Ancient History / Art / Culture / Exhibition / Museum / Review

REVIEW- Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds


The Stele of Heracleion: An inscription of a decree issued by Phararoh Nactembo I, who ruled from 378 to 363 B.C., which includes an explicit instruction as to where it should be erected, thus confirming that the lost city of Thonis-Heracleion had been found (Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum)

For more than a millennium, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Heracleion, Thonis and Canopus had never existed. Sure, these ancient cities on the mouth of the Nile had been mentioned numerous times by Greek writers, but mostly in the heroic tales of mythological figures. Heracleion was supposed to have been founded on the site where Herakles had first set foot in Egypt, according to the historian Herodotus, and was where Helen of Troy had visited with her lover Paris before the outbreak of the Trojan wars. Canopus, meanwhile, was first mentioned in a poem by Solon, named after a hero of the Trojan wars who was supposedly buried there. And, besides, no one had ever found any trace of these cities anywhere in the Nile Delta. But then, in the year 2000, something amazing happened.

French marine archeologist Dr Frank Giddio, whilst hunting the remains of the Napoleonic fleet sunk in the Battle of the Nile, stumbled upon the remains of an entire city buried in sand and mud. 150 feet beneath the Mediterranean sea and about four miles off the Egyptian coast, close to the modern city of Alexandria, around five per cent of this vast site has been revealed in the fifteen years since Giddio’s discovery. Heracleion and Thonis, it turned out, were the same place with two names, one Greek and one Egyptian, respectively. A thriving, prosperous port city, Thonis-Heracleion was crucial gateway between the Mediterranean and the Nile through which a significant portion of the goods exchanged between Greece and Egypt passed. Nearby, Giddio’s team also discovered Canopus, a smaller settlement but containing a large number of temples and sculptures of Egyptian Gods, a site of pilgrimage and special religious significance. Since the miraculous discovery of these lost cities, thought to have sunk beneath the waves about 1300 years ago, thousands of artefacts – from statues to amulets, from perfume bottles to ships – have been recovered from the sea floor, many of them beautifully preserved. And the British Museum’s Sunken Cities exhibition is the first time that any of them have been on public display in Britain. Together, they tell the story of a place where two great civilizations interacted, and a strange and fascinating fusion of Greek and Egyptian culture and religious belief developed.

Part of what makes seeing these objects so exciting is the knowledge that, until a decade or so ago, no one had set eyes on them for more than a thousand years, and that for excited archeologists and historians, the process of studying them and revealing their secrets is still very much ongoing. The set of miniature metal boats, for instance, are unlike anything else ever found in Egypt. Together these small lead models, 34 in all, form a reconstruction of a flotilla that sailed along Canopus’s sacred waterway every year to celebrate a religious festival, with each boat illuminated with 365 lamps.

Some of the items in the exhibition were recovered from the sea floor as recently as 2012, and with 95% of Thonis-Heracleion yet to be explored, you know that for every piece of jewellery, pottery or sculpture that you look at, there’s a great many more still laying in the Mediterranean silt. This extra layer of wonder, awe and mystery that comes from this collection having been lost for centuries and then rediscovered is something that the exhibition likes to constantly remind you of, with its dark blue and aquamarine walls, dim lighting, ambient music evoking waves and bubbles, and lots of photos and video of scuba-diver archeologists pulling things out of sand. However, it is worth nothing that much of what is on display is from parts of Egypt still very much on dry land, with some of that coming from museum’s existing collection (those artefacts that have been recovered from Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus are helpfully indicated by little watery wiggly-line symbols on the explanation labels).

Near the beginning of the exhibition is the object that confirmed that this vast archeological site was Thonis-Heracleion after all: a six-foot high marble slab containing a hieroglyphic inscription, a royal decree issued by Pharaoh Nectanebo I. Translations of parts of the decree are displayed alongside, revealing fascinating details, such as proceeds from a ten per cent tax imposed on all goods arriving from ‘the sea of the Greeks’ to be donated to a temple in the city. The columns of shapes and symbols may look like they were chiseled into the polished black stone only yesterday, but Nectanebo issued this decree in the fourth century B.C.. And while the city of Thonis-Heracleion was several hundred years old by that point, it was a relatively new settlement when seen in the context of the several millennia-old Egyptian civilization. But the days of native Egyptian rule were numbered, and just a few decades after the Stele of Heracleion was made, Egypt was conquered by Alexander the Great, and a Greek royal dynasty would rule for the next three centuries. Eventually, a new city on the mouth of the Nile that bore Alexander’s name would eclipse Thonis-Heracleion as the region’s main commercial centre. But while Alexander’s toppling of the last native Egyptian pharaoh in 332B.C. was swift and decisive moment in history, the transition from Egyptian to Hellenistic culture was – at least as far as Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were concerned, as the objects on display illustrate – so gradual and so subtle that it is practically impossible to distinguish one era from the other.


Computer simulation of what Thonis-Heracleion might have looked like before it sank beneath the Mediterranean sea (shahrefarda-ir)

Greek traders and merchants were well settled in the cities of the Nile Delta centuries before Alexander the Great came to Egypt. While the Greek kings that succeeded him – descendants of Ptolemy, the general who had inherited the Egyptian portion of Alexander’s vast empire when he died – were seen by both themselves and their subjects as Pharaohs. In fact the Ptolemys (each king took the same name) were the very embodiment of the fusion of Greek and Egyptian religious beliefs that had existed in places like Canopus for centuries already. To a part-Greek, park-Egyptian population, who were used to worshipping each other’s gods interchangeably, or to view two gods who had different names but similar characteristics as simply one and the same god, it would not have seemed strange that the Ptolemys decided to adopt the custom of marrying their sisters, since this was something that previous Pharaohs had done to imitate the marriage of Osiris to his sister Isis. The exhibition certainly was not lacking in confusing family trees of Egyptian deities.

Ptolemy II’s wife/sister, Arsinoe II, was portrayed in art as an incarnation of both the Egyptian God Isis and the Greek God Aphrodite, both of whom were worshipped as embodiments of love and beauty. It is immediately apparent, even to non-expert eyes like mine, that the striking polished black stone statue of Arsinoe on display is part Egyptian, part Greek in style (the stance and overall shape of the human figure looks Egyptian, while the realism of her features is classical Greek). But the eroticism of her semi-naked figure draped in thin fabric was clearly not welcomed by the Christian citizens of Canopus, who unceremoniously hacked off her head in the fourth century A.D. (the head remains, for now, unfound). Ptolemy II also had enormous statues of himself and his queen erected in front of one of Thonis’s temples, and at five metres high these structures really steal the show for me. It’s purely and simply because they’re a lot bigger than everything else, granted, but standing beside their enormous feet and gazing up at their faces is perhaps the closest one gets in this exhibition to feeling like you’re a citizen of Heracleion, and immerses you in this bizarre world of brother-sister royal deities in a way that no other object does. Apart from anything else, one can’t help but be impressed with the effort required to raise these colossal figures from the sea floor, transport them to Britain and erect them in the British Museum (apparently the ceiling of the Sainsbury Wing had to be raised to accommodate them).

The last of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the last of all the pharaohs of Egypt, was the legendary Cleopatra. After her came the Romans, who made Egypt a province of their empire, and brought with them yet more Gods and deities for citizens to worship. Religious festivals continued in Canopus, and though the extravagant feasts that went with them were condemned by many Roman writers, the Emperor Hadrian enjoyed them so much that he had a replica of part of Canopus built at his villa outside Rome.


Divers inspect a 5.4m granite statue of Hapi, Egyptian god of the Nile flood, which once stood outside the temple of Heracleion (©Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation/Christoph Gerigk)

In the end it was the cities’ location, so long their great strength, that proved their undoing. Being perched on a series of muddy islands on the edge of the Nile delta made them the perfect place for boats moving between the Nile and Mediterranean sea to unload and resupply, but left them incredibly vulnerable to floods and earthquakes. It is likely that heavy stone buildings in Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus that stood for many centuries would have gradually subsided into the soft mud, much as Venice is in the process of doing today. Whether this alone accounted for the cities’ destruction, or whether one or several earthquakes literally turned the ground beneath them to liquid – a phenomenon known as liquefaction – no one is sure. But it is thought that the settlements were abandoned for good around the year 700AD. Such was my fascination with these once great cities’ demise, I was left wanting more of the computer simulations, and the science of earthquakes, and what might happen to Venice, and so on. But the focus was kept very much on the culture, the religious beliefs and ultimately the people of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus throughout the exhibition, and understandably so.

Practically every visitor to this exhibition would have seen objects from ancient Egypt before, not least in the British Museum, but nothing quite as beautifully strange as what is on show here. I was extremely late on the scene with this one, but thankfully it has (at time of writing) more than two months left to run. Catch Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds at the British Museum before 27 November. Tickets cost £16.50 for adults with some concessions available.

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