History behind the Mysterious Fayum Portraits - Nayef Abouzaki

Portrait of a woman, c. 160-170 AD, British Museum

In the late 1880s, evidence of beautiful and mysterious portraits began to reach Western Europe and all that was known was that they came from Egypt (Malek 395). ‘Fayum Portraits’ is a name that has persisted in archaeology and art history to describe them, because more have been found in the Fayum region of Egypt more than anywhere else. The mysterious Fayum Portraits have marked a revolution in the way ancient Egyptian art is studied and understood. These portraits were done from live sittings during the youth of the sitter and kept in the home, and then they were placed on the face of the mummy upon the individual’s death. This tradition of drawing portraits was introduced to the Egyptian culture by the Greeks. The mummification processes and the unique funeral practices of ancient Egypt persisted despite the changes in ruling powers and civilizations. Nevertheless, these portraits were influenced by the geographical, religious, and social contexts of the Fayum region.

The Fayum is a low-lying area 40 miles south of Cairo, west of the Nile on high ground where the depression meets the desert, safely away from the vast expanse of water that appeared every year when the Nile flooded (Woldering 222). The Fayum region is called the ‘The Fayum Oasis’ even though it is not a true oasis since it depends on Nile water instead of underground springs and wells. This naturally protected area was favored by many ancient settlers due to its year-round warm climate and lush agricultural land. Many ancient immigrants were interested in this region; among them were the Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Libyans, and Jews.

After the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., large numbers of Greeks immigrated there (Woldering 33). After the fall of Cleopatra in 30 B.C., Egypt became a Roman province (Malek 396). In addition to the Greeks and Romans, rich immigrants from many other civilizations sought new life in Egypt. This immigration led to a population growth that reached its peak in the second century A.D., when most of these portraits were completed. Although all of the immigrants intermarried among each other and with the natives, the working class persisted as Egyptian and the upper and middle class remained of immigrant descent. Birth rates increased in Graeco-Roman Egypt; however infant mortality was high, too (Woldering 35). As the society prospered and became organized, more and more people were educated and were able to read and write. Therefore, legal and social contracts were more common. This was suggested by many of the Fayum portraits, such as ‘Hermione Grammatike’ as Figure 2. The title Grammatike signifies that she was a teacher of the rudiments of education. The portraits also denoted the worship of many gods for different occasions.
mummy portrait
Figure 2 (Doxiadis 51)

In a society where descendants of different civilizations intermingled together, there was a wide variety of religious practices, rituals, and mythologies. However, members of different civilizations, except the Jews and later the Christians, were able to assimilate one religious system with another and consequently one religious god with another. In the Egyptian cult of the dead, the Fayum portraits were by definition objects of worship since, as part of the mummies with which they were found, they were regarded as the immortal surrogate of the deceased. The dead men were identified with the god Osiris and the women with the god Isis (Woldering 228). Therefore, the portrait-bearing mummies were called by the god’s name. The mummies were considered to be essential for life after death according to Egyptian rituals and the portraits were considered a part of the Greek naturalistic tradition.

grave portrait
Figure 3 (Doxiadis 70)

The portraits in all of their variety greatly depicted this meeting between the Egyptian and the Greek beliefs. This is evident in a funeral hanging found in Saqqara (providence in Fayum), where on the left is the god Osiris and on the right is the black jackal-headed god Anubis (Woldering 229). These two figures are traditionally Egyptian; however the man in the center adopts a pose that was invented by the Greeks, where the weight of the body is on one leg. This pose depicts the change from life to death.

Another evidence of Egyptian influence is the use of gold on the portraits as a border or on the mummies to depict the gods; this is obvious in Figure 3.

The idea of the mummy portraits was sparked by the Greeks, yet the Egyptians shaped and modified it to fit their beliefs. The agreement between the two cultures was evident in all of the portraits. However, these portraits were not found all over Egypt and for that reason they were called the Fayum Portraits. The geographical importance of the Fayum oasis made it a special attraction to many of the rich immigrants. This region was very rich agriculturally since it was not far from the Nile; nevertheless, it was also protected geographically from the flooding of the Nile that occurred annually. The Fayum Portraits were a fair evidence of the intermingling between the Greek and the Egyptian beliefs, and the geographical importance of the Fayum region for ancient Egypt.

The Boy Eutyches
c. 100-150 AD

Works Cited

Doxiadis, Euphrosyne. The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Woldering, Irmgard. The Art of Egypt. New York: Crown Publishers, 1962.
Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2000.

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