Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2009.06.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.43

J. H. F. Dijkstra, Philae and the End of Ancient Egyptian Religion: A Regional Study of Religious Transformation (298-642 CE). Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 173.   Leuven:  Peeters, 2008.  Pp. xvii, 466.  ISBN 9789042920316.  €85.00.  

Reviewed by Robert B. Gozzoli, University of Siam, Thailand (

Table of Contents

The book under analysis here is the revised PhD dissertation of the author, originally submitted in 2005 at the University of Groningen, under the title of Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity (p. x).1 For readers such as myself, an Egyptologist by formation with a small background in Coptic studies, this book is certainly a welcome contribution for it is a comprehensive analysis of the religious and social developments at Philae and in the First Cataract zone. The chronological boundaries are defined by the withdrawal of Egypt's southern border to Elephantine in 298 AD by Diocletian and the Arab conquest of Egypt. Within this scope, various sources are analysed and comprehensively studied in order to give a picture of how ancient Egyptian religion and the ''new'' religion merged in daily life. The book is set up by these initial questions: "What happened to the cults at Philae in the Late Antiquity? And what was the role played by Christianity on the island? Was Philae an exceptional case?" (p. 14).

For Philae, one of the few established dates for the fate of ancient Egyptian religion is 537 CE, as Justinian ordered the closure of the temples. Dijkstra offers two relevant texts. The first is the petition written by Diodorus in Antinoopolis on behalf of the councilors of Omboi against a man nicknamed as the 'Eater of Raw Meat' (ὠμοφάγος), the so called Blemmyan incident (circa 567 CE). The accused man is blamed for neglecting the taught Christian doctrine and renewing pagan sanctuaries of Philae with the help of the Blemmyes.2 The second text is Procopius' Persian Wars, which states that the temple of Isis was finally closed in 535-537 CE (pp. 11-14), following Emperor Justinian's order. Dijkstra's sees the two documents not necessarily contradicting each other, for Procopius is describing imperial policies while the petition reflects a particular moment of local history. Dijkstra's main thesis is that the negative picture of a rising Christianity fighting against the old religion is fundamentally erroneous, as the ancient Egyptian cults were already dying by themselves, without external intervention.3

Setting his book on such terms, Dijkstra structures it in three parts: Part I is about the developments of Christianity in the First Cataract region during the fourth century CE; Part II is about the survival of the ancient Egyptian cults; and the final part is about Christianity in the region during the sixth century CE.

While the first and second chapters of Part I (pp. 45-119) deal with published historical sources such as the Appion petition and the Patermouthis archive, both of which provide a glimpse of the life of the Christian Community during the fifth century CE, the most interesting and fundamental part is the summary of archaeological fieldwork at Elephantine which makes the third chapter (pp. 85-118). As Swiss-German excavations are still going on the island, the author as participant is able to supply a first-hand analysis of the various results and a chronology of the Christian building recovered in the various excavations. In addition to an analysis of the archaeological expeditions in the region of the First Cataract, the author argues that archeology shows a direct re-usage of material coming from the temple of Khnum in an early Christian church during the early sixth century CE even though the temple had been already been partially dismantled one century earlier and the stones used for private buildings. Recent scholarship has connected the decline of Egyptian religion to the reduction of temple incomes during the third century CE. New building activities could not be completed, and the progressive loss of interest by the Roman emperors added to the loss of prestige, and decadence then followed.4 Dijkstra cannot supply any specific information about the reasons of such decline at Philae.

In Part II (pp. 125-218), the importance of Philae as religious centre for the populations south of the Egyptian border is discussed. Though Egyptian religion was already failing in the third century CE,5 pharaonic religion at Philae continued well into the fifth century. The festival of Isis at Philae, attested until the beginnings of the fifth century CE, had completely disappeared by the middle of the sixth century and one can note the decline of the Demotic and Greek inscriptions present in the temple itself: only a few of "First prophets of Isis" are known from inscriptions dated around 456/457 CE, as well as a hierogrammateus. This scarcity of personnel reveals a progressive decline of the ancient Egyptian cult during the period under examination, as only the priests write the inscriptions. Though Frankfurter was able to see the Egyptian priests transformed into magicians and sorcerers. Dijkstra is not able to track the fate of those Egyptian priests at Philae.6 He titles the conclusion of the chapter: "The Last Priests of Philae -- a Mystery?" (pp. 214-18), and he is correct when he says that assimilation can be considered as quite probable.

Part III (pp. 221-337) deals with the role of Philae as a centre for evangelization to the southern territories. The Life of Aaron, Procopius' Persian Wars and John of Ephesus' Church History are analyzed for their trustfulness as historical sources about Philae and its religious transformation. Dijkstra challenges the normal view of the Life of Aaron as an historical source since it has many traits in common with early Egyptian hagiography and the Imitatio Christi: the major point of the Lives of the Saints is to build a relation between author and reader, quite far from a trustworthy historical account.7 Dijkstra raises similar questions for Procopius' and John of Ephesus' accounts of Justinian's and Theodora's missions to the Noubades. Both missions have been connected in scholarly literature to the closure of the temples at Philae as proof of an increased hostility toward the South. Dijkstra objects to such interpretation and sees them as nothing more than casual circumstance, mostly due to the fact that the imperial army was there.

The book is an importance research tool for anyone studying Early Christianity in Egypt. When the author deals with hagiography, he addresses the most recent work by Frankfurter and Van Millen.8 The picture of a slow assimilation of Philae into the Christian world is not conflicting with the most recent scholarly literature and well agrees with what is known from other parts of Egypt. As for 537 CE being a fundamental date for the end of paganism in Egypt, Dijkstra has made a convincing argument to dismiss such date: there is no definite break between Isis and Christ at Philae, but the former flows into the other without significant conflicts. The various arguments coherently point and answer the initial questions, though only time and research will say how much this new horizon will last.

Very pleasantly, the book is not overburdened by technicalities, it tries to keep everything under clear headings and it is a pleasure to read. The typos are few and do not mar the legibility of the text, and the references are up to date.9


1.   The original PhD version can be retrieved at
2.   As already remarked by R. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, (Princeton, 1993), 146-147, Blemmyes were certainly by then the last remaining bastion of Egyptian religion.
3.   See also J. G. Keenan, "Evidence for the Byzantine Army in the Syene Papyri", BASP 27 (1990), 139-150 and MacCoull, "Christianity at Syene/Elephantine/Philae", BASP 27 (1990), 151-162.
4.   Bagnall, Egypt, 269, D. Frankfurter Religion in Roman Egypt. Assimilation and Resistance, (Princeton, 1998), 199-200
5.   Bagnall, Egypt, 262.
6.   Frankfurter Religion, 202-217.
7.   See already U. Gotter, "Thekla gegen Apollon: Überlegungen zur Transformation regionaler Sakraltopographie in der Spätantike", Klio, 85 (2003), 189-211.
8.   D. Frankfurter, "Hagiography and the Reconstruction of Local Religion in Late Antique Egypt: Memories, Inventions and Landscapes", in J.H.F. Dijkstra, M. van Dijk (eds.), The Encroaching Desert. Egyptian Hagiography and the Medieval East, (Leiden, 2006), 13-37 and P. van Minnen, "'Saving History? Egyptian Hagiography in Its Space and Time", in Ibidem, 57-91.
9.   Still from my Egyptological background, I give some further references about corn mummies, and the Dodecaschoinos in the Ptolemaic Period. For the corn mummies, see M. C. Centrone, ''Corn-Mummies. Amulets of Life'', in K. Szpakowska (ed), Through a Glass Darkly. Magic, Dreams and Prophecy in Ancient Egypt, (Swansea, 2006), pp. 33-46. For the Dodecaschoinos, R.B. Gozzoli, The Writing of History in Ancient Egypt during the First Millennium BC (ca. 1070-180 BC). Trends and Perspectives, (London, 2006), pp. 252-58.

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