Midway through the British Museum’s new exhibition, Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs, we encounter an object that epitomises what the show is about. It is a basalt bust of Germanicus (Augustus’s great-nephew, and a beloved general of the early Roman Empire), which was probably carved after he visited Egypt shortly before his death in Antioch in AD 19.
As a sculpture, it is almost impossibly sleek: a quintessential example of the timeless, classicising tendency of Roman art under the Julio-Claudian dynasty of the first century AD. Germanicus is depicted as eternally youthful and heroic – a leader blessed with charisma. Unsurprisingly, he is being used as the poster boy for the exhibition.
Yet, unlike the stunning bronze head of Augustus, which appears at the exhibition’s start, the portrait of Germanicus is in a mutilated state. The likeness of Augustus was once part of a larger-than-life-size statue that stood on Egypt’s southern frontier but was captured by the rival Kushites and buried as booty in what is now Sudan. As a result, it is in near-flawless condition, complete with calcite, glass and plaster eyes.
The image of Germanicus, by contrast, suffered a more savage fate. Long after the Julio-Claudians had lost control of Egypt, somebody set about the bust by hacking off its nose as well as chunks of its right ear.
At the same time, perhaps, someone also incised a scratchy Christian cross on Germanicus’s forehead. It is a rude, rushed, vicious piece of carving, providing a chilling contrast to the polished poise of the original sculpture. With a few strokes of a chisel, this champion of a bygone pagan era was branded, for eternity, as a slave of God.
Here was something that the twisted zealots of Isis would understand today – a barbarous act of religious fanaticism, bespeaking a turbulent age of bloody jostling between opposing faiths.
Welcome to the murky period that Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs seeks to illuminate: a violent, Darwinian moment, in terms of religious history, when the apostles of sundry creeds skirmished and clashed, in a bid to make everyone worship their own “true” gods.
We are used, of course, to exhibitions about Ancient Egypt: all glister, bizarre burial practices, and mysterious, animal-headed deities. Unusually, though, this ambitious show – which synthesises the fathomless complexities of more than a thousand years of Egyptian history – begins at the point when Ancient Egypt finally crumbled, following the death of the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra in 30 BC.
Under the command of Octavian (later Augustus), Egypt now became a province of the Roman Empire. The exhibition, featuring around 200 objects, tells the story of what happened next, as the legion gods of the pagan world were vanquished by the monotheism of the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
The show ends 12 centuries later, in AD 1171, with the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate. By any standards, that is a sprawling sweep of history to corral and explain.
Admittedly, at times the exhibition feels daunting and demanding: just when we have got a handle on Roman Egypt, we are invited to bone up on the emergence of Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries AD, before undertaking a crash course in the history of medieval Muslim Egypt from the seventh century onwards.
But the show also provides many heart-stopping moments in which the gulf between the past and us temporarily disappears.
For every visitor, the objects that stimulate such a response will be different. For me, it was a stripy woollen child’s sock, with split toes, knitted in the third or fourth centuries AD. It is a jaw-dropping survival, surprisingly contemporary in appearance. Somehow it seems to disobey the linear laws of time, transporting us, in a heartbeat, into the daily life of the past.
The humdrum sock is hardly the most spectacular exhibit. But it does highlight an important dichotomy in the show between rare luxury goods and run-of-the-mill artefacts.
There are many impressive artworks that were fashioned for the elite, such as the brilliantly naturalistic marble head of a wily, bearded priest of the god, Serapis.
Now largely forgotten, Serapis was one of hundreds of gods to whom people living in Roman Egypt could appeal. Tutu, a protective deity with a lion’s body, was another; as was my favourite member of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon: the ugly-as-sin and mischievous dwarf-god Bes, invoked by carousers and pregnant women alike.
The exhibition boasts a splendid marble statue of Bes, found in Rome and now in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which dates from the second century AD and attests to the god’s enduring success – even if it is arguably too refined properly to reflect his riotous nature and egalitarian appeal.
There is also plenty of ornate jewellery, gemstone amulets and lavish blocks of elephant ivory carved in minute, breath-taking detail: one, in particular, contains in its upper reaches a miniature cityscape representing the tower-studded walls of Alexandria, teeming with onlookers.
At the same time, the exhibition’s organisers have been careful to include mundane objects, such as the sock. These are often imbued with a more informal, vigorous force than the “official”, and tasteful, art commissioned by the powerful and wealthy.
A simple drawing, on a sliver of limestone, of a man called Jonas praying, illustrates what I mean. Seen in silhouette, he is a stickman with strange, frog-shaped suckers for fingertips: street art, not fine art.
But he is also an expression of the sincerest form of faith, unmotivated by showing off.
Various roughly modelled wax figurines, used by ancient people in ritual curses and spells, have a similarly potent effect: each one is a small, tactile clod of pure human feeling.
Conveying a sense of the complex emotional lives of our forebears is essential: without it, exhibitions like this would be dry-as-dust history lessons. Thankfully, this is something that the British Museum understands.
As a result, this show, which charts a churning, febrile – and neglected – period in history, retains our attention right to the end.
But be warned: you must be prepared to concentrate.
From Thurs to Feb 7. britishmuseum.org 020 7323 8181