Thursday, April 25, 2019


Jeffrey Spier, Timothy F. Potts, Sara E. Cole (ed.), Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2018. Pp. xv, 344. ISBN 9781606065518. $65.00.

Reviewed by Maria Cannata, Peking University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This catalogue accompanies the first of a multiyear series of exhibitions under the banner "The Classical World in Context," whose overall aim was to illustrate the complex interconnections between the Classical world and Egypt over the course of 25 centuries. As Potts points out, the aim of this project is in line with the increasing realisation among scholars of the need for a contextual and cross-cultural approach to the study of ancient cultures, one in which they are understood as part of a "broader cultural sphere" that shared and exchanged aspects of their religion, artistic production, and customs, rather than as isolated entities defined by their own culture.

The exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are broken down into four sections, each dealing with a specific timeframe. In the catalogue the individual sections are examined through a series of essays, several by established scholars, that investigate further the Classical World's interconnections with contemporary peoples.

Part I examines the Bronze Age (2000-1100 BC) and the earliest evidence for contacts between Egypt and the Aegean, which were initially indirect, with Levantine trading centres as intermediaries. From around the second millennium BC began what is often termed an International Age, which saw an exponential increase in contacts between different Eastern Mediterranean peoples. Already from the beginning, Minoan Crete was a central player in such a network, as witnessed by finds of Egyptian imports at Knossos, as well as Minoan finds in Egypt.

Part II covers a time when, following a hiatus of about four centuries, trade contacts between Egypt and the Aegean resume again (700-332 BC). Greeks, Carians and Cypriots are some of the foreign people attested in Egypt as traders, settlers, and soldiers in the Egyptian army. A very important centre at this time was Naukratis, the first Greek city in Egypt. The city played a kind of dual role since it gave the Greeks an economic opportunity in a "country of legendary wealth" whilst allowing the Egyptians to link riverine with maritime networks, and to foster political alliances. Here Greeks were allowed to settle and to build religious structures dedicated to their own deities. Nevertheless, the finds from the residential quarter show how much Egyptian domestic religion had penetrated into their private sphere even though, institutionally, clearer boundaries were preserved.

Part III covers the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt (332–30 BC) and begins with an introduction into the historical background to Alexander the Great's conquest of Egypt, and the subsequent organisation and administration of the country by the Ptolemies. The foremost city in the country now became Alexandria, founded by Alexander early in 331 BC on the northwest coast of the Delta, thus ideally sited for trading contacts with the Mediterranean World, and well connected to the rest of Egypt through the Nile. Alexandria was a multiethnic city, although the degree of interaction between the diverse ethnic groups is still a matter of debate. The complexity of such interactions can be seen in the adaptation of Egyptian funerary imagery within the typically Alexandrian tomb typology, where the use of cremation was widely used in preference to Egyptian mummification. Such a mix can also be seen in the Ptolemies' self-presentation in Alexandria as both Hellenistic kings and Egyptian pharaohs.

Part IV, covering the period of the Roman domination of Egypt (30 BC–AD 300), shows a certain degree of repetition in that three out of five essays deal with the topic of the Egyptian cults of Serapis and Isis, albeit from slightly different points of view and focus. The first sets the scene by discussing the increasing presence of Egyptian culture in Italy, particularly from the 3rd century BC, a topic further examined in the second essay which discusses the waxing and waning fortunes of Egyptian cults under a succession of different Roman emperors, while the birth and successive diffusion of the cult of these gods is treated in the fourth essay.

The various essays are of a high standard, although they are mostly descriptive rather than analytical, providing an overview of the topic rather than an in-depth study, as is to be expected in a publication that is addressed to the wider readership. The focus is on the material culture displayed in the exhibition, which most of the authors use as evidence to corroborate and/or illustrate their points. A photographic catalogue of these objects is appended at the end of the section in which they were discussed, and is itself complemented by a series of short essays in which the objects and their function are explained and contextualised along with a list of references to academic literature. The main essays include additional illustrations of material culture that, though not part of the exhibition itself, corroborate and exemplify the argument made by the various authors.

One of the strongest points of this catalogue is the inclusion of so many colour photographs of artefacts relating to the topic of cultural interconnections, while the accompanying essays, including the entries accompanying the catalogue, clearly explain their significance in understanding how ancient populations interacted among themselves and the degree of such interactions. A good example is the entry by Alexandra Villing (cat. 62-65), which discusses imports of Greek pottery with bespoke decoration, found mostly in Egyptian sanctuaries. Of particular interest is the Apries amphora (cat. 65), so called because of the band of cartouches naming the Pharaoh, a decoration which had religious resonances in both cultures and thus provides a good example of the cross-cultural mediation created by the ancient artisans. Another interesting example is provided by the Demotic Magical Papyrus of London and Leiden (cat. 150) discussed in a short essay by Jacco Dieleman. The scribe who composed it appears to have used both Egyptian and Greek magical texts, in some cases even translating from Greek into Egyptian, and thus shows the level of multiculturalism and bilingualism that society had reached in Roman Egypt.

Less clear is one of the examples discussed in the first essay in Part I in which it is stated that the appearance of writing around this time "cannot be seen as a purely indigenous Cretan development," since it is likely that the concept of writing itself and some of the generic shapes of the Cretan Hieroglyphic and the Linear A script were adopted from the Near East. West Anatolia is the likely place, "where there is strong evidence for the contemporary use of the so-called Luwian Hieroglyphic" (p. 10). Here unfortunately the reader is left wondering why the development of writing on Crete cannot have taken place independently of other areas' influence and what type of evidence exists to suggest this. Slightly misleading is also the suggestion that "the presence of silver cups with Minoan stylistic traits in the treasure found at Tôd in Upper Egypt (…) may indicate the use of Aegean tableware in an Egyptian cult context" (p. 10) (cat. 12-16) based on the discovery of two Minoanizing miniature rhyta (used in cult activities on Minoan Crete) in an outdoor cult setting at Tell el-Dab‛a. However, the latter was not a typical Egyptian settlement and the engagement with Minoan cultural practices attested at this site may result from the presence of people from different cultural backgrounds living there.1

The essay by Versluys (Part IV) on the subject of Aegyptiaca Romana, and, in particular, its meaning and the scholarly debate surrounding it, gives a good example of current debates in academia. The author begins by stressing the need for a precise definition of the terms of the discussion, sadly lacking in the current debate, as shown by the discussion about Egyptian and Egyptianising material culture, which is likely to be a scholarly obsession not shared by the ancient audience. Rather, he argues, the focus needs to be shifted from the meaning of an object to the function it served in its ancient setting. To do so Versluys poses two fundamental questions. Firstly, whether this apparent "Egyptianness" alone would have determined how the object functioned in a Roman context; and, secondly, what the Roman understanding of this "Egyptianness" actually involved. Using a bronze foot table from Pompeii decorated with a recumbent sphinx (Fig. 83) as example, Versluys cogently argues that the interpretation of this object as evidence for domestic religion linked to the Isiac cults is without foundation. Rather, such decoration is entirely in keeping with a long-standing tradition of adorning furniture with this type of creatures, and which may have its roots in the Greek adoption of a Near Eastern tradition. Another, even stronger, link may be represented by the presence of a sphinx motif on Augustus' seal and thus a common element of Augustan images. Yet another possibility is that the use of an Egyptian style was meant to reproduce an ancient statue imitating the antiquities belonging to the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean elite that were avidly sought by the Romans. Thus, as the author points out, one should focus not on the object's meaning as we perceive it from our own cultural standpoint, but rather on the conceptual links that may have been "triggered" in the ancient audience when seeing such an object.

A similar sentiment is expressed by Caitlín E. Barret in the catalogue entry discussing Nilotic scenes in Roman art (cat. 152- 153) interpreted by past scholarship as evidence for Isiac cult practice. More recent academic work stresses the need for a nuanced approach to the interpretation of such scenery, since these may have conveyed different messages in different contexts. Thus the author suggests one should consider the interaction of this imagery with diverse contexts and viewers, rather than as having a single meaning. Such admonitory remarks, quite unusual in a publication aimed at the wider readership, are very important reminders of the need for caution when interpreting ancient material culture, not least because of the risk of seeing the evidence through our own culture's eye.

The breadth of the exhibition―spanning a period of nearly 2500 years with some 200 artefacts from museums worldwide―sets this ambitious project apart from similar exhibitions about the ancient world. The lavishly illustrated colour catalogue to which more than 50 scholars have contributed informative essays and which is accompanied by an extensive bibliography makes this an excellent introduction to the theme of intercultural contacts and their extent during this time period.

Table of Contents

Timothy Potts, Forward
The Bronze Age 2000–1100 BC
Jorrit M. Kelder, Sara E. Cole, and Eric H. Cline, Memphis, Minos, and Mycenae: Bronze Age Contact between Egypt and the Aegean
Manfred Bietak and Constance von Rüden, Contact Points: Avaris and Pi-Ramesse
Jorrit M. Kelder and Eric H. Cline, In the Midst of the "Great Green": Egypto-Aegean Trade and Exchange
Eric H. Cline, The Sea Peoples

The Greeks Return to Egypt 700–332 BC
Alexandra Villing, The Greeks in Egypt: Renewed Contact in the Iron Age
Henry P. Colburn, Contact Points: Memphis, Naukratis, and the Greek East

Ptolemaic Egypt 332–30 BC
Alan B. Lloyd, The Coming of Alexander and Egypt under Ptolemaic Rule
Thomas Landvatter, Contact Points: Alexandria, a Hellenistic Capital in Egypt
Stefano Caneva, King and Pharaoh: Religious Encounters and the Ruler Cult in Ptolemaic Egypt
Robert Steven Bianchi, "Portrait" Sculpture in Ptolemaic Egypt
Luigi Prada, Multiculturalism in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt: Language Contact through the Evidence of Papyri and Inscriptions

The Roman Empire 30 BC–AD 300
Rolf Michael Schneider, Before the Empire: Egypt and Rome
John Pollini, Contact Points: The Image and Reception of Egypt and Its Gods in Rome
Christina Riggs, Art and Identity in Roman Egypt
Laurent Bricault, Traveling Gods: The Cults of Isis in the Roman Empire
Miguel John Versluys, Egypt and/in/as Rome


1.   Caitlín E. Barrett, The Perceived Value of Minoan and Minoanizing Pottery in Egypt. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 22.2 (2009) 211–234.

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