Multiculturalism as a Tool of Empire


Review of exhibits Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds (through Nov. 27) and Sicily: Culture and Conquest (through Aug. 14)

The British Museum, London

According to ancient sources, but only certain ancient sources, when the last native Pharaoh of Egypt, Nectanebo II, lost his kingdom to the Persian Achaemenid Empire, he cleverly disguised himself as a magician and fled to the court of Philip of Macedon. Philip was conveniently away fighting a war, allowing Nectanebo to persuade Mrs. Philip that the god Amun-Ra would visit her chambers to beget a god-child. And that is how the dethroned Pharaoh Nectanebo became the father of Alexander the Great, who grew up to conquer Egypt, and some other places.

The Greek conquest of Egypt is one of two stories playing this summer at the British Museum in a pair of exhibitions exploring the methods used by conquerors to persuade their new subjects to accept the legitimacy of a foreign king.

It is hard to decide which is the most dazzling aspect of Sunken Cities: is it the dramatic underwater archaeology or the exquisitely beautiful objects? Focused on artifacts from two Egyptian cities that sank into the Mediterranean over a thousand years ago, this is an exhibition designed to dazzle. Not only has the British Museum borrowed remarkable objects that rarely leave Egypt, the dig itself appears to have had a cinematographer directing excavators as they worked. One show-stopping image focuses a camera on divers carefully maneuvering a severed stone head onto the monumental body from which it was separated centuries ago. (The video, of course, is available in the gift shop.

Here, however, I focus on a question raised by programming staff who want us to consider “whether modern rulers and governments could benefit from looking at the Ptolemaic system in relation to current multicultural tensions?”

Alexander himself stayed in Egypt long enough to make an imperial victory lap to the remote oasis of Siwa, where the priests of Amun-Ra anointed him. Theirs was the right to proclaim each new pharaoh. Winning the peace would be harder, as the originator of the myth of Alexander’s Egyptian descent undoubtedly understood. It required the population to acknowledge, at least tacitly, the legitimacy of a foreign dynasty by paying taxes and shunning nativist rebellions. The Ptolemies made a success of their conquered kingdom by keeping the lives of their Egyptian subjects unchanged and leaving the priesthood and temples intact. When they added new deities to the pantheon, the new god had a local pedigree. The most notable of the new gods was Serapis: a Greco-Egyptian fusion popular not only in Egypt, but as far from the Nile as Roman London. And, like Alexander, the Ptolomies took up the style and symbols of Egyptian kingship.

Nowhere is this more beautifully visible than in the statue of Arsinoe II, daughter of Ptolemy I and wife of her own brother, Ptolemy II. She stands headless, her perfect stone body sculpted in Greek fashion as she steps toward us Egyptian style: left foot forward, her sheer dress fastened with an Isis knot. Two cultures meet in this image carved of Egyptian granodiorite, not of Greek marble. But Arsinoe’s marriage, one of many sibling marriages within the Ptolemaic dynasty, shows that the willingness of the Greek rulers to mix with Egyptians went only so far.

The Ptolemies could have married descendants of native aristocrats, a legitimizing option that has been attractive to conquerors down through history. They did not. The Ptolemies and a large and growing number of Greek-speakers lived as a culturally distinct upper class. There was mixing, assimilation of upwardly mobile Egyptians to Greek culture, and cultural influence that flowed in both directions. Yet the two peoples remained separate and distinct through long centuries of Greek, and then of Roman, rule. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, Greek-speaking Egyptians joined a Greek Church, while the descendants of indigenous Egyptians joined the theologically distinct Coptic Church. Only after the Arab conquest did the millennium-long story of a culturally distinctive, Greek-speaking, Egyptian upper class end, the beginning of the end marked by the flight of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria into exile.

The Other Norman Conquest

In 1061, the man who was about to become Roger I of Sicily landed on the Mediterranean island with his brother, Robert Guiscard, conqueror of southern Italy, leading an army of soldiers of fortune that included large numbers of Muslims. Unlike the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Sicily did not fall in a single battle followed by a decade of suppressing rebellions. Sicily was made up of a number of small princedoms in which Arabic had been in the process of replacing Greek, and Islam had been in the process of replacing Christianity. It soon became apparent that conquering them one by one would be a long slog, so Robert headed back to the mainland leaving Sicily to Roger.

The last significant Muslim power on the island, the Emirate of Syracuse did not capitulate until 1085. The Emir thereupon converted to Christianity, rewarded by Roger I with an estate in Calabria. The great Temple of Athena in Syracuse also converted. It had already spent centuries as a Greek cathedral, followed by centuries as a grand mosque. It now became Roman Catholic, and so it has remained.

Walking from Sunken Cities to Sicily: Culture and Conquest makes the artistic descent from the Classical Age to what we used to call the Dark Ages palpable. And yet a closer look reveals that curators are not wrong to call the reign of the Normans a Sicilian “Golden Age.” Roger I employed Arab administrators and specialists of all kinds, while under Roger II and again under Frederick III, the Court became a magnet for scholars from across the Mediterranean world, a cultural and scholarly moment often described as a proto-Renaissance.

Some inkling of this Golden Age can be seen in the buildings and mosaics of Roger II, although this is not always easy to discern in the exhibit. Buildings and wall mosaics cannot be crated up and shipped from Palermo to London, and the budget appears not to have stretched to the kind of photography that can transport museumgoers to Sicily without leaving the gallery.

It was, we are told, “An Enlightened Kingdom,” where the “coexistence of Western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures created what was probably the most progressive court in Europe.” That may well be true, although it is more true to say, as the curators do, that Roger I maintained, “an unusual but fragile religious tolerance” under which Arabs lived “mostly peacefully with their Christian and Jewish neighbors.”

The multicultural Sicily that emerges from these artifacts was in many ways a smaller-scale, reverse mirror of the cultural replacement that took place under the Ottoman Empire. In Sicily, conquered Arabs and Greeks were treated by the Normans with relative decency despite being presumptively natural allies of the Byzantine and Muslim kingdoms with which Roger’s heirs were often at war. But their numbers shrank steadily, Greek and Arabic were gradually replaced by Sicilian (a Romance language rooted in Latin), and the Church of Rome slowly but inexorably supplanted both Islam and Greek Christianity.

The Multiculturalism of Empires

The cultural tolerance of the Norman and Ptolemaic kings was a tool of imperial rule, of more potential use to modern dictators than to free societies. It was not the multiculturalism where groups stand as equals; it was a multiculturalism of conqueror and subaltern. Much as Sicily’s Arab conquerors had reduced Greek farmers to serfdom, the Normans now imposed serfdom on Muslim and Greek farmers alike. Tolerance, moreover, often bowed to the need for political control. Sicily’s Norman kings reduced the threat of rebellion by ordering large populations to move to distant parts of the kingdom. One transfer in the 1220s sent a rebellious Muslim population to Lucera in Southern Italy. The fact that such rebels were not killed, their families not broken up and sold separately on the slave market, made this a humane and tolerant policy for the era.

Multiculturalism is visible in a featured artifact, a Christian tombstone dated 1149. The memorial inscription is written in Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic, the date given according to each calendar. It speaks to us of a post-conquest period when accommodating multiple cultures was royal policy; the Arabic wording charms by describing the Pope as the Imam of Rome. Created to memorialize the mother of an important priest, it may also have been an advertisement for, or celebration of, a family’s conversion to the Norman Church. Just as the fact that the Norman Church offered Roman rite sacraments in Greek as well as in Latin can be seen either as a gesture of cultural tolerance, or as a public reminder of the advisability of converting to the King’s religion. The four-language memorial is unique in including Judeo-Arabic, but, like the three-language grave markers found nearby, its polyglot aspect may be better evidence of the felt need to convert to the conqueror’s faith than it is of cultural tolerance. After all, the grand narrative looming over Sicily’s multiculturalism is that the island’s Arabs and Greeks changed their faith and learned the conqueror’s language.

Conversion was unidirectional, but culture flowed in all directions, even upwards. Norman kings, like the Muslim rulers they supplanted, wore silk robes, made boys into eunuchs for use as servants, openly kept concubines in the women’s quarter of the palace, and sipped the juices of pomegranates and lemons, fruits Norman England never imagined.

Sicily: Culture and Conquest may lack the showmanship of Sunken Cities, but curators Dick Booms and Peter Higgs offer us something better, a nuanced perspective on the complexity of life in multicultural societies. One wall plaque points out that,

The culturally and ethnically diverse peoples of Norman Sicily lived together peacefully only because of the king’s cohesive reign.

There is a thought worth considering. Anti-Muslim pogroms, we learn, were rare in Sicily; most took place during a single reign. What if it turns out that a peaceful, multicultural society is “only” possible under an autocrat? Does it follow that deliberative democracy requires a culturally unified electorate? We are running the first large-scale experiments in the democratic government of multicultural societies in real time. How, I wonder, will the museum curators of 2116 describe us?

Posted on 1 August 2016

DIANA MUIR APPELBAUM is the author of Reflections in Bullough's Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.