Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs

Venue: British Museum

Closest underground station: Russell Square

Price: £10

I think it’s safe to say that the British Museum has one of the most magnificent and comprehensive collections of Egyptian History, outside of Egypt. I have visited this museum countless times, but it’s one I will never get bored of because I seem to uncover a new fascination with every trip. Egyptian history covers such a vast and mysterious time period that you could study for your entire life and still be left with questions.

My favourite period of Egyptian history is that of the 18th dynasty. This was a time of religious upheaval, as Akhenaten (AKA Amenhotep IV AKA the heretic King AKA husband of Nefertiti) dramatically changed the official religion of his state from polytheistic to monotheistic, in order to worship the Sun god, Aten. This sent shockwaves of discontent through Egypt, but whatever the Pharaoh wanted was law and it was not until the reign of his son, Tutankhamun, that normal service was resumed.

Akhenaten (photo credit)

Religion played a huge role in Ancient Egypt and this importance continued through the fall of the Egyptian Pharaohs, the rise of the Ptolemaic Greeks, the invasion of the Romans all the way to the present day.

Today, Egypt is predominantly Muslim but it does retain a significant Christian minority. This exhibition examined the transition between religions, how well these cultures existed side by side and how they have intermingled to produce such a richly diverse history.

The last Ptolemaic Pharaoh to rule was Cleopatra but following her death in 30 BC, the Romans invaded Egypt to become the ruling power. The Romans were initially sympathetic to the Egyptians and their religion. The art work from this time period shows how some of the Egyptian customs were adopted by the Romans, such as burial practice.

Roman Sarcophagus (photo credit)

The mummified body in the wrapped sarcophagus is obviously classically Egyptian, but instead of the Egyptian style portrait of the deceased you’d expect to see on the front, you find a distinctly Roman piece of artwork. You can see more examples of these in the permanent Egyptian/Roman exhibitions on the second floor of the museum.

Another example of the mixture of the two cultures was the sculpture pictured below. Is this Horus dressed as a Roman emperor, or an emperor depicted as a God?

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt
Horus (photo credit)

Christianity was adopted by the Romans in the 4th Century AD with the conversion of Emperor Constantine and at this point there was also a Jewish presence in Egypt. As time went on, these cultures generally lived alongside one another peacefully. In the 10th Century, the Arabs invaded Egypt and brought Islam with them. This was known as the Fatimid era (named after Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammed PBUH) and was the beginning of Shia Islam in the region. The Islamic Fatimid Dynasty came to an end in 1171 AD.

The Goddess Isis and her son Harpocrates. It is thought that this imagery was later used to depict the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus (photo credit)

This exhibition contains a theme which remains relevant even in 2016. Racial and religious tensions are high and after attending this exhibition, this appears to be a tale as old as time. It runs until the 7th of February so make sure you catch it if you’re interested in finding out more!

Side note – as I was running out of the museum to fill myself with roast beef sandwiches from Potbelly, I noticed a tiny free exhibition, by the entrance. This contained the mummified remains of a Nile crocodile found in the temple of Kom Ombo near Aswan, which had been worshipped as the God Sobek. Animal mummification was very common in ancient Egypt, and studies estimate that over 20 million animals were preserved in this way during this era. In this case, it is likely that the crocodile had either been worshipped during its life or that it had been sacrificed as an offering to the God to whom the animal was sacred.

The museum had conducted a scan on the remains and this had revealed a number of interesting insights. The body contained the hip and other bone fragments of a cow, which the crocodile had been fed before its death. It also revealed the mummified remains of a number of baby crocodiles, which had been placed on the larger crocodile’s back. Crocodile eggs were often hatched and raised for this very purpose. The internal organs had been embalmed and placed back inside the body.

image
Mummified Nile Crocodile

You would normally have to pay to attend an exhibition like this (as I did back when ‘Ancient Lives’ was on show), so if you’re in the area with a little time to spare it is well worth a visit.

Thanks for reading,

~Plane Emoji

 

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