Agora, or an Egyptian revolution

Reading time 3 min.

Spanish director Alejandro Amenabar transports the viewer to Egypt in the late fourth century AD, a time when followers of the last ancient Egyptian and Roman gods were under heavy Christian persecution …

At the end of the Roman Empire, Alexandria became the last bastion of antique culture, and the monumental Serapeion (Sarapeum) complex, which was the religious and historic heart of the city, was of particular importance to pagan Egyptians. It was a place of high culture where the scholarly work and scientific research that had illuminated the ancient days beamed its final rays, highlighting the philosophical works of Olympios and the fundamental astronomical discoveries of Hypatia, its daughter. The school of Alexandria continued to train brilliant students throughout the Roman Empire, with a freedom of thinking and writing that was inherited from its founders, especially Ptolemy the Savior, a former disciple of Aristotle and general of Alexander.

The fall of Serapeion, Alexandria

In June 16, 391, an edict espoused by Theodosius at Aquileia, Eastern Roman Emperor who had gradually assumed power, after the death of Valentinian II, banned all ancient cults in the whole Empire: “No one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of man,” the edict read.

The edict was immediately applied by the bishop of Alexandria, Theophilus, who ordered the destruction, with the help of the army, of the Alexandria Serapeion.

During a series of riots caused by violations of the edict, Christian fanatics took possession of places hitherto considered sacred and hunted down priests and philosophers. Olympios flees after explaining to people that the power, the divine “dynamis”, has deserted the statues and gone back into the heavens.

A legendary library goes up in smoke

The library, the famous and legendary Alexandria library, will be reduced to ashes by virtue of the fury of rabid Christians. The priceless ancient culture, carefully and tirelessly recorded, dies, goes up in smoke. It will take over a thousand years for scholars to try to gather the bits and pieces that sit on our library shelves today. A reminder of Homeric cross referencing feats that reveal clumsy, scattered and, more often than not, biased works.

Alejandro Amenabar’s film is a chronicle of those particularly moving days… It is tough not to draw a parallel with other fanatic ideologies, and not see within the blinding iconoclasm of Egyptian Christians the endless and repetitive story of impassioned obscurantism launched as a weapon against rationale. Why is it that every era succeeds another in a fury of intolerance? Why should faith be constantly expressed through violence? Probably because everything deprived of rationale also stifles common sense and logic.

A overwhelming fresco

Not revelling or ignoring the beauty and aesthetic success of this magnificent historical epic is tantamount to injustice. Superb decors, overwhelming reconstructions, splendid rifts with a no holds barred approach to human passions (love, ambition, loyalty, hatred)… The suspense is intense at every given moment … sometimes amazing, sometimes incredulous … It leaves one panting. Alejandro Amenabar appends his signature to a perfect success in a difficult genre.

And in the summer of 392, the people of Egypt bade a final farewell to the gods when … the Nile, as usual, flooded the Egyptian countryside, heedless of the previous year’s sacrileges!

Thus the prosperity of the empire owed nothing to the performance of those sacred rites, which had for centuries, accompanied and “provoked” the rising waters. Perhaps the fall of Serapeion had changed nothing in the order of things? Were the numerous gods, therefore, only idols? The Christians were so right! The ebb and flow of the Nile erased the last illusions of pagans. The Mediterranean was changing its common belief … On November 8, 392, Emperor Theodosius completely banned the free practice of ancient cults. The death penalty was imposed.

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By Khaled Elraz, journalist specializing in African societies (communities, rites and traditions). A passionate photographer, he has been traveling the continent for 20 years.
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