Byzantine Egypt

Wall painting of the martyrdom of saints

Egypt’s dry climate has preserved a range and abundance of architecture, sculpture, artefacts and texts unparalleled in other parts of the Byzantine world. The survival of large numbers of documents, such as contracts, petitions, tax receipts and letters, provide insight into everyday experiences of elites and non-elites, men and women.

The British Museum collection reveals aspects of the visual, social, religious, administrative and economic lives of Egypt’s inhabitants at the time when they became predominantly Christian.

In the course of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, Christians transformed the architectural landscape of pharaonic Egypt by building monumental churches, martyrs’ shrines and monasteries, often converting ancient temples, shrines and tombs for new purposes. Pilgrims from around the empire flocked to Egypt to visit sites mentioned in the Bible or associated with saints. Coptic, the Egyptian language written in a modified Greek script, flourished as a vehicle to translate the Bible and, later, to compose an original Egyptian Christian literature.

At the same time, individuals and communities continued to engage in many traditional Egyptian and Hellenistic practices. The elite dead were buried in mummiform, swathed in textiles decorated with motifs from classical mythology. Greek literature (for example, Homer and Menander) continued to be copied and read, and Greek poetry and philosophy flourished into the sixth century.

The Persian occupation (AD 619) and, later, the Arab conquest of Egypt (AD 642) increasingly isolated the province from the rest of the Byzantine Empire. From the ninth century Arabic began to replace Coptic and Christians increasingly converted to Islam.

Today Egypt is home to a sizable Christian population known as Copts, a term deriving from the Arabic transliteration of the Greek word for Egyptian (Aigyptios).

Image caption: Wall painting of the martyrdom of saints
From a building at the Coptic town of Wadi Sarga, Egypt. Coptic period, 6th century AD

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