From Antiquity, poets and writers praised Alexandria’s cosmopolitan and refined character, a veritable “crossroads of the world” where all the peoples of the earth seemed to have met: Egyptians, Greeks from Asia Minor, Macedonians , Thracians, Jews, Gauls, Nabataeans, Africans… In what probably looked like a “New York before its time”, everything was then only economic effervescence and exaltation of knowledge. Founded around 290 BC. J.-C. by Ptolémée Ier, the Library preserved within it all the memory of the world, while the Museum recruited the flower of the Hellenized intelligentsia: grammarians, philologists, but also mathematicians, geographers, astronomers, doctors, zoologists … The “Alexandria: Futures Prior” exhibition at the Mucem in Marseille attempts to resuscitate the ghosts of the mythical city.
A martyr city
However, from the prestigious past of the Alexandrian megalopolis, only rare archaeological remains remain. “Alexandria is a martyr city, which has experienced disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.) that have caused much destruction. It also shares many points with Marseille. Like the city of Marseille, it is a port city turned towards the sea, in the grip of galloping urbanization, “explains the Egyptologist Arnaud Quertinmont, one of the four curators of the exhibition. The fortuitous discovery, in 1997, of the “Necropolis”, a gigantic “city of the dead” that arose as a result of urban planning works, was to shake the scientific community all the more…
Cobra bracelet, 4th century AD. AD, gold, Morlanwelz, Royal Museum of Mariemont © Royal Museum of Mariemont
“The Second Athens”
Through some 200 archaeological pieces from the largest European museum collections, the exhibition attempts to revive what was nicknamed the “second Athens” as it was full of works of art and sumptuous monuments, including the famous lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Among the exceptional loans, we should mention this magnificent bronze statuette from the 3rd-2nd century BC representing Alexander the Great on horseback (Gandur Foundation for Art), this precious gold coin juxtaposing the profiles of Ptolemy I and of Berenice I, the founding couple of the Ptolemaic dynasty (Royal Museum of Mariemont), or even this painting from the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, whose scene is probably inspired by an Alexandrian model (Archaeological Museum of Naples).
Io welcomed by Isis at Canopus, 1st century AD. AD, fresco. Naples, Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli © Alamy Stock Photo
However, it is regrettable that the superb mosaics that adorned the most refined residences of Alexandria are only evoked through photographic reproductions, however faithful they may be. “For public institutions, it is indeed becoming more and more difficult and expensive to borrow pieces kept in Egyptian museums”, lamented Arnaud Quertinmont on the day of the opening.
Jar with sphinx, Bes and oudjat eye motifs, 4th-1st century BC. AD, green and blue earthenware. Geneva, Fondation Gandur pour l’art © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Geneva; photo: Gregory Maillot
Archeology and contemporary art: a missed opportunity
But the disappointment comes mainly from the orchestrated confrontation between the archaeological pieces and the works of sixteen contemporary artists invited to take a look at the city. Belonging to the artistic scene of Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine and the United States, the latter thus deliver a conceptual and disembodied vision, at the antipodes of the cultural abundance and overflowing vitality of Alexandria. ancient and modern.
Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Gordian Knot, 2013, ceramic © Aslı Çavuşoğlu. Courtesy Isabella & Mehmet Içöz, photo: Hadiye Cangökçe
It is to be feared that the public will be somewhat disappointed in front of these videos or these installations, to say the least hermetic. We will all the more regret the absence of photographs of the city and its inhabitants, so magnificently celebrated by these two lovers of Alexandria, the poet Constantin Cavafy (1833-1963) or the filmmaker Youssef Chahine (1926-2008) .
Alexandria: Future Anteriors
Mucem, 1 Esplanade J4, 13002 Marseille
Until May 8, 2023
Trailer of the exhibition “Alexandria: future precedents”
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