After the Pharaohs

Ptolemaic, Roman and early Christian Egypt

In 332 BC Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, then a province of the Persian Empire. When Alexander died, the general Ptolemy became ruler of Egypt, proclaiming himself king in 305 BC. The land was now governed by a Greekspeaking court at the new city of Alexandria. Gradually Greek culture eclipsed Pharaonic writing, costume and jewellery.

Roman occupation, following the defeat and suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BC, cemented this change. By the third century AD life in Egypt was similar to that in other eastern Roman provinces.

Mummy with an encaustic portrait

Funerary practices were among the latest Pharaonic traditions to survive. Embalmers in Roman Egypt often mummified bodies very imperfectly paying most attention to the appearance of the wrappings. An idealised headpiece provided an eternal image of the deceased in either Pharaonic or Mediterranean style. In the Fayum area, many mummies had a Roman style portrait, painted on wood, inserted into the wrappings. Some of these images are strikingly realistic.

By the fourth century AD Egypt had converted to Christianity. Egyptian Christians were called Copts, probably from the Greek word Aiguptios meaning Egyptian. Egypt remained a province of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until the Arab conquest in 640 AD. Under Arab rule the majority of the population converted to Islam and Arabic replaced the Egyptian language. By the fifteenth century AD Egyptian was no linger spoken outside the Coptic Church and that last link with the past was lost.

 
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