Coming up for Air

Sylvia Smith

The British Museum has a knack for displaying forgotten treasures, but its current, atmospheric exhibition, devoted to the underwater cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, goes one step further. The six-month show takes visitors on a semi-immersive journey to the shadowy bottom of the sea, shedding light both literally and metaphorically on submerged objects that speak of a compelling intermingling of two great civilisations.

In the depths of the Mediterranean waters, between the ancient Egyptian ports of Alexandria and Rosetta, lie hundreds, probably thousands of precious objects of all shapes and sizes that played a part in routine daily life and sacrificial ceremonies in these lost cities. Two hundred objects selected for the exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Cities at the British Museum, and seemingly picked out by the light of a waterproof torch carried by a scuba diver, pique the imagination in a number of ways.

The twin cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, submerged at the mouth of the River Nile for over a millennium and lost between legend and reality, once sat on fertile, shifting land of the western-most branch of the Nile at the edge of the Egyptian Delta. Prior to Alexandria’s being founded in 331 BC, Thonis-Heracleion (the Egyptian and Greek names of the city) was the mandatory port of entry to Egypt for ships from the Greek world.

Compounding this commercial advantage, Canopus was the site of the temple of Amun, the focus of rituals linked to dynastic continuity. The cities together were great trading, cultural and religious centres and it was absolutely imperative for a Greek ruler of Egypt to be endorsed by the Egyptian priesthood – and to stamp his mark on sacred Egyptian cults by fusing Greek and Egyptian spiritual customs. This appears to have happened from the start with great ease.

Head of Graeco-Egyptian god Serapis

Discovery of the submerged cities in 1996 by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM), directed by Franck Goddio, has led to years of work by a team of dedicated underwater archaeologists. Despite the huge effort that has been put into unearthing remains, Franck Goddio says that 98% of the site remains unexcavated. “The policy now is to learn as much as we can by touching as little as we can and leaving it for future technology,” he explains.

Head of a Ptolomaic king depicted as a pharoah

According to Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist taking part in the excavation the archaeological evidence is overwhelming. ” By lying untouched and protected by sand on the sea floor for centuries they are brilliantly preserved,” he adds.

Statue of a Ptolemaic queen

Curator Aurelia Masson-Berghoff refers to ground-breaking discoveries as having transformed understanding of the relationship between ancient Egypt and the Greek world. “People sometimes assume that when two cultures mix, the essence of each is diluted and, as a result, weakened; this exhibition demonstrates the opposite,” she asserts.

Statue of the god Hapy (380-250BC)

While this is a contentious statement, it is true to say that a 5.4 metre-tall granite sculpture of the god Hapy – a divine personification of the Nile’s flood – is impressive. Impressive too are the smaller objects such as intricate gold rings and earrings, and a stunning pectoral in gold, lapis lazuli and glass paste showing that it’s not just colossal sculptures that have the power to suggest the glamour and cutting-edge cults that thrived in these once lost cities.

Statues of King Ptolemy II and Queen Arsinoe II (283-246BC)

A sculpture from Canopus representing Arsinoe II, the eldest daughter of Alexander’s general Ptolemy I, who was deified after her death to become a Greek and Egyptian goddess, shows how gods merged. “She was really famous,” confirms Aurelia Masson-Berghoff. “Everybody knows Cleopatra but Arsinoe is another mythical queen of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.”

Statue of Queen Arsinoe II

This sensual, semi-naked figure is dignified, and, carved from dark stone, typically Egyptian, but the transparent garment is highly reminiscent of Greek masterpieces. This sculpture is held up as symbolising the perfect combination of Egyptian and Greek style.

Although some objects are loans from Egyptian Museums, the first to leave the country since the Arab Spring, and are supplemented by objects from the British Museum’s own collection, there is something of a mixed message. On the plus side the exhibition is an opportunity to see objects brought together that would normally be displayed in separate parts of a museum.

Unfortunately the intellectual aspect of the show is rather spoiled by New Age Music being piped in. The captions give the impression that the exhibition is in part to let us know that we too, in this day and age, should be able to assimilate, despite different religious beliefs, integrating harmoniously.

Statue of the bull god Apis

The synergy of deities is seen everywhere – the Egyptian Thoth becomes Mercury, and Osiris, deity of the afterlife, of death, and rebirth, easily transforms into the Greek Serapis. Polytheistic religions, which are close to nature, overlap naturally since it is the same elements that are essentially the subject of worship. Monotheism is rather different and the slight “finger wagging” intrudes in an otherwise intellectually satisfying and finely-honed exhibition.

One major, still unanswered question is why did these extraordinary twin cities sink? There are, so far, no clear answers, although some researchers suggest that the weight of the city’s mighty buildings, combined with the relatively sandy soil on which the foundations rested created a sort of sinkhole that swallowed up Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus after an earthquake.

Franck Goddio, underwater archaeologist

Despite 20 years of underwater exploration, Franck Goddio says it will take far longer to get to the bottom of what happened. “We are just at the beginning of our research,” he says. “We will probably have to continue working for the next 200 years for Thonis-Heracleion to be fully revealed and understood.”

While environmental activists hope this exhibition will be the last partnership between the British Museum and what they consider to be the villain, the oil company BP, the general public are probably unaware of the wider implications.

BP sponsorship of Sunken Cities is the ultimate irony, according to activist groups. BP is extracting fossil fuel in Egypt while several Egyptian cities on are on the danger list from rising sea levels, they claim. But will it be possible to pinpoint BP as responsibile for any cities being swallowed up in future? After all, the twin cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus sank into the Mediterranean by the 8th century -. long before British Petroleum existed.



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