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Peeling back the layers of time

30 October 2015

A new exhibition, ‘Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, opened this week at the British Museum. John Ray sets the scene

© The Trustees of the British Museum

Palimpsest: seated figure of the ancient Egyptian god Horus, wearing Roman military costume, limestone, Egypt, first to second century AD

Palimpsest: seated figure of the ancient Egyptian god Horus, wearing Roman military costume, limestone, Egypt, first to second century AD

IN THE 1860s, the Victorian traveller Lucie Duff Gordon took a voyage along the Nile, hoping it would benefit her health. In one of her letters home, she remarked on sights such as women bathing in the river in the hope of conceiving a child — practices that, she suspected, went back into remote history.

She added that Egypt was a “palimpsest” (an old document that has been erased and re-used for another text), in which the Bible was written over Herodotus, and the Qur’an over that. In fact, if one looks carefully, the ancient writing of the hieroglyphs is still there underneath it all.

Egypt is one of the most lived-in countries on earth. Throughout its 5000-year history, it has attracted immigrants who brought with them traditions of their own, which slowly fed into the mainstream. The culture of Egypt was distinct from its neighbours, but this did not mean that it was impervious to new ideas: its capacity to absorb and reinterpret themes and stories from outside made it a garden in which all sorts of intellectual plants could flourish.

Alexander the Great entered Egypt in 332 BC, and founded a new capital, Alexandria. As a result, Egypt would be governed by Greek speakers for the next thousand years; even the Arabs, when they first arrived in the country, continued to use Greek for several generations before their own language supplanted it.

The Coptic language, which is the descendant of Ancient Egyptian, is full of Greek words — partly because of the influence of the scriptures, but also because Egyptians heard Greek words every day, much as modern English has absorbed Norman French and Latin. This, too, is an example of the Egyptian tendency to absorb and re-use rather than to ignore and reject.

The Romans took over Egypt after the suicide of Antony and Cleopatra in 30 BC, and they continued its Greek-speaking administration. Here, Greek and Roman culture had every chance to rub shoulders with Egyptian thinking, some of which was already millennia old. (We should remember that, when Caesar and Cleopatra visited the pyramids, they were closer in time to us than to the monuments they had come out to see.) A good illustration of this intermixing is the world of the magical papyri, which survive from Roman Egypt in remarkable numbers. Here, Osiris and Horus mingle with Hermes and Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Yao (a rendering of the Hebrew tetragram for the divine) can also appear, along with Jesus and his apostles, as well as Mithras.

The new exhibition at the British Museum features a statue of the royal embodiment, Horus, with a traditional falcon head, but dressed as a Roman legionary. These things are allowed to coexist along the Nile, and they are far from unusual.


THE dry climate of Egypt preserves documents written on materials such as papyrus or parchment, which tended to perish in other locations. This is a large part of the fascination of Egyptology, since we are able to read texts that have not survived elsewhere.

There are day-to-day letters and jottings that would never have been recopied by a professional scribe; and there are writings that would have been censored or suppressed by the authorities. A well-known example of this is the Gnostic library that was found at Nag Hammadi in the 1940s.

These manuscripts have shed light on the way in which Christian ideas were interpreted and reinterpreted in the first few centuries of the faith, partly under the influence of Neo-Platonism. There are ideas here (such as the notion that Jesus was not crucified, but was replaced by a substitute) that reappear later in Islam. These texts would not have survived outside Egypt, and certainly not in Rome or Byzantium.


EGYPT was always conscious of its distinct culture. It is perhaps not surprising that the Copts parted company with the mainstream Church after the Council of Chalcedon (they rejected its definition concerning the two natures of the incarnate Christ). The theology of Coptic Christianity has been well studied, but less attention has been paid to its secular literature, which covers a wide field.

The Egyptians were natural storytellers, and this did not change with the coming of Christianity. As well as the usual lives of saints, there are love poems and proverbs; stories of encounters with pagan gods who were now considered demons; and tales that resemble science fiction, in which the anchorites of the inner deserts take the place of astronauts in outer space, battling with the alien. There are also icons that show Coptic saints with the heads of dogs, precisely as if they were the pagan god Anubis from centuries before.

Egypt was also home to some of the largest populations of Jews outside the Holy Land. A whole quarter of Alexandria was Jewish; and the earlier settlement at Elephantine, the island in the Nile opposite Aswan, has yielded up the day-to-day records of a fifth-century BC Jewish community, written in the international language of the time, Aramaic.

Later, but within the long period covered by the exhibition, are the papers from the Cairo genizah, the lumber room of a medieval synagogue. These were preserved because they might have had the divine name written on them, and therefore could not be destroyed.

They contain a whole world of thought, including poems in modern Greek but written in Hebrew characters; commercial accounts; and a letter from the philosopher Maimonides. They were rescued by two scholars in the 19th century, and are now scattered among various collections, although the bulk of them are in the University Library in Cambridge.

The Coptic language was still in use at the time of the Crusades; it may have died out at about the time of Shakespeare. This means that Ancient Egyptian, in its various phases, has the longest-recorded history of any of the world’s languages.

Coptic Christianity never died out, and today one estimate puts the Christian population of Egypt at around ten per cent. In general, Christians are tolerated, although recent years have brought new tensions. Coptic families — even the poorer ones — tend to invest in the education of their children, with the result that they enter the higher-paid professions.

This is a simple means of self-preservation, but it also means that they suffer from a depressingly familiar suspicion: that they hog these professions, and look after themselves before anybody else. There is nothing the Copts can do to counter this suspicion.


ISLAM first arrived in Egypt in the 640s, and slowly spread along the country. Modern Egypt is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, but there were pockets of Shia Muslims, and an entire dynasty — the Fatimids — were Shiite.

The best-known of these is the colourful ruler Al-Hakim (996-1021), whose achievements included having the dogs in Cairo put down because one of them barked at him; and destroying the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The British Museum exhibition includes a letter written to his sister — an equally controversial character, to whom, court gossip related, the ruler was unnaturally close. Be that as it may, it is remarkable to think that this letter survives, and we can read it.

Shia Islam tends to appeal to Muslims who do not consider themselves Arab in origin (hence its popularity in Iran and parts of the Sudan), but it survived in Egypt until comparatively recently, notably in the town of Esna, in the south of the country.

This, too, is part of the tapestry that is the intellectual life of Egypt; and here, at long last, is an exhibition devoted to this rich and absorbing theme.

John Ray is Emeritus Professor of Egyptology in the University of Cambridge.


“Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs” is at the British Museum until 7 February 2016. Review to follow.

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