An Account of the Manners and customs of the Modern Egyptians
Edward William Lane; Jason Thompson, intro. 2003, American University in Cairo Press,
The Complete Valley of the Kings: Tombs and Treasures of Egypt’s Greatest Pharaohs
Nicholas Reevs and Richard H. Wilkinson. 2001, Thames & Hudson,
Egypt Itself: The Career of Robert Hay, Esquire, of Linplum and Nunraw, 1799-1863
Selwyn Tillett. 1984, SD Books
( London) 0-950960-20-9
Sir Gardner Wilkinson and His Circle
Jason Thompson. 1992, University of Texas Press, 0-292-77643-8
The Valley of the Kings
John Romer. 2001, Phoenix Press,
The British in the Middle East,
1969, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Description of Egypt: Notes and Views on Egypt and Nubia Made During the Years 1825-1828
Edward William Lane; Jason Thomspon, ed. 2000, American University in Cairo Press,
The Rediscovery of Ancient Egypt
Peter Clayton. 1990, Thames & Hudson, 0-500-01284-9
Travellers in Egypt
Paul and Janet Starkey. 1998, I.B. Tauris, 1-86064-324-8
I.B. Tauris, 1-86064-674-3
Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide
Caroline Williams. 2002 (5th ed.) American University in Cairo Press, 977-424-695-0
- Visit National Geographic’s site for more reading on the Royal Mummies and more
- The Decorated Houses of Nubia
- The Search for Imhotep
We all know that Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, but Christianity has deep roots in the Land of the Nile that pre-date Islam. And in fact, Christian Copts continue to play a strong role in Egypt,
The Holy Family found refuge in Egypt after fleeing from Herod. St Mark found a people receptive to his preaching. Like Christians, Egyptians believed in life after death, which is why they embalmed and mummified their dead. They had celibate temple attendants who led lives of poverty and prayer. Mark was martyred in Alexandria, but his followers remained firm.
Among early Coptic Christians, Jesus was at first viewed as a great prophet in the tradition of the Old Testament. Differences about the nature of Jesus continued to divide the new religion. His early followers, like other early Christians in the Roman Empire, were persecuted for their beliefs and practices. St. Mena was the first major Coptic saint, martyred in 309 A.D.
After Emperor Constantine and the Roman Empire embraced Christianity, Coptic Christianity became part of the wider Christian world. Christian monasticism started among the Copts, and spread to Europe. The Nicene Creed, the essential statement of faith, was written in Alexandria.
But as the Church in Rome grew closer to the emperor, strains grew in far-flung corners of the Christian world, including Egypt. Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria objected to the emperor’s influence, and disagreed with Rome over whether Christ had two natures—human and divine—or a single nature. The Trinity became church doctrine, and “false bibles” that did not agree with the dictates of Rome were ordered burned. Egypt’s own Pope, who didn’t yield to Rome, was forced to flee.
The dissidents found refuge in desert sanctuaries, such as Wadi El Natroun, where they established monastic orders and preserved their beliefs. And their ancient texts survived as well in the dry desert air, to be re-discovered in the thirties.
Jews, as well, have longstanding ties to Egypt that go well beyond what we know from the story of Passover. The Old Testament relates that Joseph found refuge in Egypt from drought in the land of Falstine, or Palestine, and that Jews dwelled there for 400 years.
In the process, through periods of prosperity, slavery, liberation and exodus, Egypt left its indelible mark. The ancient name” Miriam “or Mariam”—from “Mari-Amon,” “Mari-Am” or servant of the god Amon—became that most typically Jewish name, Miriam.
Rituals of birth, marriage, death and the harvest, still followed today, were virtually identical with those of their Egyptian neighbors. Tomb paintings in Egypt show that ancient Egyptians and Jews both practiced circumcision, the only two peoples in the region to do so. Jacob and Joseph were both mummified after they died, though eventually the practice was dropped. Ritual slaughter of animals among both peoples was carried out by severing the carotid artery.
So, it is not a stretch to say that both Christianity and Judaism have deep roots in the ancient land of Egypt.
A provocative new study links Roman-era Faiyum portraits to pharaonic religious beliefs.
By Robert Steven Bianchi
Ever since they were found more than 100 years ago in the cemetery of El-Rubayat in the Faiyum, a rich agricultural region southwest of Cairo, so-called Faiyum portraits have intrigued Western art scholars. Considered rare examples of Graeco-Roman painting, possibly precursors of Byzantine icons, they were not linked in any meaningful sense to the mummies from which they had been unceremoniously ripped in anticipation of profitable sale to European collectors. Scholars regarded them as visual commemorations of the dead painted in a classical idiom; no one entertained the possibility that these life-like portraits might somehow be indebted to the traditions of pharaonic Egypt. Now, in a refreshing break with such traditional biases, comes Lorelei H. Corcoran’s Portrait Mummies from Roman Egypt (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1995), a work that will surely rock the hellenocentric art world and set new standards for the interpretation of these intriguing images.
Faiyum portraits have been found attached to mummies at sites from the Mediterranean to Upper Egypt. They depict men, women, and children who lived in Egypt during the Roman Imperial period, from the first to the fourth century A.D. That so few portraits have been found in any one cemetery suggests that those portrayed were among the elite of their day. The portraits were painted in either tempera or encaustic (hot wax in which pigments have been suspended) on paper-thin wooden panels or linen shrouds. One or two of them have been found with frames, suggesting that they may have been hung in houses during the lifetime of the subject. This is confirmed by the fact that the tops were often cut back before being attached to mummy bandages, following, apparently, the ancient Egyptian tradition of providing mummies with masks.
The paintings became popular in Europe after their discovery in 1887. Theodore Graf, a Viennese dealer who acquired most of those found at El-Rubayat, toured Europe and North America, selling many at a handsome profit. Their immense popularity at the time may be attributable to the contemporary European predilection for miniature portraits, particularly in Victorian England. That even Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, infamous for his Spartan character, was moved by these paintings is evident from his 1913 publication, The Hawara Portfolio: Paintings from the Roman Age, one of the first archaeological “coffee table” books. Many of the portraits were published in color and at postage-stamp size in this volume, clearly reflecting their association with Victorian miniature portraits.
From the beginning, Faiyum portraits were discussed, analyzed, and dated as if they were independent works of art. Divorced from the mummies to which they had been fastened, they were studied as examples of Graeco-Roman painting, the only corpus of comparable material being the wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Almost every book and journal article published before 1985 treated them as examples of Graeco-Roman painting that had nothing in common with the art of ancient Egypt. Scholars regarded the individuals depicted as either Greek, descendants of those who had come to Egypt with Alexander the Great or were invited there by the Ptolemies, or Hellenized Egyptians who appropriated a classical mode of representation.
The composition of many Faiyum paintings relies on the interplay of light and shadow across the surface of the panel. White accents painted on the pupils of the eyes give them a sparkling, life-like appearance. This technique anticipates similar highlights by Rembrandt and Hals of the European Baroque some 1,500 years later. Indeed, I believe that there may be a good pharaonic antecedent for the use of light and shadow on these portraits. In my recent work on the wall paintings of the Tomb of Nofertari, wife of Rameses II, I discovered that ancient Egyptian painters were interested in effects of light and shadow at least 1,000 years before the earliest Faiyum portrait. In some representations of Nofertari craftsmen used different gradations of the same hue-two different shades of a rosy pink, for example-to depict her face. The result was a nascent chiaroscuro that compares favorably with techniques used in the Faiyum portraits. Although not all the links between tom and Faiyum portraits have been identified, one cannot overlook the possibility that the painting style of the Faiyum portraits was a native Egyptian phenomenon.
Such techniques, which also characterized Victorian miniature portraits, have universally been regarded as deriving from paintings of the Hellenistic period, the golden age of Greek wall painting. Unfortunately, those paintings are preserved only in the writings of ancient authors, which abound with references to great painters, including Apelles, who was granted the exclusive right to paint portraits of Alexander the Great. Scholars have considered Faiyum portraits the artistic heirs of Greek artists such as Apelles, whose works were hailed for their life-like qualities, and assumed that both painters and subjects were Greek. Fearing that a rival might rise up in Egypt, following the example of Anthony and Cleopatra, Augustus had barred most Romans from the province. The only Romans allowed in Egypt were members of the administration and the legionaries of the occupying garrisons. The official language of the Roman administration was Greek rather than Latin because the prominent members of Alexandrian society were virtually all descendants of Greeks who had come to Egypt during the Ptolemaic period. These historical circumstances reinforced the art historical evaluation of the Faiyum portraits as Greek. No one bothered to ask why the portraits had been affixed to mummies.
It is within this tradition that another new book, Euphrosyne Doxiadis’ lavishly illustrated The Mysterious Fayum Portraits, Faces from Ancient Egypt (New York: Abrams, 1995), is to be understood. Doxiadis, who studied painting and lives in Athens, writes about the Faiyum portraits in an engaging, popular style, and her love the subject is evident. Her narrative, heavily indebted to prevailing ideas about Alexandrian society in the Graeco-Roman period, is decidedly hellenocentric, peppered by frequent references to and translations of appropriate passages from Greek and Latin texts. She lays the Faiyum portraits squarely in the lap of classical art, and regards them as among its consummate expressions. Relying on her own skills as a painter and on her knowledge of ancient and modern Greek language and traditions, Doxiadis posits a direct relationship between Faiyum portraiture and the merging use of icons in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Byzantines. It is a fascinating suggestion that I have long supported. Doxiadis’ premise is that the tradition of Hellenistic wall painting continued into the Roman Imperial period. The Faiyum portraits were part of this continuum, which was the source from which Byzantine icons emerged.
A third book due out this year is Barbara Borg’s Mumienportrats (Mainz: Rutzen, 1995), which is based on her thesis at the University of Gottingen. Borg contends, as do many, that the fashions depicted on the portraits can be related to those then prevailing in Rome. Since the sculptures of identifiable Roman empresses often have distinctive coiffures, women depicted on the Faiyum portraits with the same hairstyles must have lived about the same time. Reviewing the evidence, Borg concludes that Faiyum portraits had a much shorter period of popularity in antiquity than is generally maintained. Her approach is also hellenocentric in that she assumes that the individuals depicted are Greek, or at least hellenized. It also overlooks the way in which the bodies were wrapped and decorated, an equally valid source of evidence.
Both Doxiadis and the Borg fail to acknowledge two basic characteristics of all Faiyum portraits – their provenance, or findspot (cemeteries) and archaeological context (attached to mummies). They rely on the old hellenocentric interpretation of the Faiyum portraits as Greek-derived works of art, and they do not question it.
In contrast, Corcoran, of the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis, has focused on the fact that the Faiyum portraits once decorated mummies, and she has studied examples in Egyptian museums that are still attached to mummy-wrappings. Her statistical survey of cemeteries demonstrates that mummies with Faiyum portraits were rare, painted only for elite members of society. She also shows that the clothing and jewelry worn by those in the portraits and the objects that they hold are consistent with the trappings of worshipers or Isis and the deities associated with her, including Serapis and Horus the Child. In every instance the wrapped bodies are decorated with scenes and motifs that are purely pharaonic in nature and conform to well-established ancient Egyptian funerary traditions. These include the so-called baptism of the deceased, a purifying ritual; the mummy being attended by Anubis, god of embalming; and the depiction of the deceased as a human-headed bird. Whatever the ethnicity of the individuals represented on the portraits, the visual vocabulary employed in expressing their religious beliefs was purely pharaonic and not indebted to influences from Greece or Rome. As a result of Corcoran’s work, one is inclined to regard the people depicted as members of a native Egyptian elite, rather than of the Graeco-Roman community in Egypt.
Corcoran’s reassessment does not stop there. For her, these paintings were not simply beautiful works of art but were functional objects. Her investigations reaffirm the suggestion, made long ago by Flinders Petrie, that on some occasions these portraits were hung in houses of the living during the lifetime of the person represented. Examples with frames have long been known, and when the individual portrayed died, some of these framed images were removed and cut so that the panel could be more easily wrapped to the mummy, hence the irregular shapes of their tops. The Faiyum portraits were also subjected to other alterations after their manufacture. Gold leaf was added to many, either in the form of wreaths or in the form of gold laid over the mouths or other parts of the face. The use of wreaths in Roman Egypt in pharaonic funerary contexts is associated with resurrection. That they are gilded reinforces this concept because the ancient Egyptians regarded the flesh of their deities as being made of gold. The addition of gold leaf to the faces of these Faiyum portraits implies their deification as well, further supporting Corcoran’s conclusion that the portraits and their mummies belong to a pharaonic tradition.
But the most intriguing aspect of her thesis relies upon and understanding of ancient Egyptian funerary rites and practices. The Egyptians believed that the living could communicate with the dead, and that the dead, so contacted, could have an impact on the lives of the living. An early example of this belief system occurs in the so-called Letters to the Dead. The earliest, written on small pieces of papyrus, are of Old Kingdom date, and reveal that the misfortune of the living could be reversed by the direct intervention of the deceased. This nexus between the living and the dead is encountered again during the late New Kingdom at Thebes, where busts of ancestors, honored as “excellent spirits of Re,” were venerated in the homes of the living.
It is within this context that Corcoran has reexamined a rather macabre episode in the Xenophon’s second-century A.D. novella, Ephesian Tale. Set in Egypt, the story involves a widower who keeps the mummified body of his wife at home. According to Corcoran, the text indicates that the wife’s mummy was perhaps equipped with a Faiyum portrait so that her husband might remember her as young and beautiful. He also talked to his dead wife and shared meals with her. Far from being an ancient precedent for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, this episode clearly suggests that the ancient Egyptian concept of the living communicating with the dead was still being practiced in Roman Egypt. Other texts, such as those associated with Petubastis III, High Priest of Ptah in the time of Cleopatra VII, mention mummies that were kept with the living for extended periods of time. The practice may explain why some coffins from Roman Egypt, such as one in the J. Paul Getty Museum, have sliding lids, so they could be opened for face-to-face communication.
Traditionally scholars maintain that funerary spells were formulated to assist the dead in their symbolic journey to the hereafter and resurrection. Relying on the earlier work of other Egyptologists specializing in religion, Corcoran shows that many of these spells were efficacious for the living, as this passage from Book of Amduat (That-which-is-in-the-Netherworld) indicates: These sorceries of Isis and the Eldest Sorcerer for repelling Apophis [a demon] from the sun god, Re, in the West are performed in the hidden part of the netherworld. They are performed upon earth as well.