Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs recalls religious coexistence
London - The upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa following the “Arab spring” revolutions of 2011 resulted in heightened sectarian tensions and horrendous persecution of Christian communities, especially in Iraq and Syria. Twenty Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded by the Islamic State (ISIS) on a beach in Libya, and the church built in their memory was attacked in the Egyptian province of Minya, a frequent flash point for sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.
As sectarian rift continues, the Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs exhibition at the British Museum recalls a time when Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities lived together in a happy symbiosis, through a display of 200 objects ranging from the sacred to the mundane.
On a video that introduces the exhibition, Christians join hands to make a protective ring around a mosque and Muslims form a protective circle around a church. The images of coexistence, good will and tolerance suggest history has a lot to teach us in dealing with present-day crises.
The calm, expressive voice of the narrator describes Egypt as a melting pot of religions and cultures and stresses that despite some problems, coexistence and collaboration between faiths are still features of life in the country.
Elisabeth O’Connell, the exhibition’s curator, explains that the exhibition showcases interaction between religious communities over 1,200 years, marked by periodic tensions and the eruption of violence.
“This is the history known from ancient and medieval historians,” O’Connell said. “In the course of everyday life, however, we also find striking and sometimes unexpected illustrations of coexistence. As, for example, when two female Christian monks lease part of their property to a man explicitly described as a Jew in AD400, or when a Jewish trader recommends his highly trustworthy Muslim business contact to a Jewish colleague in AD1060.”
“These are the kinds of mundane interactions shown in the exhibition that were not reported in historians’ accounts in the same way headline news today — rightly so — privileges violence and persecution, while, in their everyday lives, people within different religious communities can continue to coexist,” she added.
The exhibition begins with a display of the three holy books — a ninth-century Hebrew Bible; the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Christian New Testament in the world made in the Monastery of St Catherine in Sinai in the fourth century AD; and a beautifully decorated eighth-century copy of the Quran. The three precious books lie side by side symbolising how the three communities lived side by side in Egypt for centuries.
Then the gods of ancient Egypt are introduced, including the deity Bes with his fearsome expression. He is a protector and drives away dangers from the natural and supernatural worlds.
The exhibition then moves to 30BC after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony when Egypt became part of the Roman empire and a major transition from the worship of many gods to monotheism occurred.
Egypt’s ancient monuments were also “reinterpreted” through a Christian lens. In one, the pyramid of Giza was seen by Christians as a grain silo, after Joseph is said to have advised the pharaoh to store grain in case there was a famine.
The Romans appropriated Egypt’s ancient gods, including the falcon-headed god Horus whose statue shows him wearing Roman armour.
From the Christian era, there are elaborately decorated tapestries and curtains found in churches and spectacularly preserved ancient textiles with electrifying colours embroidered with classical vines and angels. The ancient Egyptian ankh — a cross with a loop — was adopted by the Christians as a symbol of everlasting life.
After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 639-642, the sacred landscape changed once again, information from the museum stated. The al-Attrin Mosque in Alexandria was built reusing hundreds of Roman columns and Muslims absorbed Coptic arts into their own arts.
According to the exhibition web site: “The exhibition finishes with the astonishing survival of more than 200,000 texts from Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, where they were kept in a genizah (a sacred storeroom in the synagogue) for ritual disposal. By an accident of history, they were not destroyed. Mainly dating from the 11-13th centuries and written in Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic and Arabic, they depict a thriving Jewish community with international links extending from Spain to India.”
The collection sheds light on the daily lives of prosperous Jews in medieval Cairo and on the lives of Christians and Muslims in medieval Mediterranean society.
Objects on display include vestments and artefacts from churches, ornate jewellery, gemstone amulets and lavish blocks of ivory carved in minute, breathtaking detail. One, in particular, contains in its upper reaches a miniature cityscape representing the tower-studded walls of Alexandria, teeming with onlookers. Mundane objects include a sock, children’s toys, copies of letters from the emperor Claudius, clothes and reed pens.
The exhibition, which runs through February 7th, is a collaboration between the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the British Museum.