There’s something about the notion of submerged cities that appeals unfailingly to the romantic imagination. Throw in another enduringly popular element, Ancient Egypt, and this exhibition on two cities hidden for centuries beneath the Nile delta, has all the makings of a fail-safe crowd pleaser.
Concerns about the difficulty of evoking the creepy mystery of these lost submarine worlds in the clinical confines of a modern museum are allayed as you enter between dark blue-green walls to see a five metre-high granite statue of a god looming above you against a luminous turquoise backdrop. Glancing around at more colossal figures, visible in the half-lit depths of the first gallery, you feel already immersed in the subject.
Then the voice kicks in: one of those slightly chilling “press two for customer services” female voices that are everywhere in contemporary Britain, intoning in a corporate-flavoured and horribly over-dominant video about “intriguing” ruins disinterred and “exciting” discoveries made in Egypt’s Aboukir Bay since 1996. The tone is one guaranteed to dispel any sense of intrigue or excitement.
Noise pursues you through the exhibition: gurgling bath-water sounds and ambient dronings, presumably designed to evoke a sense of mystery. The impression is of an exhibition aimed at digitally addicted headphone-wearers, who can’t cope without multi-sensory overload.
The irony is that the show’s sights are powerful enough to pique the imagination of the most attention-deficient visitor. Rather than focus on the archaeological methods used to rescue its exhibits from the depths, the exhibition looks at the way the culture, religion and politics of two great civilizations – Egypt and Greece – merged in the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.
Large numbers of Greeks were settled in northern Egypt as traders and mercenary soldiers from the sixth century BC. The two communities, Egyptian and Greek, seem to have been well integrated, worshipping each other’s gods almost interchangeably.
This notion is perfectly embodied in a sumptuously pneumatic, though headless statue of Queen Arsinoe II, which fuses the striding posture and dark stone typical of ancient Egyptian imagery with the sensuous modelling and transparent drapery seen in classical Greek sculpture. Daughter of Ptolemy I, founder of the Greek dynasty of Pharaohs installed by Alexander the Great, Arsinoe is seen in the role of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Beauty, though she was worshipped herself as the incarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis.
Rather than trying to impose their own faith, Ptolemy and his descendants, who culminated in Cleopatra, the last of the line, honoured local cults and had their rule endorsed by “synods” of Egyptian priests. A magnificent, life-size bronze figure of a bull with a moon between its horns represents the Egyptian god Apis, a kind of avatar of the greatest of the gods Osiris, but in a naturalistic style that looks entirely Greek.
Facing it is an extraordinary larger-than-life-size wooden effigy of the Greek god Serapis, patron-deity of the Ptolemies, equivalent to Osiris-Apis, portrayed as a craggy-faced bearded man. Not only is it difficult to imagine how this cracked and majestically gnarled image can have survived underwater for over a millennium, but the use of wood, unusual in classical sculpture, gives the image a strangely medieval appearance.
Osiris himself, the lord of life and death, whose worship seems to have dominated life in the two cities, is evoked in a range of remarkable images that appear at once inscrutably mysterious and disconcertingly modern. A severe upright figure in black basalt shows the contours of his body rendered almost abstract by the tightly wrapped shroud, while a bizarrely surreal life-size recumbent form depicts Osiris’s sister-wife Isis alighted on his stone-dead loins in the form of a great bird as she miraculously conceives their son Horus.
A boat, one of 69 discovered at the site, used to transport a figure of the god during annual rituals known as the Mysteries of Osiris, is represented not by the craft itself, which remains in situ under the sea, but in a life-size photograph, filling the final wall of the gallery. But by this point you’ve seen so many extraordinary objects you don’t feel short-changed.
This exhibition vividly and lucidly evokes a world of rich and potent myth, where life and death merged, men became gods and mysterious ritual and practical politics freely interacted. It’s a time and place that feels both unimaginably remote and peculiarly relevant to today, when questions of how alien belief-systems adapt to each other are very much in the air. The idea that, like the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, we might all borrow a few of each other’s gods feels somehow a more mature response to the problem of getting along together than simply saying, we’re right and everyone else is wrong. If only the plug were pulled on the intrusive and superfluous soundtrack, because this is rather a superb exhibition.
Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost World, supported by BP, opens at the British Museum, London WC1, on May 19.
To book tickets, call 0844 871 2118 or visit tickets.telegraph.co.uk.