Egypt: faith after the pharaohs

Based on the exhibition at the British Museum. Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation

Parchment fragment from the Cotton Genesis with Abraham (400/600) by The British LibraryBritish Museum

Egypt and empire: individual and society

'Egypt: faith after the pharaohs' follows the 1200 years from 30 BC, after Egypt officially became part of
the Roman empire under Augustus, to the end of the Fatimid period 
in AD 1171,
when Salah al-Din (Saladin) 
took power. With the arrival of the Romans, most people in Egypt continued to
worship many gods. The following centuries were marked by 
two significant
transitions, first to a majority Christian population by the 5th century, and
then again to a majority Muslim population in the course of the 10th century.
At times, Jewish communities thrived alongside.

In Egypt, the changes of state and shifts of faith are reflected in
everyday society. What survives shows us something of the lives of people in
Egypt – whether Jews, Christians or Muslims – and their relationships to each
other and the ancient past.

Abraham is the common ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims. His name in Hebrew means ‘father of many’. Abraham’s obedience to God and hospitality to humanity serve as models for members of all three faiths. Here he is shown greeting three angels disguised as men, on a fragment of parchment containing the Book of Genesis.

The fragment comes from a luxury manuscript known as the Cotton Genesis. Named after the 17th-century collector Sir Robert Cotton, it was almost entirely destroyed by a fire in 1731. Its paintings are some of the finest examples of late Roman manuscript illustration surviving today.

Bronze head of Augustus (-27)British Museum

Roman Egypt: religion and empire

Cleopatra VII was the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. In 31 BC she and
the Roman general Mark Antony were defeated at the Battle of Actium by his
rival Augustus. Soon afterwards, Egypt became a province of the Roman empire.

For 300 years, Egypt’s capital
 Alexandria had been a cultural hub of 
Mediterranean as well as a centre of trade. It was a place where Egyptians,
Greeks, Romans and others mingled
 and where religious beliefs and practices
were combined in new ways.

Sailing into the famed harbour of Alexandria, visitors saw the
magnificent Caesareum, a temple founded by Cleopatra VII and completed by
Augustus. Built to honour the divine Caesar, it was later used for the worship
of Roman emperors, including Augustus.


Augustus used propaganda to assert Rome’s dominance. Imperial statues and coins with his image broadcast a message of military and political supremacy throughout the empire and beyond. The bronze head of Augustus, with its piercing eyes, originally belonged to an impressive larger than life-sized statue erected near Egypt’s southern frontier. Such statues stood in public spaces and also served as focal points in temples dedicated to the worship of the emperor.

Furniture fittings depicting the cities of Constantinopole, Antioch, Rome and Alexandria (330/370)British Museum

Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the Roman world, together with Antioch, Rome, and later Constantinople. On these silver and gold furniture fittings the cities are personified as goddesses. Alexandria (on the far right) wears a crown depicting the city walls, complete with turrets and gates. She carries fruit and sheaves of wheat, symbolising the bounty shipped down the Nile and exported through the city’s great harbour, represented by the ship’s prow upon which she rests her foot.

Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, Alexandria was famed for its lighthouse (one of the wonders of the ancient world), for its great libraries, temples and public spaces, its philosophers, poets, scientists and physicians. In the Roman period, it was at the centre of a vast network of trade extending from the Atlantic coast in the west to India in the east, with Egypt supplying grain, wine, oil, papyrus, stone and gems.

Bronze figure of Horus in Roman military costume, 1/300, From the collection of: British Museum
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In ancient Egypt the god Horus was
 the divine representation of the living king, commonly shown as a man with 
the head of a falcon. Images of Horus in Roman military costume expressed the ancient Egyptian god’s power by using distinctively Roman symbols of authority. They also served to validate Roman political dominance by clothing the divine manifestation of the ancient Egyptian king in Roman costume. Here Horus wears an ancient Egyptian headdress and military dress worn by the Roman emperor.

Limestone relief with Serapis-Dionysos and Isis as agathoi daimones (-100/100)British Museum

Systems of belief were complex. As a family unit, Serapis, Isis and Harpokrates developed from the ancient Egyptian divine triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus. As father, mother and child, the Egyptian gods provided a mythological model for royal succession, ensuring the country’s peace and stability when a king died.

Isis was the mother of the living king Horus depicted in the triad as Horus-the-Child (Harpokrates). Under the Ptolemies, the combination god Osiris-Apis was given the features of a Greek deity and became Serapis. The cults of Serapis, Isis and Harpokrates, individually and collectively, were exported to the furthest reaches of the Roman empire and beyond.

As a deity connected with fertility and rebirth,
the Greek god Dionysos shared qualities with Egyptian Osiris and later Serapis. The multiple layering of their aspects is shown here where he and Isis are shown as 'agathoi daimones' – in serpent form.

Papyrus fragment from a Septuagint book roll, The Egypt Exploration Society, 1/100, From the collection of: British Museum
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Among the many gods worshipped in Roman Egypt was the one God of the Jews. By 
the time the Romans arrived Judaism was well-established in the country.

Under the Ptolemies, Jewish communities had generally thrived, with some adopting Greek culture and language.

The Septuagint was the Greek translation of the Torah, originally written in Hebrew. Jews such as Philo of Alexandria used this Greek version of the Bible, and for Christians it became part of their Old Testament. This fragment contains lines from the Book of Job. We can be assured that this is a Jewish book roll because the scribe, writing in Greek, left a space on the 5th line where another writer has inserted YHWH. The letters represent the name of God in a Hebrew script that was ancient at the time of writing and used for sacred purposes.

Papyrus fragment from the Gospel of Mary in Greek, The University of Manchester, 200/300, From the collection of: British Museum
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Early Christians debated which texts should and should not be included in what was to become the New Testament. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, giving an account of the life and sayings of Jesus, were accepted. Others were not and later became forbidden reading.

This fragment
 was discovered in the rubbish heaps of the city Oxyrhynchus. Following Jesus’ discourse with 
his followers, Peter asks Mary, probably Mary Magdalene, to share her secret knowledge ('gnosis') with the disciples. As in some other so-called gnostic texts, a woman is shown 
in a role of spiritual leadership. The Gospel of Mary was probably composed in Greek in the 2nd century. While this fragment of a copy in Greek dates to the 3rd century, the most complete surviving copy is in a 5th-century Coptic manuscript.

Curtain (500/700)British Museum

Egypt in a Christian empire

In AD 330 the Roman emperor Constantine established a new city strategically located at Byzantium. This ‘New Rome’, named Constantinople, eventually became the capital of an

Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire. The grain and resources of Egypt flowed to the new capital, and its public spaces were decorated with ancient Egyptian monuments just as those of Rome had been in previous centuries. Alexandria continued to be a great hub of learning for both Christians and non-Christians, sometimes studying under the same teachers. The city also continued to be famous for the riots and violence that flared up between and within its communities. These were often stirred

up by the city’s archbishops, supported by monks, and targeting the followers of the old gods, philosophers and Jews.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, the heart of the city was still occupied by lecture halls where philosophers, now Christian, taught. Its great temple complexes, the Caesareum and

Serapeum, were occupied by churches.

Portrait of Germanicus, 14/20, From the collection of: British Museum
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This statue of Germanicus, great-nephew of Augustus, was probably carved around the time of his death in AD 19, shortly after a visit to Egypt. Years later, after the establishment of Christianity, someone inscribed a cross on his forehead. Either at the same time or separately, someone hacked the statue across the nose, right ear and neck. We can only speculate as to why the cross was added – did it neutralise spirits thought to dwell in images, or was it added to ‘Christianise’ a popular member of the imperial family? Or perhaps, following the ancient tradition of marking slaves with tattoos, was it to mark Germanicus
 as a ‘slave of God,’ just as we are told some Christians marked themselves?

Drawing of the temple complex at Philae, Dominique Vivant Denon, 1802, From the collection of: British Museum
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As members of the elite adopted Christianity, the Church became well-funded through donations and gifts. From the 4th century onwards, especially, Christians began to build churches, saints’ shrines and monasteries, redefining the sacred landscape of Egypt. Some buildings were newly constructed, others were built on earlier sacred sites. Some occupied earlier temple complexes or shrines, others were built of reused stone. This was mainly practical, but it could also be seen as a triumph of Christianity over traditional religion.

The Temple of Isis at Philae was the last functioning temple in Egypt. While most temples were closed by the end of the 4th century, this temple remained open so that people from Nubia, to the south of Egypt, could worship there. The latest hieroglyphic and demotic inscriptions, dating to AD 436 and AD 452, are both found on Philae. The temple went out of use shortly afterwards.

Coptic manuscript containing The Life of Aaron of Philae, The British Library, 992, From the collection of: British Museum
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The story of how the people of Philae were converted to Christianity, as told in this codex,
 is dramatic. In the temple, there was a caged falcon that people believed embodied the god Horus. Macedonius, Philae’s newly appointed bishop, went to the temple asking ‘to make a sacrifice to God’, without betraying that he was a Christian. As the altar was prepared for the sacrifice, he went up to the cage, cut off the falcon’s head and threw it on the burning altar. According to the story he later baptised the city’s entire population.

Ivory pyxis with St Menas, 500/600, From the collection of: British Museum
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Across the Christian world people visited the tombs of early martyr saints and in Egypt, as elsewhere, many towns had their own local martyr. In time, their tombs were marked by shrines and churches, and whole new settlements grew up around them. A web of pilgrimage routes connected these sites and attracted local and international travellers.

Christian pilgrims flocking to the shrine of St Menas, just south-west of Alexandria, took away with them the saint’s blessings in the form of earth, oil or water in little flasks such. Today such flasks have been discovered at sites from Britain to Uzbekistan.

Ivory pyxis with St Menas, 500/600, From the collection of: British Museum
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St Menas is said have been a soldier in the Roman army, martyred in about AD 300 during the Great Persecution under Diocletian because he refused to give up his faith. The box is decorated with two scenes. One shows the saint with arms raised in prayer (previous image), the second narrates his martyrdom. The executioner raises his sword and grasps Menas’ hair, while an angel sweeps in to receive his soul.

Wall-painting with the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace and the martyrs Cosmas and Damian (500/700)British Museum

This wall-painting is made up of two parts painted at different times in different styles, showing both a scene from the Christian Old Testament and saints. The central scene shows the Old Testament story of three Jews, captive in Babylon, sentenced to be burned in 
a fiery furnace but rescued by divine intervention, here represented by an angel. The three were originally labelled with their Hebrew names Ananias, Azarias and Mishael in Greek script. Beneath them, Coptic text commemorates the 60 Christian martyrs of Samalut and probably names the painting’s donors.

Flanking this scene are the twin physician saints Cosmas and Damian, carrying their bags of medical instruments and, below, their three brothers, all said to have been martyred under the emperor Diocletian.

Curtain, 500/700, From the collection of: British Museum
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As Christianity became the main religion of the Byzantine empire, people continued to receive a classical education and to use imagery associated with traditional beliefs. Even monks continued to learn Greek by writing out passages from the poet Homer. The same writer might create works of
 poetry inspired by both the classical tradition and Christian literature. Artists of all media continued to decorate their work with scenes from classical mythology, and ancient Egyptian symbols were reinterpreted.

Curtain, 500/700, From the collection of: British Museum
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These hangings, decorated with Christian and classical imagery, may have been used as door curtains in a Christian building. Along the top are 'erotes' (chubby babies personifying love), holding floral garlands and standing between baskets of produce. Below them, two winged 'nikai' (Victory figures) hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with the remains of a Greek inscription in the surviving quadrants formed
 by the cross. The hangings were reused when they were put to a new purpose, serving as a burial shroud, which is why they have survived nearly intact.

Drawing of the Fatimid gate, Cairo (1855) by after David RobertsBritish Museum

The arrival of Islam 

In AD 639 Muslim armies, under the command
of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, entered Egypt. Since Alexandria was open to attack from the
Byzantine navy, ‘Amr chose a site at the tip of the Nile Delta for his new
capital Fustat. Built just outside the walls of the Roman fortress called
Babylon, it became a bustling city and the commercial centre of Egypt. Some 300
years later, Fustat was absorbed into the nearby capital of a new dynasty of
Muslim rulers, the

Fatimids. Their city was named al-Qahira, known
in English as Cairo.

‘Amr and the Muslim state after him recognised
Jews and Christians as Peoples of the Book and did not interfere with their
religious practices. Jews and Christians did, however, pay a special poll tax
known as the 'jizya' in exchange for their protected status.

The Fatimid capital, al-Qahira (Cairo), meaning ‘the Victorious’, quickly became a flourishing 
city with beautiful buildings and monuments. Alexandria with its routes west became less important, while Cairo, looking east to Damascus and later Baghdad, became the new centre of scholarship, learning and the arts. The mosque of al-Azhar developed into one of the greatest universities in the world.

Cairo’s new status as capital of the Fatimid caliphate led to a building boom, and many examples of Fatimid architecture survive in Cairo today, including the famous mosque and university of al-Azhar and the mosque of al-Hakim. The gate in the distance is the last remaining southern gate from the walls of Fatimid Cairo.

Section of a marble inscription from a funerary monument, 900/1000, From the collection of: British Museum
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This panel was one of several decorating a funerary monument. Its Arabic inscription is carved in an angular, decorative Arabic script known as Kufic, which was the main script used at the time. The inscription contains part of the basmala – the name for the phrase ‘In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’.

Since the divine word was proclaimed in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel, Arabic has a special status among Muslims.

Marble tombstone of a man named Muhammad bin Fatik Ashmuli (967)British Museum

This image shows the reverse of the carved relief which was reused as a gravestone for a man named Muhammad bin Fatik Ashmuli, who died in AD 967.

Sandstone gravestone of a woman named Fatima from Aswan, 1021, From the collection of: British Museum
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The text of gravestones like this one provide a wealth of information on the social status of the person commemorated. This marker records in Kufic script the death of Fatima, daughter of Ja’far, son of Muhammad, the dyer, in the year 412 AH. The inscription begins with the basmala: ‘In the name of God the merciful and the compassionate’.

Wooden panel from the Church of the Virgin, Old Cairo, 1300, From the collection of: British Museum
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Under Fatimid rule there was a thriving Coptic Christian community with international links across the medieval world. Although there were periods of repression, most Muslim rulers allowed Christians to practise their religion without interference, on condition they paid a special tax.

The Church of the Virgin – also known as al-Mu’allaqa or the Hanging Church – is one 
of several medieval churches, as well as a synagogue, built within the walls of the former Roman fortress now part of Old Cairo. This panel is one of ten that once decorated the doors of a baptistery within the church. They are carved in an international style, suggesting strong contacts with the wider Mediterranean world.

This panel depicts both the Nativity and the Adoration of the Christ child in the upper registers and, below, the midwives washing the child, in accordance with an apocryphal tradition.

Solomon Schechter at work in Cambridge by Cambridge University LibraryBritish Museum

For hundreds of years, the Jewish community of Fustat (Old Cairo) placed their worn-out books and other writings in a storeroom, or genizah, of the Ben Ezra Synagogue. According to custom, anything that might have the name of God written on it cannot be destroyed, but has to be stored away and buried. Every synagogue had its genizah, but for some reason the documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue were never disposed of.

In 1896 two Scottish scholars, the twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, bought a number of fragments of manuscripts during their travels and brought them home to Cambridge where they showed them to their friend and colleague Solomon Schechter. Recognising
their importance, Schechter soon travelled to Cairo to investigate further. Locating the source, Schechter obtained permission from the Ben Ezra Synagogue’s authorities ‘to empty’ the storeroom. Schechter returned to Cambridge with 193,000 manuscripts, which are still being studied and published today.

The Cairo Genizah contained everything from Bibles and prayer books to shopping lists, from marriage contracts to works of philosophy and medicine, from business contracts to pages from Indian animal fables retold in Arabic.

Early draft of the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides in his own hand, Cambridge University Library, 1170/1180, From the collection of: British Museum
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In 1166 Maimonides, one of the most influential Jewish scholars of all time, moved to the city. He became the head of the Jewish community in Cairo and compiled authoritative texts that are still used today.

Among the texts preserved in the Cairo Genizah was this is an early draft of the Mishneh Torah, for which Maimonides is most famous today. A systematic compilation of oral law, it is complete with corrections, additions and deletions in his own, at times, illegible hand. Maimonides spent 10 years working on the text, while he lived in Cairo, codifying biblical and rabbinical law, and presenting it in a systematic, logical arrangement.

World map from the 'Book of curiosities of the sciences and marvels for the eyes' (1150/1300) by Bodleian Library, OxfordBritish Museum

Egypt: mirror to the world

In Egypt the shift from a belief in many gods
to a belief in one God mirrors what took place across much of Europe, the Middle
East, North Africa and beyond. It reflects the  transformation of the ancient to the medieval
world, a transition that shaped the world we live in today.

In defining identity, religion is only part
of a wider world view that can encompass

different combinations of cultural markers: art,
architecture and iconography,

languages, calendars, customs and appearance,
as well as political and economic ideologies.

Yet religion is somehow central to the politics
of similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion, continuity and change.

This map shows Egypt as the centre of the known world – a hub for ideas and in the middle of a vast trade network extending from the Atlantic to India, and even beyond.

The 'Book of curiosities...' is a treatise written in Arabic by an unknown author working in Egypt.
 It compiles earlier scholarship including otherwise lost works by Muslim astronomers, geographers and travellers from the 9th to 11th centuries.
 On this map north is at the bottom, with the Atlantic coasts of West Africa and the Iberian peninsula on the right and China on the left. Egypt’s Nile Delta is nearly in the centre with the southern sources of the Nile at the top. The author cites Ptolemy’s 2nd century 'Geography' as a source for the map, as well as works by scholars commissioned in about AD 830 by the caliph al-Ma’mun.

Credits: Story

This exhibition is based on Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum until 7 February 2016.

Generously supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation.

More information about the exhibition can be found on the British Museum website.

An exhibition catalogue is available from the British Museum shop online.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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