Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Book Review: Philae and the End of Ancient Egyptian Religio

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Reviewed by Robert B. Gozzoli)

J. H. F. Dijkstra, Philae and the End of Ancient Egyptian Religion: A Regional Study of Religious Transformation (298-642 CE). Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta, 173. Leuven: Peeters, 2008.

The book under analysis here is the revised PhD dissertation of the author, originally submitted in 2005 at the University of Groningen, under the title of Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity (p. x).1 For readers such as myself, an Egyptologist by formation with a small background in Coptic studies, this book is certainly a welcome contribution for it is a comprehensive analysis of the religious and social developments at Philae and in the First Cataract zone. The chronological boundaries are defined by the withdrawal of Egypt's southern border to Elephantine in 298 AD by Diocletian and the Arab conquest of Egypt. Within this scope, various sources are analysed and comprehensively studied in order to give a picture of how ancient Egyptian religion and the ''new'' religion merged in daily life. The book is set up by these initial questions: "What happened to the cults at Philae in the Late Antiquity? And what was the role played by Christianity on the island? Was Philae an exceptional case?" (p. 14).

For Philae, one of the few established dates for the fate of ancient Egyptian religion is 537 CE, as Justinian ordered the closure of the temples. Dijkstra offers two relevant texts. The first is the petition written by Diodorus in Antinoopolis on behalf of the councilors of Omboi against a man nicknamed as the 'Eater of Raw Meat' (ὠμοφάγος), the so called Blemmyan incident (circa 567 CE). The accused man is blamed for neglecting the taught Christian doctrine and renewing pagan sanctuaries of Philae with the help of the Blemmyes.2 The second text is Procopius' Persian Wars, which states that the temple of Isis was finally closed in 535-537 CE (pp. 11-14), following Emperor Justinian's order. Dijkstra's sees the two documents not necessarily contradicting each other, for Procopius is describing imperial policies while the petition reflects a particular moment of local history. Dijkstra's main thesis is that the negative picture of a rising Christianity fighting against the old religion is fundamentally erroneous, as the ancient Egyptian cults were already dying by themselves, without external intervention.3

Setting his book on such terms, Dijkstra structures it in three parts: Part I is about the developments of Christianity in the First Cataract region during the fourth century CE; Part II is about the survival of the ancient Egyptian cults; and the final part is about Christianity in the region during the sixth century CE.

While the first and second chapters of Part I (pp. 45-119) deal with published historical sources such as the Appion petition and the Patermouthis archive, both of which provide a glimpse of the life of the Christian Community during the fifth century CE, the most interesting and fundamental part is the summary of archaeological fieldwork at Elephantine which makes the third chapter (pp. 85-118).

See the above page for the entire review.

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