The British Museum presents a major exhibition entitled Egypt: faith after the pharaohs which explores 1,200 years of Egyptian history between 30 BC and AD 1171 providing insights into the lives of different religious communities. This exhibition of around 200 objects will show how Christian, Islamic and Jewish communities reinterpreted the pharaonic past of Egypt and interacted with one another. The exhibition is the first to look in detail at this period and tells the complex story of cultural influences and how different religious groups lived together in peaceful coexistence and fought in conflicts.
The exhibition opens with three very major examples of holy books, an Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament and the Islamic Qur’an, paired with three everyday stamps associated with each religion. These objects illustrate two key themes of the exhibition, the growth of the institutional side of religion and how it was practised in everyday life. The books represent an interesting aspect because they illustrate both the continuity of the Abrahamic tradition and the distinctiveness from each other. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the New Testament part of the 4th century AD Codex Sinaiticus now held in the British Library, the world’s oldest surviving Bible and the earliest complete copy of the New Testament.
The first main section of the exhibition begins in 30 BC after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. This section provides plenty of evidence that the belief in the ancient gods did not simply die but was often fused with new beliefs, the extraordinary pair of complete 6-7th century door curtains showing the interaction between classical and Christian motifs. Texts on papyrus indicate a complex number of deities from the Egyptian, Greek, Roman pantheons.
Between 30 BC and AD 1171, Egypt became first a majority Christian, then a majority Muslim population, with Jewish communities periodically thriving. The exhibition includes objects from these periods from the three main religious groups and how the Egyptian landscape was reimagined, the ancient monuments of Egypt were sometimes destroyed, adapted and reused. According to documents, by c. AD 400 the Great Pyramids of Giza were interpreted as the granaries of Joseph in accordance with the account in the Bible. At Alexandria, the Caesareum started by Cleopatra VII and completed by Augustus became the location of the Great Church of Alexandria in the centre of the ancient city. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 639-642, the al-‘Attrin Mosque in Alexandria was built reusing hundreds of Roman columns and capitals.
The unique archaeology of Egypt allows for the survival of textiles and documents often lost elsewhere, the exhibition points out that the rubbish heaps of ancient and medieval towns in Egypt have preserved some of the earliest fragments of scripture, legal documents, letters, school exercises and other texts showing how religious lives were lived. In this section is copies of official letters, including one from the emperor Claudius (r. AD 41-54) concerning the cult of the divine emperor and the status of Jews in Alexandria, and another from a mosque to the half-sister of the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim (r. AD 985-1021), demonstrating relationships between the state and religion.
One of the most extraordinary treasures of the exhibition is a small selection of some of the 200,000 texts from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, the texts were kept in a genizah (a sacred storeroom) for ritual disposal but for some reason were not destroyed. Mainly dating to the 11-13th centuries AD and written in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic and Arabic, they show a thriving Jewish community and charts the everyday lives of Jews in Medieval Cairo.
This fascinating exhibition provides plenty of evidence that Egypt played a major part in the promotion and development of three major religions, however the story of the transition from a traditional society largely worshipping many gods to a society devoted to One God is an interesting and complex narrative that often involved peaceful coexistence of various religious groups. In many ways, this challenges the perception that the region has always been the focus of continuous religious conflict. It also challenges the idea that people are slaves to their beliefs, within the exhibition there is evidence of people of worshipping many different gods and in some periods, the idea of worshipping just one god would have been considered very unusual.
Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
If you would like more information or book tickets, visit the British Museum website here
Egypt: faith after the pharaohs
29 October 2015 – 7 February 2016
Admission charge £10 plus a range of concessions, children under 16 free.
Opening times : Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.30 Friday 10.00–20.30.
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