Regeneration: at the British Museum

I have come all the way to London to find that the story of Osiris’ rebirth and the fertility of Egypt’s Nile-blessed land are the themes of the moment in Bloomsbury. It’s quite a revelation, all the more so because it is most unlikely we would ever get to see the extraordinary artefacts on show here, in their home setting of Alexandria.

“Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds” at the British Museum* features the underwater archaeological exploration of two great cities of late antiquity. They are Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, respectively a seaport to the east of what is now Alexandria, and a river port on the Canopic branch of the Nile in the Delta region.

So you might think it would be all about statuary and metal artefacts, perhaps some jewellery and coins – and you would be right, up to a point. But there is more to it than that, for the fertility of Egypt’s ancient land also has a starring role.

In late antiquity, Egyptians and Greeks (and very likely Romans too, later on) joined together to celebrate the renewed wealth of the land by re-enacting the rebirth of Osiris. This sacred festival, the “Mysteries of Osiris”, took place every year over a period of 18 days from mid-October, during the month of Koiak, after the floodwaters receded.

The ancient myth related that Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, and his dismembered body distributed across Egypt; Isis, sister-wife of Osiris, went in search of the parts, re-assembled them and then, following a miraculous conception, gave birth to a son, Horus, who went on to avenge his father’s murder in a terrible struggle with Seth. Osiris, meanwhile, came to symbolise rebirth and was constantly referenced in statues and frescoes of the pharaohs to underscore their claim to divine status. Later, he was taken by the Greeks to be equivalent to their god Dionysos, associated with wine and vegetation.

In the Mysteries, much of the process was carried out amid an aura of sacred mystery by priests of the temples. In one ceremony, coffin-shaped moulds were filled with soil, barley seeds and holy water, placed in a granite tank and watered until the seeds germinated. Others were filled with a complex mixture of soil, date paste, aromatic plants such as myrrh, sweet reed, Aleppo pine, mint and juniper as well as precious metals and minerals ground to a fine powder.

Within a period of seven days, the Osiris figures were sent in procession along the waterways in custom-made boats, some of them constructed out of sycamore wood, a tree sacred to the god. Imagine, if you will, a procession of boats floating down a canal with their precious cargo of Osiris accompanied by figurines of other gods, and 365 lamps flickering in the twilight. Along the banks, in gaps between the reeds, people bring bowls and trays of food or other votive offerings to present to the gods.

Ultimately, however, the exhibition poignantly reminds us of the fragility of the earth, and of the buildings, grand or humble, that mankind constructs upon it. Built on unstable land, subject to earthquakes and tidal waves, Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion eventually slipped beneath the sea. Only now, under the guidance of French archaeologist Franck Goddio, have their secrets begun to emerge from the waters close to Alexandria.

* At the British Museum, London until 27th November

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