Saturday, November 14, 2015

Out and About: Exhibits: Osiris, Mystères engloutis d'Egypte

Priest holding Osiris
An old friend has suggested meeting at the Institut du Monde Arabe, the museum that specializes in All (Art) Things Arab.  And the subject of the particular exhibit she wants to see interests me greatly:  Ancient Egyptian artworks found underwater just off the delta of the Nile.
     There’s a bus that will drop me off directly in front of the museum, although it takes a very long time, given Paris traffic.  We manage to find each other in spite of my lateness, have a bite of Middle Eastern food at the museum’s café... and then we step into the darkness (perhaps a bit too much darkness) of the netherworld.

Pectoral of the sky, 10th c B.C.
“Osiris, the son of the Earth and the Sky was killed by his brother Seth, who cut his body into 14 pieces and threw them into the Nile.  Isis, sister and wife of Osiris, put the body of the god back together again using her magical powers, and conceived their son, Horus. Osiris then became the Lord of the Afterlife, and Horus, victorious against Seth, received Egypt as his heritage.”
goddess of the Nile
     That’s how the exhibit starts:  with an explanation of the gods revered, especially Osiris. My first thought was “Doesn’t that first line remind you a bit of the Bible?”  If you see the Earth as being Eve and the Sky as Adam (or vice versa), Osiris would become Abel and Seth would be Cain.  And there you have a parallel story of fratricide.
     That’s only one of the many thoughts I have while walking through this magnificent exhibit of the many wonders archaeologists have literally dredged up from the bottom of the Bay of Aboukir, where they’d lain for centuries.  Luckily, the delta muck actually preserved the artworks somewhat from the corrosiveness of the salty Mediterranean water.  But it took much painstaking work to remove all the algae, barnacles and other mollusks without damaging the artworks, as shown in several videos projected on the walls and in the small theater area complete with benches for those of us whose legs are getting tired.

The exhibition is made up of three sections. The first presents the myth of Osiris, and is guarded by a huge statue of Hapi, the god  of the annual flooding of the Nile.  The largest of the three parts is the second, which covers the archaeological sites and the ritual celebration of the mysteries of Osiris.  The final section shows how the ancient myth evolved over time and space, how it was adapted at different sites, which explains the diversity of the myth’s representations.
   Throughout, the lighting is minimal, which makes it hard to read the explanatory signs - although one of the guards said they would be pumping up the lighting a bit in a few days because they had so many complaints.  Still, the darkness accentuates the drama of the actual art pieces, which are spotlighted just right: easy to discern by leaving enough shadow to set off a statue’s inscriptions and features.
     In the footage taken underwater, you see how the artworks were discovered, then uncovered, and what difficult conditions the archaeologists had to work under.  Murky doesn’t even come close to describing the visibility the divers “enjoyed” as they carried out their underwater excavation five miles offshore at the Magnus-Alexandria, Canope and Thonis-Heracleion sites.  The last two of these sites stretched over an area of 7 x 6 miles (11 x 10 km), a gigantic undertaking when everything is covered by up to two millennia of sediment.  But magnetic and bathymetric (underwater topography) exploration equipment proved up to the task.
Apis, 2nd c A.D.

Hapi, 4th c B.C.
Why were all these masterpieces under water?  Because of natural catastrophes.  The delta region experienced earthquakes several times, some of them powerful enough to cause tidal waves.  And then there’s the annual flooding of the Nile, which was heavy some years.  There’s also the sheer weight of the buildings, given that some were constructed on clay soil, which provides a poor foundation.  In addition, the eastern Mediterranean has been sinking for centuries, and the level of the Mediterranean has been rising, a fact that will only continue with today’s trend toward global warming.  All this combined to cause catastrophes in the 2nd century BC, along with the 5th and especially late 8th centuries A.D.
     All these works are on loan from various museums of Egypt.  Seeing them together in one place is a gift, and also very powerful.  As my friend and I left, we were blinded by the Paris sun - something hard to do at this season of the year - our heads filled with splendid images and our minds raring to find out more about this fascinating topic.

Mystères engloutis d’Egypte

Institut du Monde Arabe
1 rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard; 5è
Métro: Sully-Morland, Jussieu, Cardinal Lemoine

Until January 31, 2016
T-Th 10-7 / F 10-9:30 / Sat & Sun 10-8
Closed Mondays

15.50 & 12.50 €

Bérénice, 2nd c B.C.

Here’s the link to the show’s website.
If it doesn’t come up in English, there’s a little US-UK flag you can click on to get it.

And here’s a link to an article on the discovery at Heracleion:

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