There is still time to catch the Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries exhibition before it leaves the Institut du monde arabe in Paris for the British Museum in London, writes David Tresilian
For the past three months the Institut du Monde arabe in Paris has been hosting Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries, an exhibition of finds made by marine archaeologist Franck Goddio off Egypt’s northern coast in the remains of the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canope. The exhibition closes at the end of January and then makes its way to the British Museum in May, giving visitors to the French capital a few final weeks to catch it before its new incarnation in London.
A pair of vast stone statues parked outside the Institut on the left bank of the Seine give a taste of what is to be found within. Discovered during Goddio’s excavations of Thonis-Heracleion, submerged since the 8th century CE beneath the waves of the Gulf of Aboukir east of Alexandria, these colossal statues of a king and queen made in the Ptolemaic period once stood in the Temple of Amun in the ancient city. Together with a fragmented stele of the pharaoh Ptolemy VIII dating to 118 to 116 BCE they have now found the new function of ushering visitors towards the Sunken Mysteries exhibition.
Opened by French president François Hollande and Egyptian Minister of Culture Mamdouh Eldamaty in September (reported in Al-Ahram Weekly by Nevine El-Aref on 17 September), the exhibition presents objects found by Goddio and his team in the remains of the underwater cities as well as items from various Egyptian museums exhibited for the first time in France.
The finds are somewhat reminiscent of those discovered at Pompeii in Italy, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 CE. Thonis-Heracleion and Canope are thought to have been abandoned following earthquakes that caused them to slip beneath the waves and were thus not dramatically destroyed as was Pompeii. But Goddio’s rediscovery of them in the 1990s has had a similar impact on the scientific community to that of the ancient Roman city.
The exhibition bears witness to some wonderful feats of archaeological derring-do, perhaps similar to those of the famous fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones. Goddio heads the Institut européen d’archéologie sous-marine (IEASM), a private institution founded in 1985 with the express purpose of finding and then excavating the ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canope, mentioned in ancient texts but believed to have been lost forever under the sea.
As Goddio explains in the book accompanying the exhibition, written in cooperation with archaeologist David Fabre and others, the search for the ancient cities entailed the use of the latest technology, including nuclear magnetic resonance scanning and lateral underwater sonar.
“Magnetic disturbances on a remarkable scale were recorded using lateral sonar in the Bay of Aboukir 6.5 km east of the modern coastline,” he writes, these turning out to be due to the presence of the lost underwater city of Thonis-Heracleion, originally a vast port complex built around the ancient Temple of Amun-Gereb. Meanwhile, the remains of the ancient city of Canope were rediscovered two km east of the modern port of Aboukir, some of them having already been found in 1933 during underwater excavations carried out by prince Omar Tousson. Goddio writes that research has shown that cataclysmic earthquakes combined with a rise in sea level and slow subsidence could well have been enough to leave the area six metres underwater as it is today.
Following the trail marked out by the ancient Ptolemaic statues into the exhibition, visitors are first ushered into an entrance room dominated by a massive granite statue of the god Hapy dating from the 4th century BCE and discovered in the underwater ruins of Thonis-Heracleion. Myths surrounding the ancient Egyptian god Osiris are also set out, since it is believed that rituals celebrating the ancient cult of the god were once performed in the Temple of Amun in Thonis-Heracleion, and these are reconstructed in detail in later rooms in the exhibition.
According to the ancient Greek historian Plutarch, writing in the 2nd century CE, rituals deriving from the myth of Osiris – a god who, having died, was later resurrected from the dead – were among the most important practiced in ancient Egypt and were associated with the annual flooding of the Nile. It seems that the temples of ancient Thonis-Heracleion were particularly active in this cult, and each year the temple priests would have carried out elaborate rites designed to commemorate the death and resurrection of Osiris and help guarantee the annual flooding of the Nile.
Before coming to a detailed presentation of these rituals, the “mysteries” alluded to in the exhibition’s title, visitors pass through rooms two and three of the exhibition which deal with Goddio’s excavations of the ancient cities and the urban lay-outs he has deduced from them. One particularly important exhibit here is the so-called Thonis-Heracleion Stele, a black granite slab two metres high bearing the hieroglyphic inscription of a decree of the 4th century BCE pharaoh Nectanebo I. This stele, found by Goddio in the Bay of Aboukir, is practically identical to one found earlier at the ancient site of Naucratis in the Nile Delta.
Since the Naucratis stele says it is a copy of one set up at Thonis, and since the Thonis-Heracleion Stele was found in the remains of the Graeco-Roman city of Heracleion, its discovery allowed Goddis to prove that the ancient Egyptian city of Thonis was identical with the later Graeco-Roman city of Heracleion.
Another important exhibit in this part of the exhibition is the similar Canope Decree, this time written on a two-metre limestone block in hieroglyphs, ancient Egyptian demotic script and Greek in a manner similar to the inscription on the more famous Rosetta Stone that aided in deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the early 19th century. This Decree, lent to the exhibition by the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, records decisions made by the priests of the ancient city of Canope in honour of the pharaoh Ptolemy III Evergetes in 238 BCE. Its importance in the exhibition is that it links Thonis-Heracleion with Canope and records the Osiris-related rituals that once took place in the two cities.
These rituals are reconstructed in room four of the exhibition and illustrated with materials found in the Bay of Aboukir by Goddio’s team. The details remain somewhat obscure, but they seem to have involved the fabrication of multiple effigies of the god Osiris before which various offerings were made. Most spectacularly, a maritime procession took place from Thonis-Heracleion to Canope some 3.5 km to the west where the effigies were buried. The exhibition includes impressive photographs of the remains of the sycamore boats once used for this procession as it made its way along a grand canal between the two cities, these having been discovered during excavations of the sea bed.
It also includes various incidental objects, in some cases already well-known to Egyptologists, lent to the exhibition by institutions in Egypt and effectively recontextualised. There is a magnificent horizontal sculpture of the awakening god Osiris, shown brought back to life, dating from the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE) and lent by the Egyptian Museum. Another loan is a polished stone statue of the goddess Thoueris (Tawaret) in the form of a standing hippopotamus with lion’s feet dating from the reign of the pharaoh Psammeticus I (664-610 BCE).
According to a note in the catalogue, the ancient Egyptians had ambiguous feelings about hippopotamuses. Dwelling in the Nile, but sometimes emerging to wreak havoc on surrounding farms, they represented a threat to the agriculture on which the country depended. However, this was only true of the reddish-coloured male hippopotamus, the catalogue says. Of the more docile female of the species, lighter in colour and associated with the goddess Thoueris living in the Nile, “when it emerged from among the papyrus plants and water lilies in the river it represented rebirth, as can be seen from the many female hippopotamus amulets found in ancient Egyptian tombs.”
Later in the exhibition there is a magnificent black basalt statue of a bull dedicated by the Roman emperor Hadrian to the god Apis on his visit to Egypt in 129-130 CE and placed in the Serapeum Temple in Alexandria. Lent to the exhibition by the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, it reminds visitors that the ancient city of Canope once hosted a famous Serapeum of its own, now being excavated by Goddio and his team.
Memories of the city, lost beneath the waves until Goddio’s investigations, are scattered throughout the ancient sources. The Roman general Mark Antony apparently used to meet the Egyptian queen Cleopatra there on his visits to Egypt in the period between 40 and 31 BCE, giving the city a reputation for decadence. Hadrian’s favourite Antinous drowned in the city in 130 CE, causing the emperor to build a temple in his memory at his villa at Tivoli outside Rome, the Egyptian priests having swiftly deified Antinous by associating him with Osiris.
All this and more may come to mind walking through the present exhibition. Perhaps the most fascinating contemporary exhibit is the film placed towards the end of the show recording Goddio’s underwater excavations. Pipes looking like giant vacuum cleaners suck away the debris of millennia to reveal the shapes of ancient Egyptian deities looming through the gloom. The wooden timbers of sacrificial boats, seemingly miraculously preserved by the salt water, emerge from the depths of the sea, showing the path of the religious procession that once celebrated the death and resurrection of Osiris.
Many thousand more visitors are likely to want to see the Osiris, Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries exhibition before the show heads to the British Museum for a further run in May.
Osiris, mystères engloutis d’Egypte, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 31 January and from 19 May at the British Museum in London.