- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

BERLIN — Spectacular artifacts from two lost cities of ancient Egypt, rescued from the sea after more than 1,300 years, have taken the breath away from more than 1 million visitors to the Martin-Gropius Building in Berlin. They have even ignited religious debate — nonviolent so far — in Egypt.

French archaeological adventurer Franck Goddio and his team of divers, armed with robotic equipment, swim masks and flippers, pulled the treasures from the depths at the ancient Egyptian harbor of Alexandria and the two lost neighboring cities of Herakleion and Canopus in 1999 and 2000.

Presidents Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Horst Kohler of Germany attended the opening of the Berlin exhibition in mid-May, evidence of its importance to both countries. But some Egyptians are not happy about it.

Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, issued a fatwa, or religious edict, saying statuary in the human form is forbidden in Egyptian homes. He didn’t specifically include museums in the fatwa, but cited an Islamic text that “sculptors would be tormented most on Judgment Day.”

Gereon Sievernich, director of the Martin-Gropius Building, describes the artifacts as important evidence of the ancient megalopolis, which grew into a melting pot of cultures, especially after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded Alexandria, naming it for himself.

Egyptian authorities have now approved the exploration of the ruins of another city buried in the Mediterranean, this one a Roman city discovered by an excavation team 20 miles east of the Suez Canal on Egypt’s northern coast.

Reuters news agency reports that archaeologists have found buildings, bathing chambers, a fortress, ancient coins, bronze vases and pieces of pottery dating from the Roman era between 30 B.C. and A.D. 337. The excavators found four bridges belonging to a submerged castle first discovered in 1910.

One of the most spectacular pieces in the Berlin exhibition is a statue of a queen from the third century before Christ. Her sensuality is draped in a sheer gown that folds over her body like a wet translucent slip, casting a sheen on the hard black granite that makes it appear as voluptuous folds of silk.

Since these cities were trading centers, art historians speculate that she might be wearing Chinese silk. One docent jokes that “the silk could have come from China, and maybe those ancients were running trade deficits like we are.”

The statue is thought to represent Queen Arsinoe, wife of Ptolemy II, whose image was merged with the symbolism of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty who in Greek mythology was born of the sea and was frequently depicted in wet drapery.

The exhibition is sponsored in part by the Hilti Foundation, a German organization that funded the underwater explorations of the French archaeologist who earlier salvaged L’Orient, the flagship of Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet, 15 miles off the Alexandrian coast.

“You don’t need to have been on a dive with Frank Goddio to be fascinated by his work,” Michael Hilti, president of the Hilti Foundation, said in introducing the exhibit.

“The sight of the monumental statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis overgrown with algae is as captivating as the impressive picture of the diver lifting the massive head of the healing god Sarapis from the waters. He looks furious, after spending many centuries on the seabed.”

In the Alexandrian discovery, interdisciplinary teams of archeologists, art historians, geophysicists and electrical engineers rescued more than 500 sunken treasures spanning a 1,500-year period from 700 B.C.

The Martin-Gropius Building exhibit now bathes them in warm green light, evoking the habitat of sea water. The show displays not only sculptures but also ceramics, jewelry and gold coins.

Like the discoveries at Pompei, which were preserved for centuries in volcanic rock, the artifacts were “frozen in time” on the seabed. They record everyday life, giving life to the written works of Herodotus, the Greek historian, and Seneca, the Roman tragedian. The artifacts show the clothes and hair styles of the three cities of Alexandria, Herakleion and Canopus.

Fragments of Egypt’s oldest astrological calendar, the Naos of the Decades, are partially decoded in the show to explain how astrology and mythology grew out of scientific observations of the stars. The positions of the stars were credited with ominous prophecies for all kinds of disasters.

“The exhibition in Berlin has a clear message to deliver,” said Mohamed Al-Orabi, Egypt’s ambassador to Germany. “Only if cultures are open to influence by other cultures, if they are ready to take the best of and exchange with each other on the basis of joint ideals can a real dialogue, a mutual understanding between peoples, arise.”

The exhibition goes next to Paris, and negotiations have been opened to take the exhibit to the United States. Andre Bernand, a French scholar who investigates ancient texts inscribed on stones, calls it “an opportunity to make available to everyone a heritage that belongs to humanity.”

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