Processions on the Nile

The annual ancient Egyptian celebration of the Mysteries
of Osiris
took place in all
major cities, including Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus.
It was the most important religious event of the year.
Osiris, lord of the underworld, was one of the most important and popular gods
and all rulers were believed to descend from him. The
Mysteries of Osiris were
celebrated between the 12th and 30th of the month of Khoiak (mid-October
to mid-November), when the Nile retreated, depositing fertile soil ready to be
sown. They reenacted Osiris’ murder and rebirth,
and culminated in two ritual processions.

The first procession took place
on the tenth day of the Mysteries of Osiris (22nd day of
Khoaik). Figures
of 33 gods accompanied a soil and barley figure of Osiris. Each figure was
placed in a papyrus barge measuring 67.5cm. Numerous offering models of these
barges have been discovered at the bottom of canals surrounding the Temple of
Amun-Gereb at Thonis-Heracleion, particularly the Grand Canal. They range in
size from 6 to 67.5cm and are made of lead –
a metal associated with Osiris. Their decoration imitates papyrus, mimicking
the real boats involved in this ritual. The barges were accompanied by 365 oil
lamps illuminating the fleet, one for each day of the year.

The second procession took
place on
the 29th day of Khoiak. A gilded wooden boat containing both Osiris
figures left the Temple of Amun-Gereb for a two-mile
journey. It travelled along the Grand Canal
from Thonis-Heracleion to the figures’ final resting place in the Osiris temple
in Canopus. Standards topped by emblems of a jackal-headed god, either Anubis
or Wepwawet (‘he who opens the way’), and the falcon-headed god Horus led the
way. The scene is depicted at Abydos, one of the main religious centres for
Osiris. The recent underwater finds at Canopus are incredible physical evidence of
these celebrations.

During the underwater excavations, numerous
ladles, oil lamps, statuettes and other offerings have been found at the bottom
of sacred canals. They illustrate the rituals and personal acts of devotion
made by participants, including Greeks, along the course of the procession.

The sunken city of Thonis-Heracleion has
revealed the largest quantity of bronze ritual equipment ever discovered in
Egypt. Metal objects like these were normally melted down in the past, but
because the city sank beneath the sea, a vast number of artefacts of unique
importance have been astonishingly well preserved. The objects here – ladles,
offering dishes and an incense burner – are evidence of the exceptional
celebrations that took place.

See spectacular objects excavated from these cities
that lay underwater for centuries in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (closing 27 November 2016).

Lead votive barques. Thonis-Heracleion, 400–100 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria.
Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Long-handled ladles. Thonis-Heracleion,
600–100 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©
Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Offering dishes. Thonis-Heracleion, 600–100
BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck
Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

Incense burner and shovel.  Thonis-Heracleion, 400–100 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

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