Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs

A British Museum exhibition shows multiple religions mostly rubbing along, John Westbrooke writes.


Seated figure of the ancient Egyptian god Horus, wearing Roman military costume, limestone, Egypt, 1st–2nd century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ivory box

Ivory pyxis box depicting Daniel with arms raised in prayer flanked by two lions, Egypt or Syria, 5th or early 6th century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum


One of pair of curtains, decorated with Christian imagery and classical imagery, linen; wool, Egypt, Akhmim, 6th–7th century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum

Oil lamp carved with a Jewish menorah, clay, Egypt, said to be from Alexandria, 3rd-4th century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum

Oil lamp carved with a Jewish menorah, clay, Egypt, said to be from Alexandria, 3rd-4th century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum

Solomon Schechter at his desk

Solomon Schechter at his desk in Cambridge about 1898, working with documents from the Cairo Genizah from the Ben Ezra synagogue. Photograph, Late 19th century © Reproduced by the kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Everyone knows about the Egypt of pyramids, mummies and pharaohs; but then what? What became of it after the death of the last pharaoh – Cleopatra – in 30BC?

Opening with a Hebrew Bible, a Christian New Testament and a Koran alongside one another, this exhibition traces changes in society and, in particular, religion over the following 1200 years. It turns out they weren’t as dramatic as we might expect: evolution, rather than revolution, prevailed. Much as in the modern world, there were violent upheavals from time to time, and yet tolerance mostly succeeded as adherents of different faiths got along together. Religious observance changed, decorative styles developed – but clothing stayed much the same.

Egypt’s hot, dry climate is one of the reasons for the survival of the exhibits in the show. There’s a pair of curtains in good condition, apart from stains probably caused by being used as a burial shroud. One of the most charming artefacts is a child’s striped woollen sock, also in near-new condition after about 1700 years. Documents on papyrus have lasted almost as well as stone carvings.

After Cleopatra’s suicide, Egypt was taken into the Roman Empire. The panoply of old gods – Ra, Isis, Horus, Anubis and all the rest – should have been the first to go as Jupiter, Mars and their colleagues marched in. But what actually happened was that gods and mortals started to morph into one another.

Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and of kingship, had already come to be identified with the pharaoh of the day. Now the Romans took him over. On display is a statue of Horus as emperor: a human with a bird’s head, covered in feathers that do extra duty as chain mail; the application of 3D Roman realism to a 2D Egyptian mythical being looks slightly comic.

His mother Isis, queen of heaven, was still worshipped for several centuries, and depictions of her protecting her child formed the basis of images of the Madonna and child. Meanwhile Osiris, Isis’ brother and husband, had already begun to transform into Serapis, a new Greek-Egyptian god, under the influence of Cleopatra’s Greek ancestors.

In the 4th century, however, the Roman Empire became Christian and so, gradually, did Egypt. The new believers took a harder line than their predecessors, squabbling over doctrine, denouncing opponents as heretics, and finally outlawing paganism. One precious exhibit is a fragment of the earliest copy of the Nicene Creed, hammered out at a conference in 325 to agree when Easter should fall and whether God and Jesus were the same person.

Churches took over the sites, or the stones, or even the buildings, of old temples. Pyramids were assumed by pilgrims to be the grain stores built by the biblical Joseph. Monasteries have provided a useful source of exhibits: one carved relief of Christ entering Jerusalem on a donkey recalls the triumphal processions of victorious generals returning to Rome.

Then in 639 Islam arrived and Egypt changed direction again. The Muslims founded a new capital, which became Cairo, but left administration unchanged and took a laissez–faire approach to religion, since their own was close to that of Christians and Jews, who were granted official protection but taxed for it. Regimes changed occasionally (some were Sunni, some Shia), but Islamic Egypt is still with us.

Old texts and objects on show are a reminder that there had for centuries been Jews in Egypt too, worshipping one god rather than the intermingling families of deities of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Their new Roman overlords left them to practise their own religion, until a series of revolts in the 2nd century brought widespread repression.

In 1896 twin English travellers, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, alerted a Cambridge scholar, Solomon Schechter, to the existence of the Cairo Genizah – a collection of hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, mostly dating from the 10th to 13th centuries, stored in a synagogue, evidently intended for disposal but then forgotten.

The documents, many of them now in Cambridge and some exhibited here, include contracts, marriage records, prayer books, poetry and spells, and they give a rich picture of Jewish cultural and economic life. There was occasional anti-semitic violence, but records more commonly show Jews comfortably doing business with Arabs and, to a lesser extent, Christians.

Many of the 200 objects on display are small and the labels require plenty of reading (and aren’t repeated in the catalogue); but this is a thorough introduction to a little-known period that had a lot in common with the modern world and its religious tensions.

British Museum until February 7 2016. Tickets £10, concessions available; under-16s free.