Yesterday I visited Egypt. Faith after the Pharaos, an exhibition at the British Museum curated by the brilliant Elisabeth O’Connell, who is, of course, also a member of our advisory board. Elisabeth came up to Sheffield to our second advisory board workshop recently (on which more soon), and I realised then that the exhibition will be over in a few weeks, and that now was the time to go!
Egypt looms large in the history of late antique clerical exile, as both a region of departure and of arrival of exiles. It was great, therefore, to take the opportunity to learn more about the material world clerics would have left behind (and missed) or encountered when exiled. Yet, this being the weekend and hence, by definition, family-time, I visited the exhibition not just as a late antique historian, but also as a mother, for I took my eight-year old daughter (henceforth called D).
The exhibition charts the religious transformation of Egypt in the first Millennium, from a predominantly pagan to a predominantly Muslim society, as well as the co-existence of religious communities (some pre-existing, such as Jews) within this framework. This is a complex topic and not one easily grasped by eight-year-olds. I was reasonably confident that D would understand the difference between religious groups – she personally knows people identifying as Christians, Muslims or Jews (though not as Pagans!) – but I wasn’t sure how far she’d get the dimension of time (and hence religious change) and space (although it helped that one of her friends had just been on holiday at the Red Sea). In addition, D is naturally suspicious of anything to do with History, for fear of her mother launching into lengthy lectures. Luckily, however, she is also a little feminist, endlessly interested in female experience (a big Jaqueline Wilson fan) and very good at pointing out the lack of female voices in (hi)stories. To keep us both entertained (and also to fuel my own interest in women affected by clerical exile) I therefore came up with a mission of cherchez la femme: we would find the women in this exhibition, and hence in Millennium Egypt.
I also – probably against rules; apologies to the British Museum and Elisabeth! – gave her my phone so she could photograph the objects that interested her (this also explains the quality of the images below). As a true eight-year-old with a phone she ended up enthusiastically photographing almost everything, so I intermittently had to take it off her. On one level, she was right though: once you started looking, the women were (as always) almost everywhere.
First up, divine women. D wasn’t too interested in representations of Isis, though she took a photo of this stela showing Isis (and Dionysos) with a snake body:
On our way back home on the train I showed her in the excellent exhibition catalogue that Isis had also been venerated as Demeter, for I knew she had been learning about Greek myths at school, including the story about Hades and Persephone. She still wasn’t impressed, because clearly Isis-Demeter did not look like she imagined Persephone’s mother.
In terms of divine female images, she much preferred these beautiful silver figurines (actually, furniture-fittings) representing the four major cities of the Roman empire as women:
These are from the late antique, so-called Esquiline Treasure, found in Rome in the 18th century, and are in the exhibition because one of them represents Alexandria (the others are Constantinople, Antioch and Rome). Having researched the treasure as a graduate student working on late antique ‘family-houses’ in Rome (the treasure comes supposedly from a house of the Turcii on the Esquiline) I thought it was an excellent choice and we also enjoyed discussing Constantinople’s distinct ‘wall’ headgear.
As I learned later from the catalogue, we could potentially have continued the ‘divine’ theme, because the exhibition also traces the morphing of Isis into the Virgin Mary during late antiquity, but we somehow missed this and, in any case, D didn’t take a photo.
We missed this perhaps because we got drawn into looking at ‘real’ women. These included women commemorated after their death in Roman Egypt, for the exhibition features some lovely ‘mummy portraits’, portraits of the deceased painted on wood and placed like a mask on a mummified body’s head, like this one:
D already knew about mummy portraits from the magnificent Manchester Museum collection, but she liked this one especially for its clever display next to the jewellery she thought was the same as the one represented in the painting (the earrings were found in Italy, actually, but D didn’t want to hear about it). Later in the exhibition we found another woman mourned by her family, from Medieval Egypt: Fatima, daughter of Ja’far, son of Muhammad, who is commemorated on this splendid stela from 1021:
There is of course much to be said about the expense that went into these objects of burial practice, and whether they meant ancient or medieval women (and girls) were ‘loved’ (there is also in the exhibition a mummy portrait of a little girl, but D thought she looked like a boy), a questions that truly transcends ethnicity and historical periods. However, I already had had this conversation with D when we had come to see the British Museum’s Ancient Lives exhibition last year, and she very adamantly did not want to revisit it this time.
The exhibition not only narrates the death of women, but their lives, too. Here, the Egypt context really comes into its own, because, of course, due to the climate so much has been preserved which has perished elsewhere: textiles (there are some childrens’ clothes from Medieval Egypt, incidentally also from Manchester, from the Whitworth Gallery Textile Collection), wooden objects, and, above all, papyri, the documents from which we derive so much knowledge about daily life and social practice in antiquity and late antiquity. I thought D would find these boring, but was pleasantly surprised. She looked with some interest at least at some of them where I pointed out the ‘female connection’ (and the excellent object labels helped too):
An early imperial contract about the freeing of a Jewish slave and her children (D asked whether the woman had to pay her rescuers back the purchase price – 14 talents of silver – a good question!)
A libellus (the papyrus in the middle) by which a man, his mother and sister received a certificate that they had sacrificed to the Pagan Gods following the edict of emperor Decius in 250 that required just that from all citizens of the empire. This was actually quite hard to explain, not because of the historical debate about how comprehensive Decius’ policy was or whether it was targeted just at Christians, but because D simply asked: ‘What do you mean by ‘sacrifice’? (she actually said it in German: ‘Was meinst Du mit ‘Opfern’?’) Mmmh. Luckily we had been to an archaeological park in the summer, the wonderful Archeon near Leiden, where we had taken part in a re-enactment of a sacrifice to Nehalennia led by a priestess (!) so I could remind her of that. We had made little votive figurines and sacrificed flowers and it had been a lot of fun, so D didn’t see a problem with sacrificing. Perhaps the family who received the libellus hadn’t either. It’s worth asking though how much say the women of the family would have had in the matter.
And there was D’s favourite, a long spell by which a man, Theon, tried to get a woman, Euphemia, to fall in love with him:
The spell had been placed in a pot and then buried, together with two wax figurine embracing, presumably representing Theon and Euphemia in the way Theon imagined them after the spell had worked.
For my own benefit, I also found two late antique women who provided some context for clerical exile. The papyrus below is a rental agreement by which a Jewish man leased part of a house from two female ascetics, Aurelia Theodora and Aurelia Tayris:
Feisty, and well-off, female ascetics from Egypt appear in some exile stories, such as Eudaemonis, a nun from Alexandria who for six years concealed Athanasius of Alexandria in her house during his third exile, 356-362: feeding him, washing his clothes and taking out books for him. She was allegedly later tortured for this (Palladius, Historia Lausiaca 53; Festal Index 28, 30, and 32; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History 5.6). It was interesting to see some of this urban ‘household-asceticism’ in action and the two nuns of the papyrus taking in a man on their own terms, as business women. They probably didn’t do his laundry either.
After a bit over an hour, D’s concentration was clearly in decline, so we decamped to the shop, where I bought the catalogue and D bought a sticker book on Greek myths. D would probably claim that this was the highlight of her visit and I refrained from asking her to explain her impressions in too many words. This means, of course, that I can’t measure the immediate ‘impact’ the exhibition had on her, but she had a good time. Perhaps because she is a child, and hence possibly less cynical about the supernatural, she definitely was relaxed about the religious dimension of the show. She’s certainly taught me to look at the women of late antique Egypt with different eyes.