What to Expect When the Sea Gives Up Its Treasures

On display now, through mid-April, is the stunning exhibit “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. More than 1200 years ago two cities along Egypt’s Mediterranean coast disappeared into the sea. Ancient records told of their existence and splendor but very little physical evidence could be found.

Then in 1996, the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology (IEASM) began to explore the region around Aboukir Bay off the coast of Egypt. They discovered a staggering array of objects from these two lost cities. These objects, along with related treasures from museums across Egypt, make up this outstanding exhibit.

Items include colossal statues almost 20 feet tall to pocket-sized amulets, jewelry, and utensils used in religious rituals. There is extensive information about the special challenges of underwater archaeology and photos showing how many of the objects looked when first discovered on the sea floor.

Thonis-Heracleion (TH) and Canopus are the two sunken cities. There were located just a few miles apart on the westernmost branch of the Nile River where it emptied into the Mediterranean Sea. IEASM archaeologists have discovered more than 75 shipwrecks, ceramics from southern Italy and Athens, coinage from Cyprus, and metal objects from Persia, confirming the theory that these two cities in their heyday were an important crossroads for merchants, travelers and entrepreneurs.

One of the most important finds was the remnants of Amun-Gereb, a vast temple complex where Egyptian pharaohs came to be legitimatized by the gods.

The basic beliefs of ancient Egypt were as follows: Geb and Nut, the gods of earth and sky had a son name Osiris who brought peace and prosperity to the land of Egypt. Later, they had a second child, Seth. In typical second-born fashion, Seth became jealous of Osiris and proceeded to kill him, cut up his body and scatter the pieces around the land.

Osiris’ wife, Isis, collected the pieces of Osiris’ body, put them back together, and brought him back to life. Osiris then became the god of death and the afterlife. In the moment that Osiris was brought back to life, Osiris and Isis also had a child whom they named Horus.

Since Osiris and Isis were afraid of what Seth might do to Horus, they hid him in the papyrus reeds along the Nile River.

Many see similarities between Egyptian and Christian beliefs. One sibling killing another out of jealousy compares to the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. And protecting a child by hiding it along the banks of a river is what happened to the infant Moses according to Exodus 2.

Horus eventually grew strong enough to defeat Seth and restore order in Egypt. Moses grew up to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt with little resistance in 332 BCE. He was quickly acknowledged as a god by the Egyptians and set about building a city in his own honor along the Mediterranean coast. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided into four parts with one of his generals, Ptolemy I, receiving the land of Egypt. Ptolemy respected the Egyptians gods but also decided to invent his own god. He invented Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian hybrid god, and erected a temple in his honor in the city of Alexandria. Serapis went on to become a popular god even among the Romans.

Ptolemy’s creation of a new god to help him maintain power also has Biblical parallels. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided into Northern and Southern kingdoms. A man by the name of Jeroboam became king of the Northern Kingdom and one of the first things he did was set up a new religion complete with shrines and priests. He was afraid that people in the Northern Kingdom would abandon him if they had to travel down to the Southern Kingdom to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem. (See I Kings 12)

Egypt’s sunken cities have brought to light new information about the Egyptians’ yearly “Mysteries of Osiris” religious ceremonies. These ceremonies were carried out to ensure the balance of the cosmos, safeguard the rule of the king and guarantee the annual flooding of the Nile River to ensure good crops.

Keeping track of all the different gods of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans can be confusing especially since ancient people had no problem mingling their gods and religions with each other. The cities of TH and Canopus were eventually abandoned when a new religion took over northern Egypt in 300 AD, Christianity. The Christians steadfastly maintained just one God as the true God and would not permit other gods to be worshiped.

If you think of Egypt as just a land of pyramids and mummies this exhibit will change your perspective. Before they sunk into the sea, TH and Canopus were vibrant centers of trade, culture and religion with some pretty incredible art.

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