Egypt: Gimme That Ol’ Time Religion

Like many ancient civilizations, Egyptians were obsessed with religion and mythology. They pledged their love and devotion to more than 700 distinct deities entrusted to protect the natural order of all things (wind, water, sun, sky, etc.) from creation to afterlife. In exchange, the devout would be rewarded with an everlasting life of prosperity, good fortune, and happiness… once they reached their final destination–the Underworld.

Gods and goddesses were personified as powerful creatures,

and hybridized animals,

and amalgams of animals and humans.

Egyptian paganism lasted long into the 5th century. However, with Egypt situated at the intersection of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, Egypt was also at the crossroads of influence when monotheism gained a foothold in the Middle East and spread throughout the continents.

When synchronizing Egyptian chronology and Old Testament timelines, the earliest record of monotheistic worship in Ancient Egypt occurred during a time of remarkable prosperity when Joseph–in his role as Grand Vizier of Egypt–governed and fed its people, while surrounding neighbors faced famine and hardship.

This informed Jacob’s decision to relocate his clan from Canaan to Egypt in search of provisions and an unforeseen reunion with his son. Biblical scholars have speculated the date to be 1875 BC.

This led to the eventual settlement of the Israelites, whose numbers may have grown to 2,000,000 over the next 430 years, until the storied Exodus–which would have occurred in Year 18 of Thutmose III’s reign–in 1446 BC.

Interestingly, Amenemhat, Thutmose III’s first-born and heir apparent, mysteriously predeceased his father, and was inscribed on a column at the Temple of Amun at Karnak shortly after the death of Hatshepsut and the subsequent accession of his father to Pharaoh.

Religious reform from polytheism to pagan monotheism was momentarily embraced by Amenhotep IV during the his reign (c. 1358–1341 BC).

For some unknown reason, he changed his name to Akhenaten and elevated the cult of Aten (the sun disc) as the one and only true God.

Akhenaten went so far as to scrub all references of Amun-Ra from Karnak and build a new worship center and capital in Amarna, 170 km south of Thebes. But Atenism was short-lived; it never survived Akhenaten death, as he was so reviled by the priests that critics would often refer to Akhenaten as the Heretic King.

Subsequently, Tutankhamen–upon his ascension to the throne–reverted to worshipping Amun-Ra with his wife/half-sister, Ankhesenamun. He was 8 and she was 13 when they wed, albeit she was previously married to her father for a short time.

They had two daughters together; both were stillborn. Tut died suddenly at 18 from a fall or malaria or both, leaving Ankhe without an heir. She remarried Ay (presumedly her maternal grandfather), the next pharaoh, and soon disappeared from history.

Polytheism remained the cultural norm for the following 1,400 years, until Egypt bore witness to the seeds of a new cultural revolution when the Holy Family escaped the wrath of Herod the Great’s infanticide decree c. 7 BC, and sought refuge in Egypt for the next three-and-a-half years.

Their journey through the Sinai dessert and across the Nile to Heliopolis…

brought them to the Roman fort of Babylon in Old Cairo,

where they found shelter in a cave for the next three months,

which would later become the foundation for the Church of Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus in The Cave (aka Abu Serga) built in the 4th century,

and the site of a water well which nourished Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus during their stay.

Other distinguishing features of the church include: the wall of painted icons;

and the precious relics of Saints Sergius and Baccus.

Worship of pagan deities began to wane around the late 4th and early 5th Centuries as Christianity became popular, and was finally outlawed in the 6th Century by Christian Roman Emperors. Consequently, Old Cairo became an important center of Christianity in the world, with Monasticism begetting Coptic Christianity, and extending throughout the Arab tribes.

With Coptic Christianity taking root, church worship proliferated in Byzantine Egypt, as did the number of churches in Old Cairo.

As Leah and I walked through Old Cairo, we were transported through history.

We took time to explore the Church of the Virgin (aka Hanging Church), which dates to the 3rd century.

Egypt was conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate in 646 AD, ending 7 centuries of Roman rule, but Christianity survived the war. The Arab invaders carried the Quran with them, and slowly converted the Copt population to Islam. By the end of the 12th century–which coincided with the end of the Crusades–the Christians lost their majority status thanks to intermittent persecution, destruction of Christian churches, and forced conversions by the Muslim brigade.

Today, Coptic Christianity accounts for 10% of Egypt’s population. And while they are mindful of their slim minority and occasional, bigoted backlash, the Copts are not shy about their zeal.

Nubian Coptic Church, Esna

The survival of Judaism in Egypt has been less fortunate. Only 100 Jews remain in Egypt, mostly concentrated in Alexandria. To date, only three Jews live in Cairo, and all are women. The youngest of the bunch is Magda Haroun, age 70, and the elected representative of Cairo’s Jewish community.

Ben Ezra Synagogue, 9th century AD

But Magda is living proof that all three religions can co-exist under the same roof. After all, her ex-husband is Muslim, as are their two daughters, and her current husband is Catholic.

Tall Tales of Iceland

Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.

Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.

Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.

By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.

Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.

For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,

we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.

But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”

Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.

Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.

Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.

However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,

with a rock island spur named Eyjan.

To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.

Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.

Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”

Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.

The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”

It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.

It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.

The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,

ranging from the sublime…

to the ridiculous.

Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.

Thank God for bogeymen!