Egypt: Faith After The Pharaohs – On Show The British Museum


Bust of Germanicus, great-nephew of Augustus with a Christian cross carved onto the forehead, basalt, Egypt, about AD 14–20 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Egypt: Faith After The Pharaohs is an exhibition at The British Museum 29 October – 7 February, 2016, that will be a world first, presenting the evolution of post-pharaonic Egypt to the present day.

Over 300 objects will be on display, including jewellery, painted panels, textiles including clothing and soft furnishings, sculpture, glass, ceramics, manuscripts and fragments of papyrus, which preserve precious early texts that are integral to both Jewish scripture and lost Christian gospels.

The show will relate and reflect the rich and complex story of the political, social, religious, artistic and cross-cultural influences on Egypt’s art forms and community life once it was opened up to a wider world. This includes extended periods of peaceful coexistence as well as off and on tensions and violence between people of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.

Single is the race, single
Of men and gods;
From a single mother we both draw breath
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart*

The conquests of Alexander the Great the Greek saw the world expand with new Hellenistic kingdoms, including the fabled Alexandria in Egypt where Ptolemy’s descendants ruled until the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 BC when Egypt was finally absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Horus 2a

Limestone sculpture of Horus wearing Roman Military costume from Roman Egypt 1st-2nd century AD courtesy ©The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition’s timeline will commence with the death of Cleopatra on August 12, 30 years before the Christ event at Alexandria from reputedly the self-inflicted bite of an Asp, along with that of her Roman lover Marc Antony, who fell dramatically on his sword.

After that a trio of faith beliefs gradually transformed Egypt’s ancient land, from worshipping many gods to worshipping only one.

Covering some twelve centuries of history, Egypt’s arid climate has uniquely preserved many of its ancient treasures and wondrous art forms.

This includes architectural elements of styles that prevailed in decorated sacred spaces as they met morphed from being Pagan temples to becoming synagogues, churches, and finally mosques.

The Great Pyramids of Giza were by 400 AD being used granaries and parts of Egypt’s ancient temple complexes were also being transformed into churches.

Following the Muslim conquest of Egypt in AD 639-642, the al-‘Attrin Mosque was constructed reusing hundreds of Roman architectural columns and capitals.

The Caesareum started by Cleopatra VII and completed by 1st century Roman Emperor Augustus, became the Great Church of Alexandria in the centre of that ancient city.


A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked courtesy Trustees the British Museum

This happened as Christianity went from being a faith whose people were totally persecuted, to being one protected as the new state religion.

Representing the broad based transformation of this ancient land to embrace the Roman empire, then the medieval world and finally the modern world we live in today, this exhibition tells a story of our ever-evolving humanity.

Sculptural art will reveal how by adopting Roman symbols of power the Egyptians helped articulate authority; statues of the falcon-headed ancient Egyptian god Horus wearing Roman armour had great visual impact.

A witnesses to the transformation he has himself changed, losing the colourful pigments that were once integral to power dressing’ in Roman ruled Egypt.

He is perhaps a lesson for us all in that there is often much more to his story than what the eye can immediately see.

Elisabeth R O’Connell, a British Museum curator has used modern technology to reveal how he would have really looked so many eons ago when he represented the Sun God, the divine representative of the living King now under the influence of Roman rule.

She has reconstructed his colours using scientific analysis that reveals fragments of pigment that remain.

Meroe Head 730

The Meroe Head of Augustus, Bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus, likely made in Africa, Egypt, C27BC-25BC. Excavated, Afrida, Sudan, 1910 courtesy ©The Trustess of the British Museum

Some 200,000 texts that were not destroyed by an accident of history, will also help to uncover a thriving Jewish community with international links extending from Spain to India.

There are copies of official letters, including one from the emperor Claudius (r. AD 41-54).

It concerns the cult of the divine emperor and the status of Jews in Alexandria.

The rubbish heaps of ancient and medieval towns in Egypt have also preserved fragments of scripture, legal documents, letters, school exercises and other texts providing an unparalleled insight into everyday society.


Ivory pyxis box depicting Daniel with arms raised in prayer is flanked by two lions, Egypt or Syria, 5th or early 6th century AD © The Trustees of the British Museum

Records also show the study of ancient Egypt did not originate with modern Western scholars, but with medieval Muslims.

They are written in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic and Arabic and detail the daily lives of Jewish peoples in Medieval Cairo (11-13th centuries), which by the time of the wider Medieval Mediterranean society also included Muslims and Christians.

There is one from a mosque to the half-sister of the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim (r. AD 985-1021), demonstrating relationships between the state and religion.

There are also details of Jewish and Muslim craftsmen recommending each other, or of female monks leasing part of their house to a Jewish Man without prejudice.

During this period the God of the Jews and Christians became only one among many detailed in magical texts on papyrus showing the layering of different aspects of the old deities, especially from the Egyptian, Greek, Roman pantheons.


The Codex Sinaiticus open at John chapter 5 verse 6 – chapter 6 verse 23, New Testament. It has only left the British Library building once before, during the second world war. Photograph: courtesy British Library

The British Library will lend one of its greatest treasures the heavily corrected text of the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest Bible, Dating from the fourth (4th) century AD and written in Greek.

It contains the complete manuscript of the Christian New Testament.

Since 2009 the complete transcription of the Codex can be consulted Online because of a collaboration between the four institutions that hold different parts of the original manuscript; the British Library, the Monastery of St Catherine on Mount Sinai, the University Library of Leipzig and the National Library of Russia, St Petersburg.

It was written not long after the reign of the Roman Emperor in the east Constantine the Great, who declared Christianity the religion of the state in 300 AD and established Roman rule in the ancient capital of Byzantium, which had changed its name to Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Crystal Bottle Lion

Lion-shaped rock crystal bottle, likely used to store perfume or oils, which were among the most luxurious items of any Muslim court. Egypt, probably Cairo, AD 900–950 © The Trustees of the British Museum

Curator Elisabeth R O’Connell has also collaborated with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin to gain some exciting loans. She has co-edited a book named for the exhibition, which is published by The British Museum Press. A program of events accompanies the show.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Egypt: Faith After The Pharaohs

29 October 2015 – 7 February 2016


*(Pindar , Nemean Odes, VI, 1, ca. 450 BC)

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