On Sunday 7th November a group of us visited the British Museum to see the current exhibition Faith after the Pharaohs – a fascinating insight into how polytheism evolved into monotheism, not without some blood and gore in the process.
A short film near the beginning of the show explains its focus – how religious beliefs in Egypt changed from worship of the sun god Ra, Horus, Anubis and others, through occupation by the Romans (from 30BCE) and worship of Roman and adopted Greek gods, leading to the declaration by Constantine of Christianity as the religion of the Empire. The long history of Jews in Egypt features, alongside the early Christian adoption of pagan symbols – with the curiosity of one of the items on display showing the Egyptian god Horus dressed in Roman armour.
In due time came Islam, first Shias (Fatamids), then Sunnis, still the predominant religion today.
Allow around one and a half hours if you want to absorb the full details, both in the captions throughout, and to appreciate the many delicate items of jewellery, clothing and functional items on display.
Eleven members of SELHuG joined the visit and discussed reactions to the exhibition over tea and cake in the museum cafe afterwards. From a humanist perspective, one of the fascinating aspects of this intriguing exhibition lies in the obvious plagiarism that occurred as the centuries unfolded – alongside the serendipity of one Roman Emperor, Constantine, who would change the world of religion for ever.
The last display board of the exhibition sums up the general themes of the exhibition very well…
In Egypt the shift from a belief in many gods to a belief in one God mirrors what took place across much of Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. It reflects the transformation of the ancient to the medieval work, a transition that shaped the world we live in today.
In defining identity, religion is only part of a wider world view that can encompass different combinations of cultural markers: art, architecture and iconography, languages, calendars, customs and appearance, as well as political and economic ideologies.
At the same time religion remains somehow central to the politics of similarity and difference, inclusion and exclusion, continuity and change.
The exhibition runs until 7th February 2016.