The British Museum’s Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs launched a little over two weeks ago and received resounding critical acclaim. Curator Elizabeth O’Connell discussed some of the important themes and pieces selected for the exhibit in her recent talk, Curator’s Introduction to Egypt: Faith and the Pharaohs.
O’Connell is the curator of Ancient Egypt and the Sudan at the British Musuem as well as curator for its Roman and Antiquity materials. She has been with the Musuem since 2011 and has been working extensively on Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs since 2013.
The exhibit encompasses a 1200-year transitional, and often ignored, period of Egyptian history. After Cleopatra died in 30BC, Egypt officially became part of the Roman Empire beginning with the reign of Augustus (27 BC-14 AD). The exhibit starts at this point and covers two major religious transformations during this time: Pagan to Christian in the fourth century, and Christian to Muslim in the tenth century. It paints a different picture of how Christianity, Judaism, and Islam coexisted over the course a thousand year period after the fall of Pharaonic Egypt. The exhibit challenges our notions of interfaith relations as a uniquely modern concept. There was persecution and rebellion in Roman Egypt but there was also an incredible amount of tolerance. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side and wove their faith into the fabric of Egyptian culture. This is evident in the fusion seen in art, holy objects, literature and textiles.
This intermingling of faith and culture began shortly after the Roman conquest of Egypt. O’Connell made reference in this regard to the Ancient Egyptian God Horus, who represented the Pharaoh in life, was often shown dressed as an emperor, conversely, Roman emperors were often depicted as Egyptian Pharaohs. O’Connell remarked, “People from other cultures understood other deities as forms of their own.”
In Ptolemaic Egypt, universalised deities were an expression of one God, such as Serapis, a Graeco-Egyptian god used in an attempt to unify Egyptian and Greek culture. He looked Greek, but was often depicted with Egyptian iconography. This form of worship, known as Henotheism, where one god is worshipped but there is an acceptance of other deities, was common during this period.
This mixing of iconography in Roman Egypt extended to Jews and Christians, O’Connell commented, “The more, the better, is the idea in these situations”. The exhibit contains many artefacts depicting this fusion, such as an amulet depicting Anubis on one side and the Angel Gabriel on the other. A papyrus was discovered where Moses is evoked alongside that of the Egyptian Sun God Ra.
O’Connell went on to explain the decision to open the exhibit with three holy books, the Hebrew Bible, the earliest serving copy of the Christian New Testament, and the Qur’an, along with three stamps from each faith. The two features are paired together to demonstrate the elite (books) and the everyday (stamps) objects found in the exhibit.
Lastly, she touched on the relationships between Jews, Christians and Muslims with Roman authorities. In a letter dated to 41 AD Claudius (10 BC-54 AD) showed his ambivalence towards the Roman Imperial Cult and shared his views on Jews in the empire. In this letter, Claudius reconfirmed the status of the Jews in Alexandria and ordered the Alexandrians to leave the Jews to worship in peace. He also forbade the people of Alexandria to deify him while he was alive by building a temple in his name, or appointing priests for his cult. In spite of their smaller numbers after the second century, the Jews remained a very cohesive and robust community. The did not regain significant numbers until the 5th century but by then, Christianity had taken hold in Egypt.
In the middle of the third century, the emperor Decius (201-251 AD) called on the people of Egypt to sacrifice to the Roman gods. This caused a crisis with Christians who would be punished by the state for not sacrificing, but would also be ostracized from their religious community by complying with the decree. O’Donnell pointed out that the 46 samples of Libellus (“sacrifice certificates”) from the reign of Decius show that not only Christians were persecuted and required to sacrifice. Christians, however, managed to be resourceful in how they handled this issue: they found other people to complete the sacrifice on their behalf.
Fortunately, with the arrival of the emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), the Christians finally found an ally and protector. He was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, heralding a new era for Christians. He ordered the first church synod in 325 AD, where bishops established a church hierarchy and developed the Nicene Creed, which is still recited by Christians today. Christianity became popular with the wealthy and images of martyrdom, like that of the scene from Daniel and the Lion, were placed on luxury pieces to help elites make sense of martyrdom. As members of the elite adopted Christianity, churches became well funded. Christian monasticism has its origins in Egypt and exported it to the West. Saint Anthony, one of the first Desert Fathers, and considered ’the father of all monks’, was Egyptian. Even as Christianity became the main state religion, Christians did not entirely discard classical learning and mythology; people continued to worship in their own way.
Islam arrived in Egypt in 639 AD. By 641AD, Alexandria had fallen and Muslim rule had begun. Muslims didn’t completely destroy former government, they kept many administrative features and existing systems. They incorporated the other cultures into their own; they reused Roman and Byzantine buildings for mosques. Medieval Muslim scholars were also fascinated by ancient Egyptians and studied their culture.
Faith After the Pharaohs is a journey across twelve centuries of Egyptian history that O’Connell felt has often been overlooked in favour of focusing on Pharaonic Egypt. There is a rich tapestry of faith and daily life that this exhibit hopes to share and bring to the forefront as an important part of Egypt’s national story.