SUNKEN CITIES, EGYPT’S LOST WORLDS
Having noticed a number of advertisements for the British museum’s “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds” event emblazoned upon the sills of the capital’s underground network whilst travelling about the urban metropolis, I became intrigued with the thought of the pre-diluvian horde that was reported to have been discovered by archeologists beneath the Mediterranean sea and, steeling my resolve, promptly made forth towards Bloomsbury in efforts to purchase a ticket for the show.
Focussing upon the excavation of two cities, “Canopus” and “Thonis-Heracleion” from the submerged plain of Abukir Bay thirty three miles North of Karnak off the North African Coast, The “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds” exhibition affords both an enlightening and informative account of the many practises that were entertained by two civilisations which, although geographically synonymous with each other, were, in many respects, observed to be culturally distinct.
The first city, “Canopus”, is notable for including the figures of bearded men amongst its reliquary, depictions of both the Roman God of the underworld “Serapis” and the Roman personification of the Nile, “Neilos”, appearing almost contemporary beside the strangely ornamented millinery for which Egyptian sculpture is renowned, the reason for such diversification being explained by the museum to be the combined result of Greek rulership in Egypt during the Ptolemaic era and the growth of Christianity in North Africa somewhat later during the Byzantine period, the seniority and delicacy of Egyptian art in this instance banishing the theory that Egyptian labourers found the portrayal of hair difficult to accomplish in stone and so left it to the attentions of Roman craftsmen.
The Second city, “Thonis-Heracleion”, was, from what can be deduced amongst the articles presented for display, more distinctly Egyptian, the city being described as a major North African trading port during the fifth century before Christ, an era throughout which it would almost certainly have conducted business with Phoenicia slightly further East.
Distinguished by a temple dedicated to Amun-Gereb in which “the mysteries of Osiris” were thought to have been practised, “Thonis-Heracleion” was throughout an era in which one would imagine architectural endeavour to have taken precedence over most other concerns, notable for employing currency as a form of exchange about its preserves, a number of coins being found buried in the silt around its ruins.
Although being recorded to have existed amongst the writings of ancient scholars such as Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, both Canopus and Thonis Heracleion disappeared beneath the waves of the mediterranean more than two thousand years ago, only recently being re-discovered with the usage of sophisticated sonar and Magnetic Resonance imaging technology, a process through which it was possible to accurately deduce the exact location of the cities despite many years of marine submersion.
Upon entering the Museum’s Sainsbury wing to audience the exhibition I was greeted by a lady who, in offering a number of small Egyptian coins, moulds and oil lamps forth for inspection, was carefully explaining how such articles may have found usage in Egyptian civilisation, the coinage, minted in silver and bearing the face of Ptolemy Soter, still retaining its sheen, despite having presumably spent many years buried beneath the Mediterranean sea.
As I made forth into the exhibition hall I was confronted by a magnificent five metre tall statue of the Egyptian fertility God “Hapy”, an effigy which, in once having stood upon the periphery of the temple of Amun Gereb in Thonis Heracleion, had been miraculously extracted from the sea with haulage apparatus, a project which, in demanding the attentions of heavy industry, was described with an excerpt of film footage displayed beside the statue.
Upon continuing through the exhibition hall my attention was drawn towards a massive granodiorite Stele decorated with hieroglyphs, an object which in being discovered amidst the ruins of Thonis Heracleion, was observed to have been inscribed with “the decree of Sais” an edict passed forth by the Pharoah Nectanebo the First which, in pertaining to the taxation of trade around the mouth of the Nile, was observed to be almost identical to a Stele found some miles away in the city of Naukratis, a coincidence which would suppose that not only did the Pharoah’s influence extend to encompass a monopoly upon river trade during his reign but that both articles were, with regards to the effort necessary to manually duplicate such work, somehow printed from the same boss, an assertion which, in predating the work of Caxton by some years, would serve to re-define the the history of mass-production.
As I proceeded around the exhibition I noticed that many of the displays pertained to Egyptian boats or barques, vessels which, in once being used to transit the expanses of water that lay between the various cities of the Nile, had lain scuppered in states of epochal repose beneath the Mediterranean for over two thousand years, it seemed that both Canopus and Thonis Heracleion had, during the hiatus of their fame, suffered to subsidence, a process through which they gradually became submerged beneath the waters of the Mediterranean when still active as functioning cities, an assertion which, in banishing the supposition that they were suddenly swamped beneath a tidal wave of primordial extraction, serves to explain why they evolved as naval ports and marine faring communities.
Indeed much of Thonis Heracleion’s Greek heritage can be traced back to this period of gradual subsidence, it being observed that, although over three thousand years old, the city only began to be heavily influenced by Grecian culture during the third century before Christ, a period in which both money usage and boat building became synonymous with the naval exploits of Phoenicia, it seemed that the vast Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great which so profoundly affected North Africa during the era immediately before Christ, was largely constituted from sea-farers.
Evidence for such cultural collaboration is apparent amongst the horde of items presented for display at the exhibition, Greek amphorae used for transporting wine standing alongside exquisitely crafted Athenian perfume bottles, votive offerings crafted in the shape of both animals and humans sharing space with incense burners from Cyprus, an assortment of long handled ladles used to hold the ingredients of certain recipes in states of intermediary suspense being displayed beside a selection of oil lamps and braziers, it appeared that the Pharoah Nectanebo’s insistence upon the presentation of Egyptian temples with offerings combined well with the expediences of monetary transaction to fashion a forum for negotiation and exchange, a process through which both a multitude of coins were minted and a number die cast clay models of scarabs and other objects were manufactured as jewellery.
Although the remnants of Mediterranean trade are present within a number of the exhibition’s display cabinets many of the larger articles presented forth for show are distinctly Egyptian, an impressive life-size black diorite statue of the Bull of Apis crafted during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century standing alongside a pair of massive box shaped stone “Naos” extracted from the ruins of the temple of Amun Gereb, a phenomenally old basalt tomb from Abydos surmounted with what seems to be a stunted bas-relief of the Egyptian divinity Osiris languishes silently next to a number of more recent effigies of the deity, the mummified remains of an ibis sharing space with representations of falcons, hippopotami and lions for which Egypt is renowned, a collection of artefacts which in combination confirm that, despite subsequent affiliation with Greece, the culture of Egypt was in existence long before the development any comparable civilisation in Europe.
Funded by British Petroleum in collaboration with Franck Goddio and the Hilti Foundation the “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds” exhibition affords a truly fascinating insight into the history of two cultures, which but for salvage, would have remained little more than legends lost amongst the litany of subsequent generation.
For those fascinated by the efforts taken by writers such as Edgar Cayce and Iganatius Donnely to locate the fabled continent of Atlantis, the British Museum’s own research in locating the lost provinces of ancient Crete or even the disappearance of islands closer to England such as the lost land of “Lyonaisse” off the coast of Cornwall, “Island” near Iceland, or “Dogger Land” in the English channel, then the “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds” exhibition comes firmly recommended.
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