Charlotte Higgins travels to the Nile Delta to meet the archaeologists uncovering the spellbinding secrets of ancient Naukratis
Near the tiny farming villages of Rashwan and Abu Mishfa in the Nile Delta – the kind of villages where you might see a girl tugging on the harness of a recalcitrant water buffalo as she leads it out to graze, or a mule-drawn cart loaded with animal feed – is a scrappy lake, the haunt of innumerable egrets. Under this lake, and surrounding fields and houses, lie the remains of Naukratis, a city established by Greeks as a trading port in around 620BC. It is here that a British Museum excavation is under way, and some of the archaeologists’ most intriguing discoveries in the city – which you might think of as a kind of Hong Kong of the ancient world – are about to form part of a major exhibition.
There is a lot of this intriguing cultural mingling in Egypt, and it runs right through to the Romans. In the catacombs of Kom el-Shoqafa in Alexandria, a Roman family is buried in an elaborate tomb arranged like a pedimented temple with niches for the sarcophagi, which are decorated with flower garlands and tragic masks – altogether very classical. But the pediment is carved with Egyptian falcons, the Roman couple are depicted as Egyptian from the neck down (another kilt and striding left leg) and the relief carvings above their tombs are of Egyptian scenes, including Anubis presiding over a mummification. Nearby, in the sanctuary below the temple of Serapis – a Greek-friendly version of Osiris – the Roman emperor Hadrian dedicated an extraordinary, lifesize bronze bull representing the Egyptian god Apis. A replica is in situ, but the original can be seen in the British Museum exhibition.