The Center for Tebtunis Papyri logoEthnic Identity in Roman Tebtunis header

 

This is an archived exhibit of The Bancroft Library, University California, Berkeley.

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Religion: Temples, Synagogues and Churches

 

image of ancient templeReligion is frequently used as a criterion to help historians distinguish ethnic communities. Most people in antiquity tended to understand the gods of others with reference to their own. From this emphasis on similarities, regional gods, mythologies, iconography and ritual practices might merge, compound or intersect in a process known as "syncretism." In Egypt, Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus, already nearly indistinguishable, thus assimilated with Isis, who had previously absorbed aspects of her fellow Egyptian goddesses. Likewise, the cults of other minority populations might be absorbed. At Tebtunis, the Thracian rider god Heron took on characteristics of Egyptian Sobek and Horus and, at Arabôn kômê, the third-century BCE temple of Athena may have been dedicated to the Arab goddess Allat.

But religion might also serve to fortify ethnic identity. A temple of the Syrian goddess Astarte indicates that the ethnic origin of Syrôn kômê was remembered even in the late second century CE. Tebtunis papyri provide evidence for a Jewish synagogue in the second century BCE at the nome capital Arsinoe (P.Tebt. I 86).

Early Christian writers regularly employed ethnic labels to describe themselves vis-à-vis their contemporaries. Church fathers such as Origen (185-254 CE) and Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 CE) identified Christianity as a third genosor ethnos as against Greeks (Hellênes) and Jews; the New Testament term usually translated as "Gentile" is ethnos in Greek. Recent scholarship has argued that it was the very mutability of ethnic identity in antiquity that allowed Christians to construct the process or consequence of becoming Christian in ethnic terms.

The town of ancient Tebtunis continued to thrive into Late Antiquity and after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century CE. In the fourth or fifth century CE the town was renamed Theodosiopolis in honor of the Roman emperor Theodosius I or II; it became both the capital of the region and the seat of a bishop. Four identified churches and a famous scriptorium demonstrate a robust Christian community at the site until the tenth century when the town center seems to have shifted north.

 

Ivory game counter depicting temple facad Ivory game counter depicting temple facade with trees and inscribed in Greek alsos (sacred grove)
Roman period (1st century BCE - 1st century CE)

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Elisabeth R. O'Connell.
Inv. 6-20509

 

papyrus fragment Temples as enemy collaborators
164 BCE

In the third and second centuries BCE Egyptian rebels waged guerrilla warfare against the Ptolemies and occasionally gained control of various parts of Egypt. Evidence of these revolts is scarce given that winners usually write history: only references gleaned from a few surviving inscriptions and texts indicate violence between "Egyptian" and "Greek" opponents. However, recent research suggests that the conflicts had less to do with the ethnic affiliation of rival groups and more to do with the attempts of each side to control local resources and wield power. This Greek text records an attack on the temple of Ammon at Moeris. Although it may seem somewhat surprising that the Egyptian rebels would assault a temple, the event is less startling in light of the resources the Ptolemies poured into cults and their building programs; thus temples might have been perceived by the rebels as enemy collaborators.

P.Tebt. III 781

 

Wooden painted panel depicting an enthroned deity Wooden painted panel depicting an enthroned deity
1st or 2nd century CE?

Over the course of the twentieth century, excavators have discovered a number of painted cult images from Roman Tebtunis. The surviving joining panels displayed here depict an unidentified deity drawn in Hellenistic style.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-21386

 

 

 

Detail of wooden painted panel depicting an Egyptian priest and child-deity Detail of wooden painted panel depicting an Egyptian priest and child-deity(?) with Demotic inscriptions
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

Although the painted plaster on these joining wooden panels is only partially preserved, the remaining image conveys an interesting juxtaposition of styles. The large figure facing left is elegantly drawn in Egyptian style and the details of his appearance-dark-skin, shaved-head, white tunic, white fringed shawl and thonged sandal-signal that he should be identified as an Egyptian priest. He is accompanied, at right, by a small, frontal figure rendered with painterly brush-strokes in Hellenistic style. Wearing a wreath and carrying a palm branch in one hand and garland in the other, he resembles some late depictions of Harpocrates (see below); his distinctive, tufted hairstyle may be associated with sick children.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-21387

 

Iconography of Isis

Isis, the mother of Harpocrates ("Horus-the-child") and the preeminent universal goddess of the Graeco-Roman period, absorbed many of the characteristics of her fellow Egyptian goddesses, in particular the iconography of the divine nurse. Neith, the mother of the crocodile god Sobek, was described as "nurse of the crocodiles" and is frequently depicted holding a pair of the suckling reptiles; in a striding pose, she was a popular subject of votive offering at Tebtunis (5-173). The cobra goddess Renenutet was the nurse of the divine Egyptian king. In her manifestation as Thermouthis, she was combined with Isis; at Tebtunis a small shrine dedicated to her stood outside the temple of Soknebtunis. The mythology and iconography of Neith, Renenutet/Isis-Thermouthis and Isis come together rather strikingly in a limestone stela depicting Isis-Thermouthis with a serpentine body suckling Harpocrates-Sobek as a small crocodile (6-20299 below). When the inhabitants of Tebtunis became Christian, the classic imagery of Isis nursing Harpocrates lived on in the new religious idiom as theVirgo lactans.

 

Bronze Isis and Neith statuettes Bronze Isis and Neith statuettes
Ptolemaic period (3rd - 1st centuries BCE)

The original function of these Egyptian-style bronzes is uncertain, but they may have been placed in shrines or buried in or around temples as votive offerings to gods.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Elisabeth R. O'Connell.
Inv. 5-243 and 5-173

 

Painted plaster votive plaque of the goddess Isis Painted plaster votive plaque of the goddess Isis
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

This fragmentary plaque in Hellenistic style originally depicted Isis nursing her infant son, Harpocrates.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen
Inv. 6-20448

 

Limestone stela depicting Isis-Thermouthis Limestone stela depicting Isis-Thermouthis
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

This stela depicts Isis-Thermouthis suckling Harpocrates-Sobek as a baby crocodile.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6-20299

 

Limestone relief depicting the rider god, Heron Limestone relief depicting the rider god, Heron
10 February 89 or 5 BCE

Brought to Egypt by Ptolemaic troops from Thrace in the third century, the cult of Heron flourished in the Fayum, where the god adopted elements of Sobek and Horus. He is typically depicted in military dress and frequently on horseback; images of Heron and other rider gods are generally regarded as the iconographic origin for Christian military saints such as St. George and St. Theodore Stratêlatês. This stela depicts him in a pharaonic nemes headdress turning to present an offering to a serpent visible behind the horse.

Although the Demotic inscription on the base is abraded and as yet unread, the Greek text under the horse's forelegs provides the name and occupation of the dedicator and the date upon which he made the offering: "... Manres alias Sisois, the fuller, year 25, 16 Mechir." Both names given are of Egyptian derivation. The former is a variant of Marres ("Justice of Re") whereas the latter ("Bearer of the hair-lock") is a title associated with the child-god Harpocrates (a shaved head with a lock of hair hanging from the right side was the typical Egyptian hairstyle for children).

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Joan Knudsen.
Inv. 6-20309

 

Wooden doors depicting military deities Wooden doors depicting military deities Wooden doors depicting military deities Wooden doors depicting military deities Wooden doors depicting military deities
3rd century CE?

While the god on the left is probably Heron, the identity of the figure on the right is less certain. He is known from other painted panels from the Fayum where he is paired with Heron and carries a double-headed axe. Most recently, Vincent Rondot has identified him as an Arabian god from Hauran whom the residents of Egypt understood as the Greek hero Lykourgos. The elaborate dress and crowns of the two deities are suggestive of early third-century imperial depictions. The pins on two of the four corners of each door were designed to fit into the sockets, which allowed them to swing out, perhaps revealing a cult statue or some other venerable object.

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-21384 and 6-21385

 

Land survey including a Jewish synagogue in Arsinoe Land survey including a Jewish synagogue in Arsinoe
Late 2nd century BCE

For centuries their religious practice had set Jews apart from their contemporaries; yet, the Jewish individuals known from papyri often used the Greek legal system (P.Tebt. III 817), took Greek names (P.Tebt. III 818), and were perhaps even members of that Greek institution par excellence, the gymnasion (P.Enteux. 8). The Tebtunis papyri not only document their presence in Samareia, and Theogonis, but also in Tebtunis, Trikomia and the nome capital, Arsinoe. Recent excavations of rubbish heaps at Tebtunis have revealed texts in Aramaic that witness a Jewish presence in the town in the second century BCE. The following fragmentary land survey records the size and location of garden-land owned by a synagogue (proseuchê Ioudaiôn) in Arsinoe.

P.Tebt. I 86

 

Bronze cross pendant said to be from late Roman cemetery Bronze cross pendants said to be from late Roman cemetery
4th century CE?

Courtesy of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Berkeley, and the Regents of the University of California; photographed by photographed by Madeleine Fang.
Inv. 6-21506 and 6-21469

 

Photograph of Tebtunis church(?) with reused capitals Photograph of Tebtunis church(?) with reused capitals, 1899/1900

Grenfell and Hunt excavated a series of elaborately painted rooms at Tebtunis. The large room depicted here made use of ancient Egyptian columns and may have been a church, part of a monastery or both. The paintings, dated by an inscription to the tenth century, include Christ enthroned; martyred, ecclesiastical and monastic saints; and scenes from the Bible and other Christian literature.

Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society, London.

 

Photograph of wall painting depicting the judgment of sinners Photograph of wall painting depicting the judgment of sinners, 1899/1900
Roman period (1st century BCE - 4th century CE)

By the time the use of Demotic faded in the third century CE, a new script began to develop to express the Egyptian language. Coptic and its literature originated in bilingual milieus and represent a millennium of cultural-linguistic interaction. The Coptic script is a modified version of the Greek alphabet and Greek words account for about thirty-percent of Coptic vocabulary. The use of the script flourished in early Christian communities; the association of Demotic and other Egyptian scripts with the temple and Egyptian religion may have contributed to the decline of Demotic in favor of Coptic.

Coptic labels identify the scenes illustrated throughout the Christian building excavated by Grenfell and Hunt. The painted Coptic inscriptions depicted here describe the sins for which the couple is condemned, "He who fornicates with a woman (for money?)" and "She who has given her breasts (for money?)."

Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society, London.

 

Photograph of wall painting depicting St. Theodore Stratêlatês Photograph of wall painting depicting St. Theodore Stratêlatês, 1899/1900

Although the upper portion of this scene is only fragmentary and lacks an inscription, it is clearly a depiction of an episode from the life of Theodore Stratêlatês. To the relief of their widowed mother (at right), the saint depicted here rescues two children (bound, below the horse) from a serpentine dragon. After the rise of Christianity, the iconography of the rider god and a serpent (6-20309) somewhat ironically lent itself to a new interpretation wherein the formerly propitiated serpent received a spear instead of an offering

Courtesy of Egypt Exploration Society, London.

 

Manuscript frontispiece depicting Mary as Virgo lactans Manuscript frontispiece depicting Mary as Virgo lactans
897/898 CE

In the ninth and tenth centuries ancient Tebtunis was known as Touton and its scriptorium produced manuscripts of Christian texts. Up to twenty-five codices attributed to Touton survive in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. The copy of the frontispiece displayed here portrays the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus: the iconography has long been identified as originating from that of Isis and Harpocrates. The codex to which the frontispiece belongs is a compilation of extracts from scripture, hymns and odes.

Courtesy of Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.
M574, f. 1v