Whether kings, revered individuals, or family members, the dead in Egypt have been venerated in some way throughout its history.
These exalted spirits were venerated not only as semi-divinities but also because they could intercede with the gods on behalf of the living. In Islamic Egypt, the spirits of the dead were seen as the figures closest to God. Their special status implied that prayers made through them were more effective.
The above is the theme of an exhibition entitled “Exalted Spirits: The Veneration of the Dead in Egypt through the Ages.” It is being held at a hall inside the Egyptian Museum in downtown Cairo.
Yasmin El Shazly, Deputy Director for Research and Programs at American Research Center in Egypt, told Majalla that the exhibition covers the veneration of deceased figures in Egypt from the Pharaonic era up to modern Egypt, using available diverse evidence such as texts, images as well as the living traditions.
“As a researcher, I would like to highlight the idea of continuity of beliefs as I see that ancient Egypt is still living in modern Egypt. It is important to emphasize that Egyptians are influenced by their ancient ancestors and that the ancient beliefs still exist between them,” El Shazly added.
The exhibition, which was open on November 9 and runs until February 9, is organized by the American Research Center in Egypt, The American University in Cairo, and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
“Of course in Islam, there is no worshipping of persons in the same way as the ancient Egyptians did, but the feelings and the relationship between the living and the dead are the same, that is, the living asking for intercession by the dead,” El Shazly added.
Kings, Queens and Prophets
In ancient Egypt, all kings were divine. But some were especially venerated, particularly after their death. A few, along with their families, became patrons of entire regions, acting as intercessors for its people. This tradition of veneration and intercession continued into the Coptic era with the Holy Family’s Journey to Egypt. The Virgin Mary was particularly honored. Although in Islam there is no rule of intercession, Muslims hold the Prophet Mohamed, his family, and the Awliya (saintly men and women) in high esteem.
A limestone stela was dedicated to King Amenhotep I (c. 1549-1524 BC) and his mother, Ahmose-Nefertari. Both were particularly revered by the workers and artisans who lived at Deir el-Medina, part of the Theban Cemetery in the north of the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, on the western bank of the Nile. The title of Ramses IV, who lived long after Amenhotep’s death, appears on the stela’s edge.
“This stela is supposed to be presented as a vow by an unknown person using the name of Ramses IV as a mediator between him and the deified king Amenhotep I,” Eman Abdel Hamid, the coordinator of the exhibition, told Majalla.
She added that the 50 artifacts displayed in the exhibition were collected from the Egyptian Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Coptic Museum during different periods of Egyptian history.
“The artifacts are not exhibited according to chronological order,” she said. “Work from the Pharaonic era is put inside the same vitrine with artifacts from the Coptic and Islamic periods to let the visitors observe the continuity and similarities in the thought of Egyptians regarding the topic of asking for intercession.”
Another artifact shows cloth from the Prophet’s tomb or Kaaba which dates back to the Ottoman period. The silk piece reveals how monarchs of Islamic Egypt competed to send coverings for the Prophet Mohamed’s tomb and the Kaaba to link themselves to the prophet as well as to show their devotion and receive blessings. The artifact highlights how they embellished the tomb with textiles, inscribed it with the shahada (proclamation of faith) in thuluth script.
On display also is part of the psalmody - the book of religious glorification of the Virgin Mary – which includes her biography with a focus on her virtues of modesty and love, especially for people in need.
“These manuscripts show how people honor the Virgin Mary and how they believe that she can intercede for them,” Abdel Hamid said about this 18th-century work.
The Adored: Saints and Celebrities
The most common intercessors are individuals with saintly powers who feature prominently in the life of every village, town, and city. During their lives, these individuals were celebrated for their accomplishments, religiosity, and miraculous powers, which persisted after their death.
An example from the Pharaonic period is the architect Imhotep, who designed the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara in Giza. He lived around 2700 BC and was defied in the beginning of the New Kingdom (c. 1570 BC). His cult reached its height in approximately 500 BC and continued into the early Roman era (30 BC – 641 AD). He was revered principally by architects, doctors, engineers, craftspeople, scholars, and inventors. A statue of him made of bronze, gold, silver is adorning the hall.
The tradition continued with the advent of Christianity and its many saints being established throughout Egypt.
An icon of Saint Theodore is decorated on both sides. On one side is the figure of St. Theodore holding a lance and a shield. Venerated from early times by Copts, his name means the gift of God. On the other side is the Archangel Gabriel, with traces of wings visible behind his back. Gabriel is famous as a guardian angel and the deliverer of good news.
For Muslims, Ahl Al-Beit (Prophet Mohamed’s family) are chief amongst Egypt’s patron saints followed by the Awliya. Egypt is rich in shrines commemorating and celebrating them, including that of Sayeda Zeinab and Hussein.
On display is an embroidered green silk textile which is a cover of the tomb of Sayed Ahmed el-Badawi, founder of the Badawiyya Sufi order. He was born in the Moroccan city of Fez in 1200. He traveled to Egypt and lived in Tanta, 94 km north of Cairo, until his death in 1276. He became an important sheikh in the city. His karamat (miracles associated with him) were quickly manifested, gaining him many followers.
The green textile on display was given by Khushyar Hanem, mother of Khedive Ismail (ruled between 1863 –1879), in order to be put on El-Badawi tomb in 1866.
A stunning ostrich egg dating back to the 19th century is on display with an inscription on it that reads “Knowledge is the light of God.” It highlights how Muslims and Christians commonly hung such eggs inscribed with apotropaic phrases in sacred places.
“It is the first time for the public to see this masterpiece,” Abdel Hamid said.
How were ancestor cults celebrated?
The rituals of veneration vary, encompassing shrines in houses, public shrines, festivals (mawlid), and cemetery visits. The most common way of veneration through Egyptian history has been at shrines which are sometimes attached to tombs. Rituals connected with shrines include pilgrimages, prayers, letters to the dead, making offerings, celebrating festivals, and consulting the exalted spirits as oracles.
“Until this day, some Egyptians are still putting letters to revered people at their mausoleums, asking them for blessings. This is the same thing which ancient Egyptians did,” El Shazly said.