Egyptian elements in the sepulchral culture of the Roman Empire beyond Egypt

The intention of my research project is an illustration of the phenomenon of Egyptian elements in the Greco-Roman sepulchral culture beyond Egypt, which will provide a better insight into the intercultural contact between the Greco-Roman world and Egypt and its impact on religious beliefs. Since the Hellenistic era, cults of Egyptian gods like Isis, Serapis, and Osiris gained much popularity even among people living beyond Egypt, and sanctuaries began to be erected for these gods, for example on Delos, in Thessaloniki, or in Eretria. After the incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire, cults of Egyptian gods and their sanctuaries were spread even wider and reached most of the Roman provinces. The presence of Egyptian gods, motifs, and shapes can also be recognised in the sepulchral culture of the Greco-Roman world. There are many elements of Egyptian origin in the design of tombs, grave goods and burial customs in Greece as well as in Asia Minor, Italy and other parts of Eurasia. Grave reliefs with representations of women whose costume and attributes present them as worshippers of Isis were found in great numbers in Attica, statues of Egyptian gods came to light in necropolises in Greece as well as in western Roman provinces, there are burials of mummies in Pannonia, Egyptianising elements occur in tomb paintings in Rome and Panticapeion, and the famous Cestius pyramid in Rome was not the only tomb of this kind in the city. The focus of my research project lies on the Hellenistic and the Roman Imperial periods. The term “Egyptian elements” refers both to objects, which were imported from Egypt, and to Egyptianised products from outside the Nile valley. The main question is on which level – material or religious – the adaption of Egyptian elements took place. Were Egyptian goods or motives primarily chosen because of their far distant origin and used as exotica to represent the deceased’s exquisite taste? Or are there cases where the presence of Egyptian elements seems to demonstrate the takeover of Egyptian religious beliefs and concepts of the afterlife, for example when specific objects of the Egyptian cult of the dead, like ushebtis, were found? In this context, the way the Egyptian goods are handled in a non-Egyptian funerary context has to be considered, and the process of their reception will be defined. Another question addresses the identity of the deceased. Funerary inscriptions will be used to acquire information about the origin, social rank, political identity, and profession of the deceased. Then it may be possible to state which groups were particularly open towards Egyptian influences in the funerary culture, like freedman or people of oriental origin. It will also be investigated if the Egyptian elements are connected to the deceased’s sense of belonging to specific social or religious groups. Were there communities of people worshipping Egyptian gods, to which the deceased may have belonged? In sum, the research project examines the connection between the deceased’s religious beliefs and the use of Egyptian goods in the context of their last resting-places.

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