Egyptian Iconoclasm: The Mother of All Art Destruction

The iconoclasm inspired by Black Lives Matter protests has many antecedents in Egypt. Iconoclasm has taken place in bursts over thousands of years in pharaonic, Coptic, and Islamic Egypt.

Jul 25, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen, PhD & MA in Egyptology, BA Egyptology
detail old kingdom stela
Detail of an Ancient Egyptian 5th Dynasty Stela of Setju, 2500-350 BC, via The Brooklyn Museum


In spring 2020, the news was full of stories of American protesters tearing down monumental statues across the country. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, these statues of once-revered men became symbols of racism. Crowds rushed to tear down and deface statues of Confederate leaders and even some of the country’s founders who had owned slaves.


These protesters are following in the footsteps of a very ancient tradition that can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Iconoclasm reached its peak in Egypt during the early Christian era, and only happened briefly under Muslim rule. This article will discuss the examples and history of iconoclasm in ancient Egypt. 


Pharaonic Iconoclasm

Akhenaten hacked out the name of Amenhotep III and Rameses II restored it


Private monuments in ancient Egypt were often subject to iconoclasm by personal enemies of the person to whom they were dedicated. They would usually just hack out the nose as the breath of life entered the body via it.


Many pharaohs reused the statues of their predecessors by recutting them in their own style and inscribing them with their own names. They also dismantled their predecessors’ monuments and erected their own in their place. However, the actual destruction of pharaonic monuments and artwork with the intention of deliberate destruction is rare during pharaonic times.


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Perhaps the only clear cut case of this is the iconoclasm committed by the pharaoh Akhenaten. He imposed the worship of a single god on the country. To support his new ideology, he had the names and images of the previously premier state god Amun hacked out. 


The Iconoclasts Of Early Christian Egypt

Shenoute, the iconoclast in the Red Monastery Church in Sohag, via Marginalia Los Angeles Review of Books 


Monastic life first developed in the Egyptian desert. Many Egyptian monks were actually former pagan priests. As converts to Christianity, they often took on a very zealous role in their opposition to the ancient religion and its symbols.


One of the most fervent perpetrators of iconoclasm was the head of the White Monastery, Shenoute. He is one of the most revered saints of the Coptic Church. One of the most famous stories of his iconoclasm was when he decided to go to the village of Pneuit to destroy the pagan idols. The pagans caught word that he was coming, and so they buried magical spells along the route to the village hoping to hinder him. Shenoute approached the village on a donkey who would dig and uncover each of the spells, allowing him to continue. Shenoute eventually reached the village, entered the temple and smashed all the statues inside on top of one another.


Depictions Of Ancient Gods Were Not Seen As Lifeless Figures

Damaged figures of Horus, Amun and Thoth at the Temple of Isis at Philae, 6th century BC


Today, non-believers of the ancient religion would regard Egyptian statues and temple reliefs as lifeless figures. However, during the early Christian era in ancient Egypt, such artworks were seen as demons. No longer viewed as benevolent deities, these demons worked evil.


One monk recounted how he converted to Christianity from paganism as the result of witnessing these demons as a young boy. He had accompanied his father, a pagan priest, to a temple as a child. While there he said Satan appeared along with some demons who reported to him. Each one accounted for actions they had engaged in to sow strife and problems among people. The final demon told Satan, “I was in the desert 40 years, waging war against a single monk, and tonight I cast him down into fornication.” Impressed by the fortitude of the monk, the child decided to convert to Christianity immediately.


Iconoclasm Was Used To Convert Pagans

Horus Statue at Edfu Temple, 57 BC, via USA Today/Getty Images


One of the most famous sites of conflict between pagans and Christians was the Philae Temple. This temple was one of the last outposts of paganism in ancient Egypt. The Christians were such outcasts that they had to celebrate mass in secret. 


The first bishop of Philae, Macedonius, is said to have engaged in a bold move of iconoclasm to impose his religious views on the region. The locals worshipped an idol of a falcon (likely Horus) in the temple. The bishop entered the temple pretending to want to offer a sacrifice. The two sons of the temple priest began to kindle a fire for the offering. While they were distracted with this, the bishop cut off the head of the statue and threw it in the fire. At first, the two sons escaped and their father vowed to kill Macedonius, but eventually, all of them converted to Christianity.


There is evidence however that the local population continued to worship in the pagan temple for some time. However, the Christians damaged many of the reliefs in the temple.


Ancient Tombs And Temples As Monastic Cells

Baptistry in the tomb of Panehsy at Tell el-Amarna, 1346 BC


One of the reasons these monks felt such a strong need to fight against these demons was because they set up camp in ancient tombs and temples as monastic cells and churches.


One such tomb was the tomb of Panehsy at Tell el-Amarna. The early clergy reused this tomb as a baptistery, carving an apse in a wall of the tomb. Nearby, a depiction of Akhenaten and his wife worshipping the Aten was carved. Ironically, the early Christians hacked out the face of the iconoclast Akhenaten. They painted a red cross and an alpha and omega on top of where his wife Nefertiti had been painted. Later, they plastered over the entire scene.


Some Monks Tried To Show That Statues Were Just Lifeless Figures

Fresco of Roman Senators gathering at the feet of the Imperial throne, painted over ancient reliefs in Luxor Temple, 3rd century AD, via The American Research Center in Egypt


During a time of unrest, a group of monks moved into a temple together and agreed that each one would stay alone in a room in the temple for a week. One monk named Anoub arose every morning and threw stones at the face of the statue. Every night, he knelt before it and asked forgiveness. At the end of one week, his brother monks cast doubt on his Christian faith. He replied, “If you want us to stay with one another, let us be like this statue, which is not moved whether it is insulted or glorified.”


The Christians apparently considered temples to be safe enough to convert them into churches, including some of the most famous temples visited by tourists today. These include Luxor Temple, Medinet Habu, and Philae Temple.


Looting And Killing Often Accompanied Iconoclasm

Bust of Serapis in the Serapaeum of Alexandria, copy of a 4th century BC Greek original, via University of Chicago


One of the most famous incidents of iconoclasm took place in Alexandria at one of its most famous temples, the Serapeum. Christianity had become the religion of the Roman Empire, but it still had a significant pagan population. 


The non-Christians revolted, leading to many deaths of Christians. The Bishop Theophilus solicited an order from the emperor to destroy the temples, which he granted. Theophilus entered the Serapeum and found a gigantic statue of the god made of wood and metal whose hands touched both sides of the temple. 


A rumor had circulated that an earthquake would happen and the sky would fall down if the statue was destroyed, so at first, people were hesitant to attack it. But when a soldier took an ax to it and nothing happened, the rumor was proved untrue. So he proceeded to chop up the statue into pieces. The Christians dragged these pieces around the city with ropes and finally burned them.


 It was also reported that the Christians looted the temple top to bottom, leaving only the floor as it was too heavy to cart off.


Muslim Iconoclasts

Statue of Isis Lactans, 26th Dynasty, in the Louvre Museum, via Wikimedia


Islam came to Egypt in 641 AD. However, unlike in the early days of Christianity in ancient Egypt, there was no attempt to destroy the ancient monuments by iconoclasm, let alone the churches of the Copts. 


It was not until the late 13th century and 14th century that concerted efforts to destroy ancient monuments took place. At that time, the locals saw the Great Sphinx as a talisman that protected the crops in the area from dust and sandstorms. A Sufi shaykh attacked the Sphinx and broke its nose. The people believed his act was behind various calamities that followed, including a Christian Crusade and sandstorms. So they dragged him before a judge and finally, mob rule took over as they tore him apart in court and dragged his body back to the Sphinx where they buried him.


In addition, a statue of Isis nursing her son Horus stood in front of the Hanging Church in what is now the Old Cairo neighborhood. It was considered the beloved of the Great Sphinx, which stood nearly 10 kilometers away in front of the Pyramid of Khafre on the other side of the Nile River. A treasure-seeking prince broke up the statue in 1311. However, over a century later historians pointed out that nothing bad came of the destruction of the statue, which was believed to protect the area from excess flooding.


The Reuse Of Ancient Monuments In Mosques In Islamic Cairo

Relief of Ramesses II used as a threshold of the eastern gate of Qusun Wikala in Islamic Cairo, via Google Books


During this period many of the ancient monuments were destroyed for reuse as building materials, including the aforementioned statue of Isis and Horus. The casing stones of the pyramids of Giza were quarried en masse to build Islamic Cairo. It was easier to move these blocks than to quarry blocks anew. 


The temples of Heliopolis to the east of Cairo served as a de facto quarry. The site was linked to Islamic Cairo by a canal that made moving them easy. The builders of mosques often used them for lintels and doorsteps. The hardness of the stones made them ideal for this purpose. But also there was symbolic value in trampling on pharaonic stones when entering and exiting mosques.


Are Accounts Of Iconoclasm Historical?

Protesters topple a statue of a slave trader, Bristol, UK, 2020, via Click2Houston


In some cases, historians have called into question the historicity of the stories of iconoclasm talked about in this article. Indeed, historians sometimes are uncomfortable portraying the people they study as engaging in such extreme acts. However, the tearing down of statues during protests in the United States and Europe in the present day show us monuments that were revered and respected for a long time can be subject to destruction by individuals and groups.

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By Nicole B. HansenPhD & MA in Egyptology, BA EgyptologyNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.