BY CARLOTTA MAHER
All who love London have their own city; my London is in its superb museums. David and I arrived in London by way of Dubrovnik, where David had attended an Internet conference. My Croatian sightseeing was in the delightful company of two other spouses who firmly pulled me up the very steep stone steps of the old city. The steps were extremely slippery after heavy rainstorms. We ate lunch under a tarp listening to rain beat down, huddling under blankets provided by the management. Later, under the threat of fierce lightning and thunder, we took refuge in the tiny Dubrovnik post office until the power failed and we were kicked back out into the storm “for security reasons.”
On to London, which for once was dry and cool. Bored by the usual cozy (i.e. small) London hotel rooms, we took a junior suite in Le Méridien on Piccadilly. It was a perfect location for art, food, transport, and glorious shopping. On previous trips, we had stayed at the Morgan, beloved by Egyptologists because of its location around the corner from the British Museum. It is still a worthy establishment if you can do without a lift.
Our immediate objective was the splendid show “Sunken Cities, Egypt’s Lost Worlds” currently featured at the British Museum, displaying spectacular finds from underwater exploration off the coast of Egypt in the Mediterranean. The lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, perfectly preserved beneath Aboukir Bay, show the blending of Egypt and Greco-Roman culture from the seventh century B.C., when Greeks first started trading with Egypt and established cities there. The cities later subsided into the Mediterranean, as Venice is doing today. The underwater cities were first observed by RAF pilots in 1933, but it was not until 1996, with new geophysical technology, that the cities were rediscovered.
After Alexander the Great founded Alexandria and moved on to fight Persians, generations of pharaohs named Ptolemy ruled Egypt. They brought the Greek love of natural forms and graceful curves to the more rigid Egyptian art. They added Greek love of philosophy and science to the ancient learning of Egypt. In the exhibit, statues more than sixteen feet high are interspersed with videos of Franck Goddio and his team of divers bringing this statuary to the surface.
When I started my Egyptian studies fifty years ago, Ptolemaic hieroglyphs were considered unreadable, and the art “late and decadent.” Now my colleagues prefer to call the Ptolemies “late and sophisticated. ” Sophisticated they are. The sculpture is extraordinarily beautiful, especially a black stone statue of Arsinoe II. (Unfortunately, photography was not permitted in the exhibit.)
The exhibit also demonstrates how Egyptian and Greek gods had joint identities. For example, Osiris–Apis assumed the attributes of Hades–Dionysos and Zeus. Serapis, a Greco-Roman god invented by the Ptolemies, became so popular that he lasted well into Roman times. Goddio has identified forty-two square miles of buildings and artifacts under the water. He estimates that what is now recovered is only five percent of the total. We hope for many more shows like this one!
Of course, the talk turned to Brexit. Amedee, after 15 years in the European Parliament, agrees that the EU has become a nearly dead bureaucracy. He shared:
“The Germans are happy with bureaucracy, the French know how to ignore it, but frankly, the EU is boring to Englishmen. Though it would be boring for Britain to stay in the EU, the future outside looks economically grim. We must leave the EU as the referendum demands but keep the economic benefits. We can only do this if we accept unlimited immigration from Europe, and it seems that Theresa May has ruled this out. Let’s hope that she has some magic wand up her sleeve. We shall need it. Watch out for a miracle!”
The next day, a refreshing lunch at the Wine Bar of Fortnum and Mason preceded my second trip to the Museum. In keeping with the Near Eastern theme, I tried a pleasant English rosé from Camel Valley (Cornwall) with my rarebit. Dinner that night was at FishWorks on Swallow Street. The location is adjacent to the more famous Bentley’s. FishWorks is less formal, but the seafood is of a high standard, and the service was impeccable.
The following day, we met our dear friend, Daniel Bender, at the Arts Club (reciprocal with the Arts Club of Chicago) for lunch. London’s version of the Arts Club was founded in 1863 by, among others, Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope. We were struck by the high energy levels in the Brasserie and the upstairs bar. It was a large crowd, most under 50 years old. We consumed a nice bottle of Rully blanc.
Being a faithful Friend of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, I took Daniel for his very first visit there. This little-known collection with more than 80,000 objects is named for Sir Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), the father of scientific archaeology in Egypt. Sir Flinders trained many students on his digs, including Lawrence of Arabia. Petrie is responsible for excavating most of the objects in the museum.
The museum, part of University College London, is still located in the cramped temporary quarters assigned to it after World War II, once the stable of an old department store. Lighting has been improved, but flashlights are still available for visitors. Tiny white tags affixed to museum objects bear the handwriting of Petrie or his saintly wife, Hilda, who set off for her first Egyptian excavation with Sir Flinders a few hours after their marriage. The whole collection is a charming reminder of a time before museums looked like airports or playgrounds. And, although the museum is small, it was one of the first to put its objects up for viewing on the Internet.
Petrie’s digs were famous for spartan conditions. The legend is that cans of food, most without their labels, were thrown against the wall before meal times. If they exploded, the contents were deemed inedible. If not, they were consumed, regardless of the nature of the contents.
For dinner that day, David, Daniel, and I repaired to Bentley’s for another seafood feast. On previous visits, we had been seated upstairs in a quiet, somewhat stodgy dining room; this time we enjoyed a booth next to the bar downstairs, perfect for people-watching, especially at the magic hour of 7:30 when Londoners begin to dine. I discovered the joys of an oyster croquet-monsieur–unlikely but delicious.
My final day in London was a reprise of the British Museum. This time I branched out to include all of the ancient Near Eastern exhibits. It was poignant to see Assyrian reliefs from the ancient capitals recently destroyed by ISIS.
One happy discovery was a restored exhibit that had been off display for years; perhaps it was politically incorrect. It was a set of magnificent cylinder seals mounted in heavy gold to make a necklace, bracelet, and earrings for Lady Layard. Her husband, Sir Austen Layard, was the excavator of Nimrud and Nineveh. He was a member of Queen Victoria’s cabinet and it is reported that the Queen expressed great admiration for Lady Layard’s jewels! I agree with the Queen.
Though I’ve only just returned, already I’m longing to return to London.