November 08, 2015

The Underwater Treasures of Osiris

According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris, the eldest of the three sons of Nut, goddess of the sky, and Geb, god of the earth, ruled ancient Egypt as early as 3000 BC.  Osiris was killed by his brother Seth who cut him up into fourteen pieces and scattered them across the land.  The legend states that Osiris' sister/wife Isis gathered the pieces together and brought him back to life long enough to beget a son, Horus, the future Pharaoh.  Osiris became the king of the After Life where he judged the dead and is the origin for the belief in life after death that is the basis of many religions to this day.

Osiris holds a special place in Egyptian lore as he was considered a merciful judge of the dead and the one who granted all life, including the vegetation that grew along the Nile.  As such, he was honored in ancient times with an annual ceremony called "The Mysteries of Osiris" in which his effigy was transported by water from the temple of Amun-Gereb in Thonis-Heracleion to his shrine in the city of Canopus. 

At some point in the 8th century AD the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus were submerged underwater probably after a particularly strong earthquake and tidal wave.  They remained hidden from view until their rediscovery in 1997 by archaeological underwater research teams lead by Franck Goddio.

Now, nearly twenty years later, the Institut du Monde Arabe, (Arab World Institute) in Paris is presenting Franck Goddio's findings in a block buster exhibition entitled "Osiris, mystères engloutis d'Égypte (Osiris, Sunken Mysteries of Egypt)".  250 objects, salvaged from their underwater resting place and most never seen outside of Egypt, are currently on view in a most fascinating show. 

The installation covers two floors and is decorated to resemble an undersea treasure trove of artifacts used in the ancient worship of Osiris.  Objects include a magnificent gray sandstone statue of Osiris sitting on his throne with his crook and flail crossed over his chest and wearing his trademark ostrich feather headdress (see above) done circa 550 BC in the reign of Amasis.

This is a detail of a large tablet or stela with hieroglyphics issuing a decree from the Pharaoh Nectanebo I, increasing the sums allowed to the temple of the goddess Neith at Saïs.

Here is a colossal (about 10 feet tall) statue of the God "Hapy" executed in pink granite around 305 BC during the Ptolemaic period.  Hapy was the god of floods and fertility and this statue was discovered, underwater, in front of the temple of Thonis-Heracleion.  It had been broken into seven pieces and restored during Antiquity.

This granite Sphinx is one of a pair discovered near Alexandria and probably guarded a priest in a small sanctuary dedicated to Osiris.

Osiris is shown rising and awakening in this life-size statue made of rock and bronze.  His face is serene and he wears a headdress with the traditional ostrich feathers made of precious metal.

The Institut du Monde Arabe is probably most famous for its architectural design by Jean Nouvel, but this outstanding exhibition, both informative and gorgeous, will certainly bring accolades from the artistic and archaeological communities.  I leave you with another beautiful sight - the view from the Institute's 9th floor terrace on a perfect autumn day in Paris!

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