An exhibition examining the complex interplay between cultures in ancient Egypt during Greek rule opens at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) on October 8, 2014.
When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra explores the diversity of cultures that co-existed in Egypt, and the ways in which the Ptolemaic rulers cannily manipulated longstanding traditions of cultural and religious expression—as well as their own family ties—in order to maintain power and inspire loyalty among the conquered population. The exhibition, which includes some 150 objects, all on loan from distinguished American collections, remains on view through January 4, 2015.
Although When the Greeks Ruled Egypt focuses on the ca. 300-year span of the Ptolemaic Kingdom—founded by Ptolemy I in 323 BCE, shortly after the death of Alexander, and ended in 30 BCE, with the Roman conquest and the death of Cleopatra VII—it has great resonance for our own hyper-political era, when cultural archetypes and terminology are routinely appropriated and misappropriated for socio-political ends. At the same time, in focusing on the ways in which two very different, longstanding cultural traditions were brought together to create new forms of expression, the exhibition also shines a light on the fluidity of the very idea of specific cultural identity.
When the Greeks Ruled Egypt comprises royal portraiture, religious and funerary objects, and writings on papyrus, providing a comprehensive presentation of cultural hybridism as it was embraced by the dynamic Hellenistic royal house. The exhibition opens with a display of royal portraiture in sculpture and on coins. Among the most effective visual devices for expressing identity in the Hellenistic world, royal portraits were placed in both religious and civic settings in order to reach the widest possible audience. The exhibition includes some 20 examples, illuminating the careful exploitation of iconography and style to legitimize Ptolemaic rule and position it within Egypt’s historic line of pharaohs.
Depending on the intent of a portrait, it might depict the king or his spouse—who may also have been his sister—in a traditional pharaonic guise, in a Hellenistic style, or a hybrid of the two. A portrait bust of Ptolemy IX or X, for example, executed with the visual vocabulary of the Hellenistic tradition, was clearly designed to show the king as a successor of Alexander the Great. On the other hand, examples like a sculptor’s model for a portrait of a Ptolemaic king mimics the composition and costume of traditional depictions of pharaohs, promoting the image of the Ptolemies as direct descendants of pharaonic rule.
The house of the Ptolemies was rife with political and familial intrigue, and royal portraiture frequently reveals fascinating historical details about this. Most notably in the exhibition, familial intermarriage and its political implications are explored through a group of Ptolemaic coin portraits. For example, a gold octadrachm was minted on one side with a double portrait of the dynasty’s divine founders, the late Ptolemy I and his wife, Berenice I, while the other side contains a double portrait of their successors to the royal throne, their son Ptolemy II, and his late wife and sister, Arsinoe II. The coin emphasizes physiognomic similarities between the two couples and, by associating Ptolemy II with his divine parents, highlights his own divinity. At the same time, it implicitly justifies royal intermarriage, adopted by the ruling dynasty to ensure that power throughout the expanding kingdom was kept in the Ptolemaic line.
Following the section on portraiture, When the Greeks Ruled Egypt turns to the Ptolemaic treatment of the strikingly different Egyptian and Greek religious traditions. Alexander himself took pains to show respect for the Egyptian gods upon entering Egypt, and the Ptolemies, with great political skill, continued to embrace and adapt the majority of existing religious traditions. In looking at their strategic reinterpretation of Egyptian divinities, the exhibition focuses on the trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus, of whom the Ptolemies positioned themselves as the earthly incarnation. Because Osiris and Isis were brother and sister who married (Horus was their offspring), the promotion of this trinity was an apt means not only of reinforcing the Ptolemies’ divine nature, but also of legitimizing their intermarriage, especially important for Greek audiences that had never been exposed to such practices.
A section devoted to funerary arts reveals the diversity of populations in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period through examples of the variety of burial practices—private forms of expression and so not subject to political interference—that co-existed, often side-by-side. The country was a hub of international activity, with foreign communities from both the Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern worlds living and dying in Egypt. Examples of this include a funerary stele of Isidoros, a mercenary soldier from the province of Galatia, in which both the stele format and the iconography are derived directly from the Greek visual vocabulary, with no visible influence from local artistic traditions, as well as the strikingly different stele of Pakhaas, a funerary monument that is instead derived from longstanding pharaonic prototypes. Both styles could be found side by side in contemporary Ptolemaic funerary settings.
Finally, a series of manuscripts on papyrus demonstrates the variety of languages spoken in Egypt both before and during Ptolemaic rule, and opens a window onto various concerns of daily life. Highlights include a marriage contract from the archive of Ananiah and his wife, Tamet, that illuminates the complex social and cultural dynamics of the Jewish garrison of Elephantine, where Aramaic was spoken. Examples of native Egyptian, written in Demotic (a cursive script derived from ancient hieroglyphs), include strikingly beautiful property deeds from the fourth to the second centuries BCE. Third-century Greek-language documents from Zenon of Caunos, who managed vast estates in Fayyum, demonstrate the intense epistolary activities of the members of the Greek elite.
Organization and Support
The original presentation of When the Greeks Ruled Egypt was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, with support generously provided by the Jaharis Family Foundation. The ISAW version was made possible by the support of the David Berg Foundation, the Jaharis Family Foundation, the Joseph S. and Diane H. Steinberg Charitable Trust, and the Leon Levy Foundation. The Brooklyn Museum graciously provided special loans.
Curator of When the Greeks Ruled Egypt at the Art Institute of Chicago is Mary Greuel, Elizabeth McIlvaine Assistant Curator of Ancient Art in the Department of Ancient and Byzantine Art at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Curator of When the Greeks Ruled Egypt at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Post Doctoral Curatorial Associate at ISAW.
The ISAW-organized exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue.
Established in 2006, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University is an independent center for scholarly research and graduate education, intended to cultivate comparative and connective investigations of the ancient world. ISAW encourages approaches that encompass cultures from the western Mediterranean to China, and that cross the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines, promoting methodologies open to the integration of every category of evidence and method of analysis. It also engages the larger scholarly community and the public with an ongoing program of exhibitions, lectures, and publications that reflect its mission and scholarship.