History behind the Mysterious Fayum Portraits - Nayef
Portrait of a woman, c. 160-170 AD, British
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.
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
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
The Boy Eutyches
c. 100-150 AD
Doxiadis, Euphrosyne. The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. New
York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.
Woldering, Irmgard. The Art of Egypt. New York: Crown Publishers,
Malek, Jaromir. Egyptian Art. London: Phaidon Press, 2000.
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