Sunken Cities conjures up mental images of Atlantis, but the reality is far more extraordinary. This British Museum exhibition explores the lost Egyptian cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.
Hidden beneath the Mediterranean for over a thousand years, the excavations have been hugely important. They have allowed experts to revisit the relationship between the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
Sunken Cities contains 300 objects, including some gorgeous artefacts rarely seen outside Egypt. The exhibition also includes finds from the coast of Egypt near Alexandria, as well as objects from the British Museum’s collection.
Where were the sunken cities?
The sunken cities are believed to have been founded during the 7th century BC. They originally sat at the edge of the Delta. The conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332BC put them under Greek rule.
However the exhibition exposes the cross-pollination of beliefs across the cultures and religion. I had no idea prior to visiting the exhibition that the Greeks had taken such a shine to Osiris, God of the afterlife!
Sadly the cities were lost by the 8th century AD. They appeared in both Egyptian decrees and Greek mythology, but only modern technology managed to reveal their location. I would have thought that being submerged in water for a millennium would have severely damaged the items, but the artefacts are far more well preserved than you’d expect!
What is the Sunken Cities exhibition like?
The exhibition leads visitors through a series of themed rooms, including my personal favourite – the room dedicated to Osiris and the Egyptian Mysteries.
Sometimes exhibitions can feel stuffed with ‘filler’. You’ll wander past case after case of broken pots, incomplete jewellery or parts of larger items. They’re clearly of historical importance, but it’s difficult to emotionally connect the fragments.
Sunken Cities doesn’t just avoid this pitfall, it performs a backflip over it!
The breadth and range of items on display is stunning. There are sycamore items that are in remarkable condition. The stone statues and shrines look almost new.
A particular favourite of mine was the apis bull. This enormous statue stands at almost 2m high. and represents the bull god Apis. The statue dates to Emperor Hadrian’s reign. It was actually discovered at the entrance to the underground galleries of the Serapeion of Alexandria. As a naturalistic representation, you can almost see the movement of every muscle and sinew. It’s truly astonishing.
Then there’s the Thonis stela. Completely intact, it’s almost 2m tall. It was found at Thonis-Heracleion, and is inscribed with the decree of Saϊs. Commissioned by Nectanebos I (378-362 BC), it clearly features the name of its intended home – Thonis-Heracleion.
This fabulous chest pectoral belonged to Sheshonk I (945-925 BC). The sun is made of lapis-lazuli, and the winged figures on either side are the sister goddesses, Isis and Nephtys. The sun also features the figure of Maat, goddess of truth and order, and Amon-Re.
This statue is made from hard, dark stone, but it has an extremely realistic appearance. It’s believed to be a Ptolemaic queen, probably Arsinoe II, and she’s dressed as the goddess Isis. Many royals presented themselves as the embodiments of deities. The fact that the sculptor managed to make stone appear as diaphanous fabric is a testament to their talent. She was found at Canopus.
Naturally these are just a few of the highlights. There are many, many more fascinating and important artefacts on display. My favourite section, as I said, was the Osiris artefacts. There are also two beautiful statues of Osiris and his sister-wife Isis.
I was also surprised as just how much crossover there was between the Egyptian and Greek religions. There are beautiful statues of deities that prove this, such as Serapis. Serapis was originally an Egyptian combination of Osiris and Apis, and he also ended up with other powers more often associated with the Greek gods Hades, Demeter and Dionysus.
In contemporary times, when religion proves such an inflammatory and divisive topic, it’s heartening to see that ancient civilisations could overcome their differences. Deities from different religions were adopted, combined with others, or simply renamed.
If nothing else, Sunken Cities proves that such cross pollination is not only possible – it’s also a positive way to approach the subject.
It sounds brilliant! When and where it is on?
The exhibition runs at the British Museum from 19 May – 27 November 2016. It’s in the epic new Sainsburys wing that also held the Vikings exhibition. You can book tickets here – and I strongly recommend that you do!
However, due to how busy it is, I’d advise you to try and visit on a weekday if you can, and avoid peak periods when it’s difficult to see content in the first couple of rooms. The British Museum could have really done a better job of spacing the cases out here. They’re far too busy and difficult to navigate. Aside from that, it’s well worth a visit!