Egypt’s Sunken Cities exhibits for the first time in North America

The seas surrounding the great old city of Alexandria, Egypt, have witnessed numerous important historical events, recording famous names such as Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic dynasty, and Cleopatra VII, as well as Napoleon and Nelson, and also housing the remains of the famous Pharaohs—one of the seven wonders of the world.

In addition, the nearby Bay of Abukir saw the sinking of the ancient cities of Canopus and Herakleion into the ocean and, more recently in Napoleonic times, it was the site of three naval battles which left numerous shipwrecks on the sea floor.

For the first time, the epic story of one of the greatest finds in the history of underwater archaeology, a story that revealed two lost cities of ancient Egypt submerged under the Mediterranean Sea for over a thousand years will be on display from March 25 to September 9, 2018 at the Saint Louis Art Museum in North America.

Credit: UNESCO

Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Khaled El-Anany, inaugurated on March 23rd, “Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds”, an exhibition of artifacts discovered under water that were lost for over 1,000 years before they were accidentally found. World-renowned underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team discovered these submerged worlds and uncovered stunning ancient religious, ceremonial, and commercial artifacts, which has led to a greater understanding of life during the age of pharaohs.

According to Daily News Egypt, El-Anany described the exhibition as a message of peace from Egypt to the US, saying that it is an open invitation to Americans to visit Egypt, “the country of peace,” asserting that antiquities are Egypt’s soft power in promoting tourism and they are the main thing that represent Egypt’s diversified culture and acceptance of other beliefs.

The first indications of the existence of important underwater cultural heritage in the Western and Eastern Bays of Alexandria were found at the very beginning of the 20th century. It took however many years for real archaeological excavations to begin.

According to the museum, in 1933, a Royal Air Force pilot spotted dark shadows in the water of Aboukir Bay in the Mediterranean Sea, leading to the discovery of several objects from Canopus dating from the Ptolemaic Period. Six decades later, Franck Goddio and the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM,) in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities, began research to determine the location and topography of the currently submerged ancient zones of the eastern harbor of Alexandria and of Aboukir Bay. By Utilizing sophisticated technical equipment Goddio and his team were able to locate, map, and excavate parts of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion and confirm that the region had indeed once been an important center of trade and site of religious pilgrimage.

The excavation has also helped scholars understand the Mysteries of Osiris, an annual festival that commemorated one of Egypt’s most important myths—the murder and resurrection of the god, Osiris.

The St. Louis American newspaper writing in a report on the exhibition said, “It appears miraculous that ancient Egyptian archaeological treasures that were lost under the sea for some 13 centuries survived and were rescued in such remarkable condition.”

Courtesy: Saint Louis Art Museum
© E. Khalil, The ruins of the Pharos lighthouse, Alexandria, Egypt.Over 5,000 huge granite blocks lie under 8 m of water near the entrance of the eastern harbour of Alexandria. All of the remains have been recorded and are inspected every year in order to monitor the site.

UNESCO had also been interested for more than 40 years in the preservation and protection of the underwater sites in Alexandria, its attention, first drawn to the sites by scientific studies, and particularly by Kamel Abul-Saadat, Egypt’s first and self-taught underwater archaeologist, who was one of the pioneers having discovered the remains.

In the following years, another international team completed archaeological work on the site of the palace of Ptolemy, establishing its location. It gathered valuable historical information and found huge pieces of mortar and limestone, evidence of an important earthquake.

Subsequently, other missions sponsored by the Egyptian authorities in conjunction with international experts focused on conservation and development options for the underwater archaeological sites of Alexandria. In consultation with Egyptian experts and authorities, it was recommended to develop the Quait Bey Fort, and eventually the Eastern Harbour sites, as underwater museums.

© Rougerie/UNESCO, The Alexandria Underwater Museum Project
© Rougerie/UNESCO, The Alexandria Underwater Museum Project

More than 200 of these authentic artifacts, including three colossal 16-foot sculptures of a pharaoh, a queen, and a god will be on view at the exhibition. Objects ranging from the colossal sculptures to precious gold coins and jewelry, bronze vessels, objects inscribed in the ancient Egyptian or Greek languages, huge statues of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and the sphinx, and statues from the sunken and forgotten ancient cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus will be seen alongside ancient Egyptian artifacts from museums in Cairo and Alexandria, many of which have never been on view in the United States.

The exhibition is the fourth Egyptian artefacts exhibition hosted in a foreign country. The first exhibition kicked off in Toronoto, Canada this month, showcasing the heritage and monuments of the Egyptian Fatimid era, and another one will also open its doors to people in California this month, displaying belongings of Tutankhamun, while a third exhibition will soon be inaugurated about jewelry from ancient Egyptian eras.

Franck Goddio’s discovery revealed that the cities were indeed real, and had lain at the mouth of the Nile, 30 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea, for more than 1200 years. Their submersion was completed in the 8th century, possibly by an earthquake, or other upheavals, some associated with tidal waves. This, combined with the unstable sediment on which the cities were built, ultimately led to their demise.

Excavations were carried out under the supervision of both the IEASM and the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities. A team of underwater archaeologists, led by Goddio, continues to tirelessly explore the submerged land off the Mediterranean coast.

The exhibition is curated by Franck Goddio and co-curated in St. Louis by Lisa Çakmak, the associate curator of ancient art.