Yasser Metwally

My life…and the world

The Greek-Roman period of ancient Egyptian life (332 BC-395 AD)

The author: Professor Yasser Metwally


When the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great entered Egypt, he was welcomed as the son of the god Amun and he was immediately accepted as the new king of the country. He founded a new city on the shores of the Mediterranean, the first of many cities to bear the name of Alexandria. He also set about restoring all the damage done by the second Persian occupation.

Upon his death and the death of his two Macedonian successors Phillipos Arrhidaeos and Alexander IV, his empire was divided between his generals. Egypt was taken by Ptolemy, son of Lagos, who had been appointed to satrap of the country by Alexander himself. During the wars that resulted from this division, he was also able to conquer Syria-Palestine.

He and his successors would not only continue Alexander’s policy of restoration in Egypt, they also supported the building of new temples throughout the country. On the island of Philae, Ptolemy II Philopator started with the rebuilding of the 26th Dynasty temple of Isis; his successor Ptolemy III Euergetes I started with the building of a new temple dedicated to Horus and decorated the propylon of the temple of Khonsu at Karnak. Their successors would continue to enlarge these temples next to building new ones such as the temple of Hathor at Dendara and the temple of Khnum and Neith in Esna. This way they ensured the support of the Egyptian clergy and the Egyptian people.

During the reign of Ptolemy V, there was some upheaval when an Egyptian Dynasty tried to seize power.

Alexander the Great freed Egypt of the Persian yoke and added it to his own empire

Figure 1. Alexander the Great freed Egypt of the Persian yoke and added it to his own empire.

The dynastic rivalry of the later Ptolemies finally resulted in an intervention of the Romans to put Ptolemy XII Euergetes II back into power. From then on, the Romans began to play an important part in Egyptian history. They again intervened, this time in favour of Ptolemy XII’s daughter Cleopatra, a couple of years later. Although Cleopatra was a capable and a politically gifted ruler, she would become involved in the power struggle of the Romans Octavianus (Augustus) and Antonius and unfortunately, she chose the wrong side. When her and Antonius’ fleets were destroyed at the battle of Actium and she committed suicide, Egypt became a Roman province.

The open court and pylon of the temple of Horus at Edfu. The temple of Edfu was built during the Ptolemaic Period....Click to enlarge

Figure 2. The open court and pylon of the temple of Horus at Edfu. The temple of Edfu was built during the Ptolemaic Period.

The Roman emperors too, continued the policy of building temples in Egypt, thus ensuring the loyalty of the Egyptian clergy and a stable flow of grain out of the greatest granary of the world. The beginning of the Roman Period is one of the most prosperous in Egypt: new cities were built and the land was considered of great importance to the world.

As part of the Roman Empire, Egypt was also more open to the world than before. Although it had admitted its share of foreigners in the past, it had always clung to its own culture and to its own ideas. Since the conquest by Alexander the Great, however, it became more and more a Hellenistic state, with a Hellenistic culture, and as a Roman province, it was also more open to the ideology that would finally strike the mortal blow to the millennia old Ancient Egyptian civilisation: Christianity.

During the first centuries A.D., Egypt was very slowly being converted to this new religion. Soon, the old temples would be closed and converted into monasteries or churches. The images of old gods and kings, meant to preserve the creation, were considered as demonic by the christians and were destroyed. The papyri that were kept in the temples’ libraries were proved an interesting fuel to help the burning down of the temples.

When the Roman Empire was divided into two parts and Egypt became a part of the Byzantine Empire, most of its population had converted to Christianity. The only temple with an ancient cult was the temple of Isis on the island of Philae. Although this last Egyptian temple had coexisted peacefully with the new Christian cult, rumours were spread in the beginning of the 6th century A.D. that this maginificent temple served to worship the devil through human sacrifice. Its closing by force of arms in 535/537 A.D. meant the definite end of the Ancient Egyptian civilisation.


November 28, 2009 - Posted by | Ancient Egyptian panorama

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