10-03-'05 | J.H.F. Dijkstra
Christian triumphalism misdated end of ancient Egyptian religion
While writing his final-year thesis for the degree programme in classical languages, Dijkstra chanced upon a text on papyrus from 567 AD, in which sanctuaries were mentioned that reminded him of the temples on Philae. This seemed impossible, as all standard works were based on Procopius’ claim that the temples on Philae were destroyed between 535 and 537, after which the Christian religion was introduced. However, the theory turned out to be viable, and Dijkstra published his findings in the prominent German Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.
Dijkstra’s PhD research discusses the ancient Egyptian cult, which continued longest on the island of Philae. The starting point was the question of how this cult managed to survive until – according to Procopius – the sixth century, while most of the rest of Egypt had already become Christian. An analysis of 36 inscriptions in Demotic hieroglyphs and Greek revealed that this was impossible.
‘These inscriptions, which were mainly written by priests, show that there is absolutely no reason to assume that the cult still existed in the sixth century. The last inscription, in Greek, was made in 456 or 457 AD. If the priests had maintained the cult after this, we would certainly have heard more from them’, says Dijkstra. In addition to the inscriptions, his conclusion is also confirmed by the regional context: ‘The whole of Egypt changed in the fourth and fifth centuries, when it gradually converted to Christianity. Philae was no exception, as shown by a diocese that was established on the island as early as the fourth century. Christians and followers of the ancient Egyptian cult peacefully lived together on the small island for some time, until eventually only Christianity survived.’
In other words, there was no violent ending, no period of great tension, culminating in the destruction of the temples. ‘That explanation is much too simplistic. What happened on Philae was the same as elsewhere: a complex and peaceful process of religious transition. Religious rituals and festivals were maintained for quite some time as Christianity was gaining a foothold, in particular the Choiak festival, which celebrated the revival of Osiris by his wife Isis, and the veneration of a live falcon in the temple grounds, the holy animal of the god Horus, son of Isis and Osiris.’
Aswan High Dam
However, an exact reconstruction of the religious transition process is impossible to create, according to Dijkstra. We may be able to trace the main points, but people’s personal experiences of the process are impossible to reconstruct. Having said that, it doesn’t take much deep investigation to see that Procopius’ ‘temple destruction’ should not be taken literally. These temples are among the best preserved in Egypt, even though they are no longer in their original locations. ‘UNESCO moved them to the nearby island of Agilkia in the 1970s, when the Aswan High Dam was built. They are still open to tourists.’
Jitse Dijkstra (Stadskanaal, 1976) studied Greek and Latin languages and cultures and Mediterranean archaeology at the University of Groningen, and conducted his PhD research at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies. He has been involved in the Swiss excavations at Aswan since 2001 and recently collaborated on a BBC documentary about the end of the Ancient Egyptian language. Dijkstra is awarded a PhD in Theology and Religious Studies. His supervisors were Prof. J.N. Bremmer (University of Groningen) and Prof. P. van Minnen (University of Cincinnati). Dijkstra will be working as a lecturer in Greek and Latin in the preparatory programme in Theology until 1 May and will be appointed assistant professor at the University of Ottawa on 1 July. His thesis is entitled Religious Encounters on the Southern Egyptian Frontier in Late Antiquity (AD 298 – 642) .
Date and time
Thursday 10 March 2005, 4.15 p.m.
Religions encounters on the Southern Egyptian frontier in late antiquity, AD 298-642
Prof. J.N. Bremmer and Prof. O. van Minnen
Overview of PhD ceremonies in 2006
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