Rescued from the sea, Ancient Egypt’s lost treasures headline at European museums

BERLIN – Some 500 treasures retrieved by divers from ancient Egyptian cities that disappeared under the Mediterranean Sea centuries ago will go on display in Berlin today. The exhibition, titled «Egypt’s Sunken Treasures,» marks the first time the artifacts from the legendary lost cities of Heraklaeion and Canopus, and a submerged part of the port of Alexandria, will have been seen outside Egypt. They are between 1,200 and 2,700 years old and disappeared in the 8th century AD when the cities were submerged by an earthquake or other natural disaster, sinking to the seabed near Alexandria. Spending thousands of hours underwater, a French-led team of archaeological divers brought to the surface gold jewellery, coins, heads of sphinxes and the biggest statue of Hapy, the god of the Nile, ever found in Egypt. It stands tall next to the two colossal statues, also in red granite and both nearly five meters (16 feet) 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 they were a cultural and religious melting pot in the Mediterranean. Distinctive Greek and Egyptian features merge in a marble head of the god Sarapsis and a range of likenesses of the Ptolemaic rulers, attesting to the cross-pollination between the cultures. «This is an archaeological discovery on a par with that of Pompeii,» said Gereon Sievernich, the director of Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau Museum where the exhibition will run for four months before moving to Paris. The excavation team, led by French marine archeologist Franck Goddio, spent a decade diving to bring the treasures to the surface from the ancient cities and 14 shipwrecks scattered around them. They used magnetographic equipment especially made by the French Nuclear Agency to scour the depths of the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean, 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 harbor, which housed the royal quarter where Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Cleopatra stayed and also disappeared underwater, were incorrect. They also discovered that the cities of Heraklaeion and Thonis, described respectively in Greek and Egyptian texts, were one and the same place. This was proved by black granite stele, found in the temple of Heracles, from the reign of Pharoah Nectanebo I. The most spectacular find on Canopus, a Roman playground founded at the time of the Trojan War, was missing pieces of the Noas of the Decades – the world’s first astrological calendar – of which the top was found in 1776 and was long on display in the Louvre museum in Paris. With the different pieces assembled, it is now shown in almost complete form in the Berlin exhibition, which will move to the Grand Palais in Paris on December 8. The exhibition was formally inaugurated on Thursday by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.