Monday, May 30, 2016

Short Story: Sunken Cities Come to London

The beauty of Egypt’s submerged ancient cities has been resurrected in London at an exhibition at the British Museum, reports Nevine El-Aref.

Despite the heavy rain that hit the British capital this week, Britons with umbrellas were queuing outside the classical portico of the British Museum to enter this summer’s blockbuster exhibition, “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds,” which opened last week following its successful premiere in Paris.

For the next six months, Britons will be able to take a virtual dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea and explore the lost treasures of ancient Egypt.

The remarkable finds on show in the exhibition point to the importance of the three lost cities from which they come, which in antiquity were centres of business, science, culture and religion. Here, influences from Mesopotamia, ancient Greece and Rome mingled with the age-old culture of the pharaohs, from which emerged a new way of life that left an enduring mark on the religious and cultural landscape of Egypt.

The exhibition displays artefacts from the legendary lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus and from the submerged part of the ancient port of Alexandria. The two cities disappeared when they were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster which caused the seabed to subside in antiquity.

The aura of the Mediterranean is everywhere apparent in the spacious galleries of the British Museum in the exhibition. Waves echo on the audio system, and the sparkling black floors seem to reflect the seabed, with audio technology and visual effects being used to give something of the ambiance from which the antiquities were retrieved and the stages of their underwater excavation.

Enormous colossi are shown against dark green walls or on dark blue or warm red bases, while smaller artefacts are displayed inside fine glass showcases lying on black granite bases. Giant plasma screens showing films documenting the progress of the marine archaeologists as they uncovered the mysteries of Egypt’s sunken cities are placed in each gallery of the exhibition. A prologue and an epilogue provide information about the underwater missions of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) and the natural disasters that led to the submergence of the area more than 1,500 years ago.

Visitors to the exhibition are taken on an imaginary voyage through time and space back to the Ptolemaic, Byzantine, Coptic and early Islamic eras of Egypt, when the cities were main commercial centres of the country. To enhance the atmosphere, a gigantic statue of the Nile god Hapy has been erected at the entrance of the exhibition galleries, greeting visitors much as it did when it stood in antiquity at the front gate of the temple of the god Amun-Gereb as an impressive sight for visitors to Thonis-Heracleion.

During the official inauguration of the exhibition, Minister of Antiquities Khaled Al-Enani highlighted the strong friendship and collaboration between Egypt and Britain in the fields of archaeology and museology, which started as early as the 1880s when the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered a collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities in Naukratis in the Delta and at other archaeological sites.

Al-Enani said that the ministry was keen on strengthening all kinds of cooperation with international scientific and archaeological institutions in protecting and promoting Egypt’s heritage. He invited Egyptian antiquities lovers to come to Egypt to enjoy and admire more monuments and archaeological sites.

“It’s hugely exciting to be announcing the British Museum’s first large-scale exhibition of underwater discoveries and to be welcoming these important loans to London,” said Sir Richard Lambert, chair of the British Museum. “As well as looking for partners to invest in the economy, Egypt is always searching for partners to help in exploring its heritage and the treasures which are still hidden under its lands and waters,” said Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to the United Kingdom.

He continued by saying that the exhibition showed that despite what we know of its tremendous history and culture, Egypt has a lot more to offer the world. “We thank our partners in the UK, such as BP, for working with us in utilising our resources to develop our economy and through such an exhibition unravel our history as well,” Kamel said, inviting the people of Britain to visit the exhibition to get a glimpse of what Egypt has to offer and then to come to Egypt itself to relive that experience.

BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley said the company was proud to support a fascinating exhibition that showcases the power of science and the pioneering spirit to discover what lies beneath the waters. “By sharing these underwater treasures, the British Museum is opening a whole new frontier for visitors to explore, and we are pleased to be a part of that,” Dudley commented.

IEASM President Franck Goddio said he was delighted that the exhibition with its discoveries from his underwater archaeological expeditions off the coast of Egypt was on display at the British Museum, a fact that had enabled him and his team to share with the public the results of years of work at the sunken cities and their fascination for ancient worlds and civilisations.

“Placing our discoveries alongside selected masterpieces from the collections of Egyptian museums, complemented by important objects from the British Museum, the exhibition presents unique insights into a fascinating period in history during which Egyptians and Greeks encountered each other on the shores of the Mediterranean,” Goddio commented.

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