THE big winter show at the British Museum invites us into the warmth of more than 1000 years of cultures spread across Egypt, where traces of Romans, pagans, Christians, and Muslims have largely survived because of the arid heat of the surrounding land.
By examining the three monotheistic religions of the people of the Book, a course is charted across 12 centuries of the transformation of a largely polytheistic world to a monotheistic one. Drawing on the collections of the Museum Island in Berlin, where this joint exhibition has already been shown at the Bode Museum, the curators look at the early history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in Egypt.
In turn, this project has sponsored the idea for a temporary exhibition at the Egyptian Museum in Tahir Square (last May to last July), which brought together 48 artefacts from the five great museums in Cairo to illustrate religious tolerance along the Nile.
From the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BC to the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in AD 1171, we see three religions that profess one God living side by side, often in close harmony, and as often not.
It opens dramatically enough: the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the earliest complete version of the New Testament (mid-fourth century), is set between the first Gaster Bible and a manuscript of the Qur’an, both of which date from about the ninth or tenth century and bear marked similarities in their layout.
The codex had remained in the monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai until it was obtained by Russian and British interests in 1859. It is open at the Gospel of St Luke, where verses 23-38 record the genealogy of Jesus back to Adam and to God. Amid all the “begats” comes a well-known textual variant where a later hand has corrected Sala’s name (verse 32) to that of (the more likely) Solomon.
I do not imagine for a moment that the curator chose this page to exemplify variant readings, but rather because it is one that is possible to read. The list of names is written line after line with a gap between “son of” and the proper name of Christ’s forebears. This interrupts the invariable columns of writing, as manuscripts were copied without breaks between individual words, making hardship for any copyist or reader.
However careful a scribe was, variants arose, and textual readings often remain disputed. The recent dating of suras 18 to 20 in the Birmingham Qur’an to the lifetime of the Prophet himself (c.570-632) raises a range of questions for Muslim scholars about the later Uthmanic redaction that has always been taken to represent the unalterable text. The Birmingham fragments are thought to date from 568-645, whereas the earliest in Egypt (all on parchment) derive from the later Abbasid period (750- ninth century).
Dr Moses Gaster (1856-1939) was head of the Sephardic community in London, and the folio pages of the Jewish Bible he had collected are among the earliest surviving examples of manuscript illumination. This is a reminder that, despite the earlier negative biblical view of Egypt at the Exodus, Jews had continued to thrive there. It was to the comparative safety of Egypt that Joseph took his young family to evade Herod.
In a remarkable papyrus letter of 10 November AD 41 to his Alexandrian subjects (British Library Pap. 2248. VO), the emperor Claudius seems ambivalent about the citizens’ wish to honour him as a god; but he was also concerned for the status of the Jewish community.
That Egyptian synagogues were granted asylum status is found on an imported marble slab (ÄMP, Berlin), where the first inscription (in Greek) dates back to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II (146-116 BC), while the renewal of the decree for asylum (in Latin) was given by Cleopatra and Caesarion some time after 47 BC.
The earliest depiction of the crucifixion, the Alexamenos graffito (The Palatine Museum, Rome), is of a donkey-headed man on a cross, and is thought to date from AD 200. It was not until the fourth century that fully representational images began to appear regularly. It is, therefore, striking to find two small carved jasper seal-stones.
Both are dated to the second or third century, and one seemingly bears the Crucified One (British Museum OA. 9710) and reads “Son, Father, Jesus Christ”. The other is carved with the Archangel Gabriel on one side and, on the reverse, an Egyptian deity, Anubis (Berlin ÄM 9850). Neither is discussed or illustrated in the catalogue, and they are displayed in such a way as to make them difficult to observe closely, each of them a tiny reminder of the world in which Christianity first flourished.
Equally powerful is the crucifixion drawn in the text of a papyrus list of Coptic spells for one Severus the son of Anna, which was illustrated about 475-525 (also ex- catalogue, from the British Library, OR. 6794). It appears beneath an invocation to Jesus Christ and seven of the archangels; the title on the cross is “The King” and the crown is marked “AEE”, while the thieves are identified as Gestas and Demas, as recorded in the Gospel of Nicodemus.
Non-canonical gospel books are shown in fragmentary condition; a portion of the Gospel of Mary has been brought from the John Rylands Library in Manchester, while the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of sayings of Jesus found at Oxyrhynchus, opens with “These are the [secret] words that the Living Jesus spoke [and Judas called] Thomas [wrote down]”, a reminder that Thomas, like Didymus in the Greek, is simply “twin” in Semitic.
Among other ancient manuscripts on display, Christians will find the earliest copy of the Nicene Creed (325) dating from the sixth century (John Rylands Library). The Copts believe that it was their pope Athanasius I (d. 373) who had first promoted the creed. It is difficult to accept that the hard-won unity of Christendom throughout Late Antiquity should then be so soon shattered in Christological debates about the two natures of Christ, as both fully human and fully divine.
The pilgrim traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are amply shown, with mass-produced flasks depicting St Menas, a popular Egyptian martyr, standing between two camels. His shrine lies 60km south-west of Alexandria, and, before the spread of Islam in the eighth century, the shrine flourished as one of the great Christian pilgrim sites.
Such ampullae have been found as far afield as Russia, and Burgate, in Kent. A delicately carved elephant-ivory circular box, no more than 8cm tall, of the sixth century, shows the saint meeting his death at the order of the emperor.
The exhibition ends in the Egypt of the Caliphate, and then with a cache of medieval manuscripts recovered from the storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. More than 200,000 texts were kept in the genizah, a sacred storeroom for waste paper on which had been written the Holy Name, and were first identified at the end of the 19th century by two formidable academic twin sisters, Mrs Gibson and Mrs Lewis, and are now in a study centre in Cambridge.
Daily life in a multi-cultural Eastern Mediterranean world has rarely been explored so beautifully, and I look forward to taking a parish group to view this exhibition.
“Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs” is at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 7 February 2016. Phone 020 7323 8299. www.britishmuseum.org