Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds

Canopus: Sunken Cities

(British Museum, 19 May – 27 November 2016)

It’s rather shameful that I haven’t written anything about this exhibition yet, because it’s been open for more than a month and really is worth seeing. My excuse is that I have to squeeze in sightseeing during my lunch breaks and things haven’t been as quiet as they could have been. However, with deadlines out of the way and notebook in hand, I pottered off yesterday lunchtime to explore the underwater delights of ancient Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.

To be frank, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Press reviews have tended to home in on the exhibition’s ‘New Age’ background music and submarine lighting effects, at the expense of saying anything particularly useful about what’s on show. I was worried that it might all turn out to be a bit gimmicky. Not at all, though. The show delivers on every front. It’s a stunning display of treasures found by underwater archaeologists, but also a compelling tale of two thriving port cities and religious centres which sank into the sea more than 1,300 years ago.

Let’s begin with the caveats. Although the publicity has focused on exciting stories of sunken treasure and underwater discoveries, not everything here is from Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. That’s hardly surprising when you consider that excavations have only been underway for twenty years and more than 95% of the site remains unexcavated. Essentially the show focuses on a core of objects from the submerged cities, and uses objects from other sites to fill in the gaps and to tell the story of what life in Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus might have been like in late antiquity.

The exhibition homes in on the Ptolemaic period of Egyptian history, a time when religious traditions were developing to accommodate a more culturally diverse population. Here we see how ancient gods adopted new aspects and names to suit the more cosmopolitan spirit of the age. There are objects from Alexandria and Naukratis, which help to put things in context. But the artefacts are of such breathtaking beauty and scale that you don’t feel short-changed. Oh, and another point to make is that, of the two cities under examination, Canopus feels somewhat sidelined, simply because the vast majority of these wonderful objects are from Thonis-Heracleion. However, I suppose that’s unlikely to bother many people. So, with those cautions tucked under our belts, let’s adjust our scuba-diving gear and dive in.

Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus stood at the mouth of the Nile Delta, perfectly placed to capture trade as ships sailed inland to Memphis and Naukratis. Much like Venice, they stood on unstable land and, at some point in the 8th century, they were finished off by earthquakes and tidal waves, which submerged them both in the Mediterranean. Scholars had always known that they’d existed, because they’re mentioned in ancient texts, but as I said it was only in the late 1990s that a team of underwater archaeologists – led by Franck Goddio – began excavating, following intriguing results on a 1996 survey photograph. They had every reason to expect astonishing results. Thonis-Heracleion, which lay closer to the coast, had been the main entry point to Egypt since the 7th century BC, when trade with other countries in the Mediterrean flourished under the pharaoh Psamtik I. Psamtik was also responsible for encouraging more cultural diversity in Egypt: an oracle had told him that ‘men of bronze’ would help him, and he interpreted this by employing a force of Greek hoplite mercenaries, who made their headquarters upriver at Memphis. Thus there was already an interplay of beliefs and cultures, long before the Ptolemies arrived.

Psamtik and his successors were quite tolerant and open-minded about other religions and Naukratis, in particular, allowed worship of foreign gods. Temples were built there to Greek deities, not least the Hellenion, which provided a focus for devotion to ‘Hellene’ gods. Fascinatingly, finds both from Naukratis and from the sunken cities hint at the international networks that coalesced in these Egyptian centres. The exhibition includes a variety of Cypriot clay statuettes, such as the charming painted horse and rider left at the sanctuary of Aphrodite in Naukratis, or the fragment of a young man’s head – wearing pointed Near Eastern headgear – from Thonis-Heracleion. I wondered why there were so many objects of Cypriot origin. Was there a particularly strong Cypriot community in Egypt at this date? Perhaps the catalogue, or someone better versed in this period, will be able to tell me. While some worshippers followed these anthropomorphic gods, of course, the traditional Egyptian religions continued to flourish. Animal worship was a key factor here, and the show displays two remarkably well-preserved limestone sarcophagi from Thonis-Heracleion – still so crisp you can see the marks of the chisel on the sides – which would originally have contained animal mummies (now disintegrated in the seawater).

Things start getting really interesting with the arrival of the Ptolemies in the 3rd century BC, because the lines between Greek and Egyptian culture blur in intriguing ways. One of the most beautiful things in the show is a statue of Arsinoe II, the daughter of Ptolemy I and sister-wife to Ptolemy II. After she died she was deified and worshipped by both Greeks and Egyptians in association with the goddess Isis; indeed, by law every temple in Egypt had to display a statue of her. One such statue, dating from around 250 BC and originally intended for a temple in Canopus, shows Arsinoe in the guise of Aphrodite (now in the Antiquities Museum in Alexandria).

Considering the rigidity of traditional Egyptian sculpture, this statue – even lacking its head – offers an unexpectedly sensual representation of womanhood. It seems to me, although perhaps it’s an accident of preservation, that Arsinoe’s cloak has been given a rougher texture to emphasise the contrast with her smooth skin. As she strides out, with left leg forward in the customary Egyptian fashion, her diaphanous robe tugs against the contours of her body. The fabric, knotted just below her right shoulder, slips to reveal soft, naturalistic breasts and pulls tight over her dimpled lower stomach. The more you look at it, the more it feels alive. It’s a triumph of two very different artistic styles – Egyptian formality and Greek naturalism – coming together with remarkable results.

Arsinoe looks even more striking compared to the later statue from Thonis-Heracleion, known as the Dark Queen, and probably representing Cleopatra III, from the 2nd century BC. Unlike Arsinoe, the Dark Queen retains her head and so we see a style midway between Egyptian and ancient Greek korai, with a serene face surrounded by tight, shoulder-length ringlets. The pose and knotted garment are almost identical to those of Arsinoe, but the Dark Queen has lost the voluptuous freshness of the earlier statue. This is more hieratic: the curves of the body are visible, but don’t have the same naturalism, and one sees that the dynasty’s dual Greek and Egyptian heritage was inching, artistically at least, closer to the pure Egyptian. The Ptolemies had, however, been keen from the beginning to win over their new subjects by working with existing iconography. Some of the most imposing exhibits – and these were recovered from underwater! – are the two pink granite colossi of a king and queen, which once stood in front of the main temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis-Heracleion. Nothing about these two, dressed in pharaonic garb and wearing crowns, hints that they were in fact Greek: the only change to the established iconography, apparently, was that the Ptolemies began to include statues of the queen alongside the king. These colossi, dating from around 250 BC, must have been a nightmare to move: each is five metres tall and each was originally carved from a single block of stone.

Another personal favourite from the show was the Bull of Apis, carved around 120 AD. This hasn’t been plucked from a watery grave – it’s from the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria – but it’s amazing for several reasons, not least the fact that it was dedicated by my old chum Hadrian at Alexandria’s Temple of Serapis. It’s also an absolutely fantastic sculpture, only marginally less than life-size, of a naturalistic, very noble-looking bull. For those who share my former ignorance about the Bull of Apis, it was the most important animal cult in Egypt. Priests would select a particularly fine bull which was regarded as the earthly incarnation of the creator god Ptah, and was treated accordingly, with a coronation ceremony in Memphis, an exclusive harem of cows and every luxury. The bull was even given the honour of mummification after its death. People flocked to temples of the cult, where priests would interpret dreams, give oracles and predict the future, and Hadrian’s gift reflects the significance of the god. Everything is almost lifelike: the wrinkled dewlap, the tightly-curled hair on the forehead, the alert expression and the fringes of hair creeping over the cloven hooves. Remarkable.

Two other gods have a strong presence in the show: the first is Serapis, a deity introduced by the Ptolemies to encourage religious unity, and thereafter particularly associated with their family, blending elements of Zeus, Hades, Dionysus and Asclepius (because why stop at one god when you can have four?). Opposite the Bull of Apis stands a sculpture of Serapis from the 2nd century BC which, incredibly, is made from sycamore wood. Once again this hasn’t been at the bottom of the ocean, but was discovered at Fayum (of mummy portrait fame), where I can only imagine that the dry environmental conditions contributed to its wonderful preservation. The choice of sycamore, incidentally, can be explained by the fact that this wood was sacred to Osiris, some of whose aspects were also reflected in Serapis – such as the fact that Serapis was also regarded as the husband of Isis. Around the corner there’s a sycamore sculpture of Osiris himself, on a smaller scale and dating from around 330 BC, which retains its inlaid eyes and traces of its original gilding, giving a tantalising glimpse of how extraordinary these statues must have looked in their prime.

And Osiris goes on to take centre stage in the next room. One of the show’s focal points is the religious ritual known as the Mysteries of Osiris, which was enacted each year in every Egyptian temple-city, around late October, at the time when the flood waters finally receded and the Nile’s fertile banks were ready for farming. The Mysteries were intended to celebrate fertility and regeneration, and a number of artefacts linked to the rites have been found at Thonis-Heracleion. Now, I’m a sucker for anything that promises to throw light on ancient mystery cults, so I followed this section with particular interest. At first you see objects which tell the story of Osiris’s death (at the hands of his brother Seth), his burial and his resurrection (thanks to his consort Isis). A dark stone sculpture presents us with the god laid out on his funerary bed, wrapped in embalming bands – Osiris was the first mummy – with falcons at his feet and lions at his head. Isis, in the form of a kite, perches on his pelvic area and flaps her wings to fill his lungs with the breath of life; at the same moment, she miraculously conceives their son Horus. This sculpture dates from around 1750 BC, but it reflects a much older cult of Osiris at Abdyos, where the tomb of the early pharaoh Djer (c. 3000 BC) had been mistaken for that of Osiris himself, building up a lively centre for pilgrimage. Apparently it’s the first time that this sculpture has ever left Egypt, and it’s duly impressive.

For me, though, a smaller sculpture proved to be much more affecting. This shows Osiris waking from his ‘death-slumber’, as the label describes it, and it’s beautiful but also very unsettling. It shows the god lying on his front, his entire body pressed against the floor, except for his head, which is raised almost at right angles, like the head of a cobra, so that he looks straight out at us. An elaborate gold and electrum crown springs from his head, and traces of paint outline his features and define horizontal stripes on his headdress. The god gives a calm, conspiratorial smile of triumph: haunting, and undeniably eerie.

But back to the Mysteries. Each year, two sculptures of Osiris were prepared in the temples of Thonis-Heracleion, cast from figure-shaped moulds. One of the sculptures was formed from a mixture of soil and barley-seed, and was then lowered into a trough to be watered (there’s an example of such a trough here: it looks disconcertingly like a sarcophagus). Once the seeds had begun to germinate, and new life was showing through the soil of the sculpture, it was dried in the sun and wrapped up in linen. The second sculpture was made of a mixture of date paste, soil, myrrh, mint, pine resin and ground semi-precious stones like lapis lazuli and amethyst. (Little trays of incense, aspalathus and water reed are available to smell, but my nose clearly isn’t up to Egyptian standards because they all smelled the same to me.) The precious-stone sculpture seems to have been kept in the main Temple of Amun-Gereb, while the soil-and-barley sculpture – along with 33 similar statues of other gods – was placed on a papyrus barge and sent in a lamplit procession down the main canal in Thonis-Heracleion. It must have been quite a sight, and would have recalled the daily journey of the sun-god Amun-Ra across the sky in his own boat – a vision depicted here in a stunning gold and lapis lazuli pectoral dating from around 930 BC (from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). At the end of the parade, the two Osiris figures were united again in the Temple of Amun-Gereb and then processed together to the Temple of Osiris at Canopus.

But this exhibition isn’t just about statues and monuments. There are some exquisite little things as well: take a look at the tiny gold coins issued by Ptolemy I (305 BC-247 BC), on which he’s depicted in profile, heavily influenced by Alexandrine iconography. And stop a moment to examine the minute golden ‘Eye of Horus’ amulet, found at Thonis-Heracleion and now in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. How on earth does one find something so tiny on the seabed? Also, an interesting fact, which I never knew before: the Eye of Horus design is meant to show the healing of Horus’s eye, which was injured in his battle with his evil uncle Seth, and which was afterwards invoked as a good luck charm.

Some other gods get a look-in at the end, though, and among them is another of my favourites: hippo-headed Taweret, a fearsome goddess, represented here by a stunning greywacke statue from around 650 BC. (Greywacke is the most remarkable stone: it achieves a finish of such unbelievable smoothness that statues look as if they’ve been made yesterday. I’m pretty sure that’s not the case though…) Taweret protected Isis and the infant Horus from the evil Seth after Osiris’s death and, as such, she was evoked for the protection of pregnant women and young children. The statue in the show bears an inscription from the pharaoh who had it made, asking Taweret to watch over his own daughter.

In the final room, taking a deep breath to steady ourselves after all these wonderful things, we look at the Roman occupation of Egypt, and the way that Egyptian religious traditions continued to influence their conquerors. One of the key promoters of Egyptian culture was, of course, Hadrian in the aftermath of Antinous’ death, when he had the boy deified as Osiris-Antinous and went to the lengths of constructing a model of Canopus at his villa near Tivoli. The most interesting examples of this hybrid Roman-Egyptian style are two marble water jars in the shape of Osiris, used at the Temple of Ras el-Soda between Alexandria and Canopus. The god retains his pharaonic beard, but has acquired a rather odd conical headdress and also looks rather jolly, which one can’t help feeling is slightly inappropriate. But it shows all too well how cultures absorbed and adapted earlier religions so that they could remain popular and relevant in their own times and that’s a theme which was as true for Rome as it was for the ancient Ptolemies, surveying their new empire.

As you can tell, I really did enjoy the show. It’s well laid out and there’s plenty of space to allow admiration of the larger objects. In the end, the ‘New Age’ music really wasn’t an issue for me: it was just a series of gentle watery sounds, coupled with subtle bluish lighting, which actually created a rather pleasant and calming ambience. Don’t be put off by the odd reviews: take the time to go and have a look for yourself – admire Arsinoe’s feminine beauty; marvel at the power of the Bull of Apis; and gaze up at the monumental colossi. Not everything here has been lifted from the waves, but it’s makes for a captivating vision of a world steeped in religious observance but also full of flexibility, creativity and cosmopolitan flair.

Sunken Cities: Underwater Archaeology

Two divers examine the fragments of a pink granite colossal figure of a Ptolemaic pharaoh, which has been reconstructed and is on show in the exhibition

4 thoughts on “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds

  1. chrisdokter says:

    Thanks for a lovely peek into a world which has fascinated me since my childhood (I wanted to become an Egyptologist myself, but that dream got thwarted when my Alma mater closed their departement permanently the year I graduated from grammar school. (Love your new site, by the way 😊)


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