June 02, 2008

Deir el-Bahari

Deir el-Bahari was an important ancient Egyptian religious site. It held the female pharoah, Hatshepsut's, mortuary temple. But it also was the site of another temple- more venerated in the ptolemaic age ( 305 BC-30BC) where two particular gods Amenhotep and Imhotep were worshipped. Recently the site has been excavated by Adam Lajtar- and a report on his reports of his excavations is here. What I find interesting about it, and I'm just reading at the moment an analysis of Roman religion which I will inflict on you later, is a number of points about the way that religious observance functioned differently in the polytheistic ancient world to the way it functions in today's modern world. What Lajtar has found is fascinating: he has found a great deal of Greek inscriptions from believers who came to this shrine to worship. Egypt at this point in history was dominated by a Greek dynasty- the Ptolemies were one of the more important successor dynasties to Alexander's empire in the Eastern Meditereanean- culminating with the spectacular figure of Cleopatra and sustaining the Alexandrian Library amongst other culturally important activities.

Perhaps more surprising than that historical detail is a couple of things- which are characteristic of Ancient Polytheism. One of which is that the temple commemorated two individuals- one of whom at least was an identifiable historical personality: Amenhotep, son of Hotep, a court official, priest and medic at the court of Amenhotep IV of the 14th Dynasty. Imhotep was also a minister- he served the 3rd Dynasty (in the 27th century BC). These two ministers therefore became venerated as important figures, intercessionary figures with the higher Gods and later turned into Gods themselves. The line between human and divine which in the austere monotheisms is so solid, in ancient polytheism was much more fluid. That has implications for the way for instance the Christian doctrine of the saints worked- but it also suggests to me a very different idea about religion itself. Noone going to these shrines would have gone under any illusion that these men had originally been men, noone would have doubted that they were now Gods.

There is a second point that I think is very interesting and seems very strange to a modern eye though. And this is this: just because you went to worship Amenhotep in Deir el-Bahari, does not mean you wanted to worship Imhotep. Furthermore many Greeks went to worship neither God, but to worship Asclepius, the divine physician, who they assumed Imhotep to be an Egyptian form of. What is interesting about this: and it is a point I will build on in my later article: is that ancient religion unlike modern religion was far less concerned with doctrinal difference. Polytheism could embrace a fluidity between religious custom that modern religion finds difficult to sustain. (I am not arguing that Polytheism was in any way better than modern monotheism- but that it was very different in character, it could fuse with less tension Greek and Egyptian religious practise than say one can fuse Jewish and Muslim and Christian religious practice). It is an interesting distinction- and we will come back to what that reveals at a later point but as a prologue to a later article, Deir el-Bahari is a useful pointer- it demonstrates some of the differences between a polytheistic ancient outlook and our own understanding of religion as a doctrine to which you adhere, excluding all other doctrines.


david mcmahon said...

You know what they say, mate - ``Wednesday's child is Pharaoh face''!!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Very interesting, as always, Gracchi. Looking forward to the follow-up post.