Magazine of art press and reviews from London
London (part one) – The exhibition “Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds” at The British Museum was amazing.
For The British Museum in London, this is the first major exhibition of archaeological sunken findings. It explores the story of Thonis- Heracleion and Canopus, two Egyptian cities situated at the mouth of the River Nile which have been underwater for about 1,300 years. Their ongoing rediscovery under the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea is modifying our idea of the rich interaction between ancient Egypt and Greece. Remarkable underwater footage and photography were used throughout the exhibition.
The ruins submerged in the sea were located by the French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio in 2000. Until then, researchers were not sure if Heracleion and Thonis were two cities or one and the same. However, up to today, the 95% of the ruins are still uncovered.
Probably, Thonis- Heracleion and Canopus were founded during the 7th century BC. Their ruins are today in the Abukir Bay, currently 2.5 km off the coast, under 10m (30ft) of water. The two cities sank in the sixth, or the seventh century A.D., probably because of large earthquakes and flooding.
The cities were originally located on one of the islands in the Nile Delta, and were connected through a network of canals. They were big harbours and a large temple dedicated to Khonsu was present – the Greeks then identified it with Heracles. In later times, the cult of Amun became more prominent.
It was also the place of celebration of the Mysteries of Osiris, which was taking place every year during the month of Khoiak (27 November – 27 December) – god in his ceremonial boat was carried in procession from the temple of Amun in that city until his shrine at Canopus.
The Sunken Cities also explored the coming of Greeks in Egypt. At the beginning, they were hosts and not rulers. A complete stela from Thonis-Heracleion advertises a 380BC royal decree of the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebo I. It states that 10% of the taxes collected on all goods imported from the ‘Sea of the Greeks’ into Thonis-Heracleion and on all trade operations at Naukratis were to be donated to an Egyptian temple.
The Ptolemaic period started when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt (332 BC), and lasted for centuries. The exhibition “Sunken Cities” exposes how cross-cultural exchange and religion flourished, and it shed lights on the cult of Osiris – the Egyptian god of the afterlife.
The British Museum displayed 300 objects, of which 200 were coming from the coast of Egypt near Alexandria between 1996 and 2012. Sunken Cities presented significant loans from Egyptian museums seldom seen before outside Egypt – and the first such loans since the Egyptian revolution. Directly from the collection of The British Museum, on display also objects from various sites across the river Nile Delta, mostly from Naukratis, the first Greek community in Egypt, which was a sister harbour town to Thonis-Heracleion.
The British Museum exhibition topic is the results of the work of a European team led by Franck Goddio, in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities. By employing the most advanced technologies, the Goddio’s team has found the Sunken Cities, which have been underwater since the 8th century AD. Although well-known from Egyptian decrees and Greek mythology and historians, past attempts to locate them were either fruitless or very partial.
Thanks to the underwater location, a large number of notable archaeological objects have been surprisingly well
preserved. Perfect monumental statues, fine metalware and gold jewellery revealed how Greece and Egypt interacted in the late first millennium BC. These artefacts offered a new insight into the quality and unique character of the art of this period and show how the Greek kings and queens who ruled Egypt for 300 years adopted and adapted Egyptian beliefs and rituals to legitimise their reign.
The exhibition was in five sections, beginning with ‘Rediscovering Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus’. Here a huge screen presented footage the rediscovery story, the underwater excavations and explained the work of the team of Goddio.
The second room, “Egypt and Greece: early encounters”, explored the beginning of the movement of people, goods and ideas between the two countries from around 650 BC.
Thonis- Heracleion was founded around 650 BC. It was the main entry point in Egypt, a big international port –city. During the excavation 69 ships were founded. An important aspect was the trade of both commercial goods, but also mercenaries. This exhibition confirmed Egypt was an area of multicultural religions and interesting characteristic was the worship of animals. Important parallels are made between Thonis- Heracleion and Canopus and the city of Naukratis, from which objects are also on display at the British Museum, London.
The third room is ‘Greek kings and Egyptian gods’, in which the Ptolemaic dynasty and legacy of Alexander the Great are explored. Greek settlers translated Egyptian into their own familiar deities. For example: the Egyptian Amun became the Greek god Zeus, after translated by Romans into the powerful Jupiter. After 30 BC, in fact, aspects of Egyptian – Greek religions spread across the Roman Empire. Alexander the Great was hailed as a rescuer when he occupied Egypt in 332 BC.
Of great importance was the cult of Serapis, a result of Graeco – Egyptian syncretism. The cult of Serapis was introduced during the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy I of Egypt as a means to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. The cult of Serapis was spread by Ptolemaic kings as a matter of deliberate policy by the Ptolemaic kings. The iconography of the god was to represent it as Greek in appearance but with Egyptian accessories, with references to many other cults, signifying both abundance and resurrection. Serapis increased its popularity during the Roman period, often replacing Osiris as the consort of Isis in temples outside Egypt. The cult survived until all forms of pagan religion were suppressed under Theodosius I in 391 AD.
(This article re-edited on 4th July 2018)