Sunday, July 10, 2011

Page 29: A Glorious Decline: The Coming of Christianity and Islam

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In the late 3rd century AD, the Temple of Luxor at Thebes
was used as a garrison and administrative center
by the Romans and was adopted to serve the cult
of emperor worship.

In AD  383 pagan temples throughout the Roman empire were closed by order of the emperor Theodosius. A number of further decree and edicts, culminating in those of Theodosius in AD 391 and Valentinian III in AD 435, sanctioned the persecution of pagans and destruction of their religious structures, and soon ancient Egyptian temples were shunned and empty. The ancient shrines were quarried for stone, or in some cases overgrown by surrounding areas of housing or even purged of much of their decoration and utilized as chapels and basilicas of the new faith (page 194). For the most part however, the early Christians rejected the pagan buildings and many were destroyed by austere figures such as Shenute, a 5th-century monk whose fortress-like monastery in Middle Egypt was built from the stone of nearby temples.

Eventually Christianity itself was challenged by Islam. In AD 639 an Arab army crossed Sinai and entered Egypt , wrestling the country from Byzantine control. For a time the caliphs, Muhammad's successors as rulers of Islam, were content to run Egypt through a Coptic administration, but eventually the majority of Egyptians converted to the new religion (for a reason or another). Sometimes existing temple structures were used as the setting for festivals in the new era or were adapted, as Luxor Temple, where a mosque was built atop the earlier Christian and pagan structures (page 167). But, by and large the processes of dissolution continued.

The few ancient Egyptian temples which were abandoned and which were distant from major population centers fared best and remain today as the most perfectly preserved examples of ancient Egypt's religious structures. Eventually, Egypt's temples and other monuments of her pharaonic past became as mysterious to the Egyptians themselves as they were to the outside world. Whether covered by drifting sands or standing in full view, Egypt's temples were lost and would have to wait to be rediscovered.

In Roman times the entrance to the inner temple area at Luxor was sealed and a niche and flanking columns built as a focus for the Roman religious use of the temple.