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Egypt: faith after the pharaohs - British Museum

Exhibition preview

EGYPT: faith after the pharaohs, a major exhibition looking at an important transition in Egypt’s history never explored before in its entirety, will be on display at the British Museum (Room 35) from October 29, 2015 to February 7, 2016.

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs explores 1,200 years of history, providing unparalleled insight into the lives of different religious communities.

This exhibition of around 200 objects will show how Christian, Islamic and Jewish communities reinterpreted the pharaonic past of Egypt and interacted with one another. The transitions seen in this period have shaped the modern world we know today.

The exhibition opens with three very significant examples of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament and the Islamic Qur’an, paired with three everyday stamps associated with each religion. These more humble objects sit alongside the three grand codices and together emphasise the relationship between the institutional side of religion and its everyday practice, two key themes of the exhibition.

As the founding scriptures of the three faiths, the books represent both the continuity of the Abrahamic tradition and the distinctiveness of each. Among these three luxury productions is the New Testament part of the 4th century AD Codex Sinaiticus now held in the British Library, the world’s oldest surviving Bible and the earliest complete copy of the New Testament. This rare loan is included in the exhibition to emphasise the readers and users of scripture in Egypt.

The first main section of the exhibition begins in 30 BC after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, when Egypt became part of the Roman Empire, and continues until 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 Jewish communities periodically thriving.

The wealth of material – surviving uniquely in Egypt – illustrates the country’s role in the wider region, the relationships between faith communities and the legacy of ancient Egypt. Due to its arid climate, Egypt preserves an abundance of organic material that survives nowhere else. An extraordinary pair of complete 6-7th century door curtains measuring 2.74m high depict motifs such as erotes (cupids) and winged Victories from the Classical period.

The Victories hold a jewelled cross flanked by Christian nomina sacra, showing the interaction between classical and Christian motifs. The expansion of the Roman Empire saw the development of Judaism and the emergence of Christianity. In Egypt, the iconography of these religions fused. Sculpture shows the adoption of Roman symbols of power to articulate authority – such as a statues of the falcon-headed ancient Egyptian god Horus wearing Roman armour.

Magical texts on papyrus and so-called magical gems show the layering of aspects of deities especially from the Egyptian, Greek and Roman pantheons. In this period the God of the Jews and Christians is one among many.

The exhibition demonstrates the physical and conceptual transformation of the landscape, as the ancient monuments of Egypt were sometimes destroyed, adapted and reused or reimagined.

By c. AD 400 the Great Pyramids of Giza were interpreted as the granaries of Joseph in accordance with the account in the Bible. Parts of ancient temple complexes were sometimes transformed into churches. At Alexandria, the Caesareum started by Cleopatra VII and completed by Augustus became the location of the Great Church of Alexandria in the centre of the ancient city.

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 639-642, the sacred landscape was again transformed. For example, al-‘Attrin Mosque in Alexandria was built reusing hundreds of Roman columns and capitals. Medieval Muslims were fascinated by the standing monuments of ancient Egypt, recording at once the tradition of the Great Pyramids as Joseph’s granaries and as the tombs of ancient kings. Such records show that the study of ancient Egypt did not originate with modern Western scholars.

The rubbish heaps of ancient and medieval towns in Egypt have preserved the earliest fragments of scripture, legal documents, letters, school exercises and other texts showing how religion was lived. Their survival is treasure from trash providing unparalleled insight into everyday society.

There are copies of official letters, including one from the emperor Claudius (r. AD 41-54) concerning the cult of the divine emperor and the status of Jews in Alexandria, and another from a mosque to the half-sister of the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim (r. AD 985-1021), demonstrating relationships between the state and religion.

The exhibition finishes with the astonishing survival of over 200,000 texts from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, where they were kept in a genizah (a sacred storeroom) for ritual disposal. By an accident of history they were not destroyed.

Mainly dating to the 11-13th centuries AD and written in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic and Arabic, they show a thriving Jewish community with international links extending from Spain to India. Together the collection is not only the best evidence for the daily lives of Jews in Medieval Cairo, but for the wider Medieval Mediterranean society including Muslims and Christians.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the British Museum, and includes many other exciting loans and objects from almost every department at the British Museum. This exhibition of around 200 objects will tell the story of the transition from a traditional society largely worshipping many gods to a society devoted to One God. This transition has shaped the modern world, and the journey Egypt took in this period continues to influence the country and wider region today.

An accompanying publication from British Museum Press is available: Egypt: faith after the pharaohs, edited by Cäcilia Fluck, Gisela Helmecke and Elisabeth R O’Connell with contributions from forty-five international experts.

This ground-breaking publication explores how Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities were established in succession and peacefully co-existed for long periods, each faith responding to pre-existing traditions by either rejecting earlier artistic ideas or by adapting and assimilating them. Available October 2015, £25 (paperback).

A full public programme accompanies the exhibition. To book, call +44 (0)20 7323 8181.

Egypt: the frontier of meaning – in the BP Lecture Theatre on Friday, November 6 at 6.30pm. Tickets: £5, Members/concessions £3.

Karen Armstrong, British Museum Trustee and world-renowned commentator on religious affairs, explores interreligious relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims in the first millennium AD. Positioning Egypt as a leader and pioneer in the region up to the present, she conveys how its population creatively challenged the frontiers that traditionally separated humanity from the divine. She also investigates how Egypt became a frontier zone between and within these faiths in a way that presaged some of our current problems.


The soul of Egypt – in the Great Court on Friday, December 11 from 6pm to 8.30pm. Free, just drop in.

A multisensory evening of performances, workshops and activities celebrating the enduring soul of Egypt, past and present. Includes traditional folk music, as well as a special demonstration of the 5,000-year-old Egyptian stick martial art known as tahtib. The full programme will be available online in November.

Egyptian street food now – in the BP Lecture Theatre on Friday, December 11 at 6.30pm. Tickets: £5, Members/concessions £3.

Internationally renowned chef and food writer Anissa Helou discusses the significance of bread in Egyptian cuisine and its importance in shaping today’s vibrant street food scene.

Study day: introducing religions – in the Stevenson Lecture Theatre on Saturday, January 30, 2016, from 10.30am to 5pm. Tickets: £23.

This study day in partnership with the Open University explores the beliefs and rituals of some of the great religions of the world. The emphasis is on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, with comment on Judaism, as shown through the British Museum’s collection and the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs. The day features lectures and gallery talks and is open to OU students and the public.

Image: The Meroë Head of Augustus, Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus, likely made in Africa, Egypt, C.27BC – 25BC. Excavated, Africa, Sudan, 1910. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

British Museum, Great Russell Street, London, WC1B 3DG

Tel: 020 7323 8181