Two papyrus rolls, together measuring nearly twenty feet, form the centerpiece of this fall’s special exhibition. Looking closely at the elaborate detail in black, and occasionally red, ink, it is hard to imagine that lines that appear fresh to our eyes were inscribed nearly 2,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptian scribes covered the surfaces of these long rolls with a copy of the Book of the Faiyum, a mysterious text that describes Egypt’s Faiyum region as a center of prosperity and religious ritual. The book celebrates the ancient Egyptian crocodile god Sobek and his special relationship with the Faiyum. Divided and sold in the 19th century, sections of the Book of the Faiyum currently reside at the Walters Art Museum, the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, and the Egyptian Antiquities Museum in Cairo. Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum reunites the Morgan and Walters sections for the first time in 150 years.

This exhibition offers a new look at ancient Egypt. First, it goes beyond the usual exhibition subject matter of mummies and tombs, preparations for the afterlife, and the famous pharaohs. Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum explores ancient Egyptian artistry, mythology, and religious iconography. Second, the exhibition focuses on a period thousands of years after the Pyramids at Giza or Tutankhamun’s rule. The Book of the Faiyum dates to some time between the late 1st century BCE and the second century CE, when the Romans ruled Egypt. The exhibition, centers on the Faiyum, an oasis in the desert to the West of the Nile. This region is most famous among scholars of ancient art for the so-called Faiyum portraits, which are some of the only panel paintings surviving from the ancient Roman tradition. Lake Moeris, the centerpiece of the Faiyum, was also the source of its prosperity. The modern name Faiyum, derived from the ancient Egyptian word “Pa-yom,” meaning “the sea,” is a testament to Lake Moeris’s great size. In satellite images of Egypt,the green Faiyum contrasts starkly with the beige desert surrounding it; as a result, the oasis somewhat resembles a leaf of ivy branching off of the green stem of the Nile Valley.

When 19th-century scholars and enthusiasts first saw the Book of the Faiyum, some thought it represented the legendary Egyptian labyrinth, described by ancient Greek and Roman authors including Herodotus, Strabo, and Pliny the Elder. Egyptologists today, however, recognize the maplike features of the papyrus as a depiction of Lake Moeris and the canal that feeds it. This bird’s-eye view of the region is only visible once the entire composition is revealed—a feat that requires a large display area. Most ancient Egyptians would have encountered the Book of the Faiyum one short section at a time; readers often held papyrus rolls in one hand, while using the other to unroll the text across their laps.

Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum displays approximately 80 works of ancient Egyptian art, including statues, reliefs, parts of coffins, papyri, and jewelry. Moving through the galleries, as if traversing the lake or walking through the narrative of the book itself, visitors will encounter works of art that portray the divine figures illustrated in the book. Most prominent among these gods is Sobek, the crocodile god. The ancient Egyptians both feared and revered the crocodile, one of Egypt’s most voracious and deadly animals. Lake Moeris was a popular habitat for crocodiles, and as a result the Faiyum region became a religious center for the worship of Sobek. Temples of Sobek often were home to sacred crocodiles, which were mummified after they died. Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum brings together a number of rare depictions of Sobek, drawn from prestigious museum collection.

The Book of the Faiyum offers a window onto cultural, intellectual, and religious life in a unique ancient Egyptian place. Over the course of many centuries, the ancient Egyptians depicted the gods and myths seen in the Book of the Faiyum countless times. Stories of divine creation and the sun god’s nightly regeneration, featured prominently in the book, frequently appeared in ancient Egyptian art. The Book of the Faiyum, however, creates a local context for universal narratives, tailoring them to suit the Faiyum’s specific history and geography. The story of the Ogdoad, eight primeval gods who took the form of snakes and frogs, provides a good example of this. One section of the Book of the Faiyum illustrates these gods in an act of creation: creating Lake Moeris by digging it out with their own hands. The complex, layered imagery of the Book of the Faiyum continues to challenge scholars today. This exhibition encourages reflection on the mysteries surrounding the Book of the Faiyum, including why it was made and for whom.

This exhibition emerges from a partnership with the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, and its director and chief executive officer, Prof. Dr. Regine Schulz. As a result, the exhibition will display a number of the treasures of ancient Egyptian art from the Roemerund Pelizaeus-Museum’s esteemed collection. Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum will travel to the Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum and the Reiss- Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, Germany.

—Marden Nichols, Assistant Curator of Ancient Art