The lighthouse, the library, Alexander the Great, Cleopatra…: in Marseille, the Mucem intends to “remove the varnish” of the myth of Alexandria in an exhibition that plunges into the heart of the Egyptian city thanks to the back and forth between ancient pieces and contemporary creations.
Like Marseille and many other Mediterranean cities, “Alexandria is a port city, a city of emigration, a city of immigration, a cosmopolitan city,” says Arnaud Quertinmont, one of the curators of “Alexandria: Previous Futures” (until May 8 at the Museum of Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean, the Mucem).
Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., the city was the second largest city in the Roman world in antiquity, after Rome. Built to manage the trade of the Mediterranean basin, it is also a center of cultural, religious and scientific influence.
Through five sections exploring the city’s urban planning, the link between power and knowledge, the daily life of the Alexandrians, their religion and the city’s heritage, the exhibition, by juxtaposing some 200 archaeological works and historical testimonies with fifteen contemporary creations, intends to “scratch away at the myth that covers Alexandria and return to archaeology,” summarizes Arnaud Quertinmont.
However, he adds, “we must not evacuate this myth, it is excessively important and shapes our imagination”.
Alexandria is a place of astonishing “cultural bilingualism” – as shown, for example, by this small bronze of the pharaoh represented in the guise of Horus, a man with the head of a hawk adorned with an imperial armour, a symbol of Roman power. Alexandria also stands out for its multiple legacies, from scientific discoveries such as the bases of pneumatics and hydraulics, to its poetry and literature, which are developed in the city’s library and museum.
However, today there are few traces of ancient Alexandria: “Alexandria is a multiple city. Unlike other cities such as Rome, we do not have one occupation that is superimposed on another, the city center has moved,” points out Arnaud Quertinmont.
“Alexandria was partially razed by a tsunami in the 4th century A.D., it was bombed in the 19th century and today it is facing a galloping urbanism. It is therefore difficult to grasp the archaeological reality of Alexandria,” he adds.
Nevertheless, it remains today a city apart, in Egypt, as in the Mediterranean basin, summarizes Sarah Rifky, another of the curators of the exhibition.
“Alexandria is an incredibly important city to understand not only Egypt, but the whole Mediterranean, on the one hand because of its historical heritage (…) but also because the city has been an important node for capitalism and modernization of Egypt and for the essential symbolic political role it plays since the 1950s,” she said.