The Aegyptiaca Project: Ecumene and economy in the Horizon of religion

The Aegyptiaca Project: Ecumene and Economy in the Horizon of Religion


In the absence of adequate written evidence the history of contacts in the eastern Mediterranean during the Geometric and Archaic periods is largely based on our knowledge and evaluation of imports and their archaeologically visible influence in indigenous material horizons. These imports are often examined alongside patterns of transmission of technology and craftsmanship, in an attempt to understand the gradual orientalisingawakening of the Aegean that reached its apogee in the 7th century BC. Egyptian iconography reached the Greeks via two main channels of communication or cultural networks: direct contact of Greeks, mainly from the Asia Minor and East Greek areas with Egypt, and via the intermediary of Phoenician artifacts, that spread all over the Mediterranean during the orientalising and archaic periods and linked the Syrian/Phoenician coast to Italy and Sicily. In addition to that, the establishment of a Greek colony at Naukratis, in the Egyptian Delta, facilitated to a great extent an undeniably great impact on one civilization to the other, which went both ways, at it is revealed in a variety of artistic and literary modes.

The AeP focuses on the religious Aegyptiaca, the Egyptian and egyptianising objects of a religious nature from the archaic sanctuaries in the Aegean and mainland Greece. The importance of these objects within the development of the Greek culture is obvious from the fact that they generated a cultural wave of Egyptianisation. The scope of this project is to investigate the religious semantics of these donations and to re-evaluate the Egyptian cultural values in the Aegean world during the first half of the first millennium BC.

The functionality and contextualization of these objects within the broader nexus of the international relations of the seventh and sixth centuries BC, must be seen as an epitome of the continuous attempts by the Saite kings of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty to re-establish a political and social link with major cultic centers in the Aegean and the Levant. Although no information on the ideological component of these votive offerings survives, the locally manufactured egyptianising objects clearly exemplify that Greeks had gained insight into Egyptian religious beliefs. Thus, they were probably familiar with the significance of at least some of these objects and the magical connotations they carried. Even if theseobjects were not used in the precise manner that they should have been back in Egypt, they were regarded as highly precious and venerated objects, having been assigned a whole new function and identity within a different cultural environment. The objects themselves have not been changed; only the nature of its reception – to Egypt they were exports, while to Greece they were imports – and possibly its status and worth. They were adapted to the international syncretistic religious background of the receptive culture. The importance of the Aegyptiaca within the praxis of the Greek culture is obvious from the fact that they generated an enormous cultural wave of egyptianization in the Aegean world. Rhodes is the place of the strongest Egyptian impact on the Greek material culture and thus probably the mentality too. Especially for the production of Egyptian style faiences a Rhodian workshop is well known.

Our initial research on the votive offerings from the Rhodian sanctuaries is now further expanded to cover all Aegyptiaca of a religious nature from the Aegean and mainland Greece of the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The great majority of these objects are somewhat related to the sacral field, but not exclusively restricted to it. Right from the start we can notice a complex interplay between the sacral, the political and economic field. In general, we can distinguish four socially different types of sacral Egyptian/egyptianising donations. These semiophores may be: stately Egyptian, private Egyptian, stately Greek, private Greek. Predominant among these objects are faience figurines in the shape of Egyptian divinities, demonic entities (e.g. the lion-headed dwarf-god/demon Bes), hybrid animals and symbols.

Methodolody and aims

The proposed project seeks to continue and develop further this research in a more structured way. More specifically, it aims at:

  • a complete electronic database with proper description and classification of the objects, definition of their provenance (with the contribution of petrograhic and neutron activation analyses), its typological and chronological assessment (the latter will put special emphasis on the attempt to establish a relative chronological sequence) and recognition of local workshops;
  • the analysis and re-evaluation of the Egyptian cultural and religious semantics (religious values, icons and identities; demonic motifs either genuinely Egyptian or adopting hybrid forms with clear Egyptian characteristics; aspects of religious symbolism and transmission of knowledge) in these objects and the decorative arts of the Greeks of the archaic era; these data should be compared and confronted to the available Egyptian evidence from Egypt proper;
  • the analysis of creative misreadings in the adaptation of foreign elements;
  • the study and re-evaluation of the Egyptian cross-cultural interactivity with the Aegean world in the sphere of economy and religion.

Project deliverables so far

  1. P. Kousoulis, ‘Greek Aegyptiaca and the issue of “egyptianisation” in the Archaic Greek religion: questions on cultural diffusion and appropriation’. Paper to be delivered in the XIth International Congress of Egyptologists, Florence, Italy, 24-30 August 2015.
  2. P. Kousoulis, ‘The materiality of the Egyptian magical and popular beliefs in the early Iron Age eastern Mediterranean: questions on cultural diffusion and local adaptations of the religious Aegyptiaca’. Paper to be delivered at the International Conference “Egyptian and Jewish Magic in Antiquity: Contexts, Contacts, Continuities and Comparisons” [EJMA], which is organized by the Tel Aviv University and Bonn University, Bonn, 6-9 July 2015.
  3. P. Kousoulis, ‘Defining “egyptianisation” and “orientalisation” in the religious motifs and popular beliefs of archaic Greece: the case of Aegyptiaka reconsidered”. Paper delivered at the one-day symposium Defining “Foreignness” in the Early Iron Age Mediterranean, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 9 May 2014.
  4. Π. Κουσούλης, ‘Έλληνες στην Αίγυπτο, Αιγύπτιοι στη Ρόδο στα χρόνια των βασιλέων της Σάιδας’. Ομιλία στο πλαίσιο της θεματικής ενότητας Οι Επιστήμες της Αρχαιολογικής Ανακάλυψης τουΒ’ Κύκλου Εισαγωγικών Διαλέξεων του Πανεπιστημίου Αιγαίου σε συνεργασία με το Δήμο Ροδίων, Ρόδος, 1 Φεβρουαρίου 2014.
  5. P. Kousoulis and M. Stefanakis, ‘Researching the past: the projects of the Department of Mediterranean Studies in Archaeology and Egyptology’. Paper delivered at the First Research Meeting of the University of the Aegean and the Egee University entitles “Aegean Routes”, Ege University, Izmir, 16-17 May 2013.
  6. P. Kousoulis, ‘Rhodes before the Saite Kings: Egyptian relations with Rhodes and the Dodecanese during the Ramesside Period’, in M. Collier and S. Snape (eds.), Ramesside Studies in Honour of K.A. Kitchen festschrift, Bolton: Rutherford Press 2011, 283-92.
  7. P. Kousoulis and L. Morenz, ‘The Rhodian Aegyptiaka Project: a progress report on the socio-political and religious interactions between Egypt and the Dodecanese in the 1st millennium BC’, in P. Kousoulis (ed.), Tenth International Congress of Egyptologists, Rhodes 22-29 May 2008, Abstracts of Papers, Rhodes: University of the Aegean 2008, 137.
  8. P. Kousoulis and L. Morenz, ‘The Rhodian Aegytiaka Project: a progress report on the socio-political and religious interactions between Egypt and the Dodecanese in the 1st millennium BC’. Paper delivered at the Tenth Internatioal Congress of Egyptologists, organised by the University of the Aegean, the International Association of Egyptologists and the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Rhodes, 22-29 May 2008.
  9. P. Kousoulis, ‘The Rhodian Aegytiaka Project: some questions of political and religious adaptations in the 1st millennium BC’. Paper delivered at the Second British Egyptological Conference organised by the University of Liveropol and the Egypt Exploration Society, Liverpool, 14-16 March 2008.
  10. P. Kousoulis, ‘Religious semantics of the Egyptian relations with Rhodes and the Dodecanese in the Late Period’. Paper delivered at the International Conference on the Occation of Honouring Prof. Dr. Abd el-Halim Nur el-Din, organised by Cairo University, Alexandria University and the Netherlands Institute in Cairo, Cairo and Alexandria, 10-12 April 2007.
  11. P. Kousoulis and L. Morenz, ‘Ecumene and economy in the horizon of religion: Egyptian donations to Rhodian sanctuaries’, in M. Fitzenreiter (ed.), Das Heilinge und die Ware: Eigentum, Austausch und Kapitalisierung im Spannungsfeld von Ökonomie und Religion, IBAES VII, London: Golden House Publications 2007, 179-92.
  12. H. Apostola, Hybrid demoninc entities in Egypt and the Aegean during the 7th and 6th c. BC, PhD Dissertation, University of the Aegean, in preparation.

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