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Taking a plunge
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 05 - 2006

For the next five months Berliners can dive to the Mediterranean seabed and explore the submerged world of ancient Egypt. Nevine El-Aref reports from the German capital on the influx of visitors to the "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" exhibition
Against the 19th-century colonnaded façade of the Martin Gropius-Bau Museum, smiling girls wearing costumes modelled on those of ancient Amarna and with gilded cobra crowns on their heads greet visitors to Berlin's "Egypt's Sunken Treasures" exhibition, which opened last week. In this innovative scenario visitors can enjoy the lost treasures of the Pharaohs which have lain underwater off the Alexandria coast for more than 1,500 years.
With the strains of classical music interrupted from time to time by the echo of waves, the aura of the Mediterranean Sea is everywhere apparent. French Art director David Delice has converted the Martin Gropius-Bau Museum's galleries into a replica of the ancient sunken cities of Herakleion and Canopus in Abu Qir Bay, near Alexandria. The walls and floors of the galleries are covered with a black sparkling material to reflect sea water, while the sound of the waves can be heard in all parts of the exhibition. Enormous colossi are shown against black wooden panels, while small artefacts are displayed inside very fine plexiglass showcases lying on black granite bases. Giant plasma screens showing films documenting the progress of the marine archaeologists as they uncovered the mysteries of Alexandria's ancient Eastern Harbour are also 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. Audio- visual technology and visual effects are used to invoke the Mediterranean ambiance from which the antiquities were retrieved.
To enhance the delightful atmosphere of the exhibition, the young girls in Ancient Egyptian folkloric garb distribute red, orange and yellow roses to the visitors as they roam the galleries.
During the official inauguration of the exhibition before presidents Hosni Mubarak and Horst Köhler, Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), stressed that the attendance of President and Mrs Suzanne Mubarak emphasised their unstinting support for the preservation of Egypt's ancient monuments, as well as embodying Egypt's strong and deep relationship with Germany. The exhibition highlighted the skill of the ancient artists who carved the gigantic colossi: "I can see the blood beneath the skin of Isis... looking at her makes me feel that she is still alive," Hawass marvelled.
In the spirit of the occasion, Hawass went on to suggest that the German government offer the famous painted bust of Queen Nefertiti to Egypt on a three-months loan so it could go on show at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to coincide with the centenary celebrations of the German Archaeological Institute in Egypt in November. In return, Hawass said, the SCA would offer the black granite statue of King Khafre on loan to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, also for three months.
In closing his speech, Hawass saluted the audience with some Pharaonic words: " Ankh wedja seneb !" -- "Life, prosperity and health to all of you!"
Franck Goddio, head of the IEASM and leader of the underwater archaeological missions that recovered the artefacts, described the exhibition as "a dream come true".
Goddio told Al-Ahram Weekly that the dream began in 1992 when he first succeeded in making the discoveries that shed light on Canopus and Herakleion, two Mediterranean cities contemporaneous with early Alexandria.
The exhibition, mounted in collaboration with the SCA and with the support of the Hilti Foundation, will remain in Berlin until September. In November it will travel to Paris where it is to be installed in the Grand Palais.
The exhibition is divided thematically. Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the Nile god Hapi, the statue of a Ptolemaic king and an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis, a customs stela from Herakleion with inscriptions in hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing Ptolemy XII, father of the more famous Cleopatra, a head of Serapis and the famous Naos of the Decades, a black granite shrine covered with figures and hieroglyphic texts relating to the ancient calendar. Part of the black granite naos, which was found in 1776 and has since been at the Louvre in Paris, has been loaned for the exhibition.
Pots and pans, knives, forks, bottles and plates are exhibited alongside navigational instruments, cannons, swords and guns from Napoleon's fleet, sunk by Admiral Nelson during the naval Battle of Abu Qir in 1798. Gold rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are also displayed.
The 489 objects on show have been carefully selected from several Alexandrian sites. Thirty are on loan from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Museum, 39 from the Alexandria National Museum and 372 have been drawn from the General Underwater Monuments Department of the SCA storehouse. The exhibition has been insured for the sum of US$41,692,000 and the SCA is expected to receive 400,000 euros from the show, in addition to $600,000 which will go towards financing the feasibility studies necessary to establish an underwater museum.
The exhibition has stolen the spotlight from the 2006 World Cup Championship which will be held in Germany in June. The streets of Berlin, its shops, airport, train stations, buses and hotels are plastered with posters of granite colossi of the goddess Isis, the Nile god Hapi, Ptolemaic royal figures and the head of Caesarion, Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, found half-buried in the seabed. Magazine covers show divers face to face with monuments beneath the waves, while photographs of objects from Napoleon's sunken fleet dominate the front pages of newspapers. Berlin, it sometimes feels, has been cast beneath the spell of sunken treasure. Even the German Der Spiegel magazine has launched a special issue on the exhibition and the efforts of the IEASM to raise such magnificent artefacts from the seabed.
Last Sunday, when the exhibition opened to the public for the first time, visitors were queuing in front of the Gropius-Bau Museum awaiting their turn to see Egypt's sunken treasure. The main gallery, which contains the masterpieces of the collection, was crowded with people. Admiring Hapi's colossus, one visitor murmured to herself "All these gigantic monuments were found beneath the Med? How was that? It is really unbelievable." She was one of hundreds of visitors flooding through the exhibition galleries. "I am very happy to spend my weekend diving through Egypt's sunken heritage," a teenager told the Weekly as she stood in front of the museum waiting for her turn. Her boyfriend pointed out that an exhibition such as this would attract more tourists to Berlin, as well as those coming for the world football championship.
Alaa Mahrous, head of the SCA's underwater archaeology department, said that on its first day the exhibition welcomed 5,000 visitors while the next day that number doubled.
The exhibition marks the first occasion on which artifacts from the legendary lost cities of Herakleion and Canopus and from the submerged part of the port of Alexandria will have been seen outside Egypt.
The two cities disappeared in the eighth century AD when they were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster which caused them to sink to the seabed.
Spending thousands of hours underwater, the French-led team of archeological divers brought to the surface gold jewellery, coins, heads of sphinxes and the biggest 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.
The exhibition also features pieces from Greek, Roman, Muslim 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 the Ptolemaic rulers, attesting to the cross-pollination between the cultures.
"This is an archeological discovery on a par with that of Pompeii," said Gereon Sievernich, the director of the Martin Gropius-Bau Museum.
Goddio and his underwater excavation 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 time underwater 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 the various pieces assembled, it can now be seen in almost complete form at the Berlin exhibition.
"Egypt's Sunken Treasures" will open at the Grand Palais in Paris on 8 December.


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