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‘Egypt’s Sunken Cities’ at Mia: Seven things to know before you go

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio before a photographic assembly of a sacred barque used in the Mysteries of Osiris.

For 1,000 years, they lay undisturbed under blankets of silt at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Now they’re collecting frequent flier miles. Statues colossal and small, coins, jewelry, bronzes, household items and ritual objects from Egypt have arrived in Minneapolis via St. Louis after stops in Zurich, London and Paris.

All are part of “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” an exhibition that will open Nov. 4 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and continue through April 14. From here, it will go to Massachusetts and Colorado.

Most of the 250-plus items on display were discovered by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio and his team while exploring Aboukir Bay near the city of Alexandria. They found two lost cities: Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion. Canopus was home to a huge temple. Thonis-Heracleion, a city with two names – one Egyptian, one Greek – was a center of trade and a place where both civilizations met and merged.

Goddio has been called “the marine ‘Indiana Jones.’” The grandson of a seafarer, and the founder and president of the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology, he has spent much of his life excavating shipwrecks and, more recently, an area the size of Paris beneath the sea. His excavations are noncommercial and carried out with national authorities and a team of experts. In person, he comes across as a man who’s passionate about his work and astounded by his own discoveries.

The show is a mind-blower. It may not have the wow power of King Tut, and the only mummy is made of barley and clay. But it’s so surprising, so thoughtful and new – many of the objects hadn’t been seen or even imagined for centuries until Goddio found them – that you want to see everything.

And you can. Exhibition designer Michael Lapthorn has given each item breathing room. Mostafa Waziry, the garrulous secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, praised Mia’s installation at a press preview last week: “Here there is enough space so you can enjoy the pieces, piece by piece.”

A small gold Foundation Plaque dating from 221-204 BCE written in Greek and hieroglyphs.
MinnPost photo by John Whiting
A small gold Foundation Plaque dating from 221-204 BCE written in Greek and hieroglyphs.
If you know a few things going in, you may enjoy them even more.

1. The exhibition includes objects from Goddio’s excavation and works from Egyptian museums, found on land, that provide context. Wave symbols on the labels indicate pieces that were found underwater.

2. If you saw “Power and Beauty in China’s Last Dynasty” at Mia earlier this year, “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” is the opposite in terms of reading. The Robert Wilson-designed China show had zero reading. This show has a lot of reading. Labels and wall panels describe the objects you’re seeing, how they relate to each other and what it all means.

3. Two threads wind their way through the exhibition. One is the Mysteries of Osiris, secret rites related to the worship of the Egyptian god. The other is what Mia curator Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers calls “early globalization.”

4. The Mysteries were celebrated each year for 22 days in every temple in Egypt. Pharaoh was required to go to the temple at Thonis-Heracleion. Goddio discovered that temple and many items used in the Mysteries. As he said rather thrillingly during the press preview, “Only Pharoah and the priest of Osiris could see what you see here.”

The Mysteries are rooted in the colorful myth of Osiris, which was central to ancient Egyptian culture. Briefly: Osiris was married to his sister, Isis. Everyone loved him except their wicked, jealous brother, Seth. Seth killed Osiris, cut his body into 14 pieces and scattered them all over Egypt. Isis found them (well, most of them), put them back together (making the first mummy), reanimated Osiris and conceived a child, Horus.

To the ancient Egyptians, celebrating the Mysteries secured the order of the cosmos, the fertility and abundance of the land and the continuity of the dynasty.

5. The exhibition shows how Egypt mixed with Greece politically, religiously and aesthetically. Just as menus in Montreal are written in French and English, a small gold plaque dating from 221-204 BCE is written in Greek and hieroglyphs. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, Osiris was renamed Serapis. Statues from this time look more Greek than Egyptian. Serapis has long, curly hair and a curly beard.

The statue of the queen/goddess Arsinöe is reminiscent of the Venus de Milo but was carved a century earlier from much harder stone – by an Egyptian, since Greeks used softer stone. Grootaers called it a “beautiful example of the mixture of styles” and “extremely important to the history of art.”

About the statue, Goddio said, “When we saw that underwater, it was a kind of dream … This is the happiness you can have when you are doing an excavation.”

6. “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” is a ticketed exhibition. But you can see four spectacular pieces for free. Colossal Statue of a Queen and Colossal Statue of a Pharaoh, each more than 16 feet tall and weighing thousands of pounds, stand in Mia’s main lobby. Colossal Statue of the God Hapy is in the second-floor rotunda, where Doryphorus usually holds court.

An archaeologist inspecting the still-encrusted head of a statue of a queen on site underwater in Thonis-Heracleion, Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC).
Photo by Christoph Gerigk
An archaeologist inspecting the still-encrusted head of a statue of a queen on site underwater in Thonis-Heracleion, Ptolemaic period (332-30 BC).
Just before the entrance to the exhibit is the Naos of the Decades. A stone shrine, it is carved with the Egyptian calendar, the story of creation, and terrible curses as warnings against Egypt’s enemies. “It is very powerful,” Goddio explained. A colleague of Goddio once described it as “the atomic bomb of ancient Egypt.”

7. If you’re wondering what it cost to bring “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” to Minneapolis, Mia isn’t telling. But one article about the St. Louis show mentioned $2 million, and another $4 million. So – somewhere around there?

“Egypt’s Sunken Cities” opens Sunday, Nov. 4. FMI and tickets (prices vary). See it free on Third Thursday (Nov. 15, 6-9 p.m.). The film “Swallowed by the Sea: Ancient Egypt’s Greatest Lost City” will screen most Fridays every hour from 10:15 a.m. until 7:15 p.m. Those screenings are free.

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