Following the discovery of an incredible hoard of artefacts during underwater excavations over seven years on the sites of two Ancient Egyptian cities, L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris have organised the exhibition ‘Osiris- Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries’ to display over 250 fascinating objects, many of which have never been shown outside of Paris before.
This visually stunning exhibition of finds comes from a project launched by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology in Abukir Bay, the site of the now submerged ancient town of Canopus, which have then been combined and further contextualised with many items on loan from the Egyptian Museums of Alexandria and Cairo.
Canopus is thought to be named after the pilot of a ship which brought King Menelaus and Helen to Egypt. The story goes that Canopos was bitten by a snake and died on the sands of Thonis thus giving his name to the western branch of the Nile. This part of the Delta was subsequently submerged under the sea in the 8th century AD after various earth quakes, bringing an end to the life of the bustling city of Thonis-Heracleion which guarded and monitored the water ways leading to the Canopic branch of the Nile. It is in these waters that submerged temple ruins were discovered along with objects used in Osirian cultic activities.
Osiris was a god of Ancient Egypt, son of the goddess Nut of the sky and the god Geb of the earth. Osiris brought the Egyptians civilisation through teaching, agriculture, law and piety. He was believed to have established the right order of things on the earth, a central concept to the Ancient Egyptians, known as Ma’at. Osiris was murdered by his brother Seth, god of chaos, disorder, the desert and barren land. Legend has it that Osiris body was then cut into pieces and scattered throughout Egypt, his phallus representing his powers of renewal and continuing life was thrown into the Nile and eaten by fishes. His sister wife Isis, overcome with grief, found the pieces of his body and wrapped them together with bandages to make him whole again.
She then fashioned a new phallus for him, restoring his potency, and as mistress of all magicians took the form of a bird and fluttered over him fanning him with her wings and bringing him back to vigour, receiving his seed and conceiving his son Horus to whom she gave birth while hiding in the marshes of the Nile Delta.
This core legend is illustrated by cult statue placed at the centre of the exhibition, of Osiris on a leonine bed uniting with Isis who is in the form of a bird of prey, from Abydos, XIII Dynasty, on loan from Cairo Museum.
Every Egyptian ruler, every king and every living pharaoh was considered to be a manifestation of the divine Horus on earth and a manifestation of Osiris in the afterlife. The Osiris Mysteries were practised at Abydos in Southern Egypt where Osiris was believed to have been buried and also 750km North in the Delta where Horus was born. The ritual objects recovered from the waters off the coast at Abukir give us unprecedented insight into the rituals and practises of the Osiris cult over centuries, right up to and beyond the period of Greek rule in Egypt.
Fittingly the exhibition is held over the months when, before the construction of the Aswan Dam the Nile having inundated the land would be receding to reveal the fertile soil sprouting with new plant life.
Initially, after a short film the visitor comes face to face with two large Graywacke statues of Isis and Osiris (570 BC). Behind them stands a colossal pink granite statue of Hapy the Nile god discovered at Abukir and on loan from the Maritime Museum, Alexandria, while in one corner stands the Naos of the Decades, 380-362 BC, on loan from the Louvre Museum. The details of the reliefs on the sides are reproduced with explanations on the wall behind. One of the most engaging aspects of this exhibition is the visually exciting and well thought out way in which these treasures from the past are presented. At the heart of the exhibition there is a rare insight into the role of the priests and the ritual process itself, a look into the mysteries as they were enacted.
Film of the underwater discovery of many of the objects grants an immediacy and sense of the excitement of discovery to the exhibition. Rare and beautiful objects of devotion, many from the Greek occupation of Egypt stand alongside humbler offerings, wrapped scraps of lead containing appeals to the god, one of which to my delight they had decided not to open, the secret prayer within remaining secret. The selection on display also includes delicate votive barques, and numerous Osiris statuettes we see them beautifully photographed on the sea bed and now on display.
The Egyptian gods were syncretistic and over time their identities were shared and taken on by Greek gods. The exhibition ends with an exploration of how the fertility and renewal aspects of Osirian rites were carried forward in the rites associated with Greek deities such Serapis and Dionysus.
Getting around the exhibition takes about an hour. The finds on display, the story of their discovery and the many magnificent items on loan from Egyptian Museums make this exhibition a very rare event, and if you can manage, is certainly worth more than one visit.
Osiris – Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries is on display at the IMA from 8 September to 31 January 2015.
Where: 1 Rue des Fossés Saint-Bernard, 75005 Paris