Dead men are supposed to tell no tales. But archaeologists hope the
mummies they've uncovered at the Bahariya oasis in Egypt's Western Desert
will shed new light on one of the most popular but least understood periods
in Egyptian history the 700-year span when the Greeks and later the Romans
ruled the desert kingdom.
|Alexander the Great ushered in the Greek era, an age of prosperity |
The period dates back to 332 B.C., when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt,
and extends until the fourth century A.D., when the country was a province
of the Holy Roman Empire. Historical figures like Alexander and Cleopatra, whose love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony became the stuff of legend, contribute to
the era's popularity.
But though this period has been the subject of history books and extravagant
Hollywood epics, Egyptologists are the first to admit that until now, their
predominant focus on Egypt's earlier pharaonic periods left them with little
physical evidence to corroborate or disprove the popular legends about
day-to-day life during this time. Now, with the excavations at Bahariya, they hope
that will change.
What is known about that period is that the Egyptians, weary after several
hundred years of uprisings, wars, and Persian occupation, welcomed Alexander
as a liberator. Soon after his arrival, the Macedonian conqueror founded the
city of Alexandria on the Mediterranean and then traveled into the Western
Desert to consult the oracle of Amon, passing through Bahariya, whose ample
water resources supported fruit farming and wine-making.
Under the rule of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's marshals, and the Ptolemaic
dynasty that followed, Egypt flourished. Alexandria, boasting a museum and a
library, became one of the great intellectual cosmopolitan capitals of the
known world. Places like Bahariya found markets in Greece's far-flung empire,
enriching its residents, which numbered about 30,000.
As Egypt flourished under Greek rule, Greek and Egyptian culture easily mixed.
Egyptian styles of dress made their way to Greece, and
later Rome, while the gods of Greek and Roman mythology took their place
beside their Egyptian counterparts. In Bahariya, for example, there are
temples honoring both Alexander and the Greek demigod Heracles.
|This Egyptian mummy was found in a tomb near Cairo|
Some of the 105 mummies uncovered so far in Bahariya suggest this overlap of
cultures. In their stone tombs, statues of Egyptian gods like Horus and
Anubis stand guard over the mummies, whose painted face masks reflect what
was then Greece's concept of beauty curly hair, delicate noses and
The Ptolemaic dynasty reached its apogee in 241 B.C., when its legions
conquered the Selucids, expanding Egypt's reach into Asia. But over the next
200 years, the dynasty grew weak and splintered as a result of mismanagement,
infighting among the royal family and internal revolts. In 168 B.C., only the
intervention of Rome prevented the resurgent Selucids from conquering Egypt.
The last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt was Cleopatra, who became queen in 51 B.C.,
when she was still in her teens. Through her love affairs with Julius Caesar
and Marc Antony, she probably succeeded in keeping the Romans at bay. But
with the defeat of Cleopatra and the love-struck Antony at the battle of
Actium in 31 B.C., and their suicides a year later, Egypt came under Roman
Archaeologists believe that some of the mummies at Bahariya may have been
entombed in the first or second centuries, when Egypt once again was a
culture in transition between its Greco-Roman past and the widening influence
of Christianity. Among the artifacts excavated from the site is a clay
statuette depicting a mother and child, suggesting the religious influences
that were to sweep over Egypt in later years.