The BP exhibition

Sunken cities
Egypt’s lost
worlds

 

19 May – 27 November 2016

Supported by BP BP logo

Organised with the Hilti Foundation and
the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine

The BP exhibition

Sunken cities
Egypt’s lost worlds

19 May – 27 November 2016

Supported by BP BP logo

Organised with the Hilti Foundation and
the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine

Secrets of the sea

Two lost cities have been rediscovered in the Bay of Abukir.
Aurelia Masson-Berghoff comments.

 

The BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds is the British Museum’s first major exhibition on underwater discoveries. Over the last twenty years a team of marine archaeologists, led by Franck Goddio, has been tirelessly exploring the submerged land off the Mediterranean coast – in the bay of Abukir between the famed ports of Alexandria and Rosetta. Their work has led to the rediscovery of two ancient cities – Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus – and revealed a vast number of artefacts and monuments of unique importance and beauty, transforming our understanding of the relationship between ancient Egypt and the Greek world.

These new finds are being shown in the UK for the first time, in a narrative that explores the encounter and intermingling of ancient Egypt and Greece. The exhibition focuses on the rich period of interaction between these civilisations, from the arrival in Egypt of foreign traders and mercenaries in the 7th century BC to Alexander the Great’s conquest in 332 BC and the ensuing centuries of Greek (Ptolemaic) rule. Remarkable examples of ancient Egyptian and Greek art are on view alongside works that uniquely combine the art of both civilisations, from intricate metalwork to colossal stone statues.

Colossal statue of a pharaoh, reassembled underwater after excavation and preliminary cleaning. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Both cities have left their names in ancient sources. According to Greek mythology, gods and heroes have walked these now sunken landscapes. Helen of Troy and Paris, pursued by the Spartan king Menelaus, Helen’s jealous husband, arrived on these shores at the Canopic mouth of the Nile. It is in Canopus that Io – Zeus’s human lover turned into a heifer, wandering the world being continuously stung by a gadfly sent by Hera – recovered her human shape, touched by Zeus himself. Historic figures have also visited the region, such as the Greek statesman Solon as well as Alexander the Great on his way from Memphis to the soon-to-be-founded Alexandria. Egyptian decrees and Greek historians described Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus as major trading or religious centres.

Thonis-Heracleion was one of Egypt’s most important hubs for Mediterranean trade, three centuries before Alexandria. With Canopus, it was a major religious centre, particularly for the worship of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. Both cities once stood on the fertile, shifting landscape of the Delta, at the mouth of the westernmost branch of the Nile, the Canopic branch. This branch used to be the main artery for traffic and trade from the 7th century BC onwards.

Now completely silted up, it was once wide enough to allow sea-going vessels from the Mediterranean world to reach two other cosmopolitan cities: Naukratis and Memphis, where foreign traders and mercenaries lived. Memphis was once the Egyptian capital and Naukratis the first Greek settlement in Egypt and the sister harbour town of Thonis-Heracleion. How thriving the harbour of Thonis-Heracleion must have been is evident from the discoveries of IEASM. No less than 69 ships and 700 anchors were uncovered in the basins and canals criss-crossing the Venice-like port. Most of all, the new finds offer unprecedented insights into these cosmopolitan centres shared by Egyptians and Greeks, and allow us to understand their daily life and intriguing religious rituals. The rediscovery of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus illuminates the relationship between Egypt and Greece during the late 1st millennium BC. It has provided some of the most stunning examples of religious art of that period, such as a statue of Arsinoe II discovered at Canopus.

This statue dates to the 3rd century BC, a time when Egypt was ruled by the Graeco-Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, ending with the illustrious Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of Egypt. Arsinoe is another exceptional figure of that dynasty. Eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and wife of her brother Ptolemy II, Arsinoe was deified after her death and became a Greek and Egyptian goddess revered by both communities. Every Egyptian temple was mandated to have a statue of her. She is shown here as the perfect embodiment of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty believed to grant ‘fortunate sailing’. Her striding, dignified posture and the dark stone are typically Egyptian. The sensual rendering of her flesh, revealed through the play of the transparent garment, is highly reminiscent of Greek masterpieces, making this statue a perfect combination of Egyptian and Greek aesthetics.

Statue of Arsinoe II. Canopus, 3rd century BC. Bibliotheca Alexandrina Antiquities Museum. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

The ruins of Canopus were discovered in Aboukir Bay, 2km east of the western fringe of the Nile Delta. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

This exhibition is a rare opportunity to bring together works that in museums are often displayed separately, offering new insights into the quality and unique character of the art of this period and the extent of interconnection between Greek and Egyptian communities in Egypt at this time. It presents ancient Egypt not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward-looking, influential and inclusive society that it was.

Foundation plaque from the Serapeum in Alexandria, 221-204 BC, showing hieroglyphic text as nearly a literal transcription the Greek inscription. Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

This excerpt is taken from an article originally published in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of The British Museum Magazine, available exclusively to Members. For details of full Membership benefits, including free unlimited entry to exhibitions, visit britishmuseum.org/membership or email friends@britishmuseum.org

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Tickets

Adults £16.50, under 16s free