Multiculturalism: Nothing New
‘When the Greeks Ruled Egypt’ Highlights the Diversity of Cultures in Ptolemaic Egypt
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORDOCT. 6, 2014
For the three centuries from Alexander the Great to Cleopatra, Greeks ruled Egypt not so much as foreign conquerors but as the next dynasty in the long line of pharaohs. It was not out of character for Alexander himself to assume the power and status of a pharaoh, not to mention the promised fringe benefit of a grand afterlife and kinship to the Egyptian gods.
Though these classical Greeks knew a thing or two about grandeur, they were bedazzled by the pyramids at Giza, temples up the Nile, and varied cultures speaking different languages and living side by side. Instead of imposing Greek culture, the new rulers oversaw an early and generally successful experiment in multiculturalism. Their new city Alexandria grew to be the cosmopolitan center of a hybrid culture.
The Greek strategy may have been common for ancient empires, scholars say, but not so in the age of nation-states, and especially not in today’s Middle East.
The Greek royal family in Egypt, the Ptolemies, embraced many local customs, among them marriages of brother and sister to keep political power in the family. In their reinterpretation of Egyptian divinities, they emphasized their link to the Egyptian triad of the gods Osiris, Isis and Horus. Osiris and Isis were brother and sister, and Horus their offspring. To Greeks, who frowned on incestuous unions, the Ptolemaic message was when in Egypt, do as the Egyptians do.
Their overriding policy was not to demand assimilation but to accept many ways of life. No official language was imposed for all purposes. Government affairs were often conducted in Greek, but also in Demotic, the local everyday language derived from the more formal hieroglyphs. Jewish and other immigrants often spoke and wrote Aramaic.
In clever manipulations of their images, the Ptolemaic kings were depicted in sculpture and on coins in the costume of pharaohs to promote themselves as direct descendants. Other images, in Hellenistic style and probably for Greeks there and abroad, represented the king as a successor to Alexander.
The diversity of cultures in Ptolemaic Egypt is the subject of an exhibition opening Wednesday at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, affiliated with New York University. Curators said the exhibition, “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt: From Alexander the Great to Cleopatra,” from 323 B. C. to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 B.C., “shines a light on the fluidity of the very idea of specific cultural identity.”
Time ran out on Ptolemaic rule when the rising Roman empire invaded. With no more lovers to ride to her rescue, no Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, Cleopatra committed suicide.