Persian Kings and Egyptian Gods: Religious Innovation in Achaemenid Egypt

Recorded: February 18, 2020
Event: Contextualizing Iranian Religions in the Ancient World - 14th Melammu Symposium

by Henry Colburn (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Persian Kings and Egyptian Gods: Religious Innovation in Achaemenid Egypt

The study of the relationship between Persian kings and Egyptian gods has focused mainly on questions of sacrilege and neglect. Yet there is evidence for religious innovation as well. In the Kharga Oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert, Darius I created a new kind of Egyptian temple, one that prefigures the ‘encyclopedic’ temples of the subsequent Ptolemaic period, such as at Edfu. This temple contains images of some 700 gods from throughout Middle and Upper Egypt. The purpose of this divine collection was to populate the oasis with the gods worshipped by the people who had moved there from the Nile Valley as part of a Persian effort to integrate the Western Desert into existing networks of imperial control. At the same time the process of creating this new temple goes beyond the mere performance of pharaonic duties and suggests an interest in creating systematic knowledge of the ‘gods of others’ (to borrow a phrase from Amélie Kuhrt). While this interest arguably served imperial goals, it also raises the possibility that the Persians did not regard Egyptian religion as entirely inconsistent with their own cosmic worldview.