The guard at the Temple of Alexander showing off some of the stray finds to me and my Bedouin driver
In my last post, I talked about the Egyptian tombs at Bahariya Oasis, some 340 km southwest of Cairo. The oasis was on the fringe of civilization in those days, but became more important during the Greco-Roman period because its well-watered soil didn’t flood like the Nile valley and thus was a good place to grow grapes to make wine, something the Greeks and Romans couldn’t live without.
The oasis became prosperous during Greek and Roman rule. It gained significance right from the start when Alexander the Great passed through here on the way to Siwa Oasis further to the west, where he had his famous meeting with the oracle of Amun at the sanctuary there, where he was proclaimed the son of the god and thus pharaoh. The temple honors his visit to the oasis and is the largest in the Western Desert, with a two-room sandstone chapel and a temple enclosure with at least 45 rooms and a surrounding wall.
Funerary stela, Roman, middle of the first century AD
In past weeks we’ve looked at the historic city of Córdoba, Spain–its famous mosque/cathedral, its castle, and other sites. To wrap up this miniseries, let’s look at the city’s excellent archaeological museum. Like many local museums in Spain, it covers a broad range of history from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. It is especially strong in Roman artifacts, and is in fact built on some Roman ruins that can be seen in the basement.
I love these local museums because you get to see just how long people have been living at some of these places. The museum in Córdoba is especially well presented and has some interesting pieces from the city and the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
The destroyers came out from the desert. Palmyra must have been expecting them: for years, marauding bands of bearded, black-robed zealots, armed with little more than stones, iron bars and an iron sense of righteousness had been terrorizing the east of the Roman Empire.
Thus starts the controversial new history of the pagan/Christian transition by Classics scholar Catherine Nixey. Making a deliberate parallel between the early Christians and ISIS is a bold move, intended to shock and turn our historical and cultural presumptions upside down.
It’s only the first of many. For 250 pages, Nixey makes a full-on assault against the dominant narrative that Christians were brutally oppressed by the Roman Empire, before peacefully taking over by winning the debate against an exhausted and decadent paganism.
In Palmyra c. AD 385, a horde of black-robed monks swarmed out of their desert caves and crude shelters to break into the city’s temple of Athena. There they came upon a graceful, larger-than-life statue of the goddess. They hacked the head from its shoulders, then battered at the head where it lay on the ground. When they left, their rage satiated, the head lay where they had left it for centuries until uncovered by modern archaeologists.
All across the Late Roman Empire, this scene was played out again and again with increasing frequency as Christians grew in number and confidence.
A stained glass window using small bits of colored glass in a plaster
framework. Mosques and private houses also use this style of
decoration, although the mosques don’t include crosses, of course
While Egypt’s ancient civilization is the main draw for visiting the country, I find its medieval and modern history equally fascinating. Cairo is full of historic monuments. Minarets built a thousand years ago rise above the honking traffic, old houses from the Ottoman period are nestled in quiet back alleys, and a medieval citadel looks out over the city.
Many of Cairo’s most interesting historic sites are Christian. Early in Christian history, Egypt started a distinct tradition of worship that developed into what is now known as Coptic Christianity. The Coptic church traces its origins back to 50 AD, when Saint Mark visited the country and established the Church of Alexandria. The word “Copt” comes from the ancient Greek word for Egypt, “Aigyptos.”
The apse dome of the Basilica of San Vitale shows Christ enthroned, and looking very much like a Byzantine emperor
I’ve been posting a lot lately about my recent trip to Italy. The high point of the trip for me, indeed the travel high point of the year, was visiting Ravenna.
Ravenna has the best collection of Late Antique church art in the world. As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, Ravenna became the refuge for the last emperors and acted as the capital from 402 to 476 AD. Unlike the more exposed city of Rome, Ravenna was protected on all sides by swamps and was also a base for the Roman navy, making it easy to defend. It eventually fell into Germanic hands but became Roman once again when it served as the Exarchate for the Byzantine Empire from 540 to 751 AD. The Exarch was the representative of the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople and ruled over portions of Italy. Ravenna has a rich collection of religious buildings constructed by the Romans, Christian Ostrogoths, and Byzantines.
Roman amphora with coral, from the Levanzo shipwreck AD 275‒300
Sicily has been the center of Mediterranean history for centuries. Positioned at the halfway point between the western and eastern halves of the sea, and between Europe and Africa, it has been a nexus of trade and warfare ever since humanity started sailing. Now a major exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum looks at the discoveries by underwater archaeologists around Sicily’s shores.
Ancient Egypt is famous for its elaborate religion with a multitude of deities and an obsession with the afterlife. While there have been many exhibitions on ancient Egyptian religion, it’s rare to see one that traces Egypt’s transformation from a land that was mostly pagan to one that was mostly Christian, then mostly Muslim, with a strong tradition of Judaism running through it.
Now a major exhibition at the British Museum, Egypt: Faith after the Pharaohs, uses about 200 objects to explore the history of religion in this fascinating country. The first gallery emphasizes that Egypt still has a sizeable Christian community. While that community has been targeted by extremists in recent years, there is also a large amount of cooperation between the two faiths. Photos from the Arab Spring show Christians making a protective ring around Muslims as they pray, and the Muslims returning the favor around churches on Sunday. The Western media tend to skip these stories of tolerance for more ratings-friendly tales of bloodshed, thus giving a skewed picture of the situation. As one of my old newspaper editors said, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Oxford is one of the most popular day trips for visitors to London thanks to its beautiful university and world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt-Rivers. It’s also worth staying overnight so that you can take advantage to the surrounding area, which offers some pleasant country walks.
One of the more enjoyable is a two-mile stroll along the Thames (locally called the Isis) that takes you to the hamlet of Binsey and the medieval church of St. Margaret’s. Set amid trees in the peaceful English countryside, the church makes for a relaxing stop and you can visit an Anglo-Saxon holy well that’s been an object of pilgrimage for centuries.