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Book Review – Egypt: faith after the pharaohs ( British Museum Press )


This book is the accompanying title to the current British Museum exhibition, Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, 29th September 2014 – 7th  February 2015. Both the book and the exhibition look at the important yet little understood period of Egyptian history between 30 BC and AD 1171.  This was a period of an extraordinary transition in Egypt’s religious beliefs from an ancient pantheon of pagan gods to the one God of the three Abrahamic faiths.

The book is divided into five main parts that include The Three Religions in Egypt, Roman Egypt, Late Antique Egypt, Medieval Egypt and finally Belief and Practice across the Faiths. Each period consists of a series of essays written by a team of international experts, drawing on the last thirty years of research.

The first part explores the often complex relationship of the three main religions with Egypt, at various times Egypt has provided sanctuary for  religious groups but has also been the scene of considerable oppression. The considerable amount of historical texts offers considerable insights into the interaction between the various religions and the Egyptian state itself. In the first essay by Martin Bauschke, he makes the important point that the role of Abraham in all three religions is often ignored and this common ancestry is often underplayed. Remarkably considering the esteem Abraham is held in all three religions, he still remains a shadowy and mysterious figure who still unites and divides various sects. Many of the historical texts found in Egypt provide plenty of evidence that in the development of the various religions, ideas and views that challenged the orthodoxy were often suppressed.

The section on Roman Egypt illustrates that when Egypt becomes part of the Roman Empire, a wide range of Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods were worshipped. Often strange hybrids of gods emerged, the statue of the Egyptian God Horus in Roman military costume being one example. The evidence suggest that this belief in many gods was the dominant feature of Egypt of the period. However in the late antique period between 250 and 600 began a seismic shift in religious belief, it is argued that by the 6th century that Egypt has a Christian majority. The book explore the religious conflict of this period in which christians attacked and destroyed the temples to the pagan gods. The extent of this conflict is difficult to estimate but there is also evidence that all three faiths actively used the Ancient Egyptian sites for churches, synagogues and mosques. After the Arab conquest in 639. Islam began to get more acceptance in Egypt, but once again the picture is quite complex. One of the great documentary treasures of the latter period is the Cairo Genizah which provides evidence that religious differences were ignored when business and trade connections were made.

The final section Belief and Practice across the Faiths reinforces the view that for many centuries, faiths practised their rituals side by side with little conflict and considerable similarities when commemorating the various key elements of people’s life cycles. The epilogue looks at present day Egypt and considers whether there may be lessons in its past that could provide some solutions to political and religious fundamentalism.

Both the exhibition and the book provide an important reminder that religious conflict is not inevitable, for many centuries people of many faiths have peacefully coexisted. The unique nature of Egypt archaeology enables even the most fragile objects to survive and the book has over 300 stunning photographs of many of the most important objects. This is an authoritative, yet highly readable account of a largely neglected period of Egyptian history. The move from many gods to one God represents one of the major transformations in human history. The study of Egypt of this period  enables us to explore how this developed and how these developments had enormous consequences for the creation of the modern world.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

If you would like further information or buy a book, visit the British Museum website here

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