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FACE the Ancestors
Fayum Portraits


Artistic Discontinuity

Humanity has witnessed a sad interruption in the progress of human sciences and arts starting around the forth century A.D. This gap of almost a thousand years mainly started as a result if the restrictive nature of the Roman or Byzantine Empire which ruled much of the world in the middle ages. By the 3rd Century A.D., man was standing on the verge of unlocking the great mysteries of the universe surrounding him. Greco-Egyptian scientists in Alexandria had theorized significant scientific frameworks to mathematics, geometry, physics and astronomy. Philosophy, art, literature, drama and religion have also reached new heights with the marriage of Greek philosophy and the vast body of Egyptian knowledge accumulated and stored by Egyptian monks and scholars over 4,000 years of tedious progress on the banks of the Nile.

The Fayum portraits stand witness to the validity of the artistic side of this argument. The Fayum portraits date back to 1st to 3rd Centuries A.D. They represent a development of the Egyptian funerary tradition which had manifested itself before in wall carvings, masks, ornaments and artifacts found in tombs of ancient Egyptians. But the portraits are so advanced in their artistic style, that can only be compared to paintings of the masters who came 1,500 years later! ''It is not until 15 centuries later, in the faces painted by Titian or Rembrandt's depiction of his own features as he saw them reflected in the mirror, that the same artistry that characterizes many of the anonymous painters of the Fayum is witnessed again,'' Euphrosyne C. Doxiadis, a Greek artist and author of ''The Mysterious Fayum Portraits,'' wrote in an essay in the catalogue accompanying an international show for the Mummy Portraits titled ''Ancient Faces'' in 1997. So, how, when and why did the art of painting stood still, indeed seemed to be "forgotten"?

Sinful Art
I believe that it had to do with restrictive and fanatic religious believes of monotheistic religions which soon swept the Middle East, indeed the world, coming out of the Middle East. At first it was the Roman or Byzantine Empire which employed Christianity probably as the only "official religion of the Empire". In 391, Christian Emperor Theodosius I ordered the destruction of all pagan temples, and the Christian Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria complied with this request.

Socrates Scholasticus provides the following account of the destruction of the temples in Alexandria in the fifth book of his Historia Ecclesiastica, written around 440:

“ At the solicitation of Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, the Emperor issued an order at this time for the demolition of the heathen temples in that city; commanding also that it should be put in execution under the direction of Theophilus. Seizing this opportunity, Theophilus exerted himself to the utmost to expose the pagan mysteries to contempt."

Colorless Centuries
The effect of this decree which banned the building of temples and the carving of images and sacred hieroglyphs was catastrophic on Egyptian arts which until that moment were connected to Egyptian religions and related rituals. The new religion came with its own set of rituals relating to death restricting Egyptian funerary traditions. The religious hysteria also had some serious implications on the progress of science and arts. Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in Mathematics, Philosophy and science, was assassinated by an angry Christian mob. One day in March 415CE, during the season of Lent, her chariot was waylaid on her route home by a Christian mob. She was stripped naked and dragged through the streets to the newly Christianized Caesareum church and killed. Some reports suggest she was flayed with oyster shells and burned.

Islamic rulers, who governed Egypt soon after the Arab invasion in 639-641 A.D. also took a hostile attitude towards painting of human and animal images. This is why Islamic arts widely employed plants and geometrical shapes, avoiding depiction of human faces and figures to avoid revival of the worship of idols. The world was well into the dark ages. Almost ten colorless centuries had to pass before such art could be revived during the renaissance.
Resurrection of the Last Painter
How did the "last painter” feel, knowing that there are no more apprentices to carry out this artistic tradition? I can only begin to imagine the tremendous grief of this last talented man, knowing that with his death, his craftsmanship will soon be forgotten. But with the discovery of Fayum Portraits, these painters were summoned from the death and given a new life. The world today recognizes their art and talent some 1,600 years after their death and celebrates their works in major museums around the world. And after centuries of forgetfulness and artistic amnesia, we now pay tribute to those anonymous artists and salute their talent. The works of their "sinful" brushes are now "sacred" artifacts to many art lovers around the world.

The Artists
Back to painters of Fayum Portraits, there has been some controversy on the identity of the artists. Some researchers believe that those artists were Greco-Romans. This is somehow, in my opinion due to racial bias of the historians of the 19th and 20th centuries who adopted a Euro-centrist approach to the origins of classical civilizations and culture. Martin Bernal, in his trilogy, "Black Athena", which might just as well have been titled "Egyptian Athena", describes this bias and ascertains that much of the achievements of these classical civilizations should be credited to the Ancient Egyptians and People of the Levant. Why would Greco-Roman artists be found in such abundance in Fayum of all places? It only makes sense that these artists were Egyptian, and that their art is the natural progress of Egyptian arts depicted on the walls of tombs and temples for several thousands of years.

The Faces
Not only did the painters were Greco-Romans, some historians claim that the persons, the deceased depicted in those portraits also represent Greek settlers in Egypt. Those historians provide their theory that "It is estimated that as much as 30 percent of the population of Fayum was Greek during the Ptolemaic period, with the rest being native Egyptians." So, why would Greeks be concentrated in Fayum of all places, and why would they adopt these funerary traditions evidently Egyptian in origin and spirit? Examining the faces, they appear to be typically Egyptian, faces you would still see today walking the streets of towns and villages of Egypt.

The evidence, however, shows that when the dental morphology [1] of the Roman-period Fayum mummies was compared with that of earlier Egyptian populations, it was found to be "much more closely akin" to that of dynastic Egyptians than to Greeks or other European populations. So much for the subjects of these portraits being Greek! One can start to question the alleged Greek identity of the painters as well!

The Art
In an attempt to downplay the artistic value of these portraits, some analysts suggest that the Portraits were sort of mass produced. That they followed some sort of repetitive "templates" which the artists adapted to the specific faces of the subjects. The Fayum Portraits discovered, however, show unique captivating features which strike you with the depth of the Character of each person. We can not imagine how this could have been possible using such mass-production techniques. And even if such mass-production techniques were used, it can only take place when art is well-developed on the hands of Masters, such that less famous painters can imitate and mass-produce such authentic and genuine artistic advances. But according to Walker [2], "C.A.T. scans of all the complete mummies represented reveal a correspondence of age and, in suitable cases, sex between mummy and image, confirming that the paintings were made at the time of death. In addition, some portraits were painted directly onto the coffin; for example, on a shroud or another part." This further shows that the portraits were in fact individually painted and discounts the validity of the mass-production claims.

The dry weather of Egypt undoubtedly helped these paintings to survive centuries of neglect such that we can see them today almost intact and in such excellent condition which allows us to appreciate the art and beauty of these works. Together with the surviving frescoes and objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and tomb frescoes in Macedonia, Fayum portraits are the best preserved paintings from ancient times and are renowned for their remarkable naturalism.

Many museums around the world have fine examples of Fayum mummy portraits on display, notably the British Museum, the Royal Museum of Scotland, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Louvre in Paris.

So, why then are these portraits not famous? How come we never heard about them before in Egypt? I believe that religious sentiments prevented these masterpieces from becoming local heroes at home and subsequently worldwide. The Portraits date back to what is known in Egypt as the "Coptic Period", to approximately mean the time when Egypt was predominantly Christian. This period is viewed with hostility by the authorities which prefer to connect Egypt more with its Islamic, rather than Christian heritage. But this is quite unfair for a number of reasons. First, we have not seen any Christian icons or symbols worn by the subjects. These portraits date back to the period between 1st and 3rd Centuries A.D. Egypt was then divided between old religions such as the Isis Cult, Hermetic traditions, Gnosticism and Christianity. And because of the funerary traditions observed in the mummies, it is unlikely that the subjects were indeed Christians. In fact, the title "Coptic" simply means Egyptian, derived from the Greek word describing Egypt "aiguptios", a word then modified by the Arabs to "Copts" which they used to refer to native Egyptians. On the other hand, until when can we ignore this "Coptic" period? We believe it is time Egyptians make peace with their past in its entirety.

Face the Ancestors
So, here they are, faces of the Ancestors, looking at us from centuries long-past, they are denied their Egyptian Identities by the Europeans, and denied resurrection by their own countrymen. But we believe that they deserve resurrection. They deserve recognition. And if we owe the living respect, we owe nothing to the dead but the truth.




Irish JD (2006). "Who were the ancient Egyptians? Dental affinities among Neolithic through postdynastic peoples.". Am J Phys Anthropol 129 (4): 529-43

Susan Walker, Morris Bierbrier: Ancient Faces, Mummy Portraits from Roman Egypt, London 1997


Under the Probing Gaze Of the Egyptian Dead, By ALAN RIDING, New York Times, Published: April 26, 1997

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by waelnawara

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