Thrace and Egypt

Spread of the Egyptian Cults in Ancient Thrace

      The spread of Egyptian cults in ancient Thrace is a multi-layered and continuous process of great importance for the history of the Bulgarian lands. In fact, it is a process that has lasted for more than eight centuries – from the beginning of the Hellenistic period (end of the 4th – 1st century BC) to the end of the Roman Empire (4th century) – and remains an imprint on religious beliefs of the local population. Originated from the Nile Valley, drawing on the diverse religious concepts of Ancient Egypt, the Egyptian cults have become the pinnacle of central government throughout their centuries of existence. They were adopted very quickly by ordinary people because of the soteriological nature of the Egyptian deities and the more personal connection they had with their followers. That is why we find them all over the Greco-Roman world and in particular in Thrace, where they are more or less assimilated with the local deities.

Origins of the divine family of Isis, Sarapis and Harpocrates




     In 332 BC, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the divine family of Isis and Osiris was still worshiped throughout the country, especially in the Delta region, where the new rulers, the Ptolemies, settled. The latter undertook various reforms to be accepted by the local population and especially by the influential priests of Osiris and Ptah in Memphis and of Amun in Thebes. Very soon Ptolemy I Soter (323-282 BC) and his advisers realized the need to change the structure of the divine family to adapt to the new political situation. Thus was created the new divine family, in which Osiris was replaced by Sarapis and Horus by Harpocrates. It was designed as a mirror of the Ptolemaic royal family. As the father of the family Sarapis quickly became a deity – patron of the capital Alexandria. He was considered the god of fertility, but also the lord of the Otherworld, like Osiris. Isis was the mother of the family. The hymns (aretalogies) in her honor inform us that she was considered by the Greek priests as a ruler, a solar deity, a demiurge, a mistress of the elements, a legislator, a creator of everything useful to people (writing, languages, temples, mysteries), a goddess of women and the embodiment of motherhood, protector of newborns, of harvests, mistress of destiny (Grandjean 1975: 17–21, Tacheva-Hitova 1982: 51–54). Their son Harpocrates, depicted as a naked child with a finger in his mouth, plays the role of “synnaos theos” (a deity who has no temple of his own) (Malaise 2000: 413). Greek and Latin authors perceived the finger in his mouth as a symbol of silence, not as a sign of his childish nature, as was the custom in Egypt. Harpocrates was “the one who imposes silence during the mysteries” (Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 378 b – c; Varron, De lingua Latina V.10; Ovide, Metamorphosis, 9, 692) and was considered as the god of silence, secrets and confidentiality.


Egyptian Cults outside Egypt

     The newly formed “Greco-Egyptian” family was not very well received in Egypt, but it quickly found its way through the Greek cities in the Eastern Mediterranean, which remained under the rule of Alexander’s heirs. The first sanctuaries of Isis and Sarapis appeared in Piraeus, Eritrea and Halicarnassus (Bricault 2004). Ptolemy I himself pursued a policy in which he wanted to show that he still had claims to the lands of his ancestors. Thanks to a coalition between him and the others diadochi Alexander’s viceroy of Asia, Antigonus, was defeated at the battle of Ipsos, Phrygia in 301. After his defeat, Ptolemy I shared his dominions in Asia Minor with Seleucus and Lysimachus, the newly proclaimed king of Thrace. A few years after the victory (ca. 300-298), Ptolemy I gave his daughter Arsinoe II to Lysimachus. Most likely, their wedding was strengthened by certain benefits that lead to the permanent presence of the Ptolemies in southern Thrace. After Lysimachus’ death in 281, Arsinoe II married her brother, the new king of Egypt, Ptolemy II of Philadelphia (283-246). This gave him reason to expand his influence in the northern Aegean and to establish control over the Thracian cities of Enos and Maroneia. The successor of Ptolemy II – Ptolemy III Everget (246-221), who brought the Ptolemaic naval empire to its greatest supremacy, managed to conquer the entire southern Thracian coast from Abdera to Thracian Chersonese (Atanassova 2020a).

Разпространение на египетските култове в Древна Тракия през Елинистическата епоха

     In fact, the entire 3rd century BC was marked by the presence of the Ptolemies in southern Thrace, which, without doubt, was a prerequisite for trade and cultural exchange. One of the most visible remnants of this presence was the penetration of Egyptian cults into the Thracian religious space. There are two main hypotheses about their penetration in Thrace. The first one claims that this was part of the Ptolemaic propaganda for supremacy in this area (Cumont 1929: 74-77). According to the other, the spread of the cult of the Egyptian deities has no political basis (Fraser 1960), but rather is due to trade ties and cultural exchange. However, modern research shows that neither hypothesis is definite and that the diffusion of Egyptian cults into Thrace was nuanced and due to various factors (Bricault 2004: 245). In the first place, it is extremely important to determine whether there was an initial penetration of the cult of Isis Pelagia “Isis of the Sea”, ie Isis, who was not part of the “divine couple”, as was the case in other areas of the Aegean.

After the middle of the 3rd century BC Isis and Sarapis were presented as a pair of deities, a model and guarantor of the power of the Ptolemies. The image of the two deities appeared on the coins of Perinthus, Southern Thrace. During this period the so-called aretalogy of Isis from Maroneia, Southern Thrace which gives information about all the qualities of the goddess (Grandjean 1975) was created. Most likely the text was written by a Greek who tried to reconcile the idea of ​​the goddess with local beliefs. The cult spread rapidly and reached Anhialo and Messambria, which emerged as the most important center of Egyptian cults in Thrace. The study of all the monuments of this ancient city, as well as those of Anhialo, Odessa, Apollonia Pontica and Dionysopolis, is essential for understanding the influence and extent of the cult of the Isis-Sarapis couple during the Hellenistic period (Atanassova 2021).

Spread of Egyptian Deities in Ancient Thrace during the Roman Period

     The imposition of Roman rule in the Thracian lands reflected as well in the spread of Egyptian cults. Roman emperors began to honor them and associate them with their royal power. Egyptian deities began to appear more and more in epigraphic monuments, sculpture and numismatics. However, from the previous studies it is not clear from which date this trend began to be felt in the roman provinces of Thrace and Lower Moesia. According to the research of M. Tacheva-Hitova, this happened during the time of Antoninus Pius (138–161 AD) and Marcus Aurelius (161–180 AD) (Tacheva-Hitova 1982: 96), i.e. relatively late compared to the other Roman provinces. In fact, according to the latest research, Egyptian cults were already worshipped in the Roman Empire during the time of the Flavians (69-96 AD) (Bricault 2020: 22). Emperor Vespasian (69-79), founder of the Flavian dynasty, used his stay in Egypt to link and legitimize his rule under the double patronage of Sarapis and Isis. The large cities of the Roman provinces began to issue coins with images of Egyptian deities in unison with the central government. However, the question arises about the degree of acceptance of Egyptian cults by the local population. Our study of the monuments of Serdica showed that the cult of Egyptian deities was not exclusively imperial and limited to the minting of coins as part of provincial policy (Атанасова 2019; Atanasova 2020). On the contrary, in Serdica there were real followers who believed and worshiped the deities as their own.



     Even more obscure is the end of Egyptian cults in the Thracian lands. We know that the latest dated inscription associated with them comes from Rome of 25 May 390 (Bricault 2005: n ° 501/0212). Two years later, the great temple of Sarapis in Alexandria disappeared in flames, and with it the long history of Egyptian cults in the Greco-Roman world (Bricault 2020: 33).

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