Greco-Egyptian religion

Greek settlers living in ancient Egyptian cities ‘translated’ Egyptian gods into their own familiar deities. The ancient Greek Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt for over 300 years, introduced Greek versions of Egyptian gods to encourage cultural integration in their kingdom. They also sought the support of Egyptian priests in order to be recognised as legitimate pharaohs, and renovated temples and built magnificent new ones. After 30 BC, aspects of this Greco-Egyptian religion also spread across the Roman Empire.

Religious life played an important role in the ancient Egyptian cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus. Greeks and Egyptians lived and worshipped side by side, acknowledging similarities and differences in their practices. Underwater finds at Thonis-Heracleion include religious offerings from across the Mediterranean world, reflecting diverse beliefs.

The devotion to animals was something highly alien to Greeks living in Egypt. In order to integrate the Greek communities living in their kingdom, the Ptolemies created Greek versions – human-shaped counterparts – of Egyptian animal-shaped gods and this compromise ensured an ongoing dialogue between people from different cultures coming together in the land of the Nile.
Learn more about animal worship in ancient Egypt in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May – 27 November 2016).
Votive Horus falcon. Probably from Buto, western Delta, 664-342 BC. Graeco-Roman Museum, Alexandria.  Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
Votive box with eel. Naukratis, c. late 5th-early 4th century BC.
Apis bull, AD 117–138. Alexandria. Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
Group of sarcophagi, probably for ibis or falcon mummies. Thonis-Heracleion, 664-525 BC. Maritime Museum, Alexandria.  Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.
Votive mummy-case representing an Egyptian mongoose.  Naukratis, c. late 5th-early 4th century BC.
Ibis mummy and X-ray image. Saqqara, Egypt, Ptolemaic period (323-31 BC).

Gold jewellery in ancient Egypt
Vanished beneath the waters of the Mediterranean, the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus lay at the mouth of the Nile. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece. Alongside the colossal statues found in these cities, underwater archaeologists have also recovered many stunning examples of gold jewellery.

Arsinoe II

In this statue, the Ptolemaic queen Arsinoe II, is the embodiment of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of beauty and ‘fortunate sailing’. It is a perfect combination of Egyptian and Greek style. She was the eldest daughter of Ptolemy I and married her brother Ptolemy II. While the choice of a local dark stone and the queen’s striding posture are Egyptian in style, the sensual rendering of her flesh, revealed through the play of the transparent garment, is reminiscent of Greek masterpieces. Ptolemy II established and promoted the worship of his sister-wife after her death. She was worshipped as one of the Divine Siblings alongside Ptolemy II himself, but also as a goddess on her own. In 270 BC, Ptolemy II issued a decree (the Decree of Mendes) that all temples of Egypt should host a cult statue of the divine Arsinoe. She was incorporated into Egyptian cult and temples, and was sometimes recognised by Egyptians as Isis, mother goddess and patron of magic. She was worshipped extensively by Egyptians and Greeks alike. This exceptional sculpture stood in a temple at the city of Canopus.

Naukratis was the first Greek settlement in Egypt, a bustling centre of cross-cultural contact. It was located 77km south of the harbour town of Thonis-Heracleion, up the Canopic branch of the Nile. Naukratis was both a royal Egyptian port and a Greek port of trade. The site was discovered in 1884 by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, a pioneer of Egyptian archaeology. Since 2012 the British Museum has conducted new fieldwork at this important site. This has revealed the whole extent of the city – at least 600,000m2 in size with over 16,000 inhabitants. New excavation at the Hellenion, the largest Greek sanctuary in Egypt, has uncovered new evidence for religious practices, as well as material culture suggesting a high degree of cultural mixing between Greeks and Egyptians – but also Phoenicians.

Submerged for more than a thousand years, the ancient Egyptian city of Thonis-Heracleion was only recently rediscovered by Franck Goddio and his team at the European Institute for Underwater Archaeology.
Thonis-Heracleion was named after the Greek hero Herakles. It was one of Egypt’s most important harbour towns between about 600 and 100 BC. Located on the Mediterranean coast at the mouth of the Canopic branch of the Nile, the city guarded the western entrance to Egypt and controlled its maritime trade. The whole site consists of several islands, with a network of channels and port basins connecting the inland areas with the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile. Thonis-Heracleion was also a major religious centre – the two most important temples discovered so far are dedicated to Amun, king of the Egyptian gods, and his son Khonsu-the-Child (who was identified with the Greek Herakles).
Find out more about Thonis-Heracleion and its amazing rediscovery in the BP exhibition Sunken cities: Egypt’s lost worlds (19 May – 27 Nov 2016).
Pink granite garden vat. Thonis-Heracleion, Egypt, Ptolemaic Period, 4th–2nd century BC. Photo: Christoph Gerigk. © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation. 

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