Top 5 places to travel to for ancient sites

Short getaways to ancient times

If you want to visit sites associated with Ancient Mediterranean cultures the best places to travel are Rome (and Italy), Greece and Egypt but there are other places which are also great. The top 5 below are just the places which are easy to get to from the UK.

 

5. Pont du Gard

This famous aqueduct in the South of France is a beautiful site. Crossing the fast running Gardon River, the three tiered arches of light brown stone work is the epitome of poise and elegance.

 

4. Hadrian’s Wall

The opposite of the Post du Gard, Hadrian’s Wall is a utilitarian bulwark on the wilds of Northern Britain. Although the purpose for its construction have been debated, it is still an impressive site. You can walk along it.

 

3. London

London has several Roman ruins, including a amphitheatre and Mithraeum. Museums like the Petrie, British Museum and Museum of London are also richly stocked with ancient objects. If you are visiting from other countries, it’s the ideal starting point for excursions to Stonehenge, Bath and Coventry.

 

2. Cologne

The German City of Cologne was developed out of a former colony on the strategically  important frontier. The frontiers were vital areas for economic and political life of the empire. Cologne contains several sites in good condition and the Römisch-Germanisches Museum contains exquisite art and objects.

Roman Tower in Cologne

1. Split

Possibly unique in terms of modern cities developing out of ancient sites, the Croatian city of Split grew from the palace of the emperor Diocletian who after reforming the Roman Empire, retired to grow cabbages in his palace at Split. His palace was built like a fortress and resembled a roman camp in its organisation.

Parts of the modern city are built within the remains of these walls. You can visit converted temples and relax in the shades of grand rooms. Croatia is a great tourist location.

 

Wildcard: Coventry

The city of Coventry will become 2021 City of Culture. One of its hidden gems is a partially reconstructed Roman Fort, strategically placed near to the vitally important Fosse Way.

 

Top 5 sites in Roman London

Roman London was a sizeable town for the province of Britannia with around 10,000 – 30,000 inhabitants at its peak. This is small compared to other major cities of the time like Rome or Alexandria. The Roman city centred on the oldest part of London now called “The City”. It started around the barbican in the North to the River Thames in the South and from the Tower of London in the east to Farringdon Road in the West.

Though much is taken, much abides and there are plenty of things to see in London dating from this period.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a good place to start. It has a fine collection of Roman objects found in London and replicas of Roman living spaces on display. You get a sense of the heaving, cosmopolitan and exciting City that London has been from the beginning.

London Wall

The remains of the old London Wall proceed from the Museum of London along London Wall. The bottom layer of this wall dates back to the Roman period although later additions were made in the medieval period. From here you get a sense of the size of the Roman City as it proceeds down to the river thames.

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Part of the London Wall (a 13th century addition) in front of the Museum of London

Mithraeum

A new addition, in some ways, to London’s Roman scene, the remains of the London Mithraeum (re)opened in 2017. Moved back to its original site underneath the new Bloomberg Space and re-jigged in a sensory exhibition which evokes the sights and sounds of a Mithraeum. For the curators of the space a Mithraeum was a boozy boys club with pretensions of mysticism.

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Amphitheatre

The remains of the old Roman amphitheatre can still be found beneath the Guildhall Gallery. An impressive site, this amphitheatre would have seated 7,000 spectators (a large number considering the total number of inhabitants). Back in the day it was the location of Roman London’s more gruesome entertainments. Today it is sometimes used as a venue for dramatic performances of ancient plays.

 

Tower of London

Bits of the Roman wall survive around the Tower of London. By Tower Hill tube station you can also found an inscription and a replica statue of Trajan. A short journey walk away you will find All Hallows-by-the-Tower Crypt Museum which has some interesting objects and a model of Roman London.

 

Continue reading

Roman Cologne

The city of Cologne was founded in 50 CE as Colonia Claudia Are Agrippinenisum on a site settled by Germanic tribes. It was a major centre for administration in the region. As such it was the seat of many major rebellion. It was briefly a capital city of the breakaway Gallic Empire. It contains some major archaeological sites.

 

Romano-Germanic Museum

The Roman-Germano Museum, next to the Cathederal sits on top of an impressive mosaic discovered during the construction of an air raid shelter. The Museum was built in 1974 around the mosaic.

The Dionysius mosaic

The Dionysius mosaic contains several references to the cult of Dionysius.

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Sepulchre of Poblicius

The msuseum also holds the Sepulchre of Poblicius.

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The Philosopher’s Mosaic

On an upper floor you can also see an additional mosaic called the Philosopher’s Mosaic. this portrays Seven major philosophers, revered in the 3rd century CE including Aristotle, Plate and Socrates.

 

 

Egyptian Gods in Cologne

Cologne was a major centre of Roman life and enjoyed a cosmopolitan religious life. As such it contains several figurines of various figurines including several from Egypt. It is hard to tell the differences between images of the deities of different traditions.

 

Oil Lamps

When I visited the museum was showing an impressive collection of oil lamps. All of a similar size and hue, the lamps contained different designs on the flat surface at the top of the map. These were crafted by pressing a fresh mould into the clay, making them cheap and easy to produce. Not all the lamps contained images of Roman gods, but some did.

An intriguing image shows a crocodile enjoying intimate relations with a woman on a boat, presumably on the River Nile.

 

 

 

Praetorium

The Praetorium sits on the ruins of the official residence of the Imperial Governor of Cologne. It is an impressively sized archeological site and is atmospherically set in the dark basement twilight. You can also walk along part of the old Roman sewage system.

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Roman Fortifications

Cologne contains much of the old Roman walls.

 

 

 

Street furniture

Cologne is proud of its Roman past and the streets contains several references to it.

 

 

Overall well worth a visit for its history, culture and beer.

L’épopée du canal de Suez

Suez, des pharaons au XXIe siècle

 

The Suez Canal is one of the world’s major waterways. In 2008, its busiest year 21,415 ships crossed through the canal causing a total of 1 billion tonnes a year. Institut du Monde Arabe is hosting an exhibition celebrating this great achievement.

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A model of the three pavilions for the inauguration of the canal. The central one was for international dignitaries, the other two for Muslim and Christian clerics.

 

Suez in the ancient world

What most people might not know is that the Suez Canal began life in the ancient world. Various pharaohs attempted to unite the Red Sea with the Nile River and Mediterranean. The first possibly successful attempt to join the two waters was under Darius I of Persia. The Persian Empire was highly organised and efficient, especially with regards to its communications network. It had a highly efficient postal system. Ptolemy II restored this waterway and it may have been used during the Roman period when trade with Southern India was a going concern. Not much is known about this period of the canal’s history, and only shadowy references to the waterway exist.

Of course to call these canals the Suez Canal is a kind of misnomer, but they followed the spirit and intentions of the original canal and were likely in a similar region. The canal has always been developed within the context of empires.

This stage of the exhibition is covered by a few choice artefacts from the Louvre depicting the rulers. It’s a shame that more wasn’t done to examine what may have travelled on these canals, what boats used or who the people were who lived by the canals.

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Suez in the modern world.

The exhibition is at its greatest in the modern period. It places the development of the canal in the colonial context following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Several Europeans attempted to build the canal during this period including the Saint-Simonians, an atheistic and socialistic sect of earnest French intellectuals. But it was Ferdinand de Lesseps (close to power having taught the future pasha how to ride), who was the one given the go ahead.

The Suez was built by corvee labour until 1864 when Napoleon III bowed to international pressure. This is one year after the Emancipation Proclamation. A compensation was paid to the company for the loss of labour by the Egyptian government. The exhibition shows scenes from the Egyptian film Shafiqa wa Metwali which reveals the deep cultural remembrance of corvee labour.

The Europeans liked to think they were more civilised than the Ancient Egyptians.

The show is full of objects revealing both the building of the canal and the artistic inspirations provided by it. The very first room plays the theme from Verdi’s Aida. Much of the art and associated architecture contained ancient Egyptian iconography, but not all. Hippolyte Arnoux was a photographer who rejected the orietanlising gaze and began recording the modernity of the canal project.

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Chocolate Box

 

 

The canal today

The canal is of utmost political importance. It was affected by the Second World War. Although it was supposedly international and neutral but essentially under British control. It linked Britain to India and along with Gibraltar, gave Britain control over the Mediterranean. The war changed this geopolitical balance. At the close of the war, the Canal hosted the meeting between FDR and AL Said on the USS Quincy just after Yalta. At this meeting the US pledged to be allies to Saudi Arabia in return for access to Saudi petroleum supplies. This become the central strategic partnership of the post war period.

The canal continued to be in British and French control until the 50s when Egypt nationalised following similar models like Britain’s nationalisation of the railways. Britain was irate. Along with France and Israel it launched a war against Egypt to retake the canals. This was a bloody conflict, which could have been even more bloody. President Eisenhower demanded that Britain, France and Israel withdraw and the canals remained under Egyptian autonomy.

The Suez Crisis was followed by the Six Days War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, events as complex as they were short. The fact that these events are little known in Britain indicates that they are often not taught in schools.

The canal continues to be of utmost political importance, not least by the development of a controversial second canal. The exhibition never quite unpicks this contensious issue with the same honesty that it examines earlier conflicts.

 

 

Exhibition UX

The show is a refreshing combination of various artefacts and medium including reprinted newspapers, sounds and videos and models. A highly interesting show that takes a long view of a particular location, more could’ve been done to examine the lived experiences of the local inhabitants. Nevertheless a 4 star show. See it whole you can.

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Memorial to the fallen in the first world war, Djebel Mariam, Egypt. Michel Roux-Spitz and Raymond Delamarra

 

 

 

 

 

Modern Egyptian artefacts

The past is present becoming Egyptian in the 20th century

 

Room 3 of the British Museum is currently dedicated to items from modern Egypt which tell the story of the country and its engagement with its own past.

The show includes several items including milk bottles, cigarette packets and vinyl records. We still find ancient Egyptian iconography on some of these items today.

The show follows on from the Museum’s crowd sourced Collecting modern Egypt project, but contains different items (including an additional sewing machine)

The most intriguing items in the collection are probably the fashion magazine. Egypt was often portrayed as female. In the postwar period, fashion magazines portrayed fashionable Egyptian women alongside ancient Egyptian imagery.

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In the west “Egyptomania” is a known trend. Blossoming in the 100 years+ period between Napoleon and Tutankhamen, the imagery and flourishes of ancient Egypt were used in Western Countries to evoke luxury, exoticism and style. Egypt also experienced a reinterest in their past at various points of the twentieth century, including during times when they reaffirmed their national autonomy or sought inspiration.

Yet there is a missed opportunity to present a more complex Egypt. The recent show at the Tate Liverpool celebrating the Art et Liberté art collective revealed a vibrant artistic movement, cosmopolitan and politically engaged, who created powerful art which drew only obliquely, if at all, from ancient Egypt.

This criticism is perhaps unfair given that the show’s raison d’être is to examine how Egypt explored its own heritage, but more could have been done to place these cultural artefacts in a wider context. Nevertheless it is an engaging show, which offers a necessary antidote to histories of reception which only focus on Western engagement.

See it now.

Rodin and the art of ancient Greece

Rodin never went to Athens. Instead he visited London, which since 1812 has housed that pinnacle of Greek art, the Parthenon Marbles. He first visited at 40 but was intimate with Greek sculpture from a young age. As a young man he studied in the Louvre galleries and in the print room, and in particular Le Roy’s Les Ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grèce.

 

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These fragments I have shored against my ruins

From fragmented Greek sculpture, Rodin learnt that bodies and body language could depict emotion and not just facial gestures. In his masterpiece, Les Bourgeois de Calais the six figures are portrayed in deeply psychological terms. Each has a character and psychology defined by both body gesture and facial emotion.

Rodin liked old art with its broken bits. He thought buildings were like bodies, they ultimately decayed and died. He campaigned against restoration of the Parthenon in 1894 following a major earthquake for this reason.

This did not stop him collecting classical sculpture and fragments. He would assemble them together with his own pieces to create new works. Throughout his life he studied Greek art closely and sketched ancient sculptures in his sketch books. Later in life, he revisited these books and began cutting them up.

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Rodin and Phidias

The problem with a show like this is that you always end up asking yourself who was the better artist rather than explore the influences and connections. The best ancient Greek sculpture is peerless. To place pieces from the Parthenon, next to another sculpture will always be unfair, especially if the artists’ work look similar (unpainted marble).

Rodin captured something more than just form from the Greek works. He was interested in movement and dynamism. He argued that photography did not capture movement, it merely arrested its energy artificially. His best works capture this frenetic energy.

Yet can it compare with the works of Phidias and his assistants, who captured movement and emotion and eternity? Although the exhibition liberally quoted from the poet Rilke, will Rodin ever inspire a poet to write as Keats did?

Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

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Museum UX

The exhibition was housed in the British Museum’s next wing. It was well designed, with a well considered UX, but people tended to crowd around large sculptures making it hard to navigate the show.

 

 

 

 

Overall it was an excellent show. 3.5 stars.

Nile Flood

Every year around the start of July, the Nile river would flood. The flood covered much of the land of the Nile Valley. It brought nutritious silt and water which meant Egypt could grow enough wheat to develop an advanced civilisation from a very early period. Egypt was known as the bread basket of the empire because of it’s great fertility.

The Nile River was the largest known to ancient Greeks and Romans. Although they knew of the Rhine, the Danube and even the Indus, the Nile was mysterious. Its source was a mystery throughout the entire period, as was the nature of its plentifulness.

The Nile was thought to be a source of fertility which extended beyond agriculture. The Nile waters were sweet to the taste and fattened up humans and animals and made them experience multiple births.

The Nile was revered in ancient times as a god and in Greco-Roman times it was associated with Serapis, Osiris and Isis. The annual cycle of the flood may have been symbolised in the myth of Osiris’ death and rebirth. Egypt’s prodigious fertility was recognised in the Isiac artetalogies (praise hymns) found across the Mediterranean.

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A replica of the Vatican Nile, produced in Italy and depicting the Nile in very classical terms.

Nilotic scenes

Nilotic scenes were very popular across much of the Roman Empire. Nilotic scenes are landscapes depicting Egypt often in the flood period. The depict the common fauna and flora of Egypt to various degrees of accuracy. They have been found in a variety of media, most notably mosaics.

The greatest Nilotic scene is probably the Palestrina Mosaic. Discovered in the renaissance, the reconstruction may have placed some scenes in the wrong position, but it is a densely packed image of the flooded land. Measuring 5.85 m by 4.31 m and originally placed underneath shallow water in a grotto, the original ‘purpose’ of the mosaic remains obscure.

Scholars have sought meaning for the Nilotic scenes.  Meyboom argued that they may have been intended as an illustration of the land of Isis, although not all scholars agree with this. Certainly religious imagery can be found in the Palestrina mosaic.

Figures in the landscape

Versluys analysed the 131 surviving landscapes. He produced some interesting statistics for provenance and contextual distribution. Several have been found at Pompeii (which skews the statistics), but the high number reveals their popularity.

Of the surviving landscapes 64.1% were found in Italy, the two next highest regions were the European provinces (15.3%) and North Africa (10.7%). Only 3 of these landscapes have been found in Egypt (2.3%).

With a date range from 1st century BCE up to the 5thor 6thcentury CE, the vast majority of landscapes were form 1stcentury CE. Although once the Pompeian landscapes are removed from the data set we see a gradual increase peaking in the 3rdand 4thcentury CE.

The majority of landscapes were likely to have been found in private buildings possibly in or near gardens.

Crocodiles

The Nilotic scenes cover the spectrum from rural, almost bucolic, pieces to more crude and stereotypical depictions. Many Nilotic scenes depict violent animals or fighting. For example, 57 out of Versluy’s 131 scenes (or 43.5%) contain crocodiles. Of these 57 images, 30 images depict the crocodile fighting or attacking other characters in the landscapes. 16 images show crocodiles attacking humans and nine images show humans attacking crocodiles. The remaining five scenes show crocodiles fighting with other Nilotic fauna.

Such imagery may follow what was known about the crocodile by classical authors. The crocodile could stand in for the Nile. Pliny writes how the painter Neacles painted a pack donkey being grabbed by a crocodile, in a sea battle, to place the action clearly in Egypt.

Egyptians

Another interesting thing to note is that several of the human figures are dwarfs: 75 out of the 110 landscapes with human figures, depict Egyptians as dwarfs. It is common to see images of dwarfs hunting or fighting with Nilotic fauna.

The dwarfs have widely been interpreted as symbolic readings of Roman Egypt. Mielsch writes that they were a “kind of parody” of Egyptians whereas for Clarke the dwarfs’ could protect from evil. Swetnam-Burland even argues that in the world of the landscapes, the fact that pygmies hunted crocodiles whom the Egyptian worshipped, emphasised the power of Rome.

Alongside fighting, the dwarfs are often portrayed engaging in acts of symplegama (ask your parents what this means). But could this also be linked back to religion? Meyboom read such images as a  depiction of religious ritual. He compared them to the Boubastis festival described by Herodotus and also to Osiris in his ithyphallic fertility guise.

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Nilotic scene containing fauna and flora and symplegama. From @Braleebatch

Nile water

The Nilotic scenes were not the only things Egyptian in the Roman Empire. The Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris or Serapis were hugely popular. Temples and objects have been found all over the empire.

Water was revered in these temples. According to Wild, 60% (27) contain water facilities.  These water facilities could have acted as places for ritual ablution (washing). Some of these places resembled Egyptian Nilometers and so may have symbolised the beneficent waters of the Nile.

An intriguing artefact that has been found depicted across central Italy and ‘Hellenised’ parts of Egypt is a pitcher. It is likely that the pitcher contained Nile water (real or symbolic is unclear). The Nile was the symbol of the beneficent relationship between god and man. Apuleius describes such a pitcher carried in procession.

These pitchers may be linked with Osiris Canopus. The pharaonic Canopic jars formerly contained the innards of the dead but they soon became revered as protective gods of the dead.

Osiris Canopus combines iconography of Osiris and the Canonic jars and likely symbolised Osiris’ power over the dead. The jars would also contain (Nile) water. Did they have a ritual meaning? Wild argues that they did. The combination of the life giving and beneficent Nile waters and the dead suggest, for him, that the jars promised protection and blessing beyond this world. The followers of Osiris would drink the sweet, cool waters and neverdie.

 

An interesting conclusion, but more needs to be done to investigate this link with Isis Thermouthis.

Further Reading

Clarke, J. R., 2007. Three uses of the Pygmy and the aethiops at Pompeii: Decorating, “Othering”, and warding off demons. In: L. Bricault, M. J. Versluys & P. G. Meyboom, eds. Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman world ; proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005. Leiden: Brill, pp. 155-169.

Meyboom, P., 1995. The Nile mosaic of Palestrina : early evidence of Egyptian religion in Italy. Leiden: Brill.

Meyboom, P., 2007. The meaning of dwarfs in Nilotic scenes. In: L. Bricault, M. J. Versluys & P. Meyboom, eds. Nile into Tiber : Egypt in the Roman world ; proceedings of the IIIrd International Conference of Isis Studies, Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University, May 11-14, 2005.. Leiden: Brill, pp. 170-205.

Mielsch, H., 2005. Griechische Tiergeschichten in der antiken Kunst /. Mainz: Von Zabern.

Swetnam-Burland, M., 2015. Egypt in Italy : visions of Egypt in Roman imperial culture.. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Versluys, M., 2002. Aegyptiaca Romana : Nilotic scenes and the Roman views of Egypt. Leiden: Brill.

Wild, Robert A., 1981. Water in the cultic worship of Isis and Sarapis. Leiden: Brill.

Mother Isis

Images of motherhood are common. This was as true in the ancient world as today. Religion was one of the most visually represented spheres and mother godesses were common. Several goddesses are known as mothers, but the most famous was Isis, the mother of Horus.

 

The literary evidence

The standard introduction to the myth of Isis and the birth of Horus is Plutarch. Plutarch tells how Isis performs various family roles. She conceives Harpocrates from the gathered remains of her dead brother-husband, whom she resurrects. Isis isn’t just a wife to Osiris. She is his sister, mother and wife. Horus grows up to protect his mother by fighting his uncle/brother Seth. Isis’ motherhood could be understood in cosmic terms; by giving birth to Horus, she ensures that evil (Seth) will never overcome.

Plutarch is a difficult source to rely on because he wrote with an agenda to interpret Egyptian religion as a philosophy, but many scholars have argued he did engage with Egyptian scholarship.

 

The epigraphic evidence

Across the Mediterranean seven inscriptions have been found praising Isis for the good that she brings to humanity. She is praised for protecting mothers at birth, as a benefactress to them and as someone who sympathised with their experiences. Isis also introduced social institutions which protected women (to some degree).

In the Greco-Roman world Isis is commonly linked a family unit. This is often Isis, Osiris (or Serapis) and Horus. Sometimes she is also shown with Anubis.

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Isis, and young Horus and Anubis (British Museum)

 

The visual evidence

Images of Isis and Horus are common in a variety of media, from relatively cheap to expense material. This may suggest a wide spread of adherents across society.

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

 

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

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Isis Lactans? (Louvre)

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Isis Lactans (Louvre)

Horus

Baby Horus (Glyptotek)

 

Isis and other goddesses

Around the time of the New Kingdom Isis had become the preeminent goddess of the Egyptian pantheon.

By the New Kingdom Isis had taken the visual symbolism of Hathor: the cow horns and moon disk. The became the most common visual attributes of Isis imagery.

In some earlier texts it was Hathor who was mother of Horus.  Isis also took Hathor’s temples. The beautiful Ptolemaic period temple Philae was an expansion of an early pharaonic temple of Hathor.

Another goddess that Isis became associated with was Renenutet, as Isis-Thermouthis the snake goddess. In this guise Isis become a protector of babies, fertility, harvests, royalty and fate.

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Isis-Thermouthis and Serapis-Agathos-Daimon

Egyptomaniacs

Egypt: Lost Civilizations by Christina Riggs

Christina Riggs’ new book on Ancient Egypt examines the long history of Ancient Egypt. It begins with a baboon statuette on the desk of Sigmund Freud. Bought in Vienna, it can now be found in St John’s Wood where the Freud family sought refuge from the Nazis. The baboon may portray Thoth the scribe god. It was made during the period when Egypt was under Roman control. During this late period, Egyptians may have sought solace in their animal gods (theriomorphic) as an “Egyptian” alternative to foreign human gods (anthropomorphic). Thoth was honoured for millennia after “the end of Egyptian religion” as Hermes Trismegistus, a sage-like magician.

Individual objects when analysed can have such a richness of meaning. Christina attempts to do this for an entire culture. Whilst she cannot read closely the millennia long history of Egypt, she nevertheless offers a deep interpretation of Egyptian’s long history that needs to be read.

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The Louvre

The Science of Egyptology

Christina foregrounds the politics of archeology and history. “Wherever we look for the lost civilization of the Egyptians, we cannot help but find ourselves”.

Modern Egyptology has colonialist origins. This is indubitable although it is often brushed under the carpet in the public arena. Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, the decryption of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the publication of Description de l’Égypte are all seem as beginning the period of modern scholarship in Ancient Egypt.

Many early assumptions in Egyptology were informed by racist belief systems. The ideologues Nott and Gliddon partly based their racist “Science” of craniology on mummy skulls. This work was a historical justification for US slavery. They argued that the pharaohs were caucasian and relied on a black slave force. I have not read this work and so I am unclear whether in the minds of the authors the Hebrew slaves were black and what this meant for the progeny (including those of the House of David). I am assuming the authors were Christian. Flinders Petrie also believed in this science. The Petrie Museum in London has not shied away from this; acknowledging and critiquing this part of Petrie’s work.

Egyptology does not just perform colonial acts, but it also privileges European scholars. Ahmed Kamal, the talented scholar contemporaneous with Petrie, was overlooked for work in the European-ran Services des Antiquitiés in favour of European scholars. He nevertheless inspired an entire generation of Egyptian scholars to work in the field of Egyptology. Again the Petrie Museum has done much work on naming and praising the highly trained and scholarly Egyptian archeologists who worked with Petrie, but it is no comfort to scholars like Kamal.

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The Nile is dry now

 

Egypt in ancient texts

Christina foregrounds Medieval Arabic engagement with ancient Egypt. She provocatively argues that “Arabic scholars of the thirteenth century were better informed than their European counterparts about ancient Egyptian history – yet today it is Herodotus, not al-Baghdadi, who is quoted in every survey of Egyptian civilization”. This is true and much work needs to be done to bring this scholarship to a popular Western readership or audience.

Egypt is an unstable category in the texts of the ancient authors. Although several ancient authors engaged with Egypt, the depth of this engagement is always hard to summarise. Herodotus was the first author, who survives, to have engaged with Egyptian history. To simplify a major area of scholars dispute some modern scholars think Herodotus had a developed understanding of late Kingdom Egypt and some do not. Christian thinks that Herodotus knew a lot about Egypt, as do I. Amongst many things, Herodotus wrote how each region of Egypt revered and reviled different animal gods.

The Roman satirist Juvenal was not a historian of Egypt, but he may have picked up on some of the themes from Herodotus. In Satire 15 he portrays an Egyptian riven by factional infighting between different districts and villages which revered different animals.

Who knows not the infatuate Egypt finds
Gods to adore in brutes of basest kinds?
This at the crocodile’s resentment quakes,
While that does the ibis, gorged with snakes.
                                                              Satire 15

An interesting example of ancient engagement with Egypt is The Life of Severus by Zachariah of Mytilene dating from the fifth century CE. This very short biography of the young manhood of the eminent cleric Severus tells how a crowd of Alexandrian students destroyed an ancient Egyptian temple. When the crowd arrive at the temple, the altar is hid behind a false wall. After destroying this wall they enter a chamber. The statue of Chronos (possibly Geb or Sobek) is splattered with fresh blood. The chamber contains multiple statues of animals: dogs, cats, apes, crocodiles and reptiles and in pride of place the idol of the goddess Isis in her snake form (Isis-Thermouthis). This portrayal draws on images and concepts of Egypt. Even though Zachariah claims to have been an eyewitness of these events, it is unclear to what extent this passage is an accurate description of events or just a retelling of what everyone knew about Egypt from books.

Yet the Egyptians were active agents in this ambiguous portrayal of their own distinctness. As Christina argues the theriomorphic gods of Egypt may have become more popular during the period as a rejection of more cosmopolitan religions.

In terms of religion, some scholars talk about Greek gods and Egyptian gods in Egypt during this period. It is assumed the “Egyptians” would revere the “Egyptian” style gods, including the famous animal gods, and “Greeks” would revere “Greek” style gods. The god Serapis is sometimes used to exemplify this. Ptolemy I supposedly introduced the god as a Greek version of a popular Egyptian god in order to unify his new dominions. The origins of Serapis are murkier than this, however.

On closer examination the dichotomy between Egyptian and Greek breaks down. We know from inscriptions (epigraphy) that Greeks in Memphis revered the bull-god Apis before the period of Greek rule in Egypt. The Greek speaking Isidorus engaged with the rituals of the snake goddess Isis-Thermouthis at Medinet Madi, albeit praising her in syncretic terms in elegant Greek verse. It is difficult to identify ethnic groups behind different cultural expressions.

Later during the Egyptian Byzantine period and into the Umayyad and Abbasid period, the Miaphysite “Coptic” Church portrayed itself as the one true church and the national church of Egypt. In texts, like the History of the Patriarchs, the Greeks are portrayed as being punished for their false beliefs and chased from the country by the new Arab rulers.

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Coptic textile

 

Egypt in modern texts and art

Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt, the decryption of the Egyptian hieroglyphs and the publication of Description de l’Égypte etc. led to a burst of Egyptian inspired architecture, furnishings and flatware, although such Egyptian furniture was always a “niche taste”.

This vogue was sometimes called “Egyptomania”, but why Christina asks was the similar “craze” for Greek and Roman motifs not called a mania? “No matter how familiar it became, ancient Egypt kept a touch of the alien and other, which only a ‘mania’ could explain”. To some degree this is true. The Egyptian inspired items always had a touch of the oriental, but it may be reading too much into the word “mania”. The use of mania was lighthearted but it does reveal concerns and ideology. A comparison to the slightly later Victorian vogue for ferns called Pteridomania or Fern-Fever might reveal similarities. Again the word “mania” is tongue in cheek, but examining the literature and images reveals a concern for female sexuality which was expressed in humour.

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Sphinx on Picasso Museum

Following the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun, a vogue for Egypt returned in the ’20s. In London Factories and cinemas were decorated in the Egyptian style. Egyptian motifs and themes can also be found on several buildings of the period. Egypt denoted luxury, excitement (exoticism) and a turn away from older styles (classicist and neo-gothic).

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The Carreras cigarette factory in Camden

Artists of the “Harlem Renaissance” also engaged with Egyptian themes and artistic motifs,  at the same time. For the black artists of the ’20s, Christian writes Ancient Egypt was an unstable category. Drawing on both religious motifs (originating with Exodus) expressed powerfully in hymns and spirituals, and also the excitement of the Tutankhamun discoveries artists like Aaron Douglas, Meta Warrick Fuller and Lois Mailou Jones created powerful and inspiring art of the black experience which is often sidelined in favour of “Egyptomania” art-deco architecture.

Christina focuses on Egypt’s own engagement with its past. From the Al-Firawnuya art to El Zeft’s portrayal of Nefititi in a gas mask, modern Egypt has engaged with its ancient past as deeply as Western counties.

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Sewing machine from Egypt

Egypt before Napoleon

If I had one small criticism, I would have liked to have seen more about European engagement with Egypt pre-Napoleon. This is because I do not know much about this period of study. It is likely that the two main sources for Ancient Egyptian history during this period were the classical authors and the Bible. In his list of fallen devils in Paradise Lost, Milton describes the Egyptian gods in tones resembling both Juvenal and Moses.

                                   After these appeared
A crew who, under names of old renown—
Osiris, Isis, Orus, and their train—
With monstrous shapes and sorceries abused
Fanatic Egypt and her priests to seek
Their wandering gods disguised in brutish forms
Rather than human. Nor did Israel scape
Th’ infection, when their borrowed gold composed
The calf in Oreb; and the rebel king
Doubled that sin in Bethel and in Dan,
Likening his Maker to the grazed ox—
Jehovah, who, in one night, when he passed
From Egypt marching, equalled with one stroke
Both her first-born and all her bleating gods.

Another interesting example of this secondhand engagement with Egypt is this small ceramic sphinx from the Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge).

It predates Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt, but shows an engagement with Egypt as the land of theriomorphic dieties. The sphinx was popular in Greek areas and so may have nothing to do with Ancient Egyptian. The Sphinx soon became an obvious symbol of Ancient Egypt however, as these sphinxes outside residential houses on Islington demonstrate.

Summary

Otherwise this book is brilliant. It covers an immense subject field and balances depth and brevity. It challenges us to rethink assumptions and beliefs and question the extent to which colonial thoughtprocesses still inform our reading of Egyptian history.

It is a stirring call for the decolonisation of Ancient Egyptian history.

Buy it now.

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Sobek: Ancient Egyptian Crocodile God in the Greek and Roman periods

Over 17 cubits long, muscular and armoured, the crocodile was a fearsome beast, but when it devoured their children, the Egyptians would rejoice. Or so Herodotus said.

The crocodile was synonymous with the Nile: the majestic river which brought life to the sun baked land of Keme. It could hide just below the muddy water surface, almost invisible, until suddenly it would attack with its massive jaws wide open. The river brought life to Egypt. The yearly flood brought nutriments to the soil and allowed the thin ribbon of the Nile Valley to develop a rich and vibrant culture which was sustained for millenia. But just as the Nile brought the blessings of life, it brought also the otherside: thanatos, death.

The floods supported not just agriculture but also the fauna of Egypt. The water destroyed the habitats of the animals who lived on the banks. Rats would swarm to higher lands, the villages, and scavenge for food. The rats brought cobras, but the cobras destroyed the rats and were revered by the Egyptians. They were placed on the crowns of the kings of Egypt. The crocodile was too great a creature to attack the rats, but they were revered nonetheless.

These were powerful animals, impervious to attack and vulnerable only to the well trained dwarves of Denedra who would jump on their back and ride them. The crocodiles were top of the food chain, except for the Egyptian mongooses which would prey on their Eggs purposely trampling them purely in order to destroy them before they grew in size. If they were faced by crocodiles, the Egyptian mongoose would roll itself in the mud and filth of the river banks and to disguise their scent and they would jump into the crocodile’s yawning mouths and they would tear themselves out through the crocodiles soft underbelly from within. Diodorus described this.

Sobek: From the beginnings until the Greco-Roman period

The crocodile god par was Sobek.  Sobek was an ancient god, first attested in Naqada III period. Naqada III is notable in the archaeological record for stylised ceramics, some of which depict nets and crocodiles. These were the first portrayals of crocodiles.

Sobek’s name could mean “he is who is put together” – linking him to the Osiriac myth – or it could mean “he who causes to be pregnant”.  He was a physical god, veracious with a huge sexual appetite and irresistible, especially to the female falcon godesses. Yet he is also known as beautiful of face  and Sobek of shining appearance.

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Bowl with crocodile and net pattern

 

Fayum: home of the crocodile cults

Sobek is associated with the Fayum from the start. The Fayum is a large inland lake south of the Delta and to the west of the Nile. The major city of the Fayum was Shedet, known as Crocodilopolis to the Greeks, and Arsinoë to the Romans. The Fayum is unique in that it is the only place except for the Mediterranean Sea into which the Nile water flows. It was revered for this uniqueness and the crocodiles thrived there.

In the beginning, the crocodile god was known as Sobek of Shedet,  although on the Coffin Texts (from the First Intermediate Period) Shedet was associated with the falcon god Horus not with Sobek.

His cult developed further during the reign of Amenemhat III. He became a funerary god.  In the New Kingdom he began to receive personal dedications.

 

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Sobek statue from outside the funerary complex for Amenemhet III in Hawara

 

The crocodile god in the Greek and Roman periods

The Greek (or Ptolemaic) and Roman periods (approximately 305 BCE to approximately 640s CE) witnessed a religious development of crocodile worship in the Fayum. The Italian Egyptologist Marco Zecchi argued that this period saw a “splintering” of ‘Sobek of Shedet’. Several new and local forms of crocodile deities in the Fayum are attested,  although Sobek remained, the best known, if not pre-eminent, crocodile god. Coptos worshipped a violent but protective crocodile. Hawara revered two main gods are Souchus and dieifed Amenemhet III.

In the Ptolemaic period more than a seventh of the inhabitants had names linked to a crocodile god, according to evidence from papyri,. Such evidence must be treated carefully but it does suggest Sobek was popular in the Fayum. Votive offerings to Sobek, in Greek, are also common during the Ptolemaic period.

 

The temples of the crocodile gods in the Greek period

During the Greek period Egyptian temples were supported by the Ptolemaic dynasty. They also received some economic privileges.  At the same time the temples (in general) saw a growing reliance on private and semi-public sponsorship, including soldiers.

These temples could be quite extensive. Soknopaiou had about 20 buildings in temenos and was renovated works during the Greek period.

An intriguing trend seems to be that a number of Fayum town revered two gods. At Bakchias Soknobkonneus and Soknobraisis were worshipped. Although Italian Egyptolologist Pernigotti says that later belong to an indistinct group of theoi synnaoi, he also argues these gods became associated with the twin Disoscuri. At Shedet Pnepheros is attested alongside Sobek.

The best surviving temple in the Fayum is Medinet Madi. It was built in the Middle Kingdom but renovated in the Greek period by Ptolemy XI Soter II. A temple to Cobra goddess Renentuet, identified with Isis-Thermouthis in the Greek and Roman periods, Sobek was also honoured here.

The famous Greek Isiac hymns of Isidorus, inscribed on a column in the temple at Medinet Madi, dating to no later than 80 BCE,  praised all these gods.

Sobek is also identified with Soknopis and the Agathos Daimon in the second and fourth hymns. The second hymn even ascribes to him creative powers,  elsewhere ascribed to Isis.

How truly the Agathosdaimon, mighty Sokonopis
dwells as your temple mater, that goodly Bestower of wealth
Creator of both earth and the starry heaven

[Vanderlip’s translation]

The hymns of Isidorus demonstrate that a religiously vibrant cult flourished in the Greek period supported by Greek (speaking) elite individuals. This site also gives evidence for a continuous cult of a living crocodile into the Greek period.

 

The temples of the crocodile gods in the Roman period

State support of Egyptian temples changed under Roman rule. Augustus curbed temples’ power, numbers and made landholdings subject to a regular tax audit.

The impact of this on temples is hard to measure, and is an area of major debate in the field. Kockelmann argued that the temple of Sobek suffered significantly under the new regime.  Gilliam, examining papyrus evidence argued that the Soknobraisis Temple was impacted but survived. By 171 CE Soknobraisis’ priests were expected to work on state land, but the number of priests did not substantially decrease. The Papyrologist Roger Bagnall has argued that the temples slowly withered in power and prestige until they disappeared by the third century.

During the Roman period, Roman interest in Egypt increased. Egypt became a stop on the tourist trail. Hadrian famously visited down the Nile and travelled down the Nile seeing his sites. You can still read graffiti left by companions of Hadrian graffitied the colossus of Memnon. Tragically his partner Antinous drowned in the Nile. Hadrian had him deified by the Egyptian priests.

The crocodile lakes of the Fayum were highly popular. This had began before the Roman assumption of power.  A papyrus from 112 BCE urges the local magistrate of the Fayum to put on a good show for the visit of Lucius Memmius, a Roman dignitary.

Strabo describes a firsthand visit to the Fayum in his Geography

for the people in this Nome hold in very great honour the crocodile, and there is a sacred one there which is kept and fed by itself in a lake, and is tame to the priests. It is called Suchus; and it is fed on grain and pieces of meat and on wine, which are always being fed to it by the foreigners who go to see it. 812 At any rate, our host, one of the officials, who was introducing us into the mysteries there, went with us to the lake, carrying from the dinner a kind of cooky and some roasted meat and a pitcher of wine mixed with honey. We found the animal lying on the edge of the lake; and when the priests went up to it, some of them opened its mouth and another put in the cake, and again the meat, and then poured down the honey mixture. The animal then leaped into the lake and rushed across to the far side; but when another foreigner arrived, likewise carrying an offering of first-fruits, the priests took it, went around the lake in a run, took hold of the animal, and in the same manner fed it what had been brought.

According to the Historia Augustae, Septimus Severus visited the nearby Labyrinth, amonsgt other Egyptian sites, examining them all “with great care”. He may have visited the crocodiles as well, although this is not reported.

Such visits would financially support the temples. The cult continued to survive in different centres until the third and fourth century.

 

Living crocodile gods

The Egyptians revered the live crocodile. Egyptologists have differentiated between three forms of cult animal:

  • the holy or temple animal which was regarded as the incarnation of the god;
  • the sacred animal which was the same species as the temple animal and may have acted as a court or family to the temple animal;
  • the Fetish Animal which were domestic animals accorded some religious veneration.

When writing about Egypt, Greeks and Roman authors didn’t differentiate between the different types of religious animal. The crocodiles visited by Strabo are likely to have been temple animals. Herodotus claims that  every household raises one crocodile.

Egyptian temples reared animals. An Italian archaeological team, led by Edda Bresciani, recently discovered the remains of a crocodile nursery at Madinet Madi. Another team found a complex for feeding crocodiles Sumenu of similar to one described by Herodotus.  Such centres may have a less pleasant purpose however.

As well as revering live crocodiles, the Egyptians also revered mummified animal remains. Many museums contain cat, falcon and fish mummies. The killing and mummification of animals was performed on a vast scale. Mortuaries in Saqqara reveal millions of animal mummies of different breeds. Recently eight million canine mummies have been found here.

Possibly because of the vast numbers involved, not all mummies contain animal remains. One large crocodile shaped mummy when scanned revealed only eight baby crocodiles inside . More commonly mummies contain pottery and only a few bits of bone.

 

Crocodile god imagery in Greek and Roman Egypt

 

Symbolism in the Book of the Fayum

As well as revering live crocodiles, the crocodile was a symbol of divinity. We see this in the Book of the Fayum. A highly popular book of which several examples survive from Greco-Roman period. The Book of the Fayum is a religious text. It was written in hieratic and hieroglyphics. Its likely place of origin is the Fayum.

Crocodiles are the main creature in the Book of the Fayum. There are several images of them, but they are not all Sobek. In this book, Nekhbet is named ‘Lord of Kem-ur’ (Fayum), not Sobek.

Sobek still has a key role in the text, but he borrows attributes from Horus. In the Book of the Fayum, the relationship between Osiris and Sobek corresponds with the father/son relationship of Horus and Osiris. Here it is Sobek who struggles against enemies of Osiris.  During the Greco-Roman period, Sobek and Horus were routinely linked.

 

Egyptian art used animal attributes to suggest powers, either literal or symbolic. The crocodile was a symbol of both power and also the sun. Like the sun, the crocodile would sink into the waters and would rise from the waters.  One of the crocodiles in the Book of the Fayum may be the Fayumic version of Re.

Even more intriguing are depictions of creatures made up of many animals. In the Book of the Fayum, there is an image of an animal with the head of a ram, crowned with the uraeus cobra and lion mane, a body which is half snake and half crocodile and a shoulder possibly drawn to resemble a phallus.

 

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Photoreference: Das Buch von Fauym, 106

The falcon headed crocodile Sobek-Re, first seen in the Late Period, is a neat example of this.

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Photo reference: Labrique, F., 2013. Le regard d’Hérodote sur le phénix (II, 73). In: Herodote et L’Egypte: Regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’Enquête d’Hérodote. 127 Fig 13

Other examples of such crocodilian creatures can be found elsewhere in artefacts from Greek and Roman Egypt. A similar type of creature can be seen in the Liturgical Tunic from Saqqara  (Fig. 2). This dates from the Greek period. The French Egyptologist Labrique has interpreted as a symbol of the daily birth in the middle of the seas.

 

Greek and Roman depictions of the crocodile god

If the Egyptian artists loved images of animal gods, then Greek and Roman artists did not. Greek and Romans gods were rarely portrayed as animals, but they sometimes held animals as attributes of their power. Images survive from Greek and Roman Egypt of humanoid gods holding crocodiles.

Tallet and Zivie‐Coche identify an image of anthropomorphic deity in terracotta with solar rays projecting from his head and holding a crocodile as a Hellenised Sobek-Re (sometimes portrayed as a falcon crocodile).

Another image found on a painted wooden panel shows two gods, whom the French Egyptologist Rondot has identified as Sobnebtynis (left) and Min (right).  In the image, Sobnebtynis bears the attributes of Cronus, the beard and staff, and a small crocodile.  Rondot even argues the image follows Graeco-Roman iconography: Sobnebtynis holds his crocodile just as Zeus holds his lightning.  Rondot argues that Sobnebtynis (or Sobek Geb Cronos) is a Hellenised form of Sobek Geb. This panel is the only visual evidence we have for this god, but  there is epigraphical evidence of his cult in the Fayum.

Min is an ithyphallic Egyptian god. If you look carefully you can see the god on the right holding his attribute.

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Photo reference: Rondot, V., 1998. Min Maître de Tebtynis. In: W. Clarysse, A. Schoors & H. Willems, eds. Egyptian religion : the last thousand years : studies dedicated to the memory of Jan Quaegebeur. P. 254

Such terms as Egyptian and Greek as used above ignore the difficulties of ascribing cultural backgrounds to the artefacts. The crocodile’s symbolism transfers across the cultural divisions.

In the words of the American Egyptologist David Frankfurter Hellenistic forms and titles “did not obliterate the local character of a deity in religious life [but] served to convey, in new media, the particular features and powers of the deity in her local world”.  Egyptian symbolism retained its values within a different set of symbolic frameworks.

 

Horus and Seth in Greco-Roman Egypt

In Egypt however, the crocodile did not just have one set of symbolic meanings. Images of Horus defeating Seth in the form of a serpent or crocodile, from the Roman period, show both a specific event (in the Isis myth) and a symbolic battle of good and evil. At the Horus temple in Edfu, in the far south of Egypt, crocodiles were hunted at Edfu, killed and eaten. This was likely as a symbolic defeat of Seth and of evil.

Another set of images that has been seen to depict this enmity are the ‘Horus on crocodile’ images. It is sometimes believed that standing on the crocodiles shows Horus’ defeat of them. The French Egyptologist Quaegebeur argued that the images are a symbolic representation of the transcendental power of the god, rather than good overcoming evil.

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Horus on crocodiles

These images are quite famous, but they are  not the only images of Horus and Seth to survive. In the Book of the Fayum a crocodile-headed Horus defeats a flamingo headed Seth. Here the symbolism of Egyptian art makes oblique that the crocodile is good and the falcon is evil  The flamingo’s red plumage is the colour of evil, and its small stature a pictorial topos of defeat.

Sobek Seth

Beinlich, H., 1991. Das Buch vom Fayum : zum religiösen Eigenverständnis einer ägyptischen Landschaft. , 76

 

 

Augustus and Egypt

Another important symbolic use of the crocodile was depictions of Egypt as a conquered nation. Augustus issued “Aegypto Capta” coins which show a crocodile chained to the side of a palm tree.

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Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

A more salacious image from a lamp shows a crocodile performing an act of physical intimacy with a young lady. This image has been variously interpreted as a political satire on Cleopatra or Anthony, or the sexual intensity of Egypt or even as a apotropaic image.

 

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Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

 

Images of the Crocodile outside of Egypt

There is not room to discuss images of Egypt around the Roman world. Several pictures of the Nile survive. They often show the flora and fauna of Egypt (in varying degrees of accuracy), including crocodiles. I will discuss these another time, but perhaps this image will give a hint of some of the themes these scenes show.

 

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Photo Reference: Simon Bralee, 2018 taken in British Museum

Conclusion

The crocodile was a powerful creature and was revered for this reason but the meanings he evoked for Egyptians during the Ptolemaic and Roman times were complex.

If you want any citations or references to any of the comments above please let me.

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Further reading

Four hymns to Isis (tr) Vanderlip