The lobby of the Minneapolis Institute of Art has two new greeters. They arrived here from Egypt, they’re 16 feet tall, made of red-speckled granite, weigh upward of 8,000 pounds and are at least 22 centuries old. They definitely won’t ask you to check your bag.
These towering statues of a pharaoh and his queen were discovered by underwater archaeologists buried in silt 30 feet deep. They sank into the salty Mediterranean Sea more than 1,200 years ago along with the cities of Thonis-Heracleion, ancient Egypt’s largest port, and Canopus, where rituals honoring the god of death and the afterlife, Osiris, were carried out.
These and roughly 280 other objects excavated from the sea are now on display in a massive new exhibition, “Egypt’s Sunken Cities,” opening Sunday and running through April 14 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
“The excavation actually changed our whole understanding and knowledge of these two cities in Egypt as well as the whole worship of the god Osiris,” said museum director and President Kaywin Feldman. “There are a few objects that only the pharaoh saw during ancient Egypt, but now people will be seeing them here in Minneapolis.”
Deeper inside the museum, another giant awaits. Hapy (pronounced “HAAA-bee”), the 9,700-pound, 18-foot-tall Egyptian god of the Nile, towers through two stories of the museum’s rotunda.
“Some people, they think he is a man because of the beard; other people think he is a woman because of the body,” said Mostafa Waziry, pointing to the statue’s breasts. “In fact, he is both,” said Waziri, who is secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and traveled to Minneapolis to help present the show. “He can create by himself by having the two sexes: male and female.”
These three enormous guests are a teaser for a rich, multilayered exhibition, centered around 20-plus years of excavations led by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, offering a hearty amount of historical information, ritual objects, vases, sarcophagi and voluptuous sculptures of royalty and gods.
Unlike the Roman city of Pompeii, which disappeared in a sudden volcanic eruption, these cities on the shifting Nile River Delta sank slowly into the sea over time.
Greetings from the pharaoh
Near the beginning of the exhibition, visitors are greeted by one of Goddio’s most exciting finds: a stele, or welcome sign, erected at Thonis-Heracleion around 380 B.C. by Nectanebo I, first pharaoh of the 30th dynasty — Egypt’s last, as it battled Persian invaders before eventually relinquishing control to Alexander the Great and the Greeks.
“It’s an archaeologist’s dream come true,” Goddio said. “It tells you the story of the city, and the name of the city. It’s beautiful and intact. The hieroglyphics of the text explain that the pharaoh said that he is the greatest king of the universe, the most rich and powerful one, and that he is the one who keeps Egypt from invasion.”
There are countless treasures like this. The bulk of the show — and a new book, “Osiris: Egypt’s Sunken Mysteries” — is devoted to the mysteries of the cult of Osiris, but there also are sculptures by later Greek and Roman inhabitants of the port city that show the intermingling of cultures in this rich region.
Every year in ancient Egypt, a 20-day ritual was carried out to honor Osiris, culminating in a procession of boats along the 2-mile canal between Canopus and Thonis-Heracleion.
In one gallery, a giant projection shows the excavated remains of one of these ceremonial barges, made of sycamore, a wood considered sacred to Osiris and symbolic of rebirth. Nearby are offering dishes and ladles that were deliberately sunk with the barge.
Elsewhere, a massive black polished statue shows the god on a leonine bed that looks like an elaborate tomb. In it, he is reuniting with Isis, his wife, in the form of a bird of prey.
Egypt and globalization
“The show offers an intermingling of aesthetics,” showing Egypt as an early example of globalization through its trade in the Mediterranean and colonization by the Greeks and Romans, said Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, the museum’s curator of African art.
Overseeing this exhibition has been an intense experience for Grootaers, even though he isn’t responsible for its curation.
“Both the scale and the antiquity are new for me,” he said. “And to see it is kind of moving — these sculptures we know were made around 2,500 years ago, and to see the facial expressions, especially of the king, and to know that people saw this in their city.”
Feldman first saw the traveling exhibition at the British Museum in London during one of its three European stops. Two years ago at a conference in Mexico City, she and St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin brainstormed a partnership to bring the exhibition to the United States. (The show traveled to St. Louis before coming to Minneapolis.)
Feldman is an archaeologist herself, having completed an undergraduate degree in Greek and Roman archaeology at the University of Michigan. For six summers in her youth, she dug in the dirt at an Iron Age site in southern France.
“I want to stimulate the imagination of kids today,” she said. “I grew up in England as a child, and I vividly remember the first museum exhibition I went to as a child on a school trip was a Pompeii show at the Royal Academy and it made such an impact on me.”
The Minneapolis Institute of Art has big ambitions for this show. The last time it showcased Egyptian artifacts was 2003’s “Eternal Egypt” — which became one of the 10 best attended exhibitions in the museum’s history.
Just a fraction have been found
This excavation presented added challenges. The waters of Egypt’s Aboukir Bay are turbid, and visibility is extremely low.
“You don’t see 1 meter in front of you,” Goddio said. “Sometimes the water is so murky because of the sediment of the Nile that you have to nearly walk blind.”
Moreover, objects are covered in 1,000-plus years of sea salt. “We built three different labs in Egypt: One on the boat and two on the land,” said Olivier Berger, who is part of Goddio’s crew. “We built a swimming pool to host them where we remove the salt, and clean them with chemicals or mechanically.”
Some objects were soaked in freshwater for more than a year.
There are 280-some objects in this exhibition, but for Goddio the work has really just begun.
“If you consider that Pompeii has been under excavation for more than two centuries, can you imagine the time we need to excavate all of Thonis-Heracleion?” he said. “I figure we have not found more than 5 percent of this. And for Canopus, we found that the city was much bigger than what I thought. Since the exhibition, I can say we haven’t found more than 5 percent of Canopus.”
Egypt's Sunken Cities
When: Nov. 4-April 14. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Wed. and Sat.; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.-Fri. Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S. Tickets: $16-$20, free for ages 5 and under. Info: 1-888-642-2787, artsmia.org.