Review: ‘Faith After the Pharaohs’

One of the most curious objects from the British Museum’s current ‘Faith After the Pharaohs’ exhibition is also one of the smallest and easiest to miss: a bronze statuette of the god Horus, dated between the 1st and 3rd century. One of the highlights of the show, this piece is also a symbol of the message the exhibition is attempting to send. The piercing eyes and sharp beak of the falcon’s head, so characteristic of ancient Egyptian depictions of the god, might be considered commonplace. Here, though, it is set atop the body of a man dressed in full Roman military costume, the Egyptian god transformed with all the attributes of a conquering Roman emperor. Horus was the divine representation of the living king and so the presence of Roman attributes is telling of the religious and political changes that the country underwent when it came under Rome’s power; is this a depiction of Roman emperor as a god or a god as a Roman emperor? It is used by curators of this exhibition as a prime example of the interaction of religious ideas and iconography between many communities throughout the following era (from 30 BC to 1171 AD).

Horus in Roman military costume.png
The Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume

Egypt is a current theme for the museum following last summer’s successful ‘Ancient lives, new discoveries‘, which showcased eight Egyptian mummies, and is set to continue with the hotly anticipated ‘Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds‘ opening this May. The present show, however, is the first to explore the history of Egypt after the Pharaonic rule. It charts the influence of the Roman Empire, the rise of Christianity, the history of Jewish communities, and the transition to a predominantly Muslim population that still survives today.

This is a gargantuan mission, covering over a thousand years of complex religious history and making use of the great wealth of evidence preserved through the millennia in the Egyptian sands. Only in Egypt are such delicate and elucidating objects preserved, the dry climate of the desert allowing even textiles and paper to survive through the years. On show are fragments from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Torah), papyrus letters to and from emperors, and extracts from the Cairo Genizah (an extraordinary collection of over 200, 000 fragments of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic text, found in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo). More emotive finds are also on display: a child’s linen tunic hangs behind one glass cabinet with a single surviving woollen sock and a wooden toy horse, dated to the 1st – 3rd centuries AD. Objects like these give insight into the lives of ‘ordinary’ ancient Egyptians and create an eerie connection to this mysterious past world; these people were not so different to us after all.

Gold ring with Serapis, Harpokrates and Isis as serpents.png
Gold ring with Serapis, Harpokrates, and Isis as serpents

At times the show feels overwhelming and the evidence on display demands time and concentration that not all visitors may be willing to spend. As a classicist studying the religion of the ancient world, I may be a little biased in my interest in the show and its collection of incredible objects.  The ancient religion(s) of Egypt is a complex topic still debated among scholars today, and unfortunately the exhibition can only go some way towards hinting at the key problems faced in this field. For one thing, the show seems to neaten the complexities of Egypt’s changing religious landscape into one of a smooth development from many gods to one. This neglects the nuances of so-called polytheistic and monotheistic belief systems and is in danger of presenting a Judeo-Christian perspective on the ‘progression’ to one deity. Nonetheless, as an exhibition aimed at a wide variety of audiences, from passing tourist to optimistic parent hoping for an ‘educational’ day out, it succeeds in presenting a whistle-stop tour of the main religious groups of ancient Egypt, and their interaction with each other.

Codex Sinaiticus
The Codex Sinaiticus

Perhaps most interesting is the apparent theme of peaceful diversity, as the show downplays the conflict between the religious groups of both ancient and modern Egypt. Though it does briefly cover the persecution of various communities, this does not seem to stand up to the overwhelming emphasis on harmony. A short video installation explores the religious landscape of modern Cairo, showing that today’s graffiti mixes Muslim, Christian, and Pharaonic Egyptian imagery. Its soundtrack drifts over to you as you wind through the exhibition, explaining that ancient Egypt was a “melting pot” of religions and a “fluid cultural landscape”.  Examples of Christians forming protective rings around mosques and Muslims around churches are shown, providing an image of religious tolerance. The very first room boldly announces this theme by presenting three rare codices, the Hebrew Bible, the Islamic Qu’ran and the Codex Sinaiticus, the core texts of the three religions, placed one beside the other: different but together. This presentation of peaceful religious co-existence may be a little optimistic but, especially given the modern climate, one can’t help but applaud the British Museum’s motives here.

The exhibition has many rare pieces, on loan from all over the world, and is the first UK exhibition to explore this period of history. As Neil MacGregor’s last major exhibition, it is something of a cultural moment, and is worth at least a passing visit from anyone interested in the ancient world or its modern reception.

Alicia Eames

‘Faith After the Pharaohs’ runs at the British Museum until February 7th 2016. You can find further information about the exhibition and book tickets here.

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