“The human world,” a friendly crab once warned, “is a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there.” Words as true now as when they were spoken. The artefacts on display in Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds have been blissfully below the waves for over a thousand years, since the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus subsided and sank into the sea.
Now, this exhibition has already attracted some controversy. Not the exhibition itself, but a small logo on the poster and the money that made it possible come from BP. I won’t get into why oil money is problematic right this minute, but there is something deeply ironic in a company that has contributed to global warming and rising sea levels sponsoring Sunken Cities.
Not that BP was around 1000 years ago when these cities sank, mind you.
As you enter the exhibition, the walls almost glow with shades of teal and blue. We have left the dryness of the museum and we’re headed under the sea. Darlin’ it’s better, down where it’s wetter. So follow me.
A colossal god greets us. Washed and worn smooth by the waves he still stands tall and proud with his arms outstretched. It is Hapy, probably, in his guise as a god of the River Nile and its inundation. Gods are a large part of the narrative in Sunken Cities with a lot of attention on Osiris – those pupilless golden eyes will stay with me – and relative newcomer Serapis.
Aside from giving me all sorts of beard goals, I find Serapis an interesting character. According to the story, Serapis is the result of a divine dream sent to Ptolemy I Soter I. A bit of Zeus, with a dash of Hades and a soupcon of northern Turkish deities, Serapis also draws from Osiris and Apis. He’s a bit of everything, a kind of universal god as well as a patron and protector of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
The exhibition tries hard to capture the drama of the underwater discoveries. The photographs of the artefacts emerging from the silt are incredible, they give archaeology an excitement that’s hard to find outside of Indiana Jones or an Agatha Christie novel. Luckily Sunken Cities contains neither aliens nor murderers. Some of the objects are exceptionally tiny – the jewellery in particular is minuscule – to me, it spoke to the skill of the underwater archaeologists that these weren’t lost to the silt and the ages.
What struck me was the interplay and relationship between Greece and Egypt – with Alexander the Great and the Ptolemies, I knew that the influences were there but it only become astoundingly clear how these cultures interacted and integrated with each other when I saw a certain vase. This vase simultaneously showed Apollo fighting Typhon and Horus battling Seth. The same images are used to portray both sets of mythologies. It was utterly fascinating.
Lastly, here’s Antinous in Egyptian garb. Oh Antinous *swoon*