Egypt: faith after the pharaohs

November 9th 2015 | The British Museum Press

Photo: Standing figure of the ancient Egyptian god Horus, wearing Roman military costume bronze, Egypt, 1st2nd century AD The Trustees of the British Museum

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs is a fascinating insight into the religious life and day-to-day co-existence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Egypt from Antiquity to the Middle Ages.

Published to accompany a major exhibition at the British Museum, this important book presents 1,200 years of history, from after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 30 BC, when Egypt was made a province of the Roman Empire, to AD 1171, when the rule of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty came to an end. During this time, Egypt became first a majority Christian, then a majority Muslim population, with communities of Jews periodically thriving.

The remarkable objects illustrated here have been uniquely preserved in Egypt’s arid climate and their survival provides unparalleled access to the lives of individuals and communities. They tell a rich and complex story of influences and exchanges, with periods of peaceful coexistence and intermittent tension and violence. 

Sculptures of ancient Egyptian gods in Roman costume are powerful statements of imperial authority. Papyrus documents reveal the status of Jews and early Christians in the Roman world. Stone architecture shows the transformation of temple complexes when they were reused for churches. Inscriptions mark the establishment of mosques as the sacred landscape was transformed once again.

Fragile fragments of papyrus preserve the daily doings and dealings of individual Jews, Christians and Muslims as well as some of the earliest surviving Jewish scriptures, lost Christian gospels and evidence for the development of a Muslim state. Colourful, complete garments and soft-furnishings vividly show what people wore and how they clothed their homes and public spaces.

Together, these beautiful works of art and everyday items show how the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to monotheism – the belief in one God – affected every part of life. Egypt’s journey from the Roman to the Islamic periods reflects the wider transformation from an ancient to a medieval world - a transition that has shaped the world we live in today.

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