These are dark days. I was in London when the results of the referendum came out. I was still reeling with shock and dismay that afternoon when I went to the Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds exhibition at the British Museum. For an hour and a half I lost myself in this wonderful exhibition.
The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile and were buried under the sea for over a thousand years. Underwater excavation has been taking place over the last twenty years. Objects in the exhibition range from colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. I was moved by the serenity and beauty of some of the figures which, like the one in foreground of this photo, fused Greek and Egyptian styles. I was fascinated by the sacred offerings and ritual objects related to the cult of Osiris – the god of the underworld. I came out feeling that I had escaped for a while and visited one of the great civilisations of the past. And I remembered that all things pass after all.
On the way home I stopped off at Hatchard’s and treated myself to another form of escapism. I bought Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin and spent the journey back to Chesterfield in the company of an old friend, John Rebus. There’s not much that can’t be made better by a good book or the consolation of art.
Last week I visited this exhibition at the British Museum. It covers a period of twelve centuries from 30 BC, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, to AD 1171 and tells the story of the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to the monotheism. When Constantine was converted to Christianity, Christianity gradually became the dominant religion, only to be displaced by the Islamic invasion of the seventh century. There was also a Jewish community.
There is a lot to take on board from the informative panels and I found this fascinating, but of course the objects are the stars of the show: textiles, coins, manuscripts, jewellery, pottery. It wasn’t always the most precious or the showiest objects that have stuck in my mind. Egypt’s hot, dry climate allowed things to be preserved that in other cultures have vanished. It was touching to see a stripy child’s sock, a toy horse, and a mummy portrait of a little girl, who had died aged seven.
Although there was occasional tension and violence between the different communities, there were long periods when the communities lived peacefully side by side and were influenced by each other in their arts and crafts.
I came out of the exhibition thinking of the words of the Quaker, William Penn, written in 1693, ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion: and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers.’ At the week-end after the events in Paris, it was good to hold on to this thought. The exhibition is a timely one and I recommend it. It runs until the 7 February.