Greco-Roman Egypt's contribution to the classical world

Egypt after the Pharaohs, 332 BC-AD 642, by Alan K. Bowman. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. 264 pp. $25. Illustrated. The Alexandrians ``show themselves forbearing and kindly towards the Jews, who for many years have dwelt in the same city and dishonour none of the rights observed by them in the worship of their God....'' Thus wrote the Roman emperor Claudius to the Alexandrians in the Greco-Roman period in Egypt. It's one of many quotations that enliven Alan K. Bowman's ``Egypt after the Pharaohs.''

Few realize that there was an Egypt that counted after the Pharaohs in the time slot covered by this book - from the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC to the Islamic invasion of Egypt in AD 642. Professor Bowman of Oxford University has examined thousands of ancient texts on Egyptian papyrus, as well as the writing of historians, geographers, and literary figures from that time. He's put it all together in this well-documented and illustrated (144 illustrations) history. His purpose is twofold: first, to make use of Egyptian rather than Greek sources, as has previously been the custom; and second, to demonstrate that it was during this period that Egypt made its most ``significant contribution to the classical world.''

The classical world as such did not include the mass of Egyptians. As a historian educated in the European tradition, Professor Bowman sees the period ``through the eyes of the dominant power'' - that is, on the basis of a mass of material written in Greek, but also translations of Coptic and demotic sources. Although he makes no sharp distinction between ``Egyptian'' and ``Greek'' in that period, Bowman hastens to add that ``...the importance of the Egyptian traditions - in language, culture, religion, and architecture - may stand in danger of being obscured, but they are in the landscapes, in the visible remains of the society, in the hieroglyphic, demotic and Coptic documents....''

It's a good thing the Egyptian traditions are in the landscape, because they are not much in evidence in Bowman's book. According to him, the supremacy of the Greco-Roman features was the most obvious mark of that period - even though he shows how they were fused with Pharaonic, pagan, Jewish, Byzantine, and Coptic Christian elements.

The book, divided into seven chapters, deals with geography, history, economy, politics, and the social and religious life of Egypt, first under the Greeks, then under the Romans, and finally under the Byzantines.

The narrative is enlivened with anecdotes. According to Caracalla's edict to the Greek Alexandrians in AD 215, ``...all Egyptians in Alexandria, especially countryfolk who have fled from other parts and can easily be detected, are by all manner of means to be expelled with the exception, however, of pig-dealers and river-boatmen....''!

Bowman argues that under these foreign rules, Egypt attained a level of prosperity and development that was not attained again until the 19th century. The evidence tells another, parallel story. He points out, for instance, that the Egyptians provided the grain needed to feed the people of Rome for over 350 years, until the foundation of Constantinople.

But, even though the Greco-Romans introduced a complex and sophisticated economic structure in Egypt - roads and canals and a monetary system - the natives were deprived of political freedom and kept at ``subsistence level.''

In the reign of Diocletian, the Great Persecution of the Christians was started, ending 10 years later in 311. And, even though the Coptic Christian Church grew powerful and was ``allowed'' to own property (by the latter half of the 4th century, 80 or 90 percent of the population was Christian), there continued to be bitter struggles between the Byzantine Bishops and Copts, which ended in the betrayal of Egypt into the hands of the Islamic army by a Chalcedonian bishop.

The history of the Egyptian people under Greek and Roman rule does not concern Bowman. His optic is limited by his archaeological sources, which he admits represent the literate, privileged, and ruling Greek and Roman elite. Nonetheless, this remains a valuable history. It presents a picture of daily life in an Egypt that was neither Greek nor Pharaonic but a fusion of interweaving cultures.

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