A new exhibition reveals just how immersed Jews were in Egyptian life after the pharaohs, writes Francine Wolfisz

Ivory pyxis box depicting Daniel with arms raised in prayer flanked by two lions, Egypt 5th century. Picture credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

Ivory pyxis box depicting Daniel with arms raised in prayer flanked by two lions, Egypt 5th century. Picture credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

An ancient Tanach, beautifully adorned with red and gold gilt, lies next to the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest surviving Christian Bible, and a copy of the Qur’an dating to the 8th century. Across the corridor, a film shows the transformation of Egypt’s landscape from ancient synagogues and temples into churches and, later, mosques. Meanwhile, a glass display shows magical amulets featuring Roman, Jewish, Christian – even Pagan – Gods, no doubt to ensure the owner was covered by every possible form of divine protection.

Welcome to Egypt in the years following the demise of the pharaohs, when the three major faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam lived side-by-side, at times in peace but also violence.

First Gaster Bible

First Gaster Bible

The focus of a new exhibition unveiled last week by the British Museum, Egypt: Faith After The Pharaohs, explores the relationships between these monotheistic communities over 1,200 years, from the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 30BC until the rule of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty came to an end in 1171AD.

The exhibition boasts 200 objects on display, some of which are loans from the British Library and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – and which provide a fascinating insight into the cosmopolitan society of Egypt, particularly that of the small, but significant Jewish community.

From amulets and statues to decorative boxes and ancient papyrus letters, historians have been able to piece together Jewish life in Egypt, thanks to the dry climate that has preserved a wealth of such artefacts. Some even challenge previous notions about the community’s past.

Curator Elisabeth O’Connell explains: “We are told by historians of the time that the community was decimated by the Jewish revolts of the first and second centuries. But only because of Egypt’s arid climate do we now have plenty of evidence that Jewish people were renting houses, getting married, just conducting the business of everyday life. It’s simply our lack of evidence elsewhere that requires the assumption there were no Jews in Egypt – in fact, the opposite is true.”

Commemoration of suppression of the Jewish Revolt under Trajan

Commemoration of suppression of the Jewish Revolt under Trajan

Among the artefacts on display is a letter dating from 291AD, which reveals how a synagogue community came together and purchased the freedom of a 40-year-old Jewish slave named Paramone and her children, for the princely sum of 14 talents of silver. “Without this letter, Paramone and her story would be lost to history,” remarks O’Connell.

“There’s no reason we should know anything about this woman. It shows us there’s a very cohesive community, even in the years not long after the diaspora revolt in Egypt.”

As we make our way through the exhibition, more fascinating evidence emerges of the Jewish community’s impact on Egypt. A stela (upright stone slab) confirms with a Greek inscription that a synagogue will be protected by Ptolemy VIII and later, with the addition of Latin, by Cleopatra and her son, Caesarion. 

Maimonides autograph draft of Mishneh torah, papyrus, AD 1170-1180, Egypt, Old Cairo, Ben Ezra Synagogue © Reproduced by the kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Maimonides autograph draft of Mishneh torah, papyrus, AD 1170-1180, Egypt, Old Cairo, Ben Ezra Synagogue © Reproduced by the kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Another letter reveals how two females, described as Christian monks, rented their home to a Jew, a tantalising artefact that O’Connell says “raises questions about the relationship between Christians and Jews, but also the status of women in religion”.

Elsewhere, a papyrus scroll records how, in the face of rising violence against the community in Alexandria, Emperor Claudius reconfirmed the status of the Jews and ordered Alexandrians not to interfere with Jewish worship and customs.

Of the more unusual exhibits, an extract from the Theban Magical Library (200-225AD), which includes spells for telling the future, curing fever and causing madness or passion, invokes the names of deities from Greek, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian – and Jewish – traditions.

But perhaps the standout artefacts are seen right at the end of the exhibition, which is dedicated to the astonishing survival of some 200,000 texts from the genizah (sacred storeroom) at Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.

Brought to England by Solomon Schechter in 1896, the material dates from 870AD to as late as 1880 and were kept in the storeroom for ritual disposal, although for some unknown reason, the documents were never destroyed.

Among these is a handwritten, draft page from the Mishnah, written by Maimonides himself. “The texts should have been ritually disposed of, but they weren’t – the moment never came,” explains O’Connell.

“As a result, we now have access to the archive of Maimonides, including the pages he discarded. It has been just the most astonishing find.”

• Egypt: Faith After The Pharaohs runs until 7 February at British Museum, Great Russell Street, London. Details: 020 7323 8181 or www.britishmuseum.org