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Alexandria and Other Centers of Thought in Ancient Egypt

Alexandria and Other Centers of Thought in Ancient Egypt


This conference on Alexandria and other centers of thought in ancient Egypt was organized byprof.  Mervat Abdel Nasser and was held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 10& 11 Dec.2009. The conference was a joint venture between the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies and University College London, UK, and would have not been possible without the help of number of people including Prof. Abdel Halim Nour El Din, Prof. Ahmed Etman and Prof. Sahar Hamouda, as well as all the participating speakers. Special thanks are due to Prof. Stephen Quirke of University College London for his inspiration and support.


The idea of this conference was born out of the need to give a platform to a subject that is often neglected when Egypt’s heritage is discussed, namely Egypt’s intellectual heritage. There is certainly more to Egypt than mummies and monuments, and the body of thought generated by this land is unique in its capacity to transcend time and place and continue to be of relevance to us till this very day. 


The plan was for the conference to follow the trail of Egyptian thought through   various historical sites credited with its production. This trail included Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Panopolis and Alexandria, demonstrating how ideas travelled to and from these centers to other parts within Egypt and the rest of the world.




The sessions on the first day were presented under the title ‘Heliopolis in Hermopolis’’ and covered the transmission of the Heliopolitan philosophy from this ancient city to other parts within Egypt. The day began with a lecture by Prof. Stephen Quirke, professor of Egyptology at University College London and curator of Petrie museum who discussed the evolution of light as a tangible attribute of the sun to the abstract notion of enlightenment which became a cornerstone in the history and progression of human thought.


 The association between light and enlightenment reflects the Egyptian theory of creation that is demonstrated in the sun’s capacity through its light to reveal what is hidden and make the unknown known. This made knowledge synonymous with the power to make the invisible visible; hence the quest for knowledge became equal to the quest for power.


In this interplay between the tangible and the intangible the ancient Egyptians were able to embody the conceptual schema of light/knowledge/ power into one their famous architectural form, the obelisk. The obelisk as a stone structure entrapping the light became instantly symbolic of power, a motif of achievement, pride and cultural sophistication, evidenced by the presence of obelisks in many major cities and capitals of the world.


And from Heliopolis, we travel with Barry Kemp, the Cambridge professor of archeology and the head of the Amarna Trust to the other famous city of the sun,  Akhet-aten at El Amarna, El Minia.  It is the city that was founded Amenhotep IV of the 18th dynasty, the pharaoh who changed his name to Akhen/aten to make the syllable Aten (sun) integral to it.


Akhenaten is known for his revolutionary attempt to do away with the deities that represent in a figurative and concrete way aspects of the sun in favour of a unified /abstract concept called Aten. In so doing he is often seen as the first prophet of monotheism who opposed all forms of polytheism. However the conceptions of god in ancient Egypt as the one and the many are far from being  simple and certainly need more than our narrowly formulated notions to  explain. In this presentation Barry Kemp was able to show the persistence of several old deities in Akhenaten’s new city, demonstrating his capacity for tolerance and his desire to preserve the basic tenet in Egyptian theology which emphasizes the oneness of god through the multiplicity of expressions and approaches.


However the intrigue surrounding Akhenaten’s personality is not only ideological, there are other mysteries attached to the choice of the geographical site of this new city, why he chose El-Minia in Middle Egypt in particular? And the answer that comes to mind is the presence of Hermopolis, which lies in close proximity to El- Amarna site.


 Hermopolis is the city that was named after Hermes the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian ‘Thoth’, the lord of time, the  inventor of writing and the guardian of thought who revealed to the Egyptians all knowledge on astronomy, architecture, medicine and Alchemy.  So it could not have been a simple coincidence that Akhenaten chose this site. In fact the boundaries of his city reaches the necropolis of Hermoplis at Tuna El Gebel and this necropolis with its famous tombs was the subject of the presentation that was given by Professor Mahmoud El Saadani, professor of Greek History at Helwan University. The title of his talk was ‘writers and lovers at Tuna El Gebel’,  it revolved around the tomb of Petosiris, the high priest of Thoth whose tomb has the appearance of a small temple and its inscriptions allow us to trace the history of the family over five generations of renowned scribes at Hermopolis Magna at El-Ashmunin.  The inscriptions on this tomb attest to its owners’ philosophy of living for knowledge and seeking truth.  They also reveal several cultural influences highlighting the capacity of this place to accommodate various styles and the texts.


The relationship between writing and love was demonstrated in El Saadany’s discussion of the nearby tomb of Isadora, the Greek girl who allegedly drowned in the Nile in the prime of her youth in pursuit of her love.  The inscription on this tomb is a requiem describing in poetic language the father’s grief over the loss of his daughter.


It is interesting too that this site has a house which belongs to another major Egyptian writer, not an ancient one but one that is considered the architect of  modern Egyptian culture, Taha Hussain who is commonly referred to as the ‘’dean of letters’’.  


Taha Hussain was a poor villager who lost his eyesight through his family’s ignorance and despite his poverty and blindness he managed to reach the highest distinction in literary achievement. The ability to concur adversity and transform one’s self is intrinsic to the science of alchemy which was the subject of the presentation given by Okasha El-Daly, the lecturer in Egyptology at University College, London. Okasha El Daly is one of very few researchers who dealt with the subject of ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings, and his talk dealt with Panopolis (Akhmim) and its place in medieval Arabic literature.


Panopolis (Akhmim) is the city that was named after the Greek god ‘’Pan’, it was known as a seat of poetry and a world capital of alchemy. The word alchemy itself may be derived fromkmt, the ancient name for Egypt which literally refers to the chemical manipulation of cheap substances to convert them into more precious ones. The alchemical process provides therefore an allegory for self-transformation and the possibility of human ascendency to higher planes. Notable figures among medieval Arab scholars were conversant with Egyptian hieroglyphics and Alchemy and many of those Arab alchemists and scientists were also described as Sufis, making a clear connection between alchemy, wisdom, and transformation and healing.


From the medieval Arab scholars, we moved to the legacy of the Hermopolitan philosophy on western thought which was the subject of the talk given by Mervat Abdel Nasser, visiting professor of psychiatry, Kings College, London, researcher in Egyptology & Hermopolitan texts and the founder of the new Hermopolis project. The presentation dealt with the main tenets of Hermopolitan philosophy namely the unity of being, the creative potential of every man and the possible self transformation through knowledge.


The Hermetic manuscripts are contained in the ‘’Corpus Hermeticum’’ which was brought to Florence in the 15th century and had great influence on the philosophy of Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond. This is reflected in the life and works of major world figures of science, philosophy, art and literature, including Newton, Emerson, William James, Nietzsche, Jung, and poets like Shakespeare, Goethe, Milton, Blake, Yates and Ezra Pond. Among more recent figures, we find, Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco and Fernando Pessoa. It also inspired prominent figures in children literature including Hans Christian Anderson and the creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling. This shows the enduring legacy of such city and the relevance of its thought to our life today.




The second day of the conference was dedicated to the major cosmopolis: Alexandria and how knowledge travelled from it to other centers within the Mediterranean as well as the newly emerging Arab world.


The day began with a talk on the evolution of Alexandria as a global center of learning in Hellenized Egypt which was delivered by Professor Mohamed Abdel Ghany, Professor of Hellenistic studies in Alexandria University. The presentation described the lure of such a city and the attractions it had for scholars and how it managed to attract the finest of minds in all fields of knowledge whose names are world famous including Herophilus, Euclides, Archimedesof Syracuse and others.   


This was followed by a lecture on Neo-Platonism that was given by the poet Hassan Teleb, who is a professor of Greek Philosophy in Helwan University. The philosophical school that came to be known as Neo-Platonism embraced different strands of spiritual thought and philosophies that centred around the significance of the ‘’Word’’ as the ultimate tool of creation and wisdom as the highest virtue. The philosophy was founded by Plotinus and had great impact on the Alexandrian school of though. It helped to inspire some of the greatest minds and achievements of the ancient world. The golden age of Alexandria however came to an end with the rise of intolerant Christianity under the reign of Cyril which witnessed the death of the woman philosopher/mathematician Hypatia.


This theme was followed on by the lecture given by Ahmed Etman, the professor of Greek Literature in Cairo University who discussed the transfer of knowledge from Alexandria to the newly emerging Arab Moslem world through a number of scholars and scientists who left Alexandria in search for better cultural climate and became the intellectual force behind centres such as Baghdad, with its famous ‘’House of Wisdom’’ that epitomised the great days of Islamic learning and scientific achievement




In the context of knowledge transfer, the impact of the Alexandrian school of thought on the might of Rome was discussed. The politics of learning between Alexandria and Rome was the content of the lecture given by Magda El Noweimi, professor of Greco-Roman studies in Alexandria University. She discussed how the Hellenization of Rome began when the Romans started to admire what they found in the Greek world following the realization of the Roman elite that competing for power was not enough to be cultured and respected. As a result teachers, philosophers and artists were brought from the Greek speaking world and the Roman’s education system became increasingly modeled on the Hellenistic system.


The day ended by a session dedicated to the role of libraries, old and new in the flow of thought. The session was chaired by Fekri Hassan, Emeritus professor of archeology at University College, London, who gave an overview of the role played by libraries in the production and dissemination of knowledge and discussed how the libraries in ancient Egypt were attached to temples, palaces and educational institutions and were first restricted to scribes, priests, and key government officials.


With the establishment of the Alexandrian library under the Ptolemies, the library became a remarkable phenomenon in the ancient world, a hub for scholars and a lighthouse of knowledge.  The historical roots of this famous library and its museum were the subject of the presentation by Kyriakos Savvopoulos from the Alexandria Center for Hellenistic Studies at Bibliotheca Alexandrina.




The discussion of the ancient library of Alexandria was followed by a presentation on Nag Hamadi library, by Gamal Abd El Aziz, the writer and historian who gave an outline of the history of this famous library and circumstances of its discovery in 1945 and highlighted the significance of its documents. He discussed the Gnostic nature of these documents and its connection to Hermetcism and the earliest forms of Christianity.


The session on libraries was concluded by a presentation on the New Alexandria library delivered by Lamia Abdel Latif from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She discussed how the new library is dedicated to recapture the spirit of the original one while maintaining a dynamic outlook on the modern world of knowledge rising to the challenges of the digital age and aspiring to become the world's window on Egypt and Egypt's window on the world.


Judging by the repercussions and the feedback received, it is envisioned that this conference will only be the first of more to come. A single conference can never give justice to the significance of these sites nor to the knowledge generated by them, but the aim here was simply to illustrate the fluid nature of knowledge and highlight the ongoing interactions between cultures and civilisations throughout history to produce this kind of heritage.

Dr Mervat Abdel NasserMD, MPhil, FRCPSych:  Psychiatrist, Egyptologist and writer. She is the founder of the New Hermopolis Trust, a charitable organization registered in UK and Egypt. She has written in several articles and books on the interface of culture and mental health as well as Egyptology and philosophy. 


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