Sunken Cities brings Egypt’s underwater treasures to light
London - The ancient Egyptian cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion are names from legend. Greek historian Herodotus wrote of a famous temple in Thonis-Heracleion built where Hercules first set foot in Egypt. The port city is also said to have hosted Helen of Troy and her lover Paris before the Trojan war. As for Canopus, it gave its name to canonic jars and was a well-known centre of worship of the gods, infamously recreated in Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Rome.
Both cities disappeared beneath the sea under mysterious circumstances around 750-800AD. They were rediscovered in 1999-2000 approximately 6.5km off Egypt’s coast by archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team.
Now, the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum in London is showcasing about 250 artefacts from the excavation. The relics include massive statues, perfume bottles and gold jewellery, giving a vivid picture of what life was like in the port cities during Egypt’s Ptolemaic period.
“These discoveries have really transformed our understanding about the cultural exchange between Egypt and Greece during a very crucial period of history,” said curator Daniela Rosenow. “It is possible, through these exhibits, to tell stories about migration and politics and religious beliefs and the exchange of ideas and goods.
“This gives us the opportunity to show that Egypt was not an isolated civilisation but was a very outward-looking and influential society. It tells a story that perhaps not many people would be aware of.”
Sunken Cities takes museum-goers on an interesting journey, depicting the mix of cultures from ancient Egypt to ancient Greece and through to Roman and Byzantine eras — a period of more than 1,000 years. “It is an amazing story to tell, particularly on days like today when we read about conflicts and crises; it is nice to see an exhibition that focuses on exchange and discussion between people,” Rosenow said.
The exhibition is dominated by an imposing 5.5-metre, 6-tonne granite statue of Hapy, the personification of the Nile floods. It is the largest statue of Hapy to be discovered dating from this period.
Also on show in the exhibition is the head of the statue of Nilus, the Greek version of Hapy. “They are the same person. They both have been discovered on the same seabed but they are separated by five centuries,” Rosenow said.
For Rosenow, who is project curator in the British Museum’s Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, the real star of the show is a headless statue of Queen Arsinoe II, a Ptolemaic dynasty queen in the guise of the goddess Isis.
“This is the epitome of the fusion of Greek and Egyptian aesthetics. It is an absolute masterpiece,” said Rosenow. “It also tells an interesting story as she was the daughter of Ptolemy I, who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, a dynasty which adopted the Egyptian religion, customs and traditions. She was married to her brother and deified after her death where she was worshipped by Greeks and Egyptians alike.”
Rosenow said she holds out hope that Queen Arsinoe may one day be reunited with her missing head and that Goddio’s excavation will reveal many more wonders.
“It’s absolutely possible [to find the head],” she said. “The statue was discovered in a statue dump in Canopus that revealed lots of masterpieces of Greco-Egyptian art and it is perfectly possible that they will discover the head in the same statue dump.”
Alongside the statues, steles and sacred objects on display are images and videos of the underwater excavation; Sunken Cities is as much about the journey to rediscover Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion as the antiquities that have been unearthed there.
Using side-scan sonar and nuclear resonance-magnometry and other advanced technology, Goddio and his team mapped the seabed for years before sending divers down. The divers are still working and Goddio estimates that only 5% of what is under the sea at Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion has been discovered.
“When cultures mix, people assume that their essence gets weakened or diluted but this exhibition shows that this is actually not the case. The opposite happens,” Rosenow said.
Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds Exhibition runs through November 27th at the British Museum in London.