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Byzantine Antiquities

Ivory plaque depicting Dionysus
© BA Antiquities Museum/C. Gerigk Christoph Gerigk

Presentation of the department

The Byzantine section comprises a unique collection of daily life used objects which clearly reveals the characteristics of the Coptic art. This art, which is a popular Christian art restricted to Egypt, is in principle a religious form of art that tends to be symbolic and simple. The characters depicted are either inspired by the Holy Bible or represent eminent local Saints. The Coptic art neglected the third dimension, and human figures were portrayed in only two dimensions. The use of geometric motifs, which have a symbolic  religious connotation, was quite popular. The triangle, for instance, connotes the Holy Trinity. Animal figures, such as fish and floral motifs as vine branches, were widespread.

Ancient Egyptian Kings' list Byzantine Emperors' list (PDF)


Byzantine Period

The Byzantine era is closely related to Christianity.  Christianity reached Egypt during the first century A.D. when The Apostle Mark  the Evangelist came to Alexandria in 61 A.D to spread the Gospel.  In 68 A.D., Saint Mark decided to leave Alexandria and he therefore ordained Anianus (Hanania) the Bishop of Alexandria, who later became Patriarch after the martyrdom of Saint Mark.  Saint Mark is the founder and Bishop of the first church in Alexandria which is situated on the same spot ever since.  It is where the current Saint Mark Church (Morkosseya) is on the street called 'Kenisset El Aqbat' in downtown Alexandria. 

Up until the fourth century A.D., Christians were persecuted by the pagans, the worst persecution being at the hands of Emperor Diocletian (284-305A.D.).  In 303 A.D. Diocletian issued a general decree for the persecution of Christians, then three edicts to jail the Bishops and to torture them, as well as to kill Christians if they refused to renounce their faith. 

The Christians in Egypt suffered the most from persecution during that time, more so than anywhere else in the entire Roman empire.  Tertullian is claimed to have said that "if all the martyrs in the world were put on the plate of a scale, and the Egyptian martyrs on the other, the latter would be heavier".

The Coptic Calendar in fact starts at the time of Diocletian, the era of martyrs, its starting point being the year 284A.D.  The most famous martyr of that era is St. Mina The Miracle Worker (Mar Mina El Agaybi) who established a church in Mariout near Alexandria, now a famous Monastery by his Egyptian name.

Emperor Constantine Converts to Christianity

In the year 312 A.D., Emperor Constantine decides to embrace Christianity after an incident, that he himself is said to recount, according to Eusebius.  Constantine was engaged in battle with Emperor Maxentius which was fought on the Milvian bridge near Rome on the river Tiber.  It is said that Constantine saw a cross made of light in the sky on which was written, you win, this is the sign.  He then asked his soldiers to make the sign of the cross on their arms and to take it as their banner.  Constantine won the battle, as Maxentius fell into the river when the bridge collapsed and drowned.  Constantine entered Rome and the city greeted him and he became the sole ruler of the Western provinces of the Roman empire.

The Edict of Milan (313 A.D.)

Constantine decided after his victory over Maxentius to give full liberty to the Christians and to allow them to live according to their own laws.  He returned their properties and declared religious tolerance for all faiths.  This edict put an end to the torture and persecution which had afflicted Christians heretofore.

First Council of Nicea (325 A.D.)

When the controversy between Arius and Bishop Alexandros reached Emperor Constantine, regarding the nature or divinity of Jesus Christ, the Emperor called a meeting to spell out the Christian creed.  The Council of Nicea was attended by 318 bishops in the company of many priests, mostly from the eastern provinces.  Pope Silvester the First, Bishop of Rome, did not personally attend the council, but sent instead some of his priests to represent him.

The Nicean council came up with the creed or profession of faith that refuted the Arian theology.  It was drafted by Pope Athanasius of Alexandria.

Saint Pachomius Founder of Monasteries (323 A.D.)

Saint Pachomius was born in 290 A.D. and converted to Christianity while serving in the army.  He was 20 years old.  When he was released from the army, he chose the life of the ascetic which had been started by Saint Paul of Thebes and later by Saint Anthony.  However, it is Saint Pachomius who is credited with establishing the strict rules for communal monastic life, called Koinonia, which were translated into Greek and Latin and adopted in Europe by Benedict, the father of western monasticism.

Saint Pachomius initially lived his ascetic life in a deserted temple of Serapis, and the first monastery he established was near Dendera.

The End of Paganism (394 A.D.)

Emperor Theodosius forced the Roman Senate to abolish paganism in all its forms throughout the entire empire, east and west, and to enforce severe punishment to anyone embracing a religion other than Christianity or reverting from it or denouncing it.  He is therefore seen in history as the man who made Christianity the official religion of the State.

In 324 A.D., Emperor Constantine had managed to unify the empire under his aegis after defeating his co-regent Licinius and ruler of the east.  His victory was a welcome move for the Christians who had started to suffer again at the hands of Licinius who reneged on the Edict of Milan, and was punishing the Christians for supporting Constantine.

During the Byzantine era, many heresies appeared, the most famous being the Arian heresy.  Arius is believed to be of Lybian origin who studied at Antioch.  He became a Christian priest in Alexandria.  The heresy started in 318 A.D. which prompted Bishop Alexandros to convene a council of Egyptian clergy to strip Arius from his priestly role.

Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.)

The Council of Chalcedon, near Constantinople, was convened by the emperor in order to settle organisational and theological matters pertaining to the Christian Church.  A great number of churchmen, around 632 including 370 bishops, attended this council.

This council represents a turning point in the history of the Church, particularly Byzantine Rome, as Egypt and the Levant refused to adhere to its decisions.  The Church in the latter countries stood by the Monophysite creed and split from the Old and New Rome (Constantinople).  Following that council, Egypt decided to stop using the Greek language in its liturgy and to revert back to the ancient Egyptian language, which from that time on was known as the Coptic language.  The Coptic language is the ancient Egyptian language written in Greek letters with the addition of seven letters taken from the Demotic script which had no equivalent sounds in the Greek alphabet.

Persian Invasion of Alexandria (501 A.D.)

The Persians invaded Syria then marched on to invade Egypt.  They were able to advance in the Delta, however, they were stopped at the gates of Alexandria which became difficult for them to capture.  It would appear that the Persian army leader worried about the fact that he was far away from his base and supplies and he therefore decided to retreat.

The long siege of Alexandria resulted in a severe famine and Emperor Anastasius (491 – 518 A.D.) endeavoured to revive the city and to restore its buildings.  The famous Alexandrian lighthouse had been neglected for centuries by then.  He therefore ordered its restoration and care. 

Invasion of Alexandria (642A.D. – 22 Hejira)

Soon after securing the Babylon Fort in Old Cairo, the Muslim armies proceeded towards Alexandria.  They were met by Roman garrisons on several spots, but these were defeated.  Alexandria, however, proved a difficult city to besiege, as it is built along the sea and the Muslim armies had no ships.  Its fortified walls were also hard to penetrate, which made it difficult to approach, let alone to capture the city.  Thousands of soldiers were stationed inside its walls and were using mangonels to hurl projectiles at the invading army. 

When Constantine III took over the rule of Egypt after the death of his father Heraclius, he recalled Cyrus (who had previously negotiated with the Arabs at Fort Babylon)from exile for advice regarding the situation in Egypt and how best to defend it, but he died soon after.  His brother Heraclonas took the throne, together with his nephew Constans II, son of Constantine III, as co-emperor.  They decided to send Cyrus back to Egypt as their envoy to negotiate another treaty with the Arabs.  Cyrus had no choice but to surrender Egypt to the Arabs and to sign a treaty.

The new treaty was negotiated between Cyrus and the Arabs in November 641A.D.  Unlike the Babylon treaty, the new treaty allowed the Byzantines to completely withdraw from Egypt, carrying their soldiers, their worldly goods and money and their subjects out of Egypt with the proviso that the Muslims would not attack their churches.  The departure was to take place within eleven months of signing the treaty.

On 29th September 642 A.D. the Romans left Alexandria as agreed, and the Muslims peacefully took over the city with great joy.  Meanwhile, Cyrus died after signing the treaty and before the complete withdrawal of the Romans.  The Byzantines reassembled a fleet to win back Alexandria and in fact won it back in 645, but the Muslims captured the city again in 646.

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