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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Egypt in the Ptolemaic Period

The Arc of Egyptian and Greek Interaction in the First Millennium
Preludes to Greek presence in Egypt are seen in the land reclamation and settlement of the western Delta beginning in the Third Intermediate Period and the new prominence of that area with the capital of Dynasty 26 at Sais. From the seventh century B.C., Egyptian rulers encouraged a flourishing Mediterranean trade involving Greeks from many islands and city-states: the coastal cities Canopus and Thonis/Herakleion, with large immigrant populations, served as gateways for trade down the westernmost Canopic Nile branch to the Egyptian/Greek trade city Naukratis near Sais and onward to the great city of Memphis. Conflict with imperial powers Assyria and Persia in the Near East dominated the same centuries, and the Egyptians relied on Greek alliances and troops to help fight their expansion. After more than a century of conquest and rule by the Achaemenid Persians, Egypt shook off these overlords, and independent Egyptian Dynasties 28–30 ruled for sixty years, before being reconquered by the Persians in 343 B.C.

Then, when Alexander the Great of Macedon set out to dismantle the Persian empire, he took Egypt in 332 B.C., initiating the Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemaic Period. On the death of Alexander’s last heirs, his conquests were divided among his generals: the Ptolemaic dynasty begins in 305 B.C., when one of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, became Ptolemy I of Egypt. Thereafter, kingship was handed down through Ptolemy’s descendants until 30 B.C., when Roman takeover followed swiftly on the defeat of Cleopatra VII (89.2.660).

Examining Egyptian art during these 300 years reveals strong continuities in its traditions but also interactions with Greek art, whose forms and styles swept the world with Alexander’s armies. The encounter of the two cultures had many aspects and phases, and is easiest to comprehend by looking first at the new ruling class, its involvements and concerns, and then at religion and the arts in the greater land of Egypt.

Alexandria, Hellenistic Monarchy, and External Relations
Alexander established the new city of Alexandria on the northwestern Delta coast. The Ptolemies were very much Hellenistic rulers, with the country as their military prize. The magnificent city had splendid palaces, temples, and libraries oriented on a Hellenistic street grid; cemeteries stretched to the east and west. Temples included those for the royal cult and for the chief god Serapis, a deity combining aspects of Osiris, Apis, and Ptah, but in a Hellenistic guise and whose consort was Isis. There were also, however, temples to Egyptian gods and traditional pharaonic monuments relocated from other sites, although the extent of the latter practice in the Ptolemaic Period is very difficult to ascertain because it continued through Roman times. Ptolemaic queens (2002.66; 26.7.1016) received special attention as guarantors of the inheritance of divine rulership. The Pharos lighthouse, at the entry to the great harbor, announced the shining city to those arriving, but the Ptolemies also embraced the resonant imagery of Egypt, setting up colossal statues of themselves as Egyptian pharaohs to welcome the ships that entered the harbor. With an international population, Egyptian resources, and Egyptian and Greek artistry, the city was reputed for its beauty and for the fine arts produced there.

As Hellenistic kings, the Ptolemies were involved with the other Hellenistic kingdoms in diplomatic marriages and in significant military disputes over inheritance and territories. Much of the third century B.C. was occupied by the so-called Syrian wars, in which the Ptolemies and the Hellenistic Seleucid kings centered in the area of ancient Mesopotamia battled over territories. A massive battle at Raphia in Gaza in 217 B.C. gave Egypt control over territories in the Levant, but twenty years later, the territories were lost to Antiochus III of Seleucia. And not long after Raphia, a serious and long-lasting rebellion took place in Upper Egypt, while the growing power of Rome as a force in the eastern Mediterranean became increasingly problematic. Ptolemaic concerns thereafter turned largely inward, to the land of Egypt itself, or westward to Rome on the Mediterranean.

To the south of Egypt, the Kushites had expanded into Lower Nubia between the first and second cataracts during the period of Persian rule. In 275–274 B.C., Ptolemy II drove back the Kushites and annexed the area, which was then developed as a sort of trade corridor between Egypt and the lands ruled by the Kushites, who had recentered at Meroë.

The Land of Egypt with Its (Greek) Pharaohs
Outside Alexandria, excavations in the Delta have attested flourishing communities integrating Greek and other trade or immigrant groups at certain sites—Canopus, Herakleion/Thonis, and Naukratis, of course, but also, Athribis, Memphis, and throughout newly developed agricultural lands in areas near the coast or in the Fayum. An already established and significant Greek population experienced a new influx, particularly in the northern areas of the country. And social hierarchies were certainly affected by the existence of Greek rulers and members of the ruling elite. Greek became a major language alongside Egyptian, which was now written in the Demotic script except on monuments.

Still, the country’s traditional practices and forms remained strong. The Ptolemaic rulers supported Egyptian cults and priesthoods. During the first three reigns of the Ptolemaic dynasty, temple building projects of Dynasty 30 were continued by the new kings and official classes, closely following Egyptian styles (12.182.4a). As time progressed, the Ptolemies aggrandized or embellished age-old temples, especially in Upper Egypt; consequently, most of the temples still standing today are actually Ptolemaic constructions. The kings also installed celebrations of their own ruler cults in the Egyptian temples.

The temples themselves flourished as centers of learning and coalescence of Egyptian beliefs and literature. Religious activity followed tendencies that had dominated the first millennium: for example, the growth of the cult of Osiris (10.175.133); the increasing popularity of Isis and Horus or other child gods (55.121.5); the donation of small divine statuary to temples; the flourishing practice of offering animal mummies (56.16.1); the creation of relief plaques and busts that seem to fetishize the elements of Egyptian representational/belief systems (temple architectural elements, royal busts, hieroglyphs) (07.228.11); and broad public celebration of certain festivals. Individuals who were able to set up statues of themselves did so in a temple rather than a tomb.

And the temples continued in their role as focal points of towns and urban entities, the temple’s gateways and the god’s processional routes constituting the structural axes of the city. The towns themselves and the temple precincts were crowded by the multistory buildings that had been the common form of workshops and houses for centuries. And among their varied production, workshops produced the fine bichrome faience vessels and vivid opaque glass and mosaic glass inlays that were Egyptian specialties. Other economic wealth derived from linen, agricultural production, and Egypt’s role as a trade corridor between the Mediterranean, the rest of Africa, and the Indian Ocean.

Delta sites have been stressed so far, but Memphis remained prominent, as did numerous Middle and Upper Egyptian towns. Memphis was the second city after Alexandria; its High Priests of Ptah had great influence with the Ptolemaic kings and among the country’s priesthoods. Its necropolis, Saqqara, was a center of worship of the Apis bull, integrated in the national/political mythology, and many other sacred animals (1971.51). Hermopolis, cult center of Thoth, had been favored by Dynasty 30 pharaohs, who built an innovative monumental temple pronaos. The Ptolemies continued this attention, building a Greek-style temple in honor of the royal cult. The Hermopolite necropolis at Tuna el-Gebel had temples and great underground galleries for mummified ibises and baboons and their shrines, and also featured elaborate tomb chapels for the priests of Thoth (48.149.5). Thebes continued to be a venerable religious center with extensive priesthoods. Attention to areas of the Karnak complex devoted to the Osirian cult and to Khonsu the Child (1980.422) followed the trends of religious developments over the course of the first millennium. Temples and communities on the Theban west bank also flourished, along with Ptolemaic cemeteries of a distinctive type overlying the site of the Hatshepsut Valley Temple.

Mixtures of the Two Cultural Styles
Within these parameters, the relationship of the artistic styles of the two cultures varies by region, purpose, and individual circumstance. Notably, the Ptolemies themselves employed different sculptural styles for political reasons—in the earliest years, they adopted the pharaonic style of Dynasty 30 to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish pieces from the two periods (38.10; 12.182.4a), while at the same time depicting themselves as Greek dynasts in Alexandria and for the Mediterranean world. In the second century B.C., the kings introduced images combining Greek hair and features with Egyptian attributes and overall pose (2008.454), and queens’ statuary followed a similar course (89.2.660). Among the elite classes outside Alexandria, a marked change in costume and hairstyle appears to take place only from about 125 B.C., but then statues set up at temples might adopt curly Greek hair and a garment that, while still Egyptian, appears to be current rather than following age-old models (65.119). At yet another level, small arts, domestic items, and terracottas associated with domestic and festival religion might exhibit more influence from Hellenistic styles (26.7.1403; 26.7.1411), while in death the ancient prescriptions and forms remained prevalent.