Faith and the Pharaohs
The British Museum’s Faith after the Pharaohs exhibition addresses Egypt’s long religious history from ancient polytheism to mediaeval Islam, writes David Tresilian in London
Egypt, Faith after the Pharaohs, an exhibition that has been on show at the British Museum in London since October and organised in conjunction with the German Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, takes visitors from the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra by the Roman general Octavian, soon to be the Emperor Augustus, at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE to roughly the end of Fatimid rule in Egypt in the 12th century CE.
On the way, it includes materials illustrating more than a thousand years of religious practice in the country, from ancient Egyptian polytheism to the establishment of Islam. It shows how Egypt has always acted as a crossroads for different religions and civilisations, but has equally always retained an instantly recognisable identity of its own.
The exhibition begins by setting out a timeline of Egypt’s political history in the period, this indicating the ways in which successive rulers of the country either introduced their own religion into Egypt or adapted themselves to pre-existing religious practices. Usually, what happened was a bit of both, and it seems that Egypt was never homogeneous, whether in religious, linguistic or ethnic terms.
Most often, the country’s new rulers adapted themselves to Egypt’s own religious practices, with the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled the country from Alexander the Great’s arrival in 331 BCE to the defeat of Cleopatra VII Philopator in 31 BCE taking on the titles and religious functions of the ancient pharaohs, for example.
The Romans, taking over after Cleopatra’s death and ruling Egypt either from Rome or Byzantium more or less until the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century CE, also ruled over a multicultural society that included significant pagan, Jewish and Christian populations, Christianity eventually emerging as the country’s main religion under Byzantine rule.
When the Arab general Amr Ibn Al-As crossed the Sinai Peninsula and conquered the then Byzantine province of Egypt in 640 CE, he found a country that was administered from the old Ptolemaic capital of Alexandria and in which the elites at least were Greek-speaking and shared the Christianised classical culture of Byzantium.
While the Arabs relocated the country’s capital to Fustat, later Cairo, and slowly Arabised the administration, they did not attempt to convert the population to their own religion of Islam. Perhaps they felt, arriving in a country where the achievements of thousands of years of civilisation were all around them, that the best solution would be to establish a new state and society that would take its place as the natural culmination and inheritor of the old.
Alexandria in particular had long been a multi-religious, multi-ethnic melting pot, an originally Greek city perched on the edge of the African continent and drawing on the riches of a vast Egyptian hinterland. Under the Ptolemies, the city had been a capital of classical culture, notably through its famous Library. Later, it had been a centre of Christianity, though not one that was always ready to accept the religious edicts of the emperors in Byzantium.
After perhaps particularly the destruction of the Jewish Temple in the Roman province of Judaea in 70 CE, the city became a notable centre of Judaism, though the country had long had a large Jewish community, as has been shown by excavations of the remains of the 5th-century BCE Jewish colony on Elephantine Island in Aswan.
Egypt also figures prominently in the scriptures. Abraham and Sarah go there because of famine in the land of Canaan, and Egypt is the land where Joseph rises to prominence, having been sold into slavery by his brothers. Moses leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, escaping from an oppressive pharaoh. According to traditional accounts, the first translations of the Jewish Torah into Greek, the so-called Septuagint that forms the basis of the Old Testament of the Bible, were made by Alexandrian rabbis at the request of Ptolemy II Philadelphus in the 3rd century BCE.
What comes out of this is the tremendous scale of Egypt’s late antique and mediaeval history, with towering figures from Alexander the Great, through the Roman generals Antony and Octavian, to the Arab conqueror Amr Ibn Al-As all battling it out for control of this strategically important country that joined Asia to Africa and controlled access from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.
Titanic struggles of world importance took place in Egypt, as dynasty succeeded dynasty, sometimes bringing their own language, religion and civilisation with them. A multi-layered historical palimpsest was created, in which each new layer built on and incorporated what had come before it.
Egypt under Roman rule: Religion in Egypt during Roman rule from roughly the late 1st century BCE onwards is illustrated in the exhibition through materials bearing witness to typical Roman pragmatism, recycling elements from local religious beliefs and practices in the service of state-sanctioned polytheism.
Ancient Egyptian deities such as Isis were identified with Roman goddesses like Demeter, and new cults such as that of Serapis, identified at first with the ancient Egyptian god Osiris, were either introduced or developed. The cult of Mithras, later spreading throughout the Roman Empire, is attested to in Egypt.
Egypt under the Ptolemies had been a centre of Hellenistic culture, with its capital of Alexandria functioning as perhaps the Hellenistic world’s pre-eminent intellectual centre. Under Ptolemaic rule, the city had been a magnet for writers and philosophers from across the Mediterranean, and while its reputation faded under Roman dominance, new forms of religious syncretism emerged.
Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – 50 CE) was born and worked in Roman Alexandria, attempting a fusion of Greek philosophy and Jewish religion in his works and serving as the representative of the city’s large Jewish community to the Roman emperor Caligula. The 3rd-century philosopher Plotinus, born in the Upper Egyptian city of Lykopolis in 204 CE and working in Alexandria, was one of the most important intellectual figures of the late Roman world and fused ancient philosophy with Christian theology.
For the US scholar Roger Bagnall, writing in the exhibition’s superbly informative catalogue, “Alexandria [in the first centuries CE] was the greatest city of the Eastern Mediterranean, second in the Roman Empire only to Rome itself.” Much of the city’s importance came from its role as an intellectual and religious centre, though it was also a centre of trade with East Africa, Arabia and India, this passing through the city and down the Nile. Like all trading centres, it had a notably cosmopolitan character.
Bagnall writes illuminatingly on the city’s relationship to its Egyptian hinterland and to the wider Roman Empire. “The often-quoted name of the city, Alexandria ad Aegyptum (Alexandria by Egypt), is regularly misunderstood as a mark of separation,” he writes, whereas in truth the city acted as a hub for activity in the rest of Egypt. Elites in the rest of the country aspired to emulate its culture and take part in its controversies. Later, following the establishment of the country’s Christian hierarchy, the bishops of Alexandria controlled ecclesiastical life throughout Egypt.
Egypt had always had a special relationship with Christianity since it was where the Holy Family had fled from the persecution of king Herod. By the late antique period, paganism was disappearing in the country as new forms of Christianity emerged. Perhaps the most important of these, probably the best known in the wider world, was monasticism, with some of the early Egyptian Christians renouncing worldly goods, breaking away from ordinary secular life, and moving to the solitude of the desert where monasteries developed.
Earlier, Egypt had also hosted other important Christian religious movements, among them Gnosticism, a kind of underground version of Christianity associated with writings later excluded from the biblical New Testament. Many of these were discovered in a cache of ancient manuscripts found in the last century at Naga Hamadi in Upper Egypt.
“The oldest surviving examples of gospels that did not receive canonical status, for example the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of Thomas, come from Egypt,” writes scholar Gregor Wurst in the exhibition catalogue. A few lines from the Gospel of Thomas are on show in the exhibition in the shape of a papyrus fragment found at the ancient site of Oxyrhynchus, which also yielded parts of another forgotten gospel, the Gospel of Mary, written in Coptic on fragments of papyrus.
According to an essay by German scholar Siegfried Richter in the exhibition catalogue, by the 4th century CE a “dense network of hermitages and monasteries [had arisen] on the edges of the fertile countryside and in the desert mountains of Egypt,” peopled by Christian monks. Typical forms of Christian art and architecture appeared, most of it related to the needs of the new monasteries or churches. In the exhibition this Christian or Coptic art is illustrated through textiles, architectural elements, and ceramics, as well as Christian documents, including scriptures, and wall paintings.
The exhibition includes many spectacular items from this period in Egypt’s history, including items from the “Asyut Hoard”, a collection of jewelry dating to around 600 CE found buried in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut at the beginning of the last century. There are Coptic icons and wall paintings showing early saints and religious images.
“By the late 4th century Christianity in Egypt was a religion of saints both living and entombed, with a new geography of local, regional and peripheral holy places that called villagers to regular or crisis-inspired travel to gain blessings,” comments scholar David Frankfurter in the exhibition catalogue. The country was full of shrines and places of pilgrimage, each offering specific ways of experiencing the intervention of the relevant saint.
One intriguing item on display is a 6th-century oracle ticket from the cult of St Philoxenos at Oxyrhynchus. Petitioners would submit two questions to the saint about the same problem, one positive (“should I…?”) and one negative (“should I not…?”), and then wait for the saint to select one of the two as the answer. The surviving ticket, written in Greek, contains the question “is it your will that I should not speak about the bank business?”
After the Arab conquest: One of the themes of the exhibition is the ways in which the country’s conquerors adapted and built upon the history they saw all around them in Egypt. When the Arabs arrived in the 7th century CE, they did not replace the country’s existing infrastructure and administration but merely adapted it to their purposes.
The exhibition contains an intriguing set of Byzantine gold coins minted during the reigns of the emperors Constans II and Constantine IV in the mid-7th century, and their replacements, identical in size but bearing Islamic designs, in the shape of gold dinars minted by the Umayyad caliph Abdel-Malik. A bilingual document, written in Arabic and Greek and signed by the Umayyad governor of Egypt, asks villagers near Antinopolis in Upper Egypt to contribute to naval operation in neighbouring Cyrenaica, today’s Libya, in 713 CE. It shows that Greek continued to be used for administrative purposes even several generations after the Arab conquest.
The exhibition takes visitors through the development of early mosque architecture in Egypt, culminating in a section on the 9th-century Mosque of Ibn Toloun in Cairo, and shows how craft techniques such as woodworking and glass-making, long used to make items for religious use and religious furniture, were adapted to the needs of mosque construction. There are examples in the exhibition of the carved wooden panels used to decorate mosque pulpits and the glass used for mosque lamps.
In general, the catalogue comments, “one cannot discern an abrupt break with the previous epoch when new cultures were being established” in Egypt. “Rather, a slow cultural change takes place. Many customs remained in existence — transformed, if at all, only gradually.” Festivals and holidays have continued to be celebrated in Egypt that in some cases date from the most ancient times, most famously the festival of Sham Al-Nessim that was first celebrated by the ancient Egyptians and marks the arrival of spring.
“Independently of religious affiliations, the same forms and motifs were used for items of daily use. The iconography of classical antiquity — plants, animals, hunting scenes, ornamentation — remained the pattern for decoration of everyday objects. And in the mediaeval period the Arabic script itself became an important aspect of visual culture.”
Egypt, Faith after the Pharaohs, British Museum, London, until 7 February.