. Osiris was believed by the ancient Greeks to be one of their own gods identified with the youthful god Dionysus. It shows that the ancient Egyptians and Greeks celebrated together the myth of Osiris at Canopus, it being known from the ancient Greek historian Strabo that people from Alexandria came to Canopus to celebrate the mystery of Osiris.


EGYPTIAN INTERCONNECTEDNESS: The fifth and last section of the exhibition, Berghoff explained, shows what happened to the rich interconnectedness of this cosmopolitan Ptolemaic society during the Roman period. It starts with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and her lover Mark Antony and ends with the emperor Hadrian and Antinous who drowned in Egypt during the celebration of the mysteries of Osiris in 130 CE.

Berghoff said that the designer had used three colours for the interior design of the exhibition, including blue and green to reflect the colour of the sea and the Nile as both Thonis Heracleion and Canopus were located at a conjunction point between the Mediterranean and the Nile. The red colour, she said, had been used to identify pieces that had not emerged from the sea.

Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi of the Nile god Hapy, a statue of a Ptolemaic king, and an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis. There is a customs stela from Heracleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing Ptolemy XII, father of Cleopatra, a head of Serapis and the famous “Naos of the Decades,” a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar. Part of this object, found in 1776 and since at the Louvre in Paris, has been loaned for the exhibition.

Pots and pans, knives, forks, bottles, vases, plates and incense burners are also exhibited alongside gold rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets. According to a source at the British Museum, although the entrance costs £16, all the tickets have been sold for the next three months of the exhibition.

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds, British Museum, London, until 27 November 2016.

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