Beyond the Nile

This apex of this interaction was the religion of Roman-Egypt. The goddess Isis was immensely popular and worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, strongly associated with Egypt but also transcending these cultural and geographic boundaries.

Egypt and the Classical World at the Getty

The ancient Mediterranean and Middle East was a connected world. Diplomacy, trade and war was carried out between the peoples and powers of this period.

The title of this book is, perhaps, a slight misnomer. Classical can mean not just Ancient Greece and Rome (700s BCE to 500s CE), but also to specific periods. Beyond the Nile focuses on this broader period.

Early connections

The first interactions between Greece and Egypt was in the late Bronze Age. Minoan bull leaping scenes have been found in Memphis and Scarabs have been found in Crete. Most intriguingly of all is the Greek style boat, resembling Homer’s famous description: “The black beakered hulls”. Found in Gurob in a New Kingdom Grave and normally held at the Petrie Museum, it is the only surviving model of these early Greek ships.

The interactions developed at Naukratis. This was a trading post in the Egyptian Delta. Even at this early stage, Greeks interacted with Egyptian religions. Carians offered votive objects to the Apis Bull in Memphis.

Apis Bull terracotta from British Museum


The connections only grew once Ptolemaic rulers reigned from Alexandria. Decrees  and legal documents were now bilingual – written in Greek and Egyptian (Demotic and Hieroglyphics). Amongst these documents must be added the magic spells, such as the Leiden-London Magical Papyrus.

Gods changed. Sarapis was introduced. Coins were stamped with Zeus Ammon. The Greek Lagides self-identified as divinities. The reality on the ground was more complex than the surviving images at first make it appear. Although Greek style images of Egyptian gods rarely portrayed them in animal form (with the exception of Anubis), this does not mean that Greek settlers in Egypt did not worship Egyptian animal gods. The crocodiles in the Fayum, continued to be worshipped. The gods Isis-Thermouthis and Serapis-Agathos-Daimon became the patron dieties of Alexandria.

The most common image in the ancient World was Isis nursing her son Horus. It was an image that drew from Egyptian and Greek styles. It was an image that drew its power from the humane tenderness of the goddess, the great fear associated with childbirth and the mythic power of Horus’ conception. Whether the image was a direct influence on similar images of Mary is a much debated subject.

Isis-Lactans (or possibly Beset-Lactans) from Louvre

The Romans come

Roman rule of Egypt can be seen either as the final development stage of Ancient Egypt or the point It ceases to be. This is additionally complicated by the singular fact that Egypt is the greatest source of documentary evidence for Roman colonisation. It is still debated how exemplary the province of Egypt was. Egypt was the Roman province par excellence.

The Romans are considered as a foreign power who imposed on Egypt and gave little in return. There is much truth in this.

Objects from the show reveal a deep engagement. A Gravestone for a Roman soldier, shows a young man sandwiched by two Horus Falcons. Was this solider an Egyptian or a Greek or a Roman, or even from elsewhere in the Roman world? We will never know, but we must not think in binary terms. Identity was both a deeply engrained and a fluid concept in antiquity. Cultural borrowings were common and point to fashion as much as to identity.

Yet Rome was intoxicated with Egypt. The emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli is full of Egyptian style items. His partner, Antinous, lost his life in Egypt. Hadrian turned him into a god. This may link to Hadrian’s interest in Egypt. Antinous is also the poster boy for the show. The classical bust of him in the Egyptian wig an image of two world.

Antinous in the Louvre

Isis and other animals

This apex of this interaction was the religion of Roman-Egypt. The goddess Isis was immensely popular and worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, strongly associated with Egypt but also transcending these cultural and geographic boundaries.

The Syrians call You: Astarte, Artemis, Nanaia;
The Lycian tribes call You: Leto, the Lady;
The Thracians also name You as Mother of the Gods;
And the Greeks call You Hera of the Great Throne, Aphrodite,
Hestia the goodly, Rheia and Demeter.
But the Egyptians call You ‘Thiouis’ because they know that You, being One, are all
Other goddesses invoked by the races of men.
Isidorus, Four Hymns to Isis found at Medinet Madi 

The cult of Isis is strongly represented here with sistrums, images of processions, and statuettes and portraits. The image of Isis became more multiform. She became associated, even identified, with the Greek Demeter. A relief stela shows Isis as Demeter. But this does not mean that Isis became Demeter. Both goddesses were independently worshipped and worshipped compositely, throughout this period. It must be that the image of Isis-Demeter was a specific figure transcending the two individual goddesses.

Added to this must be the Nilotic Landscapes. These are images of the Nile in flood. The flood had a ritual role in Egyptian religion. The landscapes often show Egyptian animals like hippos and crocodiles. Very often, Egyptians are portrayed as dwarfs. It is not really clear why. Was there a religious reason? Was it just racism?

Pliny the Elder describes how Egyptians at Dendyra could tame crocodiles and a show in the arena at Rome even brought Dendyrites to Rome, where they leapt over crocodiles.

Gymnast on crocodile with pert buttocks


Yet the strongest proof of the interactions between Greeks and Egyptians is not the religious iconography but portraiture. There was a developing trend for an intermingled style, drawing on bits of Egyptian tradition and bits of Greek.

The first Greek sculptures drew from Egyptian traditions. Kouroi, sculptures of young men, were static with one leg pushed forward. It is now a cliche of art history to describe how the forward foot turns the monumental statuary of Egypt into the naturalist sculpture of the Greeks. There is a truth in this.

Greek and Roman rulers were depicted in Egyptian style. This must not be considered purely as targeted to Egyptians. It is a celebration of the new nature of Egypt. The connections between cultures found in the portraits are less obvious to non-scholars but the Getty does a sterling job in examining this.

Ptolemy II


A powerful show, Beyond the Nile reminds us that we must look beyond the Nile to discover Egyptian history. This is the first of a planned series of exhibitions which the Getty will put on to explore the interconnections between Greece and Rome and the other major cultures of this period. The next one will be Persia. Such shows today, sadly, take on a broader importance and become more and more relevant. The world has always been connected. Such connections bring disorientating change, but change can be a beautiful and powerful force.

The exhibition book is gorgeous. With a good mix of informative text and beautiful clear images it is a worthy addition to any library or coffee table.

Five stars


By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics

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