BMCR 2005.11.06

Egypt from Alexander to the Early Christians. An Archaeological and Historical Guide

, , , Egypt from Alexander to the early Christians : an archaeological and historical guide. Los Angeles and London: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 319 pages : illustrations (some color), maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0892367962 $39.95.

This new guide to the archaeological remains of post pharaonic Egypt has been produced under the general editorship of two ancient historians and papyrologists, who both have extensive field experience in the archaeology of Graeco-Roman Egypt. The result constitutes a very welcome addition to the small range of general books on this stage of Egypt’s long history. It also underlines for us just how much of the physical record of this period has been lost or destroyed since the modern rediscovery of Egypt by Napoleon’s savants at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Indeed it would be fair to say that Egypt’s most ancient monuments are better known and better cared for than any of those of the Graeco-Roman and early Christian periods which are described in this book.

Bagnall and Rathbone state in the Preface that their aim is to foster an appreciation of the rich material legacy surviving from the period between 332 BC and AD 641, a period of roughly a millennium. They are concerned also to situate the major finds of papyrus documents from Egypt in their archaeological context as well as to place the archaeological remains in their correct historical context. What they do not make clear, however, is that, despite some advice on how to visit the sites described, most of which lie outside the major tourist areas, and the provision of GPS coordinates for the even more remote sites in the deserts and oases, there is no intention that the book should be used as a field guide to the remains as such. Indeed given the book’s weight, and its lack of specific details about travel arrangements, it would be unwise to try to use it in lieu of standard travel guides such as the Blue Guide to Egypt or the Lonely Planet Guide to Egypt and the Sudan, both of which contain more detailed practical information. It is not primarily a travel guide, or a field guide, and should not be judged as such.

As well as acting as general editors, Bagnall has written the sections on the Western Oases and the Eastern Desert (Chapters 9 and 10) and Rathbone those on the Delta, Giza, and the Fayyum (Chapters 2.6, 3.3 and 5). In addition, there are ten other main contributors to the guide. While overlap has been kept to a minimum, this nonetheless makes for some unevenness in the depth of treatment from one section to another. Each section, however, is very up to date, making this an extremely useful reference work for anyone seeking a quick and easy summary of what is currently known of sites such as Tebtunis, Kellis, or Oxyrhynchos.

Chapter 1, General Introduction, by A.E. Hanson and J.G. Keenan, gives a brief overview of the historical background, economy and society, languages and scripts, religion, literature, and architecture and art of Egypt from the Ptolemaic to early Islamic periods. I found this whole section admirably concise. A tremendous amount of accurate information is crammed into a space of only some 40 pages without at all sacrificing its readability. These pages could well serve as the introductory lectures for any undergraduate, or even graduate course on later Egypt.

The introduction ends with a final subsection on tourism in antiquity. This provides a useful lead-in to the main part of the guide, a survey of the Graeco-Roman and early Christian remains of Egypt. These are dealt with in nine sections, running roughly from north to south, beginning with Alexandria and ending with Upper Egypt, followed by the Western Oases and the Eastern Desert.

Chapter 2 covers Alexandria, the Delta and northern Sinai. Alan Bowman gives excellent brief summaries of Alexandria’s physical development from its foundation by Alexander the Greatand its archaeological exploration in modern times before turning to a survey of the visible remains and a brief guide to Alexandria’s museums, the necropoleis, and the city’s environs including the important remains at Taposiris and Marea. These are likely to be among the most useful pages of the book for the general traveler or tourist. The sections on the Delta, and Pelousion and the northern Sinai, by Rathbone and Willy Clarysse, are understandably much shorter, given the paucity of surviving remains in this area and the greater difficulty of access.

Chapter 3, The Memphite region, by Dorothy Thompson, includes a brief summary of relevant material on view in both the Coptic Museum and the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but concentrates as one would expect mainly upon Ptolemaic and Roman Memphis and the importance of the city’s animal cults, especially that of the Apis bull, and what remains visible there today. The Apis burial vaults of the Memphite Serapeum are among Egypt’s most impressive monuments and well worth a visit on a day’s expedition from Cairo.

Chapter 4, by Terry Wilfong, covers Christian Monasticism and Pilgrimage in Northern Egypt. There was a concentration of early monastic settlements in the regions of Nitria and Kellia to the south of Lake Mareotis as well as further out in the desert in the Wadi Natrun. Some of those in the Wadi Natrun are still functioning as monasteries and are easily accessible from Alexandria or Cairo. Wilfong also covers the important pilgrimage site of Abu Mina, focus of the cult of St. Menas, also relatively easy to reach from Alexandria, and the site of Menouthis at Abu Qir (where a cross reference to section 2.5 should be added). While the amount of coverage of these sites and of the Red Sea monasteries seems appropriate, the account of the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai is unexpectedly brief. Given its easy accessibility from Cairo and its inclusion in many tourist itineraries, the monastery with its famous library and Pachomian icons arguably deserves as much space as the Alexandrian necropoleis or the Memphite Serapeum.

Chapter 5, The Fayyum, by Rathbone, sensibly begins with a sub-section on Access and what one could reasonably expect to cover on a day trip from Cairo or Giza. It is a pity that all the chapters are not prefaced with similar practical information. The section on Modern Research on the Fayyum (Chapter 5.1.c) and the summary descriptions of the major town sites such as Karanis, Philadelphia and Tebtunis will be invaluable to anyone first getting to grips with the papyrus finds from these areas: the aerial photos from the Kelsey Museum of Karanis and Philadelphia are particularly useful in giving a sense of the density of settlement in these towns. I was surprised to find that Lake Moeris, the central feature of the Fayyum, was not only misspelled as Moiris (it always has an eta in Greek) but did not appear at all in the general index.

Chapter 6, Middle Egypt, introduces both the Graeco-Roman remains (Chapter 6.1-2 is by Jane Rowlandson, 6.3-4 by Peter van Minnen) of once great cities like Hermopolis Magna and Antinoopolis and the most important of the monasteries of Middle Egypt (Chapter 6.5 by the late Sarah Clackson), some of which are still inhabited by monastic communities. Following the aim stated in the Preface, good use is made in this chapter as in Chapters 5 and 7 of text boxes to introduce some of the diverse papyrological evidence, either archives (Box 5.2, Zenon Archive; 6.2.2, Archive of Dionysios son of Kephalas; 7.3.1, the Choachytai), collections (Box 6.2.4, Oxyrhynchos Papyri), or single texts (Box 6.3.1, Athletes from Hermopolis; 6.3.2, Gilding the Gymnasium [at Antinoopolis]). These texts have the power to bring these ancient sites back to life again much more vividly than their present scanty physical remains ever could.

Chapters 7, The Theban Region, by Katelijn Vandorpe and Wilfong, and 8, Upper Egypt, by Clarysse, Vandorpe and J.G. Manning, continue our journey south. It is good to be reminded here that many of the great temples of this region, which we usually think of as typically pharaonic, were in fact still being built and/or extended during the Graeco-Roman period, and that Greeks and Romans were just as enthusiastic tourists to this area, particularly the Valley of the Kings, as we are today. Particularly striking in this section are the reconstruction of the Roman military camp (fig. 7.2.4) which came to occupy the Luxor temple under Diocletian, and the great Monastery of St. Simeon at Aswan, one of the best preserved Coptic monasteries.

Chapter 9, The Western Oases, by Bagnall, surveys an area of the country which remains little visited by tourists, with the exception perhaps of Siwa which is easily reached along the coast from Alexandria via Marsa Matruh. The oases are still relatively unexplored archaeologically, although no doubt the famous ‘Valley of the Golden Mummies’ discovered by Zawi Hawass in the late 1990s will continue to focus greater attention upon this area.

Chapter 10, The Eastern Desert, also by Bagnall, deals with an area of great importance in both Ptolemaic and Roman times but one which has been little known until recently. The rise of tourist resorts on the Red Sea, however, has changed all that and there are now an increasing number of 4WD tourist expeditions available into the desert hinterland. These mean not only easier access but also the risk of greater damage to the sites themselves.

The guide concludes with a Chronological Outline from the Predynastic period to the Abbasid caliphate, a compendious and up-to-date Bibliography (which alone is worth the price of the book), and a general Index.

One of the strengths of a book of this nature lies in its illustrations, and this book is very strong indeed in this respect. Throughout the book there is a judicious mix of black and white photos, plans, sketch maps, and reconstructions. On the other hand, the choice of colour plates is disappointing. Several objects in the British Museum, which have often been illustrated elsewhere, have been trotted out yet again, while the photos of Saqqara and Mons Claudianus have been taken from such a distance that virtually nothing at all can be discerned in them.

In conclusion, this is an excellent introduction to the principal sites of post pharaonic Egypt and a most useful and up-to-date guide to their history and to the archaeological work which has so far been done on them.