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Paris plunges into Egyptology
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 12 - 2006

An exhibition of historic treasures that lay for centuries on the Mediterranean seabed is now on the second leg of its European tour, Nevine El-Aref reports from Paris
"Egypt's Sunken Treasure" will be Paris's blockbuster exhibition this winter following its successful première last summer in Berlin, where it attracted a total of 450,000 visitors. For the next three months, Parisians can take a virtual dive to the bottom of the Mediterranean sea and explore the lost treasures of Ancient Egypt.
"Egypt's Sunken Treasures" at the Grand Palais was opened early this week by President Hosni Mubarak and President Jacques Chirac of France. The exhibition features some 500 spectacular objects that sank when geomorphic changes caused Egypt's North Coast to submerge between 600 and 800 AD. They have been rediscovered over the past decade by an underwater team led by French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio.
The Grand Palais, which was built early in the last century and houses art exhibitions from all over the world, combines an imposing classical limestone façade with a riot of Art Nouveau glass and ironwork. In 1993 one of the glass ceiling panels fell and the building was closed for 12 years so extensive restoration could be carried out. It reopened in 2005.
Goddio, with the support of the Hilti Foundation, explored the shallows off Alexandria and Abu Qir, retracing the last centuries of ancient Egypt in the Late Kingdom and under the Ptolemies, through the Roman and Christian periods, the advent of Islam, and even the French fleet which sunk in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was a dream, Goddio told Al-Ahram Weekly, that began in 1992 when he first found proof that the remains of the ancient cities of Canopus and Herakleion, two Mediterranean cities contemporaneous with early Alexandria, lay under the waves at Abu Qir still waiting to be explored.
These remarkable finds point to the importance of three cities which, in antiquity, were among the most renowned centres for business, science, culture and religion. Here influences from Mesopotamia, 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 marks the first occasion in which artefacts from the legendary lost cities of Herakleion and Canopus and from the submerged part of the port of Alexandria have been seen outside Egypt. The two cities disappeared when they were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster which caused the seabed to subside.
The aura of the Mediterranean Sea is everywhere apparent. The ancient cities are resurrected in the spacious galleries of the Grand Palais. With waves echoing on the audio system and the sparkling black floor reflecting the seabed, audio-visual technology and visual effects are used to invoke the ambiance from which the antiquities were retrieved and the stages of the underwater excavation. Visitors are taken on an imaginary voyage through time and space back to the Ptolemaic, Byzantine, Coptic and early Islamic eras, when those cities were the main commercial centres of Egypt.
The exhibition's art director, Philippe Délice told the Weekly that the overall vision had been implemented through displaying the large colossi against black panels side by side with small objects inside very fine plexiglass showcases lying on black granite bases. "With this special virtual ambiance, I had to create a physical relation between each visitor and the objects on display," he said.
The spacious interior and high ceilings of the Grand Palais offer a superb environment for displaying the artefacts. In addition to historical information and works of art, the exhibition provides a spectacular glimpse of the world of the divers and marine archaeologists. Placed in each gallery of the exhibition are giant plasma screens showing films documenting the progress of the archaeologists as they searched the seabed. A prologue and an epilogue provide information about the underwater missions of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) and the natural disasters that led to the submergence of the area.
The exhibition is divided thematically. It features pieces from Greek, Roman, Islamic and early Christian cultures found in the sunken cities, proving that they were a cultural and religious melting pot in the Mediterranean. Distinctive Greek and Egyptian features merge in a marble head of the god Serapis and a range of likenesses of Ptolemaic rulers, attesting to the cross-pollination between the cultures.
Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the god Hapi, an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis, a customs stela from Herakleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphs and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing Ptolemy XII -- father of the famous Cleopatra VII, the head of Serapis, and the Naos of the Decades, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar. Pots and pans, knives, forks, bottles and plates are exhibited alongside navigational instruments, canons, swords and guns from Napoleon's fleet, sunk by Nelson in 1798, as well as gold rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are also on show.
"This is an archeological discovery on a par with that of Pompeii," said Gereon Sievernich, the director of the Martin Gropius-Bau Museum in Berlin where the exhibition was first exhibited.
Spending thousands of hours underwater, the French-led team of archeological divers brought to the surface the gold jewellery, coins, heads of sphinxes and the largest statue of Hapi, the god of the Nile, ever found in Egypt. This stands tall next to the two colossal statues, also in red granite and both nearly five metres high, of an Egyptian king and queen, just as it did in the temple of Heracles.
Goddio and his underwater team spent a decade diving to bring the treasures from the ancient cities and 14 shipwrecks scattered around them to the surface. They used magneto-graphic equipment especially made by the French nuclear agency to scour the depths of the Nile Delta and the sea, a task bedevilled not only by the lack of accurate information about bygone times but also by modern- day pollution.
Their underwater discoveries proved that the existing maps of Alexandria's ancient harbour, which housed the royal quarter where Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra stayed and which also sank beneath the waves, were incorrect.
They also discovered that the cities of Herakleion and Thonis, described respectively in Greek and Egyptian texts, were one and the same place. This was proved by a black granite stele found in the temple of Heracles dating from the reign of Pharaoh Nectanebo I. The most spectacular find at Canopus was the missing main piece of the Naos of the Decades, the top of which has long been on display in the Louvre Museum. With its various pieces now assembled, it can now be seen in almost complete form.
In the spirit of the exhibition, Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass told the Weekly that he would be asking the Louvre to allow the top of the Naos of the Decades to remain within the exhibition when it travels to Bonn and Madrid on the next stages of its tour.
The exhibition has stolen the limelight from Paris's Christmas decorations. Much of the city has taken on the air of an ancient Egyptian metropolis with streets, railway stations, restaurants and bookshops decorated with colour posters featuring pieces from the sunken treasures collection and of divers face-to-face with the statues of the god Hapi, the goddess Isis, Ptolemaic royal figures and the head of Caesarion, Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, found half buried in the seabed. Even the front of the HSBC bank in the Champs Elysées has a colour poster of Khufu's Great Pyramid.
The pharaohs and ancient Egyptian deities also hogged the front pages of the French newspapers and magazine covers. The colossi of Isis and Hapi are on the cover of the weekly Paris Match, which also launched a separate special on the exhibition. Le Liberation, Le Monde, Le Figaro and the French edition of National Geographic also featured the event. The children's magazine Arch-Junior devoted its latent edition to the exhibition. Everything in Paris seems to be under the spell of "Egypt's Sunken Treasures", and Parisians can be seen carrying exhibition brochures and books as they stroll down the Champs Elysées and ride on the Metro.
When the exhibition opened to public last Saturday visitors were forming long queues to enter. An hour later the ticket sales registered 2,000.
Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told the Weekly that the inauguration by presidents Mubarak and Chirac underlined the emphasis they both placed on dialogue in containing conflict between cultures and religions. The exhibition, he said, stood as testimony to the depth of Egypt's cultural and political ties with France.
This was highlighted in President Chirac's speech at the official inauguration, in which he pointed out that the rich history of the two countries had played a role in the mutual comprehension and friendship between both countries. "The relationship between Egypt and France are strongly inscribed in history, where they shared the same spirit of tolerance and the same cultural respect," Chirac said. These relations had continued until today, he added. In Alexandria, Egypt has celebrated its francophone attachment with the establishment of the Senghor University. "On the initiative of President Mubarak the Bibliotheca Alexandrina took place in our time and under the presidency of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak and the direction of Ismail Serageddin," Chirac said in his speech.
For his part President Mubarak described the event as "a message of friendship and respect between both countries". In his speech, Mubarak also pointed out that the exhibition highlighted the importance of culture as a bridge between people, and said it proved that the Graeco-Roman civilisation had melted into the ancient Egyptian to forge the basis of today's cooperation between Egypt and Europe.
Hawass stressed that President Mubarak's attendance came within the framework of his unstinting support for the preservation of Egypt's ancient monuments. The exhibition put the skill of the ancient artists who carved these gigantic colossi into the forefront: "I can see the blood beneath the skin of Isis... looking at her makes me feel that she is still alive," he marvelled.
Amani Badr, who coordinated the exhibition between the SCA and the IEASM, told the Weekly that it had taken the mission almost ten years of hard work to bring this exhibition to light. From the beginning of the excavation process IEASM had planned for such an exhibition, and in order to secure the transportation of the exhibits and meet all the conditions concerning their safety took almost three years of negotiations with the SCA.
Goddio told the Weekly that the exhibition was not the end of his underwater exploration mission in Egypt. On the contrary, he said, he would continue to excavate in the royal quarter in Alexandria's Eastern Harbour and Abu Qir, where early underwater excavation revealed a very important discovery. "A surprise will be uncovered soon to the north of Herakleion," Goddio said. He also hopes that after completing their tour of Europe and returning home, the objects can be brought together at a single site to be shown to the Egyptian public.


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