Today, feluccas and motorboats bob in the waters of Egypt’s Abu Qir Bay near Alexandria. A mere twenty-two feet below the water’s surface, the ancient cities of Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion have lain silent for millennia. At this exact location two thousand years earlier, boatmen sailed by massive temples and a towering pink-granite colossus. The smiling statue of the god Hapi held a plate of bread to his chest, alluding to Egypt’s status as the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and the god’s role in ensuring the annual flooding of the Nile.

Within a few centuries, the stone god would be underwater and forgotten, along with the cities that worshipped him. The Canopic Branch of the Nile, once a major artery connecting Greek trading posts to Egypt via Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion, itself eroded away into the sea. Twelve hundred years later, the European Institute of Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) made the unprecedented discovery of an immense underwater field of ruins at the sites of these sunken cities.

Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities,” currently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond through January 2021, offers a jolt of the unexpected and a window into a vanished culture. The exhibition captures a rich array of treasures from the Ptolemaic era, a time when Egypt fell sway to the influence of Greece, from the third through first centuries B.C. Highlights include colossal statues, tools for secretive rituals, pharaonic decrees exquisitely carved into steles, boat hulls of millennia-old Acacia wood, and granite busts of hybrid Egyptian-Hellenistic gods.1

The excavations mark one of the greatest ancient maritime discoveries ever. Only 5 percent of the prospective region has been explored thus far, yet over sixty ancient ships, seven hundred anchors, and countless ritual items have been found, comprising what the IEASM calls “a nautical assemblage without parallel in the ancient world.” Their findings have confirmed the presence of two cities, the religious center of Canopus and the trade city of Thonis-Heracleion (a combination of the site’s ancient Egyptian and Greek names). The finds from IEASM’s underwater excavations make up the majority of the artifacts on display, along with items on loan from Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities. The VMFA is the only East Coast venue for these artifacts, and the exhibition will move on to Egypt once it completes its run in Richmond.

“Sunken Cities” opened in mid-July as one of the first major American exhibitions to debut in the coronavirus era. Conceived as a traveling exhibition years earlier, the VMFA’s installation reflects a sporting, if not awkward, attempt to adapt the exhibition to a new social reality. Entrance into “Sunken Cities” has been throttled from a standard four hundred visitors an hour to one hundred and thirty an hour. While this would seem to allow for a less crowded experience, human nature ensured that this would not be the case. Visitors continued to congregate around show-stopping artifacts and glass vitrines, resulting in bottlenecks and crowding. This seems to be a widespread problem in museums, with reports out of the newly reopened Met noting the same issue. While VMFA staff members roamed the halls asking people to follow distancing guidelines, the responsibility ultimately fell to the museum visitors themselves, with mixed results. Museums, as with other public spaces, are still in the early stages of determining the balance of institutional obligation versus individual behavior.

Traveling through Egypt in 430 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus describes witnessing a ceremony at the “burial place of him whose name I deem it forbidden to utter . . . on this lake they enact by night the story of the god’s sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call the Mysteries. I could speak more exactly of these matters, for I know the truth, but I will hold my peace.” Herodotus was not the type to hold back on a good story, so his reluctance to mention the god Osiris speaks to the sensitivity of the ancient Egyptians on this matter. Osiris, one of the most important gods of the Egyptian pantheon, had already been worshipped for 1,400 years by the time Herodotus witnessed his mysteries. Osiris was the eternal king, the first pharaoh, lord of the underworld, and the god responsible for upholding the balance of good and evil. As the myth goes, he was murdered at the hands of his younger brother Set, then brought back to life by his sister-wife Isis. Worshipers prayed for him to protect their just interests and punish those who committed wrong.

There is great power in a word, and for the ancient Egyptians, to utter a word was to bring it into reality. The world that Osiris presided over was in eternal, tenuous balance. As the Nile’s inundation represented the annual rebirth of Osiris, he was also perpetually at risk of destruction. To say the name of Osiris was to alert Set to his presence, risking anew his murder and dismemberment. In this way, each practitioner was responsible for protecting the vulnerable god and preserving the balance of order over chaos.

Much remains to be learned about what caused the cities’ demise. The specialists at IEASM point toward sinking land, rising waters, and a succession of natural disasters as the likely culprits. High water tables underneath the Egyptians’ heavy stone structures may have caused the earth under the cities to liquefy, typically a millennia-long process that was hastened as clay soil crumbled into the lapping waters of the Mediterranean. Period sources report that the region was hit by a tsunami in 365 A.D. and earthquakes, one in the middle of the eighth century and another in 1375. Archeological findings indicate that the cities finally sank into the Mediterranean in the eighth century A.D.

By the time these catastrophes hit, most of the cities’ original inhabitants were no more. Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion began to lose their preeminence around 300 B.C. when Alexandria was established as the intellectual and cultural center of Hellenistic Egypt—how can you compete with a town that boasts one of the world’s seven wonders and the Great Library? By the fourth century A.D., according to early Christian writings, the area had largely been abandoned, with the exception of a community of Christian monks and nuns. The overgrown remains of the Egyptian temples were repurposed by the monks, who turned the naoi, or enclosed stone chapels, into watering troughs for their sheep.

Statues of gods and pharaonic royalty anoint the exhibition, imbued with all the magazine cover glamour to be expected of Hellenistic sculpture. But their beauty is a foregone conclusion, already familiar and echoed in collections the world over. These statues seem to glide from the hushed chambers of an ancient temple to a museum gallery with the predictable ease of an object designed for adulation and display.

More interesting are the items that were gripped, bent, and thrown into the now-extinct waterways that once surrounded Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. Every autumn, a procession of boats would make their way down the canals from Thonis-Heracleion to Canopus. Hundreds of oil lamps lit the barques, their golden flames sparkling in the Nile’s dark mirrored waters. At the center of the procession was a ceremonial barque containing effigies of Osiris, one made of ground jewels and incense, the other made of sprouted barley and soaked earth. Bound as mummies, the procession celebrated the miraculous resurrection of Osiris after his murder at the hands of his jealous brother.

The flotsam from these ancient celebrations still litter the waterways, as the marine archeologists of IEASM have uncovered. Over one hundred ladles shaped with the heads of a waterfowl were found, which would have been used in the secretive rituals surrounding the worship of Osiris to pour earth-soaked water into gold and silver vessels, or to spread the perfumed smoke of incense throughout the temple. Scores of miniature lead boats were also uncovered, together with perfect scale models of the ceremonial papyrus barques used to carry the effigies. Like the ladles, the small ships were also ritualistically destroyed—either bent, twisted, or crushed—before being gifted to the Nile.

The world’s problems might feel particularly vast and unyielding in our current moment. But there is comfort to be had in how these humble objects of the Sunken Cities connect us with a reality far beyond ourselves in time. At a moment when our own apertures have become so painfully restricted, the discoveries at Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus shrink the intervening millennia and provide a new perspective on humanity’s continued reckoning with an uncertain world.

  1.   “Treasures of Ancient Egypt: Sunken Cities” opened at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond on July 4, 2020, and remains on view through January 18, 2021.

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