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The Egyptian Civilization during the Ptolemaic Period

Egypt in the Ptolemaic Period led a life full of different experiences emerging from the different aspects of life. The Ptolemaic influence on the Egyptian style of life was easily recognized. This can be easily noticed in the religious, economic, trade, social and cultural life.

– Religious Life in Egypt Under the Ptolemaic Rule

The Egyptians paid great attention to the religious life throughout its history, and the Ptolemies were well aware of this fact. The Ptolemies tried to prove their great respect to the Ancient Egyptian religion, and by attempting to show great toleration towards different beliefs. There are several examples which attest this toleration this starting from the time of Alexander the Great onwards. Alexander the Great confirmed his relation with god Amon and he bore three titles just like Pharaohs. That is, the Ptolemies continued to bear the titles of the Egyptian Pharaohs. We also have Ptolemy I who bore two titles. Also Ptolemy II bore five titles and broke the law or the tradition and married his half-sister. The Ptolemies made their coronations following the Ptolemaic and the Egyptian rituals of coronation, but the first three Ptolemies didn’t perform their coronation in Memphis, although Ptolemy IV was crowned in Memphis. Cleopatra VII used to be identified with Isis. Ptolemies modeled their manners of those of the Egyptians in building temples in Egypt with Ptolemaic touches. They built temples all over Egypt especially in Upper Egypt in Edfu and Kumombo. They restored some of the old Egyptian temples which provides an evidence of their respect to the Ancient Egyptian beliefs. The Ptolemies kept the relations with the priests, and it was based on mutual benefits between each side. The Ptolemies kept good relations with priests to guarantee their loyalty and to guarantee that the priests would keep the people silent. The priests, on the other hand, wanted to keep themselves safe from the Ptolemies. The relation between the two sides passed through two phases: 1. The first phase is represented by controlling the priests’ power as well as the revenue of the temples by appointing civilians in the temples to be responsible for counting the offerings that came in and out of the temples. There are two pieces of evidence that attest this control: the Canopus Decree (that aimed at gaining more benefits from Ptolemy III in 237 BC) and the Rosetta stone (in the reign of Ptolemy V in 197 BC). 2. In the second phase, the influence of priests increased due to the weakness that struck the Ptolemies, especially after the reign of Ptolemy IV. That time witnessed the priests showing great control on temples once again. The priests of Memphis kept good relations with Ptolemies, but the priests of Thebes didn’t care about Ptolemies. The Ptolemies also deified their kings whether in Egypt or outside it. For instance, Ptolemy I deified Alexander the Great. People of Rhodes deified Ptolemy I, and called him “Soter” (which means “the Savior”) admitting that he saved them. Ptolemy II elevated his father and mother and declared that they were a god and a goddess in 271 – 270 BC. The Greeks who lived in Egypt were affected by the Ancient Egyptian religion, and they associated Greek gods with Egyptian gods For instance, Amoun was associated with the Greek god Zeus. But Greeks didn’t believe in worshiping animals, as they appreciated the human beings. Considering it disapproving, they abstained from worshiping the animal deities marking a big difference between the two religions. At the arrival of Alexander the Great, there had already been Jews in Egypt. They frequently tried to get the Greek nationality by joining the gymnasium, but their attempts never met with success. The Jewish religion existed in Egypt side by side to the Ancient Egyptian religion. Ptolemy II ordered that the Torah would be translated. When its translation was finished, it was given the name the “Septuagint Translation”, since he ordered seventy translators to perform the task. Jews lived in the forth neighborhood, called Delta, in Alexandria. Ptolemies didn’t persecute the Jews. Rather, most of the Ptolemies dealt with them with tolerance. But Ptolemy IV represents an exception as he liked Dionysis, god of wine, and ordered the Egyptians and the Jews to worship him. With the Jews’ refusal to Ptolemy IV’s order, the persecution of the Jews started. Religion at the Ptolemaic Period witnessed a mixture of gods and goddesses worshiped by both the Egyptians and the Greeks. Ptolemy I mixed both Apis and Osiris to get god Serapis. Together with Isis and Harpocrates (which was the Roman form of Horus), god Serapis made a triad. They erected numerous temples for Serapis (like the one which still exists in Alexandria till now). However, this didn’t unify both religions together. Rather, each side considered it a completion to their religions. In the Roman Period, there was a conflict between the Pagan Deity and Christianity, and it ended with the declaration of the latter being the official religion in the reign of Constantine I.

– Social Life in Egypt Under the Ptolemaic Rule

The main aim of Ptolemy I was to establish a country based on Eastern principals in a Greek style. That is, in spite of the Ptolemies’ desire to mix with the Egyptian society, they wanted to keep their own Greek style. The Ptolemies opened the door widely for the foreigners especially the Greeks. Being welcomed in Egypt, the Greeks were chosen to occupy the high positions. It was the Greeks who developed the city of Alexandria and cities in Upper Egypt and kept the city of Naucratis (which was built in the Late Period). The Greeks did not exclusively dwell these cities, rather, they existed all over Egypt, and new villages were built for them. They were also keen to build a number of gymnasiums. Gymnasiums were complete institutes containing social, cultural, and sport activities. One had to be a Greek citizen to be a member of a gymnasium. It’s said that the Jews wanted to join the gymnasiums in an attempt to become Greek citizens, but their attempt always failed. At first, Greeks or Ptolemies mistreated the Egyptians considering themselves superior to them. Later, this way of thinking changed from the time of King Ptolemy IV, as the Egyptians started to learn Greek and the Greeks started to learn the Egyptian language. What marks this change is that the Greek citizens also gave Egyptian names to their children and respected the Egyptian gods. Not only did the Greek citizens show signs of this change but also soldiers and officers. At first, unlike the Greeks who enjoyed everything, the Egyptian officers lost all their rights. But from the time of the Battle of Raphia, the Egyptians showed great professionalism in this battle which made them start gaining their rights once again. As for the Egyptians administrators, they lost all their positions for the Greeks, and most of them kept low rank positions with very low salaries just to keep them alive. In spite of this bad situation, Egyptians tried hard to keep their laws and traditions: they continued to worship their gods and the Egyptian temples remained sacred places. Even those who learned the Greek language and culture still kept all their old traditions.

– Cultural Life in Egypt under the Ptolemaic Rule

The Greeks showed great interest in culture and education that Alexandria– and no longer Athens – became the capital of culture. The School of Alexandria played an important role in different domains (such as science and math). Some of the well known scientists were Euclides who wrote a book in geometry, and Archimedes who proposed the Theory of Floating. The building of the zoo during the reign of Ptolemy II and bringing animals from outside Egypt helped a lot in the development of biology and zoology. The School of Alexandria concentrated as well on geography and history, the popular approach that appeared at that time was the history of the historian Manetho. As for literature, there was a style known as the Alexandrian literature. The popular literary work was “Iliad and Odyssey” written by Homer, as well as poetic and critical works. Another important cultural center was the library located at Alexandria which contained the largest number of books in different languages in many domains. The manuscripts reached about a half million books. In addition, there was another smaller library attached to the Serapeum. The library of Alexandria continued to work until it was burnt in 48 BC, during the war between Caesar and Ptolemy XIII.

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