The Sunday Section: Travel - British Museum and Ancient Egypt's Sunken Cities

Seems like forever since we’ve been to an exhibition at the British Museum. This particular one I’ve been wanting to visit since it opened earlier this year. It finishes at the end of the month; when last Saturday presented us with the opportunity to go, off we went. Bonus – we got to enjoy it with my cousin from America and his lovely wife; they were here on holiday and it was our chance to catch up as we also had lunch together afterwards.


As always with special exhibitions, photography is not allowed. So, I did my usual and bought the book of the exhibition, and I’m so glad I did. The wealth of information, not to mention the stunning pictures, made it well worth the price. Again, as I always do, I’ve taken a few pictures from the book with the sole intention of giving those who didn’t get a chance to visit the exhibition a taster of how spectacular the finds are.

For more pictures and videos, I urge you to visit the site of the French underwater archaeologist, Franck Goddio, who led the expedition conducted by the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology; they’ve been working on it for 20 years.

Thonis… in early times was the trading port of Egypt…” ~ Diodorus Siculus (Greek historian)

Located at the mouth of the Canopic, the westernmost branch of the Nile, the cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus flourished thanks to the flow of different people and ideas, and the exchange of goods. Unfortunately, this prime site was also unstable; the landscape was made up of lakes and marshes. Eventually, having been abandoned by their inhabitants, possibly because of earthquakes and tidal waves, the cities sank beneath the sea. Research shows that the submerging of the area was caused by a variety of factors including the slow subsidence of the land, and ‘liquefaction’, a process where solid ground literally turns into a liquid.


But before this happened, the area was well-known. It was here that Greeks came into contact with the Egyptian civilisation. According to Greek myth, it was here that Herakles first set foot in Egypt, and this gave the Canopic it’s alternative name, the Heracleotic. According to Greek stories, the city of Canopus owed its name to Canobos, who was pilot to King Menelaus, the husband of Helen of Troy.

It was during the 26th dynasty, the Saite dynasty (664-525BC), that the close relations between Egypt and Greece began. Psamtik I, the founder of the Saite dynasty, drafted Greek mercenaries into his army; both countries traded extensively; Greek aristocrats visited Egypt; and Greek traders were allowed to settle in Thonis-Heracleion and Naukratis, which was an inland harbour.


Naukratis was unique in that it was, both, a royal Egyptian port and a Greek port of trade. The sanctuaries found here were dedicated to patron deities of seafaring – the Dioskouroi, who were the twin sons of Zeus; and Aphrodite, who was also the guardian of safe voyages. There were also sanctuaries dedicated to Hera, Apollo and Zeus. The earliest stone temple for Apollo was built around 560BC at Naukratis.

It was those who participated in the daily life and rituals of the people of Egypt – like Greek traders and mercenaries – who would have been at the forefront of enabling understanding between Egypt and Greece. They would have been the ones taking, not only goods, but also Egyptian ideas about the afterlife and the origins of the gods, knowledge of medicine and craftsmanship, back to their homeland.


The Decree of Sais - a royal decree issued by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, regarding the taxation of trade passing through Thonis-Heracleion and Naukratis. About 6.5ft tall, the clarity of detail is astounding, considering it is almost 2400 years old.

In 332BC, Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, freeing it from the unwelcome rule of Darius III, Great King of Persia. Although he was a foreign conqueror, the Egyptians hailed Alexander as their liberator for they greatly disliked the Persians. Taking up residence in Memphis, Alexander performed the traditional duties of a pharaoh, including making sacrifices to the local royal god, the Apis bull. While maintaining his Greek heritage, Alexander was successfully accepted in Egypt. He crossed the Libyan Desert to the oracle shrine of Zeus-Ammon, an Egyptian god with Greek and Libyan components. The oracle there recognised him as the son of Zeus-Ammon, and Alexander’s rule was seen as divinely ordained.

Following Alexander’s death in 323BC, it was his trusted friend, Ptolemy, who took over Egypt. He was crowned in 305BC, and as Ptolemy I Soter I, he founded a new dynasty, the Ptolemies, who ruled until the reign of Cleopatra III. Under the Ptolemies, the city of Alexandria grew into one of the greatest intellectual and cultural centres of the ancient world, which benefitted the nearby cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. The Ptolemies were also responsible for building some of the best-known temples, including Dendera, Edfu and Philae.

The Rosetta Stone bears a decree, which established the divine cult of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, ‘a token of gratitude from Egyptian priests for restoring cosmic order (maat) by fulfilling his cultic duties’. The decree is written in 3 scripts – hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek.

Rosetta Stone, British Museum

Rosetta Stone, British Museum

This royal cult did not replace that of the deities but, instead, enhanced it. Neither was it limited to the male ruler for it also embraced the cult of the queen; the mother, wife or daughter of the pharaoh were usually portrayed with divine attributes. The daughter of Ptolemy I Soter I, Arsinoe, gained divine status after her death, and was very popular with both, Egyptians and Greeks, who worshipped her as a Greco-Egyptian goddess. The Egyptians identified her as Isis, while the Greeks saw her as Hera and Aphrodite.

Statue of Arsinoe II

Statue of Arsinoe II

The patron deity of Alexandria and the protector of the Ptolemaic dynasty is one I’d never heard of until I saw him at the exhibition – Serapis. His name is derived from Osiris-Apis, the sacred bull of Memphis and a form of Osiris unique to the area. The Apis bull was carefully selected; he had to have certain markings, and was seen as a representative of the creator god, Ptah, who was also the chief deity of Memphis. The bull was crowned like a pharaoh, served by priests and had his own harem of cows. On his death, the bull became Osiris-Apis. Serapis is seen to be a Greek version of Osiris-Apis, and an amalgamation of Zeus, Hades, Dionysus and Asklepios (god of medicine).

Serapis bust from Alexandria

Serapis bust from Alexandria

The Apis bull, Alexandria. This statue is life-size, just over 6ft in height and 6.7ft in length. Again, the detail is amazing.

I thought, at this point, we were nearing the end of the exhibition. How wrong I was. We were at the ‘Myth and Mysteries of Osiris’. After the part detailing the ‘myth’, which involved the death and resurrection of Osiris, there was ‘the Mysteries of Osiris’, the most important ritual celebrations of the year. It took place in the month of Khoiak, the last month of the Nile Inundation when the flood waters receded, and the fields were ready for cultivation. The Inundation season itself was called Akhet, and lasted from mid-July to mid-November.

Osiris seated

Osiris seated, Saqqara. We couldn't get over how 'new' some of the statues looked; how did the craftsmen achieve the satin polish?

False door, Sais. False doors were imitation doorways placed in tombs. They faced west, linking the living and the dead. Here, Osiris is the central figure flanked by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

Priests made a figure of Osiris called an Osiris ‘vegetans’, which was basically a corn mummy. Earth, barley and floodwater were placed in 2 halves of a golden mould, and watered until the plants sprouted; this symbolised eternally renewed life. The Osiris vegetans was then included in a ritual event, carried on a papyrus barque on the sacred lake of the temple. In total, 34 boats were sailed, each carrying a deity; the lamps on the boats numbered 365, representing the days in the year.

This ornament, called a pectoral, was worn on the chest; it was found in the grave of king Sheshonq II at Tanis. It depicts the solar barque sailing on the primeval waters under a star-filled sky, flanked by the goddesses Isis and Nephthys.

The Greek god who was likened to Osiris was Dionysus. Herodotus wrote that he learnt of this from Egyptian priests; later, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch noted similarities between the 2 deities. Dionysus brought civilisation to humanity; he was dismembered by the Titans and revived by Rhea who reassembled his limbs; and he was “the lord and master… of the nature of every sort of moisture” (Plutarch).

Dionysus was not the only Greek god who found his counterpart in an Egyptian deity. Apollo was likened to Horus; the Titan Typhon to Seth; and Hermes’ counterpart was Thoth. As for the rest of the pantheon – Amun was linked to Zeus; Mut to Hera; Khonsu to Herakles; Isis/Hathor to Demeter/Aphrodite; and Neith to Athena.

The exhibition finished with ‘Egypt and Rome’, the time of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. By this time, we’d been there for over 2 hours, and exhibition-fatigue had set in; I admit I didn’t pay much attention to the last part.

Ibis mummy, Saqarra. Associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom, ibis was one of the most important animals worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. The dark patch on the linen wrappings is resin. The X-ray on the right shows that it contains a completely preserved ibis. 

Queen (possibly Cleopatra III) dressed as Isis, Thonis-Heracleion

Queen (possibly Cleopatra III) dressed as Isis, Thonis-Heracleion

I’m pretty sure this is one of the most extensive exhibitions we’ve been to in a long time. It was well worth it, and I’m glad we got the chance to see it.


Statue of Horus protecting pharaoh. The pharaoh shown is Nectanebo II, the last native pharaoh of Egypt. The falcon's eyes were inlaid with glass, but only the left one has remained intact. 

It’s hard to grasp the scale of some of the statues when you look at the pictures. It was more than a little daunting standing before them as they towered over us. More than ever now, I want to visit Egypt.

Statues of Ptolemaic king and queen, Thonis-Heracleion

Statues of Ptolemaic king and queen, Thonis-Heracleion. The king's statue is about 16.4ft high; the queen is just over 16ft. 

The Sunday Section: Ancient Egypt - The Osiris Myth

Perhaps the most popular and elaborate story in Ancient Egyptian mythology is that of the murder of Osiris.  

Osiris (wikimedia commons)

One reason for its popularity is that the characters and their emotions mirror that of real people.  According to the Egyptologist, J Gwyn Griffiths, the myth conveys a “ strong sense of family loyalty and devotion”.  Another reason is the myth’s implication of a pleasant afterlife for the deceased.  Also, the myth’s complex symbolism embraces key Egyptian concepts of kingship and succession, ma’at and chaos, and death and the afterlife.  Interestingly, the elements that made up the worship of Isis, Osiris, Nephthys and Set were derived from this myth.

There is no one standard version of the Osiris myth as it was used in many ways, with different conflicting versions.  Of all the interpretations, this is the one I’m most familiar with.  Curiously, despite the numerous references to the murder of Osiris, the act itself is never clearly described.  This is because the Egyptians believed that written words had the power to affect reality.  The story is, more or less, in two parts, with Osiris’ death and resurrection in the first, and his son, Horus, battling Set in the second.

Osiris, the first son of Geb and Nut, took over ruling Egypt when Geb retired to the heavens.  After marrying his sister, Isis, Osiris began his wise reign of the Egyptians.  Turning them from cannibalism, he introduced them to farming instead; and also framed a legal code for them.  Under his wise rule, the country flourished.  Eager to share his knowledge and wisdom to the world, he entrusted the rule of the land to his queen, and left to travel the world.  Under Isis’ equally wise rule, the land continued to thrive.

Osiris and Isis

However, all was not well in the land.  Osiris’ brother, Set, nursed a murderous hatred for his brother, envying Osiris’ power.  He used his cunning to gain allies, whom he also bribed to ensure their loyalty, and they set about devising a plan to kill Osiris when he returned.  Set found out Osiris’ exact measurements, and had a box made that would fit only him.

When Osiris returned, Set held a banquet in his brother’s honour.  After much food had been eaten, and much beer drunk, Set ordered the beautiful cedar box, inlaid with ebony and ivory, gold and silver, to be brought into the hall, saying that he would make a gift of it to the person who fitted it exactly.  Everyone present took their turn but it fit none of them.  Until Osiris stepped in and lay down, smiling in surprise at the exact fit.  In the next instant, Set and his fellow conspirators slammed the lid shut, and sealed it with lead.  The box was then thrown into the Nile, and Set announced that he was now king of Egypt.

Set (L)

Consumed with grief, Isis travelled along the Nile, searching for the box that contained her husband, so she could bury him properly.  Her search eventually led her to Phoenicia where she met the queen.  Keeping her identity secret, she was taken on as a nurse to the queen’s infant son.  Growing fond of the child, Isis decided to bestow immortality on him.  Waiting until night when all were asleep, she performed a ritual that involved holding the infant over a fire to burn away his mortality.  But the queen entered the room before the ritual was complete.  Seeing her son being held over a fire, she screamed and snatched her son away, undoing Isis’ spell.  She demanded an explanation, and Isis revealed her true identity.  Awed, the queen begged forgiveness, and asked why Isis was travelling as a commoner.  Isis spoke of her quest to recover her husband’s body, and she described the box that held Osiris.  Shocked, the queen realised that the box Isis described was in her house.  She explained that a box had become lodged in a tamarisk bush, which had swiftly grown into a mighty tree; her husband had had it cut down to be made into a pillar in their hall.  On being told, the king ordered the tree to be cut down, and the box was revealed.  Tearing it open, Isis wept over the body of her husband. 

Carrying the box back to Egypt, Isis, and her sister, Nephthys, set about reviving Osiris.  They were aided by Thoth with his magical and healing powers, and Anubis, the god of embalming and funerary rites.  

Osiris between Isis and Nephthys - Dendera temple complex (Francesco Gasparetti)

Once Osiris was made whole, Isis, hovering over him in the form of a bird, conceived their son, Horus.  

Isis in bird form hovering over Osiris, with Isis and Horus, as yet unborn, on either side - Abydos (Olaf Tausch)

Osiris rising between Isis and Nephthys

But, once claimed by death, not even a god can remain in the land of the living.  Osiris descended to the Netherworld, t Duat, to stand in judgment over the souls of the dead.

Osiris with Isis and Nephthys (isiopolis)

To hide from Set and his followers, Isis hid in the swamps of the Nile delta; it was here that she gave birth to Horus, and raised him, with the help of Nephthys, who was Horus’ nursemaid and watchful guardian.

Osiris, Isis and infant Horus (Andrew Bossi)

Learning of Horus’ existence, knowing that the child was the rightful heir, Set sent demons and snakes to kill the child, but, each time, Isis and Nephthys successfully protected him, and he grew into adulthood, strong and ready to face his uncle.


Horus challenged Set for the throne, and they fought for many days.  Although violent, the contest has also been described as a legal judgment before the Ennead, a group of 9 deities in Egyptian mythology, to decide who should inherit the throne.  (Confusingly, the Ennead, who were worshipped at Heliopolis, consisted, not only, of Atum, his children, Shu and Tefnut, their children, Geb and Nut, but also their children, Osiris, Isis, Set and Nephthys.)

In the course of the conflict, mutilations were inflicted by both parties, with Set tearing out one of Horus’ eyes, and Horus injuring Set’s testicles.  The damage that Set endured signified a loss of virility and strength.  But the loss of the Eye of Horus was more important.  As a sky deity, Horus’ right eye was said to be the sun, and his left eye, the moon.  The loss of the Eye of Horus was equated with the darkening of the moon, and eclipses.  In Egyptian religion, the return of the Eye of Horus represented the return of the moon to its full brightness, the kingship being bestowed on Horus, and other aspects ofma’at

Horus, helped by Isis, spearing Set, in the guise of a hippopotamus

The resolution of the conflict is, again, varied.  One view has Horus and Set dividing the realm between them, with Horus receiving the fertile lands around the Nile, and Set having the barren desert.  Another view is that Horus triumphed, and Set was totally defeated, and exiled from Egypt.  Horus took the throne, and Egypt, finally, had its rightful king.  The land flourished again, and Horus sired 4 sons from whom the line of Pharaohs were descended.

Horus and Set, tying the papyrus and the lotus, symbols for Lower and Upper Egypt repectively, showing the balance between them ( tour egypt)

Horus wearing the double crown of Egypt (cow of gold)

The Eye of Horus, flanked by the Four Sons of Horus

Horus protecting Khafre

A couple of interesting notes – one of the reasons given for Set’s hatred of his brother was that he discovered his wife, Nephthys, had seduced Osiris, and borne their son, Anubis.  I always found that confusing as it was Nephthys who mourned with Isis over Osiris, and it was she who was Horus’ ‘nursing-mother’ and guardian.  


But recent Egyptological research now holds that there is little evidence linking Nephthys and Set.  Jessica Levai, in her paper, ‘Nephthys and Seth: Anatomy of a Mythical Marriage’, argues that the evidence suggests that:

“… while Nephthys’ marriage to Set was a part of Egyptian mythology, it was not a part of the myth of the murder and resurrection of Osiris.  She was not paired with Set the villain, but with Set’s other aspect, the benevolent figure who was the killer of Apophis.  This was the aspect of Set worshipped in the western oases during the Roman period, where he is depicted with Nephthys as co-ruler.

Set with Nephthys (joan lansberry)

Also, the part of the story that tells of Isis attempting to bestow immortality on the Phoenician queen’s son is very similar to the Greek mythological story of Demeter searching for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped by Hades, Lord of the Underworld; as a gift to Celeus' for his hospitality, Demeter had sought to make his son, Demophon, immortal.

So, dear reader, that concludes the Sunday Section of Ancient Egypt.  I haven’t decided what the next Section is going to cover.  I won’t be posting next week as I’ll probably be recovering from a late Saturday night, celebrating the wedding of the daughter of one of my best friends; her daughter is Gordon’s first friend – they’ve known each other since he was 8 months old …

The Sunday Section: Ancient Egypt - The Story of Isis

Isis is the goddess of the moon, magic and medicine, wisdom, fertility, love and healing.  

Temple of Isis at Philae (wikimedia commons)

First worshipped in Ancient Egypt, her worship later spread through the Roman Empire, and she is still worshipped today.  Seen as the personification of the ‘complete female’, her names include ‘The One Who Is All’, and the ‘Lady of Ten Thousand Names’.

Isis leading Horus and Hathor - Temple of Isis, Philae

She is one of the few deities who actually spent time among the people.  She taught women how to make bread, and to weave cloth.  She taught her people the skills of reading, and that of agriculture.  After the death of her husband, Osiris, she took on the mantle of a goddess of the dead, and of funeral rites.

Isis protecting Osiris with her wings

Her symbols include the full moon, the ankh, rivers and the ocean, papyrus, and wings.  As a goddess of the dead, she is shown with a was sceptre – a long, straight staff with a forked end, which represents a stylized animal head.  The sceptre was used as a symbol of power, was meaning ‘power’ or ‘dominion’.  When shown in a funerary context, the sceptre was responsible for the well-being of the deceased.

Isis leading Nefertari, and holding the was sceptre

Isis wears an unusual step headdress, which looks like a throne, and symbolises the throne of Egypt.  

The crown she wears is the cow horns crown, which shows the sun cradled between the horns; it often includes the uraeus.

In the beginning, the most powerful of the deities was Ra, the god of the sun.  But he was an uncaring god, and humanity suffered.  None could usurp him, for none knew his secret name, which was the source of his power over life and death.  In the hopes of tricking Ra into divulging his secret name, the goddess Isis conceived a plan.  Mixing some of his saliva with mud, she created a snake with the sole purpose of biting Ra.  As the snake’s poison mingled with his blood, so too did pain suffuse the sun god.  Being the goddess of healing, Isis offered to devise a cure.  Unwilling at first, he eventually agreed as the pain increased.  She told him that, for the cure to work, she would have to speak his secret name.  He refused to give it.  Until his suffering became too much to bear, and, reluctantly, he whispered it to her.  Isis uttered his name as she performed her magic, and Ra was healed.  With the knowledge of Ra’s secret name, Isis, too, possessed the same powers of life and death.  Using her powers to benefit the people, she soon became the most powerful of the gods and goddesses.

Isis married her brother, Osiris, and, together, they had Horus.  When her brother-husband was murdered by Set, Isis used her magic to restore his body to life.  The story of Isis bringing Osiris back to life gained importance during the Greco-Roman period; it was believed that the yearly flooding of the Nile was caused by the sorrowful tears Isis wept for Osiris.

Isis, Osiris and Horus (Louvre Museum)

Isis suckling Horus (Metropolitan Museum)

I shall tell the story of Isis and Osiris in next week’s Sunday Section.

The Sunday Section: Ancient Egypt - The Story of Sekhmet

I was going to finish the ‘Ancient Egypt’ section last week, but, having listed the deities, I wanted to share more of their stories, like that of Isis and Osiris.  But I’ll start with one of my favourites, Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess, one of the oldest known Egyptian deities. 

Medinet Habu temple, west bank of the Nile at Luxor

Before the unification of the land, Upper and Lower Egypt had different patrons and protectors – Sekhmet was the warrior goddess for Upper Egypt, and Wadjet was the patron and protector of Lower Egypt.

Wadjet was also the protector of kings, and of women in childbirth.  Her name is linked to the symbol of Lower Egypt, the papyrus, and means ‘papyrus-coloured one’;  wadj being the word for ‘green’ (the colour of the papyrus plant), and et, an indication of her gender.  Associated with the land, she was depicted either as a snake-headed woman, or the Egyptian cobra.

Wadjet wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt (flickr)

The image of the uraeus with the sun disk represents Wadjet, and was the emblem of the crown of the rulers of Lower Egypt.

The Hawk of Pharaoh, Hatshepsut's Temple, Luxor (Steve FE Cameron)

Wadjet is shown as a uraeus sun disk with her head through an ankh, and also as a cobra preceding the Horus hawk wearing the double crown of the united Egypt

She was also closely associated with the Eye of Ra, a powerful protective deity.  Her symbol as protector is the Wadjet Eye, which is also known as the Eye of Horus.

Her link with Horus is possibly due to the belief that she helped Isis nurse the infant Horus, and helped hide him from Set and his followers.

Wadjet with the Horus-child (Metropolitan Museum)

Wadjet was later linked with Bast, the war goddess of Lower Egypt, and, in that form, was known as Wadjet-Bast.  As Bast was a lioness, Wadjet-Bast was depicted with a lioness head.

Wadjet-Bast (Louvre Museum)

When Upper Egypt conquered Lower Egypt, and they were unified, the lioness goddess of Upper Egypt, Sekhmet, was seen as the more powerful.  As often happens, Wadjet-Bast was merged with Sekhmet.  Despite this assimilation, the symbols of Wadjet are still visible in the form of her solar disc and uraeus.

Sekhmet at Medinet Habu, mortuary temple of Usimare Ramesses III

A solar deity, Sekhmet is thought to be the daughter of Ra, and is usually associated with Hathor and Bast.  Apart from the solar disc and uraeus, another of Sekhmet’s symbols is the ankh.  She was not only the warrior goddess of Upper Egypt, she was also the goddess of healing.  Known as a terrifying goddess, and one who could cure disease, she was called, both, the ‘lady of terror’, and the ‘lady of life’. 

At Medinet Habu temple

Sekhmet’s name comes from the Ancient Egyptian word, sekhem, which means ‘power’ or ‘might’.  Her name is usually translated as the ‘Powerful One’, or ‘She Who is Powerful’.  Her other titles include, ‘She Before Whom Evil Trembles’; ‘Mistress of Dread’; ‘Lady of Slaughter’; and ‘She Who Mauls’.  Also known as the ‘Lady of Pestilence’, it was believed that she could send plagues against those who angered her.

Sekhmet (Glencairn Museum, Pennsylvania)

As the protector of Ma’at – balance or justice – another of Sekhmet’s names is ‘The One Who Loves Ma’at and Who Detests Evil’.  The story goes that humanity had grown negligent in observing Ra’s laws, and were no longer preservingma’at.  Angered, Ra decided to punish them.  He plucked Hathor from his brow, and sent this Eye of Ra to teach mankind a lesson.  Taking the form of a lioness, she became Sekhmet, and rampaged through the land, staining it red with the blood of the people.  Not a vengeful god, Ra grew distressed at the people’s suffering, and ordered Sekhmet to stop.  But she could not hear him, so consumed was she with bloodlust.  Ra then ordered thousands of jugs of beer stained red with pomegranate juice to be readied, and he poured them in her path.  Believing it to be more blood, Sekhmet consumed it all.  The beer had the desired effect; drunk with the beer, she fell asleep, and slept for 3 days.  On awakening, her bloodlust had dissipated, and mankind was saved.

Necklace from 19-20 Dynasty