The story of ancient Egypt’s sunken cities of Heracleion and Canopus will be told at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum over the coming six months, as a collection of 293 artefacts that were once submerged beneath the Mediterranean are put on show.
The two bustling ancient Egyptian cities were known throughout the ancient world as centres of power, wealth, trade, and artistry three centuries before the establishment of Alexandria.
They had stood at the mouth of the westernmost Canopic branch of the Nile, once a main path for trading from the seventh century BCE onwards before it silted up. The branch was once wide enough to allow the navigation of sea vessels from the Mediterranean world to reach other ancient Egyptian cities.
Both Heracleion and Canopus were submerged beneath the Mediterranean in the Abu Qir Bay, where they were buried for centuries until their recent excavation by underwater archaeologist Frank Goddio and his team, revealing a large number of artefacts and monuments of unique importance and beauty and illuminating the relationship between Egypt and Greece during the late first millennium BCE.
The excavation provided some of the most stunning examples of religious art of the period, including a statue of the royal figure of Arsinoe II discovered at Canopus.
At the underwater site of Canopus, more than 69 ships and 700 anchors were uncovered in basins and canals criss-crossing this port that once resembled Venice. They offer unprecedented insights into these cosmopolitan centres that were once shared by Egyptians and Greeks and allow an understanding of their daily lives and religious rituals.
The Los Angeles exhibition was opened early this week by Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Mustafa Waziri, who invited all Americans to travel to Egypt to visit its distinguished archaeological sites and museums as well as admire the new discoveries during his speech.
He said he hoped the Heracleion and Canopus exhibition would encourage more visitors to visit the country.
The galleries of the exhibition have been designed to resemble the sunken cities of Heracleion and Canopus, and they have been painted light and dark blue and dark sandy-red to reflect the colours of the sea and sand. Giant plasma screens show films documenting the progress of marine archaeologists as they uncovered the mysteries of Alexandria’s ancient Eastern Harbour and the cities lying beneath the waves.
A prologue and epilogue provide information about the underwater missions of the Institut Européen d’Archéologie Sous-Marine (IEASM) that discovered the treasures and the natural disasters that had led to the submergence of the area more than 1,000 years ago.
Commenting on the discoveries, Goddio said that while research had given them some idea of where to look, it had taken the team some time to realise that it would find an archaeological goldmine. The exhibition highlights more than two decades of archaeological excavations, and the hundreds of pieces on show tell different stories about the cities claimed by the sea, from the commerce they hosted to the gods that their people worshipped, he said.
“The exhibition brings back to life two cities that time has forgotten,” said John Heubusch, executive director of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in a press release, adding that “we are privileged to bring this rich story of ancient cities from the time of the Pharaohs and Alexander the Great, both lost at sea, to the Reagan Library. It’s a find as magnificent as Atlantis, something you just have to see to believe.”
The exhibition is divided thematically. Among the objects on show are three giant pink granite colossi featuring the Nile god Hapi, a statue of a Ptolemaic king, and an unidentified Egyptian queen dressed as Isis.
There is a stelae recording customs duties from Heracleion with inscriptions in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Greek, a black granite sphinx representing king Ptolemy XII, father of the more famous Cleopatra, a head of the bull god 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 also exhibited alongside navigational instruments, cannons, swords and guns from Napoleon’s fleet, sunk by the British admiral Lord Nelson during the naval Battle of Abu Qir off Alexandria in 1798.
Golden rings, earrings, necklaces and bracelets are also on display, and a bronze statuette of a pharaoh discovered in the temple of Amun-Gereb in Heracleion is one undoubted masterpiece. It depicts a pharaoh in a striding, confident pose wearing the blue crown and royal headdress of ancient Egypt.
Another piece is a stunning sculpture from Canopus representing the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, Arsinoe II. This Graeco-Macedonian queen became a goddess beloved to both the Egyptians and the Greeks after her death, and she is depicted in the statue as the embodiment of Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of beauty.
This is the exhibition’s sixth leg after its premiere in Paris at the Institut du monde arabe, followed by the British Museum in London, and the Riteburg Museum in Zurich. It then started its tour around the United States, where it was exhibited at the SLAM Museum in St Louis, Minneapolis, and has now arrived in Los Angeles.
It will make one last stop in Virginia before returning permanently to Egypt.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.