Tag Archives: egypt

Images of Egyptian Gods on Coins

With its range of hawk-headed and half-mummified deities, the Egyptian pantheon has inspired devotion and intrigue for millennia. Egyptians were drawing, painting, and carving images of their gods well before the first pharaohs, over five thousand years ago. While coined money was not a regular part of the Egyptian economy until the third century BCE, Egyptian religious symbols featured on even the earliest coins. The gods of Egypt and their associated iconographies continued to be seen on the coins of Hellenistic kingdoms and throughout the Roman empire, until as late as the fourth century CE.

The Egyptian god Khepri, for instance, features on some of the earliest coinage, albeit in an indirect way. Khepri is represented as a scarab, or dung beetle. The ancients projected the image of this dung-rolling insect onto the heavens and imagined Khepri as a divine beetle pushing the orb of the sun across the daytime sky. Amulets, seals, and signet rings were therefore often made in the shape of scarabs, sanctified by this holy conveyor of the sun (fig. 1).

Figure 1

The significance and popularity of scarab amulets across the Mediterranean were such that the Lydians and Ionian Greeks in the archaic period (7th–5th centuries BCE) were familiar with both genuine Egyptian scarabs and Egyptianizing “imitations” (Hogarth, p. 205-207). The scarab form translated naturally to the novel medium of coinage and scarabs are found on the obverses of several types of early electrum coins. These include a 1/48 stater in the collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (fig. 2) and a larger denomination now at the British Museum (fig. 3).

Figure 2
Figure 3

With the spread of Alexander the Great’s empire into Egypt and subsequent Ptolemic rulership, Egyptian religious symbols began to appear on Hellenistic royal coin issues. A ram’s head wearing a headdress is featured on gold staters and silver tetradrachms minted at Memphis, Price type numbers 3963 and 3964, respectively. A beautiful example of one of these staters in the collection of the ANS was discovered in a hoard outside of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, far from its origins in Egypt (fig. 4). 

Figure 4

The ram symbol is either Amun-Re, a principal sun god, or Khnum, a ram-headed creator and protector god, seen here in objects now at the Brooklyn Museum (fig. 5) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 6).

Figure 5
Figure 6

The headdress with corkscrew ram’s horns, a double feather, and central sun disk are common attributes of several gods, including the composite god Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, who had an important cult at Memphis (fig. 7). The headdress evoked divine kingship and pharaonic authority and Hellenistic kings sought to imbue themselves with this kind of power. Much later, an image of Ptah-Sokar-Osiris holding a scepter is shown on Roman Hadrianic coinage, perhaps invoking a similar claim to a divine right to rule (fig. 8).

Figure 7
Figure 8

Religious practices around the Mediterranean were dynamic. They reacted to and reflected shifting political realities. Different gods worshipped in different polities were occasionally equated and then worshiped as a unit. This process of merging—called syncretism—gave Egyptian gods new, multivalent qualities.

The gods Isis and Osiris are prime examples of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman religious syncretism. Egyptian mythology had it that Osiris was a primordial pharaoh who had been murdered and dismembered by his jealous brother. His wife, Isis, reassembled his body parts, which had been strewn along the Nile, and revived him. Thereafter, Osiris ruled over the underworld as king, further informing why Ptah-Sokar-Osiris is shown partially mummified on the coin above (fig. 8). After Isis resurrected Osiris, they had a son called Horus. After challenging his fratricidal uncle, Horus became the god of the living pharaoh and a sky god, usually shown as a hawk-headed man. These stories tied Osiris to kingship and death, and Isis to magic and motherhood.

When merged with Greco-Roman deities, Osiris and Isis became stock representatives of a host of “Egyptian” concepts: healing, mystical language, the afterlife, astrology, and the Nile, among others. The god Sarapis—a unique amalgam of Osiris, Greek Zeus and Hades, and a number of Egyptian solar deities—was consistently depicted on Roman coins (fig. 9). A bust of Serapis features on the reverse of a bronze AE2 of Constantine (fig. 10), a continuation of the same reverse type issued under Maximinus Daia at Alexandria (fig. 11). The related cults of Isis and Serapis became so popular that temples were dedicated to them on the Campus Martius in Rome.

Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

Instead of his avian iteration, Horus is often shown on Roman coins in his incarnation as a human child, a figure called Harpocrates. Harpocrates, as a god of children and secrecy, is shown making a shushing gesture on the reverse of a coin of Antoninus Pius (fig. 12). Isis holds Harpocrates on denarii of Septimius Severus (fig. 13) and they stand flanking two busts of other Egyptian divinities in bronze drachms of Trajan (fig 14).

Figure 12
Figure 13
Figure 14

Another Egyptian god of death showcased on Roman coins was the psychopomp Anubis. Anubis, who was shown in Egyptian art as a jackal-headed god, led the souls of the dead through the underworld and was invoked during the ritual preparation of physical bodies for burial. He is shown on a bronze AE4 of Constantine (fig. 15).

Figure 15

He is holding a caduceus—a symbol of Hermes, a psychopomp from the Greek tradition—and a sacred rattle from Egyptian rituals, called a sistrum. While the instrument was originally tied to the Egyptian fertility goddess Hathor, Hathor was frequently assimilated to Isis, even in Egypt (fig. 16). Ultimately, sistra became catch-all visual cues for the land of Egypt itself and a symbol of the personification of Egypt, Aegyptos. Aegyptos is shown resembling Isis on a denarius of Hadrian, reclined and shaking a sistrum (fig. 17).

Figure 16
Figure 17

The thousand years of Egyptian religious imagery on coins continued an already thousands-of-years old artistic tradition. Over the centuries, these symbols bore various meanings for different communities at different times. They were used by issuing authorities to display piety and power, as well as to simply reflect popular forms. From Khepri to Isis to Aegyptos herself, there is a lot more to learn about Egypt’s myths and symbols and how they were engaged with at different points in antiquity. The gods of Egypt, on these coins and elsewhere, continue to raise interesting and important questions about how symbolism and syncretism function in religion and in art.

Mahmoud Mukhtar’s Egypt’s Reawakening As Seen on a Banknote

Egyptian banknote, 25 piastres, 1978
Egyptian banknote, 25 piastres, 1978

The history of images depicted on Arab banknotes is a study of visualizing modern nationalism. Egypt, for instance, issued its first banknotes on April 3, 1899 while it was still under British occupation (1882–1952). Over the course of the twentieth century to date, Egyptian banknotes showed images either of famous Egyptian mosques or of Pharaonic sculptures. The 2010 Egyptian Banknote is emblematic of this combination of a religious landmark and antiquity. On one side, the note depicts the mosque complex of Sultan Hasan, and on the other it shows Great Sphinx of Giza built during the Old Kingdom. The ANS also has several earlier examples of related paper currency (2011.47.6). While Egypt continued to modernize, its Islamic and Pharaonic histories not only animated the nation’s landscapes, but also defined its identity.

Egyptian banknote, 100 pound, 2010
Egyptian banknote, 100 pound, 2010

100-pounds-egypt-rev

Egyptian banknote, 1 pound, 1960 (ANS 2011.47.6).

Mahmoud Mukhtar’s Egypt’s Reawakening (Nahḍat Miṣr) is an especially rare image of a work of art found on a modern Arab banknote. According to art historian Alex Dika Seggerman’s research, Mukhtar (1891–1934) first sculpted a model of Egypt’s Reawakening in 1920 as a commemorative work for the landmark 1919 revolution of Egypt. Mukhtar made the model in Paris for the 1920 Salon of French Artists. Egyptian students visiting Paris were moved by its symbolism and came back to Cairo to campaign for its large-scale public commission. The sculpture made of locally sourced granite was eventually installed outside of Cairo’s main train station in 1928, and subsequently moved outside of Cairo University in 1955.

Mahmoud Mukhtar, Egypt’s Reawakening (Nahḍat Miṣr), granite

In Egypt’s Reawakening a strong Egyptian peasant woman (fallāḥa) opens her veil to listen to the cries and hopes of the Egyptian public.[1] With her steady hand she—the woman as nation—is connected to the symbolic historical artifact. This uplifting image of strength appeared on the 25-piastre (qirsh) banknote that had a short-lived issue from 1967 to 1976. The first issue of this currency (1967–1969) also featured a 50-piastres note with the al-Azhar mosque on one side and a statue of Ramses II on the other, consistent with the mosque/Pharaonic combination that dominates most of Egyptian currency.

While the gesture to Mukhtar’s nationalist sculpture on an Egyptian banknote may be seen as remarkable, its Pharaonic imagery assimilates it into the broader canon of designs for paper money. Although the depictions of Ramses II or the Great Sphinx are of great ancient sculptures, they are mediated through their modern designs appearing on paper money codifying them as part of a nationalist vocabulary. Mukhtar’s sculpture materializes these forms with another layer of mediation by adding a reminder of the present, the peasant woman, and demonstrates how powerful imaginings can become a poignant national symbol when evoking the past as a vision for the future.

[1] For an erudite analysis of this sculpture see Seggerman 2014.

For further reading on Mukhtar see:

Seggerman, Alexandra Dika. 2014. “Mahmoud Mukhtar: ‘The first sculptor from the land of sculpture.” World Art 4:1, 27–46.

ibid. “Mahmoud Mokhtar.” Mathaf Encyclopedia of Modern Art and the Arab World.

War Of Queitus

There was a significant “Third Revolt” of the Jews during the reign of the emperor Trajan (98–117 AD). This war took place between the Jewish War (First Revolt: 66–70 AD) and the Bar Kokhba War (Second Revolt: 132–135 AD).

It was called “the war of Quietus” and took place between the years 115 and 117 AD. It was fought in Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, but apparently not in Judaea.

More accurately, the “war of Quietus” was a series of revolts. These revolts were likely the direct results of both the aftermath of the reign of Domitian (who was especially hard on Christians and Jews) as well as attacks under Trajan’s rule on both Christian and Jewish leaders.

We do not know a great deal about the “war of Quietus,” and one reason is that there is not any known numismatic material that references this war. By comparison, the numismatic evidence from the First Revolt consists of both the coins of the Jews of the period, as well as the JUDAEA CAPTA coins of the Flavians, which reflect a great deal on their view of Rome’s victory.

Bar Kokhba’s coins are likewise very important to our knowledge of the so-called Second Revolt. Indeed, the first name of Bar Kokhba, “Simon” was known ONLY from his coins until 40 years ago—1960 to be exact—when the Bar Kokhba letters, discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, were discovered and translated.

Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)
Bar Kokhba bronze coin with the name of Simon. (Image © by David Hendin)

After Domitian’s harsh rule, his successor, Nerva, was less abusive to his subjects.

There is no doubt that at this time in history there was quite a lot of animosity against the Jews. If you don’t believe it, read the very anti-Jewish first-century historian Tacitus, who in small part stated: “The other practices of the Jews are sinister and revolting, and have entrenched themselves by their very wickedness.”

Early in the second century, under Trajan’s rule, the head of the Judaeo-Christian Church, Simeon, son of Cleophas, was executed by the Roman governor of Judaea.

Furthermore, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, a leading gentile Christian, was sent to Rome and executed about the year 110. Grant describes him as “the first significant Christian churchman.” (At this point in the history of Christianity there were both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. Originally Christianity was an offshoot of Judaism, thus the earliest Christians needed first to be Jews. Later, as Paul spread the gospel throughout the world, he preached that non-Jews could convert directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first.)

The reasons for these executions are not clear, but they are probably part of a religious persecution by Rome that also underscored the Jewish unrest.

In 110, Trajan moved against Parthia, thus ending a 50-year peace that Nero had established. The Parthians had been weakened by the new and powerful Kushan kingdom in eastern Iran. A few years later, Trajan also annexed Armenia, and moved his armies into upper Mesopotamia and Adiabene. Adiabene is a country of special interest, since its ruling dynasty (led by Queen Helena) had voluntary converted to Judaism in the first century. (Helena’s tomb stands today in East Jerusalem, it is known as the “Tomb of the Kings.)

During these various military operations, a large number of Jewish communities came under Trajan’s control.

The first uprising came in Cyrenaica, where a Jewish king named Lukuas (also called Andrew) violently attacked the local Greek governments and Roman provincial authorities—all of whom had been weakened in favor of Trajan’s Parthian campaigns.   Cassius Dio painted a grim picture of Jewish atrocities, culminating with the Jews forcing the Romans and Greeks to fight with wild animals, or as gladiators in the arena. This sounds almost as if the Jews were exacting revenge for similar fates suffered by so many Jewish captives in Rome some 45 years earlier after the First Revolt.

The outbreak had meanwhile spread to Cyprus, and Eusebius, the “father of church history” reports its capital Salamis was laid waste by them. There is no information about how the Cyprus revolt was ended, but we know of the consequence, Cassius Dio reports that from that time forward Jews were not allowed to appear on the island, under penalty of death. Violent fighting also followed in Egypt and the synagogue of Alexandria, said to be a marvel of Egyptian architecture, was destroyed. To quell these Jewish outbreaks, Trajan’s first move was to call in a general named Martius Turbo. By repeated onslaughts against the Jews he overcame the rebellions in Cyprus, Egypt, and Cyrenaica.

To oppose the Jews closer to his own army, in the district of the Euphrates, Trajan turned to his favorite general, Lucius Quietus, a Moorish prince, known for his unpleasant disposition.

Emil Shurer writes in The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ that “with barbarous cruelty Quietus executed his commission and laid waste to the mostly Jewish towns of Nisibis and Edessa. Thousands of Jews were put to death. Thus was order restored, and Quietus, in recognition of his services, was appointed governor of Palestine.”

Even though accounts of the “war of Quietus” are skimpy, some sources say that as many as half a million casualties occurred amongst the foes.

Apparently as a reward for his good work, in about 117 AD Trajan sent Quietus to Judaea as governor of Palestine with unlimited power. This seems to indicate that there was also a certain level of Jewish rebellion in Palestine. However, the main Jewish insurrections at this time were clearly outside of Judaea. On the other hand, it is quite probable that the Jewish restiveness in Judaea at the time was the precursor to the Bar Kokhba War which erupted only 14 years later in 131/132 AD.

Possibly partly because of the Jewish uprisings, Trajan was finally unsuccessful in his Parthian campaign and he eventually had to give up on his grandiose plan to turn Parthia into a Roman province. At this time Trajan became very sick. He was taken to Antioch, and died a few months later in Cilicia. His wife, Plotina, told the army that before his death Trajan had named Hadrian as his adopted son and successor.

When Hadrian became emperor, he removed Quietus from this post, probably because the Moorish General had favored Trajan’s expansionism, which was not Hadrian’s style. Quietus was executed in Rome the following year, accused of participating in a conspiracy against the emperor.

I discussed the “war of Quietus” with Rabbi Benjamin Yablok, a numismatist and Talmudic scholar. He pointed out that the “war of Quietus” had at least one interesting, long-lasting effect on Jewish tradition. Based on writings in the Talmud, Rabbi Yablok explains, when Jewish women were married they would wear golden tiaras or crowns to the ceremony. But, “in commemoration of the misfortunes caused by Lucius Quietus, the Rabbinical sages decreed that brides should no longer wear crowns.” Jewish women have not worn golden marriage crowns since that time.

There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115-117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)
There is no numismatic evidence of the Jewish War of Quietus, 115–117 AD. However, this eastern issue semis of Trajan gives him the title PARTHICO “The Parthian” which refers to his early success against the Parthians during this period. The Jewish Talmud refers to this denomination as a “mismis.” (Image courtesy cngcoins.com)

by David Hendin, ANS Adjunct Curator