Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds

Underwater archaeology provides new finds for a British Museum exhibition, John Westbrooke writes.

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Egyptian archaeology has long been associated with digging up objects from the burning sands or entering buried tombs, but recent discoveries have been made in the Bay of Abukir, just to the west of the Nile delta on the country’s Mediterranean coast.

Experts had long known about the ancient cities of Thonis, Heracleion and Canopus, but nobody had been able to find them. In 1933, thanks to a sharp-eyed RAF pilot and corroboration from local fishermen, it was realised that these coastal centres had in fact sunk beneath the sea 1200 years ago as a result of erosion and earthquakes that liquefied the earth they were built on.

Modern technology enabled the locations to be pinpointed – they’re not deep, 10 metres or less – and scuba divers were able to hoover away the sand covering them and “unearth” a variety of objects. Numerous eerie photos and videos show them face to face with long-vanished stone pharaohs as tropical fish swim by.

One of the underwater discoveries was the Saïs stele, a large granodiorite slab in almost mint condition. The inscription on it, a royal decree dating from 380BC, revealed that there were only two cities: Thonis and Heracleion were the Egyptian and Greek names for the same port.

As the names suggest, it was a town influenced by both cultures, probably from as early as 700BC, when it’s thought the first Greek traders sailed in. The region soon entered Greek myth: Helen of Troy is said to have been here, and Herakles (Hercules), who gave the town its Greek name.

The exhibition begins where the country did: with a 15-metre statue of Hapy, the god associated with the Nile, its floods and fertility, greeting visitors as he once would have greeted the traders arriving on the shores of Egypt. There must have been plenty – the remains of 69 ships and 700 anchors have been found.

There aren’t many domestic objects on display: stone shrines and statues survived under water (sometimes more worn than they would have been if buried in the desert) but mud dwellings and their contents mostly didn’t. The dishes, bowls and barnacle-encrusted ladles seen here were used in religious rituals rather than in the kitchen.

Gods were flexible in the days when there were more than one of them, and Greek and Egyptian deities often became fused. Zeus, head of the gods, became identified with his Egyptian counterpart Amun (and later with the Romans’ Jupiter) and Mut with Hera and later Juno. Dionysus and Osiris, and Aphrodite and Isis, took on each other’s characteristics, as did many others.

This didn’t always work out: Greece had human gods, whereas Egypt’s were often part animal; a Greek satirist pointed out that what the Greeks ate, the Egyptians worshipped. None the less, when Alexander the Great invaded Egypt he took care to sacrifice to the sacred bull Apis – there’s a lifesize statue of it on display – and the dynasty of Ptolemies who succeeded him also tried to make themselves look less like the Macedonians they were and more like legitimate Egyptian rulers.

A newish god, Serapis, catered for Greeks living in Egypt, symbolic of the way whole cultures were merging at the mouth of the Nile. He was a mixture of Osiris, Apis, Zeus, Dionysos and a few others, and the busts show a human with luxuriantly curly hair and beard.

But one of the most striking examples of merging traditions, spotlighted alone right in the middle of the exhibition, is a statue from Canopus, depicting Arsinoë, Ptolemy II’s sister and wife and – after her death – goddess. It’s now headless and armless but the hard black granodiorite is otherwise barely scratched by its long burial. She has one foot in front of the other, typical of traditional Egyptian statuary, and is dressed as Isis, but the delicate wet-T-shirt look is pure Greek.

The cult of Osiris seems to have been popular in the sunken cities, partly because of its similarities to the Greek myths of Dionysos. Public festivities for both apparently involved plenty of alcohol and monster phalluses.

Unfortunately nobody knows exactly what went on in the private ceremonies – Osiris Club was for initiates only, and the first rule was not to talk about Osiris Club – but the idea seems to have been to celebrate the victory of life over death (Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his brother and revived by his sister Isis). Model boats on show represent the sacred boats in which effigies of the god were carried to his tomb, along with a panoply of other ritual objects.

Not all the exhibits have been in the water. As with other Egypt exhibitions in recent years, the museum has been able to expand on the theme from its own substantial collections, with other objects lent by museums in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. Cairo has provided one of the most beautiful, a gold and lapis lazuli chest ornament that belonged to Sheshonq I, depicting the pharaoh on another boat journey. Water was central to Egyptian life, but who would have thought it was hiding so much history? And they’ve only investigated five per cent of the site.

Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost world, British Museum until 26 November 1916. Bookable online; adults £16.50.