‘When the Greeks Ruled Egypt’ Highlights the Diversity of Cultures in Ptolemaic Egypt
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
OCTOBER 6, 2014
For the three centuries from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra, Greeks ruled Egypt not so much as foreign conquerors but as the next dynasty in the long line of pharaohs. It was not out of character for Alexander himself to assume the power and status of a pharaoh, not to mention the promised fringe benefit of a grand afterlife and kinship to the Egyptian gods.
Though these classical Greeks knew a thing or two about grandeur, they were bedazzled by the pyramids at Giza, temples up the Nile, and varied cultures speaking different languages and living side by side. Instead of imposing Greek culture, the new rulers oversaw an early and generally successful experiment in multiculturalism. Their new city Alexandria grew to be the cosmopolitan center of a hybrid culture.
The Greek strategy may have been common for ancient empires, scholars say, but not so in the age of nation-states, and especially not in today’s Middle East.
The Greek royal family in Egypt, the Ptolemies, embraced many local customs, among them marriages of brother and sister to keep political power in the family. In their reinterpretation of Egyptian divinities, they emphasized their link to the Egyptian triad of the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus. Osiris and Isis were brother and sister, and Horus their offspring. To Greeks, who frowned on incestuous unions, the Ptolemaic message was when in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do.
Their overriding policy was not to demand assimilation but to accept many ways of life. No official language was imposed for all purposes. Government affairs were often conducted in Greek, but also in Demotic, the local everyday language derived from the more formal hieroglyphs. Jewish and other immigrants often spoke and wrote Aramaic.
In clever manipulations of their images, the Ptolemaic kings were depicted in sculpture and on coins in the costume of pharaohs to promote themselves as direct descendants. Other images, in Hellenistic style and probably for Greeks there and abroad, represented the king as a successor to Alexander.
The diversity of cultures in Ptolemaic Egypt is the subject of an exhibition opening Wednesday at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, affiliated with New York University. Curators said the exhibition, “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra,” from 323 B. C. to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 B.C., “shines a light on the fluidity of the very idea of specific cultural identity.”
Time ran out on Ptolemaic rule when the rising Roman empire invaded. With no more lovers to ride to her rescue, no Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, Cleopatra committed suicide.
The show includes some 150 portraits, religious and funerary objects, coins, writings on papyrus and other materials on loan from several major collections. Its original version was organized by the Art Institute of Chicago; the New York show, curated by Roberta Casagrande-Kim, a postdoctoral associate at the N.Y.U. institute, also has artifacts from the Brooklyn Museum and Columbia University.
In the exhibition catalog, Jennifer Y. Chi, the institute’s chief curator, wrote that the artifacts on display reflected “the complexity and sophistication of Ptolemaic Egypt, an era in Egyptian history where innovations brought about by Hellenized rulers were effectively fused with age-old Pharaonic traditions.”
On view in the main gallery is an impressive collection of idealized stone images of Greeks in the mold of an Apollo. These were probably no more realistic than other images of Ptolemies in pharaoh dress. Who said political spin doctors were a modern contrivance?
A group of coins showing Ptolemaic kings and queens includes a splendid gold piece. On one side is a double portrait of Ptolemy I and his wife, Berenice I; on the other is the double portrait of their successors, their son Ptolemy II and his wife and sister, Arsinoe II.
Roger S. Bagnall, a historian and a papyrologist who is director of the N.Y.U. institute, felt right at home in the second gallery, with its displays of papyrus writing in Greek, Demotic and Aramaic scripts. Bending over a glass case, he exclaimed, “Look at that 2,500-year-old ink, fresh as if it was applied today.” The ink, applied by tiny brushes and in some cases a stylus, was made from water and lampblack, he added, “but we don’t really know what ‘lampblack’ means in this case.”
Writing on papyrus was common throughout the Mediterranean region. But it is identified mainly with Egypt, whose dry climate preserved many caches for archaeologists to collect.
One papyrus document, dark with age, was a marriage contract from the archive of Ananiah and his wife, Tamel. Others included property deeds and letters that illuminated the social and cultural dynamics of the Jewish garrison at fortifications on Elephantine Island on the upper Nile, where Aramaic was spoken. Another set of documents and letters were written in Greek by an Egyptian named Zenon, a manager of a prosperous estate who seemingly never threw away a piece of papyrus. “Zenon was a born archivist,” Dr. Bagnall said, admiringly.
Afterward, he reflected on imperial behavior then and now, a certain wistfulness in his voice. “Up until the 19th century, imperial states were more likely to tolerate diversity among conquered populations,” he said. Of course, he acknowledged that the Persians, Greeks, Romans, English, Spanish and Ottoman empires were out for themselves, and could be harsh.
“But I very much feel that the cosmopolitan Hellenistic culture was comfortable with diversity in its surroundings,” he said with a sigh. “That’s a world we’ve lost.”
“When the Greeks Ruled Egypt” will be on view Oct. 8 through Jan. 4, 2015, at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th Street, New York; isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions.