From May 19th until November 27th, the British Museum is presenting the findings from underwater excavations at the mouth of the Nile. Over the last twenty years marine archaeologists have been exploring the Delta between Alexandria and Rosetta, leading to the rediscovery of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, two ancient cities.
Although their names are frequently mentioned in historical sources, the exact locations of both settlements remained a mystery for centuries. It was through a combination of text analysis, geological and geophysical studies, and excavation that the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology was able to find Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. (This article published by the British Museum tells more about the technical side of the rediscovery. Their charts are very impressive, like the word stratigraphy.)
Thonis-Heracleion is now referred to by its double name, the first part Egyptian, the second, Greek. However, until the ruins were uncovered in 2000, there had been no confidence that Thonis and Heracleion were, in fact, the same city. As it is, written sources with inscriptions in both hieroglyphic script and Greek letters not only prove that the port had different names in different languages, but also how closely those languages and corresponding cultures co-existed.
Heracleion was named after Heracles, the divine hero who, according to the legend, visited the city. Heracleion would remain the main administrative centre in the area until history repeated the myth, and Alexandria — named after Alexander the Great and founded by him — replaced it.
Canopus was a major religious centre, particularly dedicated to the worship of Osiris, the god of the underworld. In spring the rebirth of Osiris and regeneration of the fertile Nile were celebrated with a festival that involved a procession of boats along the river, carrying symbolic representations of the 14 body parts of the dismembered god. The boats would travel from the sanctuary of Heracles in Heracleion to Canopus, linking the two neighbouring cities in a mystical and sacred manner.
It would be wrong to imagine Thonis-Heracleion as just a port and financial centre, and Canopus, as just a place of worship. A temple of Amun in Thonis-Heracleion played an important part in religious rites of the pharaoh court. Canopus was a significant naval point and traveller attraction, as well as being famous for its sanctuaries. With religion permeating the lives of ancient Egyptians and foreign settlers, daily practices were never too removed from the divine.
The exhibition at the British Museum is built in a way that recreates an ‘underwater’ experience. Most rooms are painted in dark blues and greens, with soft and targeted lighting. In certain places, as by the giant head of god Serapis, there is a museum attendant standing with a torch, aiming the ray at different angles, illuminating only parts of nearby exhibits.
‘Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds’ has taken approximately 1,000 metres of exhibition space. The sensation of immersion is total, assisted by the design of the show, but also due to the sheer number of findings on display and the overwhelmingly big period of history they represent.
Heracleion was ‘probably founded’ (official archaeological estimate) in the 8th century BC. Canopus is first mentioned in a poem by Solon in the 6th century BC. Both cities disappeared from the surface of the planet in the 8th century AD, affected by continuous geological phenomena that resulted in liquefaction of the soil. Combined with the rise in sea level, Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus became submerged under the waters of the Mediterranean — but after no less than fourteen hundred years of historical development. That period included pharaoh Dynasties from the Twenty-Fifth to the Thirty-First, all of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, and Roman and Byzantine eras.
It is a stretch of time equal to that between us and the invention of paper money (China, 650) or documentation of the Qur’an (Arabia, 7th century). It is a hell of a long time.
The visually ‘underwater’ parts of the exhibition are interrupted by a ‘sun-lit’ section dedicated to Isis, Osiris, and their son Horus. The three form a divine family, and royal Egyptian spouses were often depicted as Osiris (the pharaoh) and Isis (his wife). The primeval king of Egypt and god of the afterlife, Osiris was seen as the direct ancestor of the country’s rulers who, respectively, were celebrated as human representations of him and his son Horus.
As emphasised by Doctor Brophy while we were walking through the exhibition, it did not so much matter what kind of pharaoh the country had, as long as there was one. The continuation and reliability of divine presence were crucial for the Egyptians.
Doctor Brophy (DPhil Oxon.), also known as Lizzie, wrote her thesis on Ptolemaic sculpture. To be more specific, the thesis was titled ‘Royal Statues in Egypt 300 BC–AD 220: Context and Function’. (I can be that specific because I have a copy of the book before me right now. To quote Hermione Granger, I checked it out weeks ago for a bit of light reading.)
In other words, I was very lucky to visit ‘Sunken cities’ in the company of an expert. Having studied a few of the exhibits, Lizzie had not previously seen all of the statues directly, and so she uttered ‘Oh, that’s how big it is!’ every now and then. Lizzie also provided descriptions more detailed than those given on the museum plaques. The statue in the picture below (left) is attributed to Arsinoë II, a Ptolemaic queen. The idealised figure is wearing the ceremonial dress with the Isis knot on her right shoulder, which does suggest this is a queen portrayed as a goddess. However, said Lizzie, we cannot be absolutely sure this is Arsinoë II. If the statue had a head, we would be able to periodise it more accurately based on the hairstyle.
The statue in question is one of the many sculptural masterpieces at the exhibition, and a favourite of mine. It embodies youth and beauty which are real and recognisable, it is wonderfully erotic but the power balance remains in the goddess’s favour: the statue is not a decorative object for you to observe, it is a divine presence for you to worship. Egyptians washed, clothed and fed their statues, firmly believing that a part of the god is concealed in the stone. Yeah, they were weird like that.
The sculpture above (on the right) belongs to Taweret, the protective goddess of childbirth and fertility. It is a laconic and stylish image that can be easily misattributed as belonging to the 1920s and the Art Deco movement — when they were obsessed with Ancient Egypt, having just discovered Nefertiti’s bust and the undamaged tomb of Tutankhamun. Oh. Oh, everything makes sense now
Tawaret is part of the Osiris myth: she was supposed to have helped Isis when the latter was expecting Horus, as well as taken care of the infant god. Tawaret is a bipedal hippopotamus with feline limbs, woman’s breasts and a crocodile’s back. She is fierce and protective and awesome. She keeps evil at bay and grazes on short grasses.
Both hippopotami and pharaohs are now extinct in the Nile region, but if you get a chance to visit the British Museum in the next couple of months, you can get almost impossibly close to the antiquity. It took me two and a half hours to have a look at the fourteen centuries of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. That was an overwhelming and glorious experience, much like a sunset over the longest river in the world.
Exhibition: Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds. British Museum, London. Seen on July 3rd, 2016.
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Not a Day Without an Adventure. July 5th, Day Thirty-Five: Modern Art Oxford.
My prior experience with Modern Art Oxford, the local contemporary art gallery, was limited to a single visit to the gallery cafe. I had tea then and swung my feet while sitting on a brightly-coloured chair. The most memorable part of that excursion was the gift shop. It is located in the anteroom, and so both exiting and entering the gallery felt like moving in slow motion. I turned my head from side to side, continuously distracted by new and shiny objects (Do I need a card that says ‘To My Favourite Wife’? Do I need a porcelain badger pendant?).
This time I wanted to explore Modern Art Oxford for what it is, cake aside. So, yesterday after work, accompanied by a deeply hangover Sam, I found myself in a spacious white room with twelve rusty bathtubs. The bathtubs were arranged in rows and, together with a shark’s eye embedded in a wall, comprised Eye of Shark by Dorothy Cross. Cross — alongside Ibrahim El-Salahi, Sol LeWitt, Amy Sillman, Dan Graham, and Yoko Ono — was exhibited in the Mystics and Rationalists show, ‘a meditation on the new forms of expression and knowledge that artists can offer society’.
My impression was that the exhibits were ideas, presented using as little physical material as possible. (Enter the theory that modern art happens in the space between the viewer and the art object, not on the canvas.) The gallery itself is a pleasant and light space, and I can see myself going there whenever I am in need of confusion.
I have unconsciously picked my favourite piece at the exhibition, Painting for the Burial by Ono. Now I feel bad about spreading the gossip about her and Lennon when I was six.
Current album: Blood Orange, Freetown Sound
Current book: Don DeLillo, Zero K
Current TV series: Scream Queens, Series 1 (2015)