Egyptian Art

Original essay: The Egyptian Theatre of Memory - Interactions between Egyptian, Ptolemaic and Roman Art: The Dakhla Oasis, Alexandria, Dendera (2008)

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The Egyptian Theatre of Memory - Interactions between Egyptian, Ptolemaic and

Roman Art: The Dakhla Oasis, Alexandria, Dendera -


Literature on the subject of 'foreign influences' has been widely published, and one of the broad fields of research where ‘influences’ are a main topic, relates to the period following Alexander the Great's expansion in the Nile Valley, when Egyptian, Greek, then Roman cultures interact. It is often difficult to draw a clear line between Egyptian art preserving itself in a Hellenised environment, Egyptian art in the process of changing, assimilating new values, Egyptian art offering its values to foreign subjects, Classical art influenced by the Egyptian art. As far as Greek or Roman 'influences' are concerned, often words like 'interaction', 'hybrid' prove to be more relevant than 'influence'. One of the ‘hot’ topics that come into focus ( the ongoing debates keep casting light on the subject, and yet, we believe that they are still a bit far from drawing solid conclusions) is concerned with the 'portrait', whether with regard to Ptolemaic royal sculpture or to the mummy portraits, the so-called Fayoum portraits.

We shall discuss something different here: the decoration of the late temples. We shall use in our argument images of reliefs and mural painting from the private houses at Amheida in the Dakhla Oasis, the catacombs at Kom el-Shuqafa in Alexandria, the Tigrane Tomb in Alexandria, the Stagni Painted Tomb in Alexandria, the Tomb of Petosiris at Qaret el-Muzawaqqa in the Dakhla Oasis, the temple of Hathor at Dendera and the temple of Deir el-Haggar in the Dakhleh Oasis. and we shall consider various debates in connection to them. We believe that as far as these particular examples are concerned, past and present debates are neither inconclusive nor futile, on the contrary, the meaningful interrogatives offered by former extensive research and publications prepared a fruitful ground for some most convincing interpretations and conclusions published in recent years.

Houses in Amheida, the Dakhleh Oasis

Roger Bagnall’s PhD student A.L.Boozer examines the connection between memory, identity, ancestors, heritage and empire in Roman Egypt and engages in a study of domestic spaces in Amheida, a Roman Period city in the Dakhleh Oasis (1st c. AD- 4th c. AD) . What is most interesting about her approach is the fact that it puts forward some simple, basic questions : How did inhabitants of various ethnicities build their own identities in a Roman period Egyptian city ? With what ancestors did each of them identify? If the discoveries made by archaeologists are not only historical remains, but also traces of memory, whose memory is preserved? The memory of the conqueror or the memory of the conquered? All these are fair questions, especially in a Graeco-Roman context of Egypt, where even ‘Graeco-Roman’ becomes a difficult concept to follow. (Ashton, 2005, pp 49-50 is against the usage of ‘Graeco-Roman’, especially in the context of generalising the culture of later Egypt) What is Greek and what is Roman in an Egyptian context ? We tend to believe that published material where these terms appear without being defined can be more or less confusing. We shall use though the term ‘Graeco-Roman’ occasionally for ‘Classical’, since most of the iconography studied, although created in Roman Egypt, is definitely not of non-Greek inspiration. We shall begin with two of the findings of the Dakhleh Oasis Project.
   The first house studied belonged to a city councilor, Serenos and it emphasises a Greek and Roman heritage. The wall paintings show Perseus holding the head of Medusa, while he rescues Andromeda. The next painting reveals Eurycleia washing Odysseus’s feet and possibly Penelope, looking off into the distance. (Boozer, p.15). The author does not discuss the theme choices. On the eastern wall, Polis, a woman pointing towards the temple, is identified with Amheida itself (plate 1).

Plate 1, Polis and the gods wall painting © A.L.Boozer, p.15

Also Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaistos are to be seen on her left in the well-known adultery episode. These images seem to prove, in Boozer’s opinion, that Serenos’s house (and here it is empasised that not everyone had access to view the paintings, that this might have been rather a privilege, therefore our interpretations are not necessarily applicable to all family members) considered Amheida as a ‘polis’, a city of classical descendent. So what we have here is a Roman-period house of a city councilor of unknown ethnic origin where the Graeco-Roman heritage is commemorated through Greek mythology. Boozer notes that « The reference to a Greek mythological past was neither exclusively Greek nor Roman, but fully a part of the identities of both cultures. » (Boozer, p. 14) Another wall painting shows the/a family at dinner in Roman clothes (plate 2).

 Plate 2, Family at Dinner wall painting © A.L.Boozer, p.16

In the second house studied by Boozer, smaller in size and probably in importance as well, not a trace of Graeco-Roman heritage, only some Egyptian language texts and a piece of a ‘djed pillar’ (‘stability’) amulet were found. Material memory, through the presence of the amulet, as a protective object associated with « Osiris, resurrection, and the stability of the ancient Egyptian monarchy »(Boozer, p.21), reveals here a completely different attitude towards one’s origins. Boozer thinks that the choices they made might be connected to their ethnic heritages, economic and social status.

Funerary Imagery in Roman Egypt

Alexandria is beyond doubt an exceptional place within Egypt. With its polyglot culture, and a multi-ethnic society (Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Persians, Indians, Phoenicians, Nabateans, Gauls) it was a major centre of Hellenistic culture and the seat of government from the 4th c. BC until 640 AD. When Alexander decided to found the new capital here in BC 391, the Egyptians called it a Ra-qed, a ‘building site’. This would suggest, in J.Y. Empereur’s opinion, that « when he arrived here the only inhabitants of the area must have been a few fishermen and perhaps also a garrison stationed there to guard the approaches to the Delta. »(Emperor, p.37).

Therefore, this place was not extraordinary just because it turned into a megalopolis, but also because it had no previous dynastic heritage, which makes our analysis of ‘influences’ rather particular. We cannot argue that Egyptian art in old Alexandria has been influenced by the Greeks, we have to start with the Greeks and the cultural and artistic choices they had made. In other words, Hellenic Alexandria needed and made use of Egyptian values. The synthesis was not just a natural result. We believe that the following examples will prove that the meanings were not lost. The symbols are in disguise, and even if it takes longer for an expert used to either the Egyptian or the Classical iconography to find the logic behind this apparently random rendering of images, eventually they fit the pieces together in a coherent programme.

The Tigrane Tomb (Alexandria, 1st -2nd c. AD ?)
The tomb itself is in the earlier Alexandrian Hellenistic tradition (Venit 1997, p 703). M.S. Venit compares the painted decoration with the sculpted decoration of the Main tomb at Kom el-Shukafa and acknowledges the superiority of the former for its narrative complexity. Adriani stated that the narrative program showed the « death, resurrection and apotheosis of Osiris » (Venit 1997, p. 722), whereas Venit suggests that the tomb was built for members of an Isiac dining club and the whole decorative programme serves the purpose of initiation into the mysteries of Isis (Venit 1997, pp 727, 729).
She identifies different Classical elements : an ‘ agressively Roman’ mummy, a Roman headrest with a bird’s-head fulcrum (plate 3 )(Venit 711), a late-Greek or Roman couch, the Apis bull whose imagery is bound with Serapis and Isis. Isis is not represented in a typical Egyptian pose, especially the feet. The painting from the left niche shows a man clasping his hands in front of him (plate 4).

Compared to a statuette from Cyrene, this character is believed to suggest an initiation ceremony through his standing position and a connection to the priests and male initiates of Isis, who also had a shaven head. In the right niche we can see a man kneeling. Unlike the Egyptians, he is wearing stretched ‘leggings’ (plate 5).

Vanit does not agree completely with Castiglione’s view of funerary art in Roman Egypt, where a double style meant to denote the real and the spiritual, the men and the gods, is often to be seen, the deceased being depicted in the Classical style and the deities in an Egyptian style. Vanit believes this interpretation applies to the tomb of Petosiris but not in the Tigrane tomb, there all the figures are quasi-Egyptianised (Venit p 719). She believes the paintings are the work of a single artist (not more than two anyway). Moreover, she interprets the elliptical objects in the paintings not as tympana (Adriani) but as oversized eggs, Greek symbol of rebirth and feature of the same cult of Isis.

The Stagni Painted Tomb (Alexandria, Roman period)
In her article on the Stagni painted tomb, Venit explains that the real phenomenon that takes place in Alexandria consists in the interaction of different concepts creating a new visual repertoire. « The Stagni tomb provides a case study of the appropriation of Egyptian religious imagery to serve the interests of these inhabitants of Roman-ruled Alexandria and at the same time, it demonstrates the endurance and preservation of Greek modes of visual communication. Most strikingly, however, the Stagni tomb demonstrates how Egyptian and Greek (and Roman) style, content, and belief can intermingle to produce something that is wholly identifiable with the culture of neither one nor the other ethnic group, and how these elements can interact to create an entirely new visual semantic system. » She analyses the decoration and by identifying the main figure as Isis-Aphrodite, she suggests that the tomb was meant to be a unique resting place for an Alexandrian woman.
Here too, Egyptian, Ptolemaic and Roman elements are seen. It is interesting to note that Venit insists on the continuation of Hellenic concepts and the adaptation of Egyptian elements in Egypt under Roman rule. Apart from the representation of Eros, Anubis as a Roman centurion, the female figure in the Aedicula (plate 6) standing frontally with her head turned to her right and identified with Isis-Aphrodite is wearing a Greek garment. A Medusa head is to be seen in the geometric decoration as well (plate 7).

The Main Tomb and the Nebengrab (The Hall of Caracalla) at Kom el-Shuqafa (Alexandria, late 1st c AD)
The sculpted decorations in the Main Tomb (plate 8) reveal a variety of Greek, Roman and Egyptian elements interwoven. Yet, to the best of our knowledge, there are no conclusions regarding the link between all representations that might tell us for whom was the tomb made. The complex itself comprises several hundred loculi and a large banquet hall for the funeral meal and it is known that this sort of tombs were managed by burial societies, such as the ‘Couch of Serapis’.

The Greek elements are : the Agathodaimon, the snake-shaped good genius and the head of the only mortal gorgon, Medusa(plate 9) . The semicircular conch above the pediment is Graeco-Roman (plate 10). Two jackal-headed Anubis are dressed as Roman centurions (plate 11, 12).

Plate 11, Anubis as Roman centurion, Kom el-Shuqafa

Plate 12, Anubis as Roman centurion, Kom el-Shuqafa

 The facade of a sarcofagus shows the heads of Medusa and a satyr, hanging from the garland with a small representation of a female nude (perhaps the deceased) in a Classical pose (plate 13).

In the mummification episode (plate 14, 15), most elements are Egyptian : Anubis, Thoth, Horus, the lion, the feather of truth under his paw, the canopic jars. The mummy is wearing a cartonnage mask typical of Late Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Another sarcophagus shows an ox skull and the Medusa head in a decoration with grapes (plate 16).

 In the following image, the priest facing a woman, is wearing two feathers (plate 17) and is identified with a sacred scribe in the cult of Isis (Empereur). The next image (plate 18) shows the Apis bull with the solar disk, Isis Ma’at with the feather of truth, the Roman emperor with the double-crown holding perhaps in his hands a collar.

The decorated fabric of a woman and the falcon- headed son of Horus (plate 19) is visible, as are the amulets on the cloth of mummified Osiris (plate 20) receiving the feather of truth from the Roman emperor. Last is the image of an emperor offering a pectoral to an Apis Bull. The winged deity is Isis (plate 21). We notice a rather strong connection with Isis, perhaps the tomb itself was related to an Isiac cult.
The Hall of Caracalla contains a rare wall painting representing Hades abducting Persephone and taking her to the underworld. The myth of the goddess spending six months per year with Hades and returning to the world of the living in spring is seen as a myth of rebirth. In the upper register, there is a depiction of the mummification of Osiris resembling the same episode in bas-relief from the Main Tomb, this time with Isis Ma’at and her sister Nephthys replacing Toth and Horus. Empereur believes that the upper and the lower register bring the same message of perpetual ressurection in two different artistic languages : the Egyptian and the Greek one (Empereur pp 170-173) and that the two systems of belief finally find themselves beyond syncretism, harmoniously represented.

The Tomb of Petosiris at Qaret el-Muzawaqqa (Dakhla Oasis, 1st-2nd  c. AD ?) 

Petosiris is believed to have been a priest, and legendary, a great astrologer. The wall painting in his tomb (plate 22) is rather rare, if not unique and it shows him twice as big as the other two characters presenting funerary offerings to him. He is dressed in a pallium, tunic and sandals, typically Hellenistic, whereas the Nile god is wearing typical Egyptian cloth. The postures also are revealing the two different approaches : only the Nile god has his head and legs seen in profile, Petosiris and the other character, possibly a foreigner, are seen frontally.

Astronomical Ceilings in Temples : Dendera, Philae and Deir el-Haggar

At the 1994 'The Temple in Ancient Egypt' colloquium held at the British Museum, Dieter Kurth talked about the 'present state of research into Graeco-Roman temples'. He emphasised the following aspect: inscriptions are given priority in this specialised field of egyptology. If we were to consider Sylvie Cauville's comprehensive work on the Dendera inscriptions as one of the most relevant examples, we would probably agree. Kurth writes, "the architecture of these temples has been neglected...research into architecture should be increased and combined with research into reliefs and texts."(in Quirke, pp 152, 157)
Let's start then with the reliefs from Dendera, temple of Hathor, first century AD. The most known astronomical image is the Zodiac of Osiris (50 BC) (plate 23) that is to be found at the Louvre museum.

Plate 23, Zodiac of Osiris, Dendera

Here, the Greek zodiacal signs are to be seen among the Egyptian constellations. In her book 'Le Zodiaque d'Osiris', Cauville offeres a detailed description of the elements and their astronomical significations. In spite of the presence of the zodiacal signs, are we really allowed to assume a Greek influence upon the Egyptian imagery ? That of course is  also a matter of debate. (See Chatley and Eisler, 1941, discussing the more important influence of the Babylonian imagery). Again at Dendera, a very interesting image appears on the ceiling of the western chapel (plate 25): the image of the goddess of heaven Nut, three times represented. The obvious question is: Why three?

Plate 25, Nut, Dendera, Western Chapel

When we tried to compare it with other Nut-images, such as the image in the same Temple of Hathor at Dendera, this time on the ceiling of the New Year Chapel (plate 26), or Nut of the Greenfield Papyrus at the British Museum (plate 27), we found nothing uncommon, except for the representation of the arms, which, in the ‘temple arrangement’ of the body parts, often leave the impression they are coming out of the goddess’s head. But then we have discovered many peculiar details. For example, on the ceiling of the pillared hall of Ptolemy VIII in the Temple of Isis at Philae (plate 24), we notice three bodies in a similar position. Nevertheless, if we were to affirm with certainty that at Dendera it is Nut the one represented three times, at Philae only two characters resemble. The one curled-up on the ground actually resembles Osiris that we see at Dendara, on the ceiling in the western chapel N.2 (see Cauville p. 48). The position of the legs is different, yet, the position of the arms seems identical (one arm stretched forward, the other stretched back). They both seem to have a beard, and the features (certainly female breasts, possibly the face too) show a characteristic of an androgynous nature, which it is said to be typical of Graeco-Roman art.

Plate 26, Nut, New Year Chapel ceiling, Dendera
Image © Antonios Goyios

Plate 27, Nut, Greenfield Papyrus
Image © The Trustees of The British Museum
Department Ancient Egypt & Sudan

The astronomical ceiling from the sanctuary at Deir el-Haggar (plate 28) could not be fully restored, yet, two bending figures are filling much of the relief. We can notice in this sketch feet in the left upper corner, fragments of arms on the right side, and the pattern of Nut's body can be easily recognised. According to Kaper, the figure bending  on the opposite side, must be Geb, god of the earth. In spite of common elements with the image of Osiris depicted above (Dendara, Philae), acrobatic posture, arms stretched in different directions, female breasts, this figure with female hairstyle has also visible parts that denote the god's fertility. The depiction of Geb in a scene from the Book of the dead papyrus of Tameniu beneath Nut (Third Intermediate Period, c. 950 BC,Thebes) is an even more suggestive representation. Whether the androgyne representation has anything to do in this case with the influence of Greek art, is open to debate. We would think not.

Again, to the best of our knowledge, no pertinent explanation has been found for the triple-Nut mentioned above. It would be intersting though, to compare this representation to Anaximander’s (610 BC - 546 BC) view on the heavenly bodies (Kahn :1960, Naddaf : 1998). His cosmological model (plate 29) shows the earth in the centre of an infinite space, with the starts, moon and the sun revolving around it on circular trajectories. This cosmological concept and the depiction of the goddess of heaven, Nut, at Dendera might be connected, therefore we believe that a deeper research on  Anaximander’s writings and their possible presence in the Ptolemaic period could be well productive.
Moreover, images of concentric doorways and Windows of Appearances in Egyptian representation should also be properly investigated. One example of three concentric doorways is to be found in the Ghirghis Tomb (plate 30)(Adriani, Repertorio d’Arte dell’Egitto Greco-Roman, 1966, pl. 85, fig 283) Only after engaging in further analyses will egyptologists be able to conclude whether the concentric image of Nut is, or is not of Greek influence.

              This short journey mainly into Roman Egypt and its art, has provided us with several examples where the Hellenistic tradition is preserved in a Roman context. The iconographical programmes have been identified in most cases by experts in the field. The state of conservation of the mural paintings for example makes it rather difficult to affirm one’s interpretations with absolute certainty, therefore controversies are likely to continue. The examples of the astronomical ceilings in temples might be more subtle proof of the Greek influence on Egyptian thought. If it is true that Anaximander’s work was in the library of Alexandria, the subject should be given its importance in egyptological research, if there are any documents related to it. It would be interesting to find out who was the one consulting Anaximander’s works and how did the programme get from Alexandria (if true) as far as Dendera and Philae.

              One might argue that most of the examples used in this essay are not really concerned with the ‘foreign influences’ on Egyptian art and architecture. That on the contrary, Graeco-Roman art in an Egyptian context means that the Classical style has spread in a space no longer belonging to the Egyptians, assimilating Egyptian artistic values, and what seems to be a hybrid of both Classical and Egyptian art can no longer be qualified as Egyptian art.

              We would argue that this is also a matter of how we view identities, how we draw boundaries between styles, between countries. I remember reading about an Egyptian woman who was complaining she does not know anymore which are her origins as a contemporary Egyptian: Mediterranean or purely Egyptian (and/or) Islamic. The moment we start dividing art between states, we just turn political, or at least, highly Eurocentric. In this way, we tend to give continuity only to our European culture, and reject other civilisations’ right to this sort of permanence. We say, ‘The fall of…civilisation’, but we should know that intransitive verbs are not appropriate in this context. Quoting my Egyptology friend Jan, « Did it fall or was it pushed ? »

              We believe that our examples, analysed in detail by experts, can be a proof of real ‘interaction’ between cultures. We think that attitude and openness are needed for the study of Roman Egypt. In this way, we would no longer divide it in what is Egyptian and what is foreign, but we would try to understand what is Egyptian in the Classical examples, what is Classic in the Egyptian representations, what is the result of a combined programme, and more, how did religion and thought intermingle in the background of their artistic results.


D. Arnold, Temples of the Last Pharaohs, OUP, 1999, pp 260-263

Sally-Ann Ashton, Roman Egyptomania, Golden House Publications, London, 2005

Sally-Ann Ashton, Ptolemaic Royal Sculpture from Egypt, The interaction between Greek and Egyptian traditions, British Archaeological Reports Series 923, 2001

Jan Assmann & John Czaplicka, Collective Memory and Cultural Identity, New German Critique, No 65, Cultural History/Cultural Studies, Spring-Summer 1995, pp 125-133

Roger S. Bagnall, Egypt in Late Antiquity, Princeton 1993

Nathalie Baum, Le Temple d'Edfou, A la decouverte du Grand Siege de re-Harakhty, ed. du Rocher, 2007

Anna Lucille Boozer, In Search of Lost Memories- Domestic Spheres and Identities in Roman Amheida, Egypt-, Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy- Working Paper, Department of Anthropology, Columbia University, November 2005

S. Cauville, Le Zodiaque d'Osiris, Peeters, Leuven, 1997

Herbert Chatley, Egyptian Astronomy, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 26, Feb. 1941, pp 120-126 (and reply: Egyptian Astronomy-Letters from Dr. Eisler and Dr. Chatley, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol 27, 1941, pp 149-152

Jean-Yves Empereur, Alexandria Rediscovered, The British Museum Press, London, 1998

Florence D. Friedman, Beyond the Pharaohs, Egypt and the Copts in the 2nd to 7th centuries A.D., Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, 1989

Charles H. Kahn, Anaximander and the origins of Greek cosmology, Columbia University Press, 1960

Olaf E. Kaper, The Astronomical Ceiling of Deir el-Haggar in the Dakhleh Oasis , The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology , 1995

Karl Lehmann, The Dome of Heaven, The Art Bulletin, 1945

Judith S. McKenzie, Sheila Gibson and A. T. Reyes, The Reconstructing the Serapeum in Alexandria from the Archaeological Evidence, Journal of Roman Studies,  2004

Gerard Naddaf, On the Origin of Anaximander's Cosmological Model, Juurnal of the History of ideas, 1998

Stephen Quirke, The Temple in Ancient Egypt, New Discoveries and Recent Research, The British Museum Press, 1997

Christina Riggs, Facing the Dead: Recent Research on the Funerary Art of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol 106, No1, Jan 2002, pp 85-101

Regine Schulz&Matthias Seidel, Egypt, The World of the Pharaohs, Cologne 1998, pp 296-311, 313-315, 445-449

Marjorie Susan Venit, The Stagni Painted Tomb: Cultural Interchange and Gender Differentiation in Roman Alexandria, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol 103, No 4, Oct 1999, pp 641-669

Marjorie Susan Venit, The Tomb from Tigrane Pasha Street and the Iconography of Death in Roman Alexandria, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol 101, No 4, Oct 1997, pp 701-729

Nut images at
Kom el-Shuqafa images from   and

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