Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs recalls religious coexistence

Friday 22/01/2016
Ivory box depicting Daniel in prayer

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.