It seems the stuff of myth. Cities lost under the sea, now revealing their buried treasure. But this isn’t Atlantis, and it is not myth. The Nile delta over the past twenty years has given up secrets that have lain buried for thousands of years. Cities that were written about in the ancient world are now being explored and offer a new insight into the cultural and trade links between ancient Egypt and Greece.
The British Museum exhibition Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (until 27 November) is a superbly staged tribute to the ancient and the modern. It is pharaoh meets hi-tech, and just as CT scans showed the secrets wrapped inside mummies, so new underwater technologies have revealed two cities that lie in the silt of the Nile. The ancients wrote about these Egyptian cities, but only now have scholars understood that Thonis and Heracleion were the Greek and Egyptian names for the same city, and that a canal that joined it with the city of Canopus featured in the secret ritual worship of the god Osiris.
Gigantic statues greet the visitor, stelae with immaculate hieroglyphics relate the details of this mysterious ceremony, smaller statures and heads reveal the worship of the god Serapis and his wife Isis, a god of healing whose attributes overlapped with Greek gods, and part of the largest granite slab ever found in Egypt is on display.
The exhibition space is brilliantly designed and lit to create the effect of gliding underwater so the viewer feels like a marine archaeologist discovering treasures throughout. Alongside most of the stunning new finds from Frank Goddio’s aquatic team are film clips which show these pieces with fish swimming past being hauled up from the deep. The effect is quite mesmeric, and even filled with the crowds that will flood the show, should retain that sense of awe.
There are many artefacts from Egypt, both from the underwater exploration, but also from the nation’s own museums. Alongside this, the British Museum has placed the smaller and less showy items from its own research area on the Nile delta, Naukratis, a sister port city which, although not as dramatic as Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion, also enhances an understanding of Egyptian culture.
This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions that simply shouldn’t be missed.