‘a magical dig into the past’
The Guardian

‘terrifically compelling… a thought-provoking, often moving, show’
Evening Standard

Discover Egypt’s incredible journey over 12 centuries, as Jews, Christians and Muslims transformed this ancient land. It is a story charting the change from a world of many gods to the worship of one God.

The exhibition begins in 30 BC, when Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire after the death of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and continues until AD 1171 when the rule of the Islamic Fatimid dynasty came to an end. The remarkable objects in the exhibition have been uniquely preserved in Egypt’s arid climate, and many have never been on display before. Their survival provides unparalleled access to the lives of individuals and communities, and they tell a rich and complex story of influences, long periods of peaceful coexistence, and intermittent tension and violence between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

More about the exhibition

The state’s use of religion to assert power is shown by fabulous sculptures that mix ancient Egyptian and Roman imperial iconography, and letters on papyrus concerning the treatment of Jews and early Christians. Gravestones and architectural elements demonstrate the reuse and reworking of sacred spaces – temple complexes were reused as churches and, later, mosques.

The changes in people’s private lives are shown through everyday objects – delicate fragments of papyrus preserve some of the earliest surviving Jewish scriptures and lost Christian gospels. Colourful garments and accessories show what people wore, and soft-furnishings show how they dressed their homes.

Together, the objects in the exhibition show how the shift from the traditional worship of many gods to monotheism – the belief in one God – affected every part of life. Egypt’s journey from Roman to Islamic control reflects the wider transformation from the ancient to medieval world, a transition that has shaped the world we live in today.


See the exhibition free as a Member


Adults £10, under 16s free

Highlight objects

Discover the stories behind some of the objects in the exhibition, charting how Jews, Christians and Muslims transformed this ancient land.


Roman Egypt

After the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 30 BC, Octavian (later Augustus) entered Alexandria, and Egypt became a Roman province, setting its path for the next 600 years. In Roman Egypt there were many hundreds of gods. The one God of Jews and Christians was one among many and invocations of Solomon, Moses and Jesus are found side by side with deities from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.

The Egyptian god Horus in Roman military costume

Egypt, 1st–2nd century AD

In ancient Egypt, the god Horus was the divine representation of the living pharaoh, usually shown as a man with a falcon’s head. After the Roman conquest, the Egyptian god was often shown in Roman armour with a general’s cloak – the clothing of power – and in poses characteristic of Roman emperors. Here the falcon feathers of the seated Horus double as scale armour.

Read more about the colouring on this statue

Find out about the science behind this discovery

Gold ring with Serapis, Harpokrates and Isis as serpents

Egypt, 1st century AD

This ring shows the divine family unit of Serapis, Isis and Harpokrates in serpent form as good spirits. They developed from the ancient Egyptian gods Osiris, Isis and Horus. As father, mother and child, they provided a mythological model for royal succession, ensuring peace and stability. Under the Ptolemies – the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt between 305 and 30 BC – the god Osiris-Apis was given the features of a Greek deity and became Serapis.

See this object in collection online

Portrait of a priest of Serapis

Egypt, AD 140–160

The Roman practice of commemorating the dead with naturalistic portraits combined with the Egyptian practice of mummification. Sometimes shrouds depicting the dead covered the mummy, or wooden painted panels like this one were inserted over the face. This man wears a diadem with a seven-pointed star, worn by priests of the god Serapis – a fusion of Egyptian and Greek gods. The three locks of hair on his brow were associated with this cult during the reign of Antoninus Pius (r. 138–161).

See this object in the collection online

Ossuary of Nicanor

Jerusalem, 1st century AD

An ossuary is a stone chest for burying bones of the deceased. This example is inscribed with ‘Nicanor Alexa’ in Hebrew script and ‘Bones of the family of Nicanor the Alexandrian who made the gates’ in Greek. Nicanor was a Jew from a prominent family in Alexandria. According to written sources, he provided bronze doors for an entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Egypt in a Christian Empire

With the reign of Constantine I (AD 306–337), Christianity became the favoured religion of the imperial household. Egypt’s resources now flowed to his new capital, Constantinople – also known as Byzantium or the ‘New Rome’. Christians drew upon Jewish and classical art, adopting the style of the Roman basilica (a public building housing law courts) for their churches, and adapting imagery of the deified emperor and traditional gods.

Bust of the Roman general Germanicus

Egypt, about AD 14–20

This statue of Germanicus, great-nephew of the emperor Augustus, was probably made around AD 19, shortly after a visit to Egypt. Years later someone inscribed a cross on his forehead and it was hacked across the nose, ear and neck. We don’t know why the cross was added – perhaps to neutralise spirits thought to dwell in images, to ‘Christianise’ Germanicus, or to mark him as a ‘slave of God’ – as some Christians marked themselves.

The Codex Sinaiticus

St Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt, 4th century AD

The British Library

This manuscript is known as the Codex Sinaiticus, meaning ‘The book from Sinai’. Written on parchment in Greek, it contains the earliest surviving complete version of the New Testament. It is also the most complete version of many of the books of the Greek version of Hebrew scripture – also used as the Christian Old Testament.

Find out more on the British Library’s website

Pyxis (ivory box) showing Daniel

Egypt or Syria, 5th or early 6th century AD

Christians adopted the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible as their Old Testament and understood many of its stories in the context of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This ivory box, known as a pyxis, shows Daniel, who was thrown into a lions’ den by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar but saved by his faith.

See this object in the collection online

Pair of curtains with Christian and classical imagery

Egypt, Akhmim, 6th–7th century AD

These hangings may have been used as door curtains in a Christian building. At the top, two winged Roman victory figures hold a wreath containing a jewelled cross with a Greek inscription. Above them are chubby babies, personifying love, standing among baskets of produce and holding flower garlands. The curtains have survived nearly intact thanks to Egypt’s arid climate and because they were reused as a burial shroud.

See this object in the collection online

The arrival of Islam

In AD 639 Muslim armies under the command of Amr ibn al-As invaded Egypt and within a few years it fell under Muslim rule. Egypt now largely faced east, its resources directed to the caliphal capitals, first Damascus, then Baghdad until 969 when the Shiite Fatimid dynasty established their capital at al-Qahira (now Cairo).

Gold coin of Abd al-Malik

Probably from Syria, Umayyad dynasty, AH 76/AD 695–696

In AD 697 the caliph Abd al-Malik introduced coins that replaced images with verses from the Qur’an, which became the standard pattern for centuries. This coin dates to before this innovation, and shows Abd al-Malik surrounded by the shahada, meaning ‘the testimony’ – a statement of faith in the Oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s Prophet. As such it is the earliest known depiction of a Muslim.

Marble relief with Arabic inscription

Egypt, 10th century AD, reused AH 356/AD 966–967

This panel was one of several decorating a funerary monument. Its Arabic inscription is carved in an angular, decorative Arabic script known as Kufic. The inscription contains part of the basmala – the name for the phrase ‘In the name of God the Merciful, the Compassionate’. Not long afterwards the relief was carved on the back and reused as a grave marker for a man named Muhammad bin Fatik Ashmuli, who died in AD 967.

Bowl with the image of a priest

Cairo, Egypt, AD 1050–1100

Victoria and Albert Museum

At first glance, this beautiful bowl appears to be a typical Islamic object made from lustreware – a type of ceramic with a metallic glaze developed in the Islamic world. In fact it shows a Christian priest, illustrating that workshops in Cairo produced luxury items for a range of clients, of all faiths.

Find out more on the V&A’s website

Letter concerning business between Jews and Muslims

Cairo, Egypt, AD 1060

Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection, Cambridge

In this letter, a Jewish trader named Zechariah ben Jacob ibn al-Shama recommends his highly trustworthy Muslim partners and their wares to his Jewish business contact Nahray ben Nissim. The letter is from a genizah – a storeroom prior to ritual burial for old or otherwise disused texts, anything that may include the name of God. For some reason the contents of the Cairo Genizah were never disposed of and they provide amazing insight into the daily lives of people living in Egypt and their wider medieval world.

Find out more about the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection


29 October 2015 – 7 February 2016


Opening times

Saturday – Thursday 10.00–17.30
Friday 10.00–20.30
Last entry 80 minutes before closing

Getting here

Room 35, British Museum,
Great Russell Street,
London WC1B 3DG

Group visits

Special group rates available
Bookings +44 (0)20 7323 8181 tickets@britishmuseum.org

Access Facilities

School visits

Learn how traditional religious beliefs
in Egypt were replaced by monotheistic faiths.

Find out more

Loan objects

Objects borrowed for the exhibition Egypt: faith after the pharaohs (29 October 2015 – 7 February 2016) will be recommended for protection under Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 (protection of cultural objects on loan).

More information