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Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs review – a magical dig into the past | Art and design | The Guardian

Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs review – a magical dig into the past

5 / 5 stars

British Museum, London
With its miraculously preserved ancient objects – precious texts, gleeful art, children's toys – Neil MacGregor's last hurrah gets close to solving the mystery of religion itself

Joyously colourful ... ancient Egyptian curtains, from Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs

Trying to understand North Africa or the Middle East without somehow going to the heart of faith is like trying to read a book in a language you don't understand. This exhibition begins with books that are indeed written in languages I don't understand: Hebrew, Greek and Arabic. They are some of the most precious religious manuscripts on Earth, laid side by side here,just as the communities they speak to have lived side by side in Egypt for millennia. A ninth/10th-century Jewish Bible, with bright abstract illuminations among the handwritten Hebrew letters, sits near the Codex Sinaiticus – the oldest complete Christian New Testament in the world, made at the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai in the mid-fourth century AD (that is, under the Roman empire). Nearby is a gorgeous page from an eighth-century copy of the Qur'an, created a century after Egypt was conquered by Islam.

Mesmerising … painted wooden horse-toy on wheels, Egypt, Akhmim, first-third century AD. Photograph: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Egypt is an incomparable preserver of lost time: a place where the past never dies. We think of ancient Egypt as a land of mummies and pyramids. But the same dry earth that preserved the pharaohs' graves also miraculously preserved manuscripts, clothes, shoes and just about everything else. The oldest books in the world – on papyrus and parchment – come from Egypt, including texts of ancient Greek plays found on a rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus. In this moving, absorbing exhibition, those precious documents mingle with everyday relics: a child's wooden pull-along toy from Roman times beside a perfectly preserved tunic. These are mesmerisingly lifelike portraits of the ancient dead.

Yet what is most uncannily preserved is the fabric of faith itself. This show has a staggeringly important theme – nothing less than the emergence of monotheism out of polytheism, or how people went from idolising a pantheon of gods to worshipping one.

Everyday relics … child's tunic, wool, Egypt, fifth–sixth century AD. Photograph: © Musée du Louvre, Dist RMN-Grand Palais/Georges Poncet

Egypt's gallery of pagan gods was particularly extravagant. The Roman empire, when it absorbed Egypt after the Battle of Actium in 31BC, became entranced by exotic deities such as Isis and Serapis. There's a bronze statuette here of a Roman emperor with the head of the jackal god Anubis. A spooky marble bust of the god Serapis gazes blindly, trancelike, with a lily-shaped vase balanced on his head.
Among these strange gods there was also one god – Jehovah. Jews had a long history in Egypt, according to the Bible, but as Simon Schama points out in his book The Story of the Jews their real, tangible history is first documented by those magically preserved Egyptian papyri – such as a letter exhibited here from the Roman emperor Claudius, in which he tells locals not to worship him as a god and instructs them to tolerate the Jews.
Visually, Jewish history makes a lot less impact, however, than the new religion that was sweeping the Roman empire by the second century AD. Some of the oldest ever Christian art can be seen here. It is a revelation about how Christianity adopted pagan symbols for its own ends. Spectacularly preserved ancient Christian textiles with electrifying colours are embroidered both with classical vines and putti (cherubs) and, more bizarrely, the ancient Egyptian "ankh" symbol – a cross with a looped top that predates Christ by millennia, but was adopted by Egypt's Christians as a sign of everlasting life.

Egypt's gallery of pagan gods was particularly extravagant … seated figure of the Roman god Horus. This is where the show seems to get close to solving the mystery of religion itself. Egypt's original, pharaonic religion grows out of the sands of prehistory. It is as old as any religion we have evidence about. And it is a quest for everlasting life. The Egyptians used mummification and magic to try and ensure they survived after death and travelled to the western lands. Monotheist faiths too promise a life after death. It is the most human of longings. No wonder Christians adopted the Ankh as one of their signs.

Old Cairo still survives, a walled labyrinth of churches and a synagogue. I was once there during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, when the churches were under armed guard. The faith they preserve is called Coptic Christianity, this exhibition explains, from the Coptic language that evolved from ancient Egyptian. Coptic art is one of the most lovable styles you will ever see. It gleefully abandons the rules of classical Rome, yet abounds with grapes and heroic scenes – all painted or embroidered in cheerful, crudely energetic childlike designs. Coptic art is so joyously colourful, it is no wonder that when Islam came it not only allowed Christians and Jews to worship their own gods while paying a tax for the privilege, but absorbed the vividness of Coptic craft into its own arts.

A synagogue too survives in Old Cairo, and at the beginning of the 20th century a Cambridge scholar called Solomon Schechter got permission to go into its Genizah – the storeroom where documents containing the name of God must be deposited. It had never been cleaned out. Schechter's hoard of medieval Jewish manuscripts is still being studied, and one of the treasures here is an illuminated manuscript of a collection of Indian tales that was popular in the Islamic world and apparently enjoyed by Jews as well.

The flow between faiths is the message this exhibition wants to leave you with. There are Islamic manuscripts that reproduce ancient Egypt's strange gods, as well as books of spells that show the same magic being used by pagan Romans, early Christians and medieval Muslims. For a faith that is truly universal, try magic. The Hermetic tradition of magic goes back to ancient times and mixes Jewish, Christian and Islamic ideas. A curse is a curse, whatever god you believe in.

But the optimism of this exhibition is too rosy. It points out that Christians have defended mosques and Muslims have defended churches in Egypt's recent struggles. Jews on the other hand have almost entirely vanished from modern Egypt. Pluralism survives there, but it is not looking good for religious cooperation and tolerance anywhere in the region. It is easy, as a secular western liberal, to see faith as the problem and not the solution. For all the human passion and glory here, would more lives be saved in this world if all faiths vanished?

This is an invitation to dig deeper than that shallow attitude. To dig into the sand, into the past, and into the perhaps lost person deep within us that wants to submit or to be saved.

Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs is at the British Museum, London, from 29 October until 7 February. Tickets: 020-7323 8181.

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