The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo, like the British Museum in London, houses some of the world’s most treasured artefacts.
The contents of the tomb of the pharoah Tutankhamun, the only surviving intact pharaonic tomb, adorn the museum’s second floor. (I’ve seen replicas in Dublin, which were stunning, but the originals are actually breath-taking.) And, while the prize posession of the British Museum must be the Rosetta Stone, the premium exhibit at the Egyptian Museum, for me, has to be the Merneptah Stele — a large slab of black granite on which is inscribed the name “Israel,” the first occurrence of this word in the archaeological record. It was discovered at Thebes by Flanders Petrie in 1896 (this is the same Petrie who lends his name to the Museum of Egyptology at UCL, a place I know very well).
Now, having visited the Petrie Museum and the British Museum, both in London, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquity in Cairo, and the pyramids at Saqqara, Dahshur, and Giza, I think I can try to convey something of the chronological development of Ancient Egyptian burial practice. It goes something like this:–
In the beginning, about 5,000 years ago, the Ancient Egyptians began burying pharoahs and nobles in so-called mastabas — sloping rectangular structures which covered the burial chambers. They looked something like this:
The Golden Age of Egyptian construction, however, begins with the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom, and the reign of the pharoah Djoser, about 4,700 years ago. Imhotep, the royal architect, altered the burial style by stacking successively smaller mastabas one on top of the other. Thus the Step Pyramid was created:
Imhotep, whose genius was known to the Greeks, was later deified by the Egyptians, such was the extent of his influence. In subsequent years, intermediate pyramids were constructed, such as the Bent Pyramid in Dahshur, attributed to Sneferu (the first pharoah of the fourth dynasty):
The first “true” pyramid, attributed also to Sneferu, and also found at Dahshur, is the famous Red Pyramid:
The peak of pyramid-building comes with successive fourth-dynasty pharoahs Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure, who produced the great pyramids at Giza. This period of history coincides with the greatest exertion of central pharaonic authority:
The last pyramids to be built, prior to the resumption of pyramid-construction in the 20th century BCE, are those of pharoahs Unas, Userkaf, Teti, and Pepi II, the latter being the last pharoah of the sixth dynasty. After this time, centralised power crumbled, and the pharoahs could no longer harness enough resources to erect great tombs.
Christianity arrived in Egypt, so they say, with Mark the Evangelist.
In fact, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus himself had come to Egypt as a baby, with Joseph and Mary, after a warning from the Magi. I don’t believe this story, though, because it’s only to be found in Matthew, and it sounds like a borrowing from the story of Moses. Egyptians, however, both Christian and Muslim (Jesus is a prophet, don’t forget!), seem to be somewhat obsessed with it. This is typical:
Today, Coptic Christians, about 10% of the population, constitute only a significant minority in Egypt, but they are extraordinarily important in Christian history — the Council of Nicea in 325 CE (think Nicene Creed) was presided over by St. Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria. The Church of Alexandria was second only to Rome. It was only after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE that the Copts (along with the Syrians, Armenians and other “fringe” communities of the Byzantine Empire) part ways with Rome, ostensibly over the nature of Christ: miaphysite ((the majority of) the Church in Alexandria) versus dyophysite (the Church in Rome).
Their churches — like the Hanging Church, or Mar Girgis (Saint George), both in Old Cairo, and St. Mark’s in Abbassia, or St. George’s in Giza — are remarkably beautiful. The Cathedral in Giza contains the relics of St. George and St. Simon, and its new ceiling is decorated with scenes from Revelations.
Coptic Mass is really long (and I’ve been to three-hour sabbath meetings at a branch of the LDS) but it is really amazing. The atmosphere is electric, and the singing is hypnotic. There’s lots of incense, and holy water isn’t so much sprinkled as flung in your direction. There are a lot of young people, unlike the Roman Catholic Church in Europe — the girl’s sunday school was so large they took up the whole cathedral. Traditonally, you also get a loaf of bread with five dots on top, signifying the nails used to crucify Jesus, when you leave. It’s a nice gesture.
Interestingly, the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, was just elected last November, chosen randomly* by a blind-folded boy, from a hat containing three possible names. This is slightly more enchanting than the recent election of Pope Francis in Rome.
* The Copts maintain that this process is guided by the will of God.
And, lastly, though there has been much persecution of the Copts by the Muslim community, one of the most touching pieces of news from Egypt in the last couple of years was this story, in which Muslims come together to protect Christians threatened with serious violence (many had died in an incident the previous week) using their own bodies as human shields!
Qala’at Salah ad-Din, the citadel of Saladin, was constructed in the 12th century to protect Cairo (founded by the Fatimids) and Fustat (founded earlier by the conquering Muslim Arabs and now subsumed into Cairo) from the Crusaders:
Egyptians celebrate the arrival of Saladin for this also meant the reintroduction of Sunni Islam. At the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, you can read pieces of useful information such as the following:
[The Fatimids] began their Shi’a propaganda in the Maghreb.
That’s right: propaganda.
Saladin’s son, Al-Aziz Uthman, the Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt, ordered the destruction of the pyramids at Giza. The attempt was made, and damage done to the Menkaure’s pyramid, but the task was too great. This reminds me of the recent destruction of precious manuscripts by Islamists in Mali, as well as the desruction of Buddhist monuments by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. With the reigns of power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, conversation here frequently turns to the nature of “true” Islam. It’s a conversation worth having, and one that will likely go on for some time.
A late addition to the citadel — built by an Ottoman Governor between 1830 and 1848 — is the Mosque of Muhammad Ali. The interior of all the mosques I’ve been to (about fifteen, in Dublin, London, and Cairo) are very simple, elegant buildings. The Al-Hussein Mosque, incidentally, I found the most peaceful. This building, on the other hand, is lavish, typical of this period: