Monday 9 February 2015

Roman Egypt at the Petrie Museum

by Caroline Lawrence

I was nosing about the treasure box that is the Petrie Museum last year when I overheard a father telling his little girl, 'You know, the Romans were in Egypt after the pharaohs.'  He was showing her one of the beautiful encaustic portraits done during the Roman period. I longed to give her my historical novel for kids set Roman Egypt, The Scribes from Alexandria.

I have filled it with fascinating facts about the Romans in Egypt, and wrapped up in a treasure quest full of danger, intrigue and romance. But I didn't have a copy of my book on me.

Instead, I convinced the education department of the Petrie to let me do a fun session on Roman Egypt one half term holiday. They kindly agreed and the day is almost upon us: I will be giving two sessions, one at 2pm and one at 3pm on Wednesday 18 February 2015.

When I was researching The Scribes from Alexandria, I read tons of books on Roman Egypt, searched the internet and visited museums like the British Museum and the Petrie. Best of all, my husband and I made two research trips to that wonderful country: one around Aswan and one around Cairo and Alexandria.

One of the most amazing facts I learned was that the Romans thought of Egypt as upside down. The north-south oriented map is one we have so engrained in our minds that we can often assume it the way the ancients thought of the world, too.

A river flows from its source to the sea or nearest body of water. If you travel with the direction of the current, you are travelling downriver. If you start where it empties into the sea and sail towards the source then you are necessarily travelling upriver. So why not have the source at the top and the egress at the bottom? 
Also, if you think about a sailor or merchant travelling from Rome or Greece to Egypt, the first place they would reach is the Nile Delta, the fertile triangular area where the Nile branched out to flow into the sea. Why not put the delta at the bottom of the map and work up? 

This way it looks like a capital Delta
That's exactly what the Greeks and Romans did. When you look at a flipped map of Egypt, like the one my husband and I designed together, you can clearly see the delta looks like the capital Greek letter 'delta', hence the name. (In Roman Egypt most people spoke Greek, the lingua franca of the early Roman Empire.) When you look at the map of Egypt this way then the delta area becomes Lower Egypt and the Nile Valley is Upper Egypt. This is how the ancients thought of it. If you went 'upriver' you were travelling south and 'downriver' was north.

That means that to an ancient traveller everything on the right bank was 'Libya' and everything on the left (or eastern) bank was 'Arabia'.
The current always flowed downriver, from Aswan to Alexandria, but the wind conveniently blew upriver or south. Wherever a ship is shown in Egyptian wall paintings, carvings or votive models, you can easily tell which direction it's travelling. If its sail is up, it's probably travelling upriver. If there is no sail, it's probably going with the current, downriver towards Alexandria. See the ship models from the British Museum. 

Traveling upriver from Alexandria, you could sail for over 700 miles before coming to the first cataract or change in water level. This was found at Syene, (modern Aswan), and marked the border of Egypt and Nubia, the Land of Gold.

This was just one of the amazing facts I discovered about the way the ancients viewed Egypt in Roman times. I also learned about an unlucky hieroglyphic, the colour Egyptians hate, a jewel encrusted crocodile and lots of other wonderful aspects of Egypt in Roman times.

For a chance to see this small Egyptian Museum in the heart of Bloomsbury, to follow a treasure trail, handle some replica objects and hear me give a reading, come along with your children aged 8+ on Wednesday 18 February 2015. It costs £3, but EVERYONE who comes will receive a free Roman Mystery. Book HERE

If you can't make it to my event you will learn lots about Roman Egypt by reading The Scribes from Alexandria, now out in paperback, Kindle format and as an abridged audiobook, brilliantly read by Nigel Anthony.

And if you get a chance, don't miss the Petrie Museum, open 1pm to 5pm on Tuesdays through Saturdays. It's free. 


Carol Drinkwater said...

I stayed in the Fayoum Oasis before Christmas where those amazing encaustic paintings originated. The Egyptian museum in Cairo has a splendid selection of them. What a country. Good luck with your events.

Joan Lennon said...

I have always had to stop and think about which was Upper and which was Lower - your map is a great help! Fascinating post!

Clare Mulley said...

Top fact about the river delta forming the Greek triangle D, hence its name. I shall be passing that on. Would love to know more about the jewel-encrusted crocodiles! Thank you.

Becca McCallum said...

That's amazing - it does really require a brain-moment to flip the man and change your perspective. Similar to when you see American maps with America in the centre rather than Europe. (I do realise that one view is just as absurd and biased as the other... ;) )

Becca McCallum said...

man= map ... *face palm* I even clicked preview for that comment, but couldn't see the full thing in the box so thought, Oh, I'm sure it will be correct...!

Marjorie said...

Fascinating! I did know that the ancient maps were 'upside down' (Having been to a talk by Jerry Brotton)but I didn't know about the Delta or the different banks. Thank you for sharing.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, everybody! I hope to see some of you or your children (or even grandchildren) at the Petrie on Wednesday!