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Secrets of the Mediterranean  

10 June 2016

Nicholas Cranfield on the antiquities found in Aboukir Bay

christoph gerigk © frank goddio/hilti foundation

The stele of Thonis-Heracleion: found at the site of Thonis-Heracleion in Aboukir Bay, Egypt, it was commissioned by Nectanebos I (378-362 BC)

The stele of Thonis-Heracleion: found at the site of Thonis-Heracleion in Aboukir Bay, Egypt, it was commissioned by Nectanebos I (378-362 BC)

OUR fascination with ancient Egypt seems to be insatiable. This is no new thing. Think, for instance of the early-19th-century furniture styles in England as well as in France — a whole craze developed in the wake of Napoleon. Later in the century, when Verdi was commissioned for an opera to mark the opening of the Suez Canal, Aida’s tragic love story brought Pharaonic Egypt to the stage.

Interest is more than amply attested by the recent exhibitions “Beyond Beauty” at Two Temple Place and “Death on the Nile” at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The British Museum itself extended the run of a display of mummy cases last summer and charted Egypt’s cultural emergence under the Ptolemies into the ambit of the Greek world after Cleopatra in its winter show “Faith after the Pharaohs” (Arts, 13 November 2015).

I suspect that much of the attraction derives from the sheer unfamiliarity of this ancient world in which no cat ever sat on any mat. The Egyptians of the Nile delta reached great achievements in technology which left spectacular monuments of beauty without ever becoming a literary society.

Nor were they alone in this. Whole societies emerged as sophisticated while their mark-making remained limited to record-keeping, legislation, and religious instruction.

From Linear B we know, for instance, a good deal about the weights and measures, land-holding, military provision, farming, and deities of Minoan Crete, and the legal codes and religious practices of the Etruscans, without having a scrap of their literature. The Iguvine tablets in Osco-Umbrian can tell us what a dozen priests undertook to do in Gubbio, but shed no light on the jokes they told in the sanctuary.

The wealth of the surviving artefacts and documents often give a glimpse of a highly developed civilisation in which religion and trade are amply recorded, but leave a lacuna when it comes to literature. Such civilisations maintain only an oral culture.

This seeming conundrum, which seems so much at odds with what we have come to expect from any decent and civilised community, is brilliantly explored by Professor Denis Feeney in his book Beyond Greek: The beginnings of Latin literature (Harvard, 2016).

Feeney points out that it is almost an accident of history that the Romans chose to become literate: it emerged only when Greek stage plays were first translated into Latin (240 BC). The Romans took up with a Greek tradition of text-based literature, which we have since valorised as a sign of high culture.

The growth of Latin literature coincided with the Roman dominance, first of the peninsula, and then of the Mediterranean world itself, spreading across the Graeco-Macedonian empire that Alexander the Great had taken beyond the Pontus and Hindu Kush to the east, and into the Nile valley in the south.

Feeney concentrates on the period 240-140 BC, and therefore explores the background to the Hellenistic world; and it is to Greek writers that we are indebted for our knowledge of things Egyptian.

Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) recounts how, after Paris had abducted Helen from Sparta, he sailed from Gytheio to Canopus on the Nile delta. From him we learn that the port of entry was at Thonis-Heracleion (The Histories II, 178-9), a city first called The Home of Saïs and rededicated in honour of Heracles.

This important city and trading post, which Diodorus Siculus (90-30 BC) later called “the ancient warehouse” of Egypt (Biblioteca Historica I, 19.4), has long evaded archaeologists.

Twenty years ago, underwater excavations of the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) under Franck Goddio, diving in the Bay of Aboukir, began to uncover the city. The excavations continue, partly, I hope, funded by visitors to this extraordinary show, to uncover a vast zone of Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman remains.

This submarine terrain has revealed detailed relations between the Greek and Egyptian communities around the delta from the seventh century BC to the second century AD. As much of the world of Osiris and Isis was discarded by later Christians, the statues of tutelary deities and of the great god Serapis ended up as building blocks for a later empire.

What survives is often on a monumental scale. A two-metre-high engraved stela carved on granodiorite bears an inscription that is a decree issued in 380 BC. It was found in the temple precinct of the Heracleion. The text gives details of a trade and economic union between Thonis and Naukratis, the first Greek town to be built on mainland Egypt. When the latter was excavated more than a century ago by Sir Flinders Petrie, an identical tablet was uncovered, which is in the British Museum. It is the other city’s copy of the treaty.

Not that this is the tallest monument to have been found. Another royal stela, dating to the late second century BC, from the reign of Ptolemy VIII, and carved on pink granite, would have stood 6.17 metres high and weighed about 17 tonnes. A third-century red-granite colossal statue of a Ptolomaic king stands five metres tall.

Perhaps the most intriguing revelation comes with the cult of Osiris, which was particularly associated with the sanctuary of Amun-Gereb at Thonis-Heracleion and the temple of Canopus, which were connected by a man-made channel.

Once a year, a ritual figurine of the god was filled with silted mud and grain seed before it was placed into a sacred barge that sailed from Amun-Gereb to the temple of Canopus. We know this from Herodotus (The Histories II, 170-1), although he gives a slightly different date in the spring month of Khoiak from the so-called Decree of Canopus. As the seeds germinated, so the god came back to life. One such barge has been uncovered, as have many smaller figurines made for the cult.

British readers will have long been familiar with the way in which John Barleycorn dies and comes back to life so that we might drink his blood, turned into ale. In Scotland in 1782, Robert Burns wrote a poetic version of the story of the three kings who had condemned John Barleycorn to death.

It is often suggested that this myth of death and rebirth derives from a pagan tale in Anglo-Saxon about a certain Beowu; but trade links with Egypt cannot be discounted for bringing the cult of Osiris here. In terms of the imagery of cereal re-generation, Christians will be reminded of John 12.24.

Many of these treasures and finds appear as if resurrected from beneath the waters of the Mediterranean. They tell us more and more about the worship and trade of Greek Egypt but not, still, anything to suggest that Η γατα καθισε στο χαλι. Maybe Greek cats never did sit still anywhere in ancient Egypt.


“Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 27 November. Phone 020 7323 8181.


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