No mummies, no pyramids: life and faith in Egypt after the Pharoahs

The TimesBel Trew, Cairo
Coughing fans cool the corridors of a 13th-century Egyptian mosque, where we have gone to escape the simmering heat of a Luxor morning. Within the sunbaked walls of Abu Haggag, men are bent double in prayer. As they bow their heads, an odd strip of translucent green film catches my eye. I’m told it tactfully shields worshippers from what lies beneath: an ancient relief glorifying the reign of the powerful Pharaoh Ramses II, the presence of which should, in Islam, be idolatrous.

The dusty green film represents tolerance and coexistence and is a quiet demonstration against the rampaging savagery that has taken chisels and explosives to the pagan past and redefined the Middle East by conflict. A few months ago and just a kilometre away, three Islamic State militants tried to destroy a Karnak temple. They accidentally blew themselves up in the car park when the guards intervened.

It is that near-forgotten history of living together, sharing spaces, labour and love, as well as the blending of craftsmanship and iconography, that the British Museum hopes to revive in its upcoming exhibition Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs. The show shelves the familiar mummies and pyramids in favour of the 1,200 years that followed them, with the waxing and waning of Abrahamic faiths.

Starting in 30BC with the suicide of Cleopatra, the last pharaoh, and her lover Mark Antony, the exhibition explores the build up to Christianity becoming the state religion in the 4th century, and the arrival of Islam during the Arab conquest about 300 years after that. Jewish communities periodically flourish in between.

Through 200 objects it hopes to challenge a historical narrative that suggests the ages of the ancient and modern faiths were clearly defined. In fact, though they sometimes quarrelled, they often also borrowed — and continue to do so, as can be seen at Abu Haggag.

The reliefs here, carefully covered but not hidden, are in fact the tops of the intricately inscribed columns of Ramses II’s 13th-century BC Grand Colonnade. The towering pillars of ancient stone puncture different rooms of the mosque, which is built on top of the 3,400-year-old Luxor Temple, a mesh of ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Christian and Muslim living spaces and shrines.

The entire muddled scene is exactly what the exhibition is trying to get at, says Dr Neal Spencer, the museum’s keeper of Egypt and Sudan, who is overseeing the show.

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Photo: Egypt by Bel Trew