Egyptian Book of the Dead on display at Brooklyn Museum

Egyptian Book of the Dead
After three years of careful study and restoration, an important version of the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead has gone on display in the Brooklyn Museum.

The Book of the Dead was a collection of prayers, spells, and rituals to help the dead in the afterlife. The book has its roots in prehistoric times. As the civilization in Egypt developed, the prayers and spells became more elaborate. Eventually they were gathered together in chapters to create what we call the Book of the Dead. Individual chapters or sets of chapters were written on tombs, mummy cases, and rolls of papyrus. Many burials have portions of the book, one of the largest being the Papyrus of Ani, which you can view online.

The Brooklyn Museum example was for the tomb of Sobekmose, a gold worker. It’s an early and long version, probably dating to the reign of Thutmose III or Amunhotep II (c. 1479–1400 BC). It’s 25 feet long, written on both sides, and contains nearly half of the known Book of the Dead chapters.

Portions of this book have long been on display at the museum. This is the first time the entire book is on display.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!

Exploring ancient Rome in Mérida, Spain

Spain, Roman, theatre, Merida
It’s Christmas. What do you get an avid traveler who used to be an archaeologist?
For my wife the answer is obvious–a trip to a Roman city!

So here we are in Mérida, capital of the province of Extremadura in Spain, not far from the Portuguese border. In Roman times it was called Emerita Augusta and was capital of the province of Lusitania. This province took up most of the western Iberian peninsula, including most of what is now Portugal. The city was founded in 25 BC as a home for retired legionnaires on an important bridge linking the western part of the Iberian peninsula with the rest of the Empire. Putting a bunch of tough old veterans in such an important spot was no accident. The city boasts numerous well-preserved buildings and together they’re now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s a five-hour ride from Madrid on a comfortable train. Almudena and I brought along my five-year-old son Julián to give him a bit of classical education. (No cute kid photos, sorry. Too many freaks on the Internet)

Our first stop was Mérida’s greatest hits–an amphitheater for gladiator fights and one of the best preserved Roman theaters in the Roman world.

Both of these buildings were among the first to go up in the new city. Since the Romans were building a provincial capital from scratch, they wanted it to have all the amenities. The theater was a center for Roman social and cultural life and this one, when it was finished in 15 BC, was built on a grand scale with seats for 6,000 people. One interesting aspect of this theater is that it underwent a major improvement between the years 333 and 335 AD. This was after the Empire had converted to Christianity, and the early Christians denounced the theaters as immoral. The popular plays making fun of the church probably didn’t help their attitude. As I discussed in my post on the death of paganism, the conversion from paganism to Christianity was neither rapid nor straightforward. At this early stage it was still unthinkable to found a new city without a theater. The backdrop even has statues of pagan deities such as Serapis and Ceres. Although they’re from an earlier building stage than the Christian-era improvements, the fact that they weren’t removed is significant.

%Gallery-112089%Julián didn’t care about that, though. He was far more interested in the dark tunnels leading under the seats in a long, spooky semicircle around the theater. At first his fear of dark, unfamiliar places fought with his natural curiosity, but with Dad accompanying him he decided to chance it. It turned out there was no danger other than a rather large puddle we both stumbled into.

On stage he got a lesson in acoustics. The shape of the seats magnifies sounds. Voices carry further, and a snap of the fingers sounds like a pistol shot.

Next door was the amphitheater, where gladiators fought it out for the entertainment of the masses. Built in 8 BC, it seated 15,000, more than twice the amount as the theater. This was a city for veteran legionnaires, after all! Julián didn’t know what gladiators were so I explained it to him and soon throngs of ghostly Romans were cheering as Sean the Barbarian fought the Emperor Julián. He wanted to be a ninja and was disappointed to learn that there weren’t any in ancient Rome.

These two places are enough to make the trip worthwhile, but there are more than a dozen other ancient Roman buildings in Mérida as well. The best way to sum up the experience of walking through these remains was what I overheard some Italian tourists: “Bellissimo!
If the Italians are impressed, you know it’s good.

This is the first in a new series: Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: More Roman heritage from Mérida!

Brimham Rocks: weird natural formations in Yorkshire


What do you see in this picture? In Victorian times, the local people called this The Dancing Bear. In a more PC age where we don’t humiliate animals for our entertainment (much) the name has been changed to The Dog. Looks like he’s begging at his master’s dinner table.

This is one of many rock formations at Brimham Rocks, Yorkshire, England. An ancient river laid down grit and sand in this region more than 300 million years ago, forming a sandstone called Millstone Grit. Wind and rain have been scouring it away ever since. Softer portions go first, while those layers with tougher ingredients take longer to weather. Thus over millions of years the once-featureless stone has been twisted into odd formations like this one.

Needless to say the rocks have been a Yorkshire landmark since before recorded history. In Victorian times it became a tourist destination, with lots of colorful names and stories attached to the stones. One spot is called Lover’s Leap where, according to an 1863 guidebook, a couple named Edwin and Julia decided to end their lives.

“They were madly in love with each other but Julia’s father wasn’t having any of it. Especially when Edwin asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage. He forbade them to see each other any more. But of course, they couldn’t stand to live without each other. They decided to leap off Brimham Rocks and spend eternity together that way. Julia’s father got wind of the plan and dashed up there to dissuade them – but they jumped before he could reach them. However, by some miracle, instead of plummeting to their dooms, they floated gently to the ground. “Some said that a fairy who lived among the rocks had witnessed their misery and knew they could be happy if only they were allowed to marry.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Druids – or maybe even the magic in the rocks themselves. More boring people put it down to Julia’s skirts being so voluminous. But whatever, her Father at last consented to their marriage and naturally they lived happily ever after.”

The mention of the Druids is significant. The Victorians were fascinated by all things Celtic and many scholars thought archaeological sites like Stonehenge had been built by these Celtic priests. Natural formations were attributed to the Druids too. One table-like formation is called “The Druid’s Writing Desk” although many people say it looks more like E.T. There are dozens more, like the Idol, the Bulls of Babylon, and the turtle. There are also spots where Mother Shipton, the famous Yorkshire soothsayer, made her prophecies and practiced her magic.

While Brimham Rocks didn’t make it onto our list of the 17 strangest natural wonders, it’s well worth a visit not just for its natural beauty but also for all the strange and funny folklore that’s glommed onto it over the years. How much of it is “real” folklore and how much has been made up by the guides? Who knows? Our guide did admit that in Victorian times visitors paid only what they felt like, so the guides were under some real pressure to entertain.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Yorkshire: ghosts, castles, and literature in England’s north.

Coming up next: York: capital of England’s north!

This trip was sponsored by
VisitEngland and Welcome to Yorkshire.

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The death of paganism: how the Roman Empire converted to Christianity


In the year 300 AD, Christianity was a minority religion in the Roman Empire, practiced by perhaps ten percent of the population. In good years it was discriminated against; in bad years it was persecuted. By 400 AD, a century later, it had become the official religion practiced by pretty much everyone. Evidence of this remarkable transformation can still be seen in Rome’s monuments.

Teachers in Sunday schools like to tell a story about how it happened.

In the year 312 there ruled a Roman Emperor named Maxentius who had taken power illegally. He hated Christians and persecuted them. The proper heir to the throne, Constantine, marched on Rome to save the Empire. Before the two forces met in battle, Constantine saw a vision of a cross in the sky and the words “Conquer under this”. Constantine and his army converted to Christianity and painted the cross on their shields. The next day they defeated the pagans and brought Christianity to Rome.

This story is almost entirely wrong, yet it has resonated down the centuries through books, paintings, and films to become part of the Christian legend.

The truth is more complex. Maxentius and Constantine were both sons of emperors and thus equally legitimate. Maxentius did not persecute Christians, and the story of Constantine seeing a cross in the sky doesn’t appear in the texts until years after the battle. Constantine did defeat Maxentius and marched into Rome in triumph, bearing his rival’s severed head as a trophy. After the usual celebrations and gladiator spectacles, he built the Arch of Constantine, which has no Christian symbolism but does depict sacrifices to four pagan gods. In later years he built a number of grandiose churches, including the original St. Peter’s, but didn’t get baptized until his deathbed. Paganism remained legal throughout his reign.

Constantine gave one great boon to the Christians–he legalized their religion. From then on it rapidly gained more followers and began edging out the pagan cults. Soon it was the pagans being persecuted. Rioting monks trashed temples and killed pagan philosophers like Hypatia. In 382 the Altar of Victory was removed from its centuries-old home in the Senate. In 391 paganism was outlawed and temples shut all over the Empire. The old cults hung on for a few generations in rural areas, but Christianity was now the dominant power.

Traces of this incredible transformation are visible in Rome. At the Basilica di San Clemente a 12th century church is built atop a much earlier church. This earlier building was the home of a Roman noble, a secret Christian who invited fellow Christians into his home to worship, a common practice in the days when Christianity was illegal. Underneath his home lies a subterranean temple to the pagan god Mithras.

Entering the medieval church you see the usual grandiose paintings and sculptures. The real interest comes when you descend the stairs into the dank, dark cellar. There you can see the original church much as it was. Descend further and you get back to the days of the pagan Roman Empire. Three rooms survive. One may have been a mint. Another, with a few paintings surviving, was a training room for acolytes in the Mithraic faith. The third is the temple, or mithraeum, for Mithras himself.

%Gallery-102749%Mithras was Christianity’s main rival. As a mystery religion with its deepest teachings revealed only to the initiated, we don’t know much about its inner workings. What we do know shows many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as the belief that Mithras was born on December 25 to a virgin, and died and was resurrected in order to save mankind. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers said that the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

The mithraeum is a long, rectangular room with benches to either side. Members would sit on these benches and share a communal meal that included bread and wine. At the end of the room stood a plaque showing Mithras in a little-understood ritual of killing a bull. Mithraism was popular, but didn’t have the widespread appeal of Christianity. First off, only men were allowed into the cult. Also, most of the teachings were secret, and while that had a certain mystique, it also turned off many who didn’t want to go through a long period of study and initiation. Despite this more than a dozen mithraea survive in Rome and there were probably hundreds during its heyday.

The transition from pagan to Christian isn’t always as obvious as in San Clemente. Sometimes you can see it in the art, such as the image above, a 4th century mosaic from Santa Pudenziana. Here Christ sits enthroned in a pose identical to many statues of the pagan god Jupiter. Saints Peter and Paul sit to either side dressed as Roman senators. The early Christians saw nothing wrong with this. They wanted to win the hearts and minds of the people, and a bit of reworked pagan symbolism was a good way to do that.

At times the Christians reused old buildings or parts of old buildings. San Maria Maggiore, a third century basilica, was originally a secular building before being converted into a house of worship. This is one of the most stunning churches in Rome, with fifth-century mosaics showing Biblical scenes and a ceiling gilded during the Renaissance with the first gold brought back from the New World. So many Roman sites are only foundations with perhaps a few columns standing, but here you can actually stand inside a Roman building.

Christianity would have never caught on so quickly if it didn’t have the Empire’s infrastructure to spread its message. These were the days when trying to cross a border could easily get you killed, and the Empire provided a large, secure area in which to move about. The Catholic Church understood their debt to Rome and wanted to take on its aura of glory and power. Rome went became the capital of the new faith and its art and architecture was incorporated into churches worldwide. The Church was still trying take on a bit of the old Roman magic as late as the 17th century, when the Pope ordered the giant bronze doors from the old Roman Senate installed in the entrance to St. John Lateran.

The name Roman Catholic Church is no accident.

Don’t miss the rest of my Vacation with the Dead: exploring Rome’s sinister side.

Coming up next: Saints’ relics in Rome!