Osiris: Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost World


What better  month to visit the Sunken Cities expo in the British Museum than Khoiak, the ancient month dedicated to the god Osiris which just happens to coincide with our modern October. This  superb show has been touring the world, starting in underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio’s native France in January this year under the title Osiris: Mystères engloutis d’Égypte – Osiris: Egyptian sunken Mysteries; which I can’t help thinking is a more informative title, as so many of the discoveries are about the ancient cult of Osiris – confirming many details previously only known from classical sources.

It’s a huge show spread over several rooms, each one of which is full of treasures, so one needs to pace oneself for some of the revelations in the final rooms, which bring together all the new knowledge with material about the various processions that took place in this ancient sunken temple of the god Osiris.

My prime motive for visiting was to see the an object called the “Naos of the Decades” – which in itself is rather a startling discovery and the subject of books in its own right, being a magical shrine that was dedicated in one of the temple’s many rooms;  the earliest example of what one might call an astrological artifact, whose complex text is in effect a horoscope, drawn up by Egypt’s last native Pharaoh, Nectanebo II, with magical intent.


The ancient city of  Thonis-Heracleion sunk beneath the waves 1800 years ago, taking with it all of its secrets. At this time Osiris was Egypt’s most popular god. The core ritual that emerges from various sources, began on the first day of the month with the preparation of a talismanic image of Osiris, a complex assemblage of 14 substances including barley seeds, which can sprout, the image springing to life by the fifteen day, just in time for the 1st procession from the temple on to waterways where various votive objects, including the germinating figures of Osiris can be offering into the water.

[Another of the amazing photographs from the excavations, showing one of the small, votive images of Osiris beside one of the model boats, offered by devotees into the sacred waterway]

The mysteries culminate on the month’s final days with a second  procession. The picture shows some of the miniature votive offerings, many hundreds of which have this far been discovered on the submerged ritual waterway. Never before seen because mostly melted down as scrap over the years. These survived at the bottom of Aboukir bay. They tell us so much about the “mechanics” of the Osiris rituals, and how people, rich and poor, participated in the cult, aspects of personal piety.



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