Where: Bagawat, Kharga oases, southern Egypt
When: From 3rd century AD
History: Amazingly preserved picture bibles from early Christianity held in desert tombs
Go there for: A glimpse into an early still practised sect of Christianity, closest to the times of Jesus
Early Egyptian beliefs
The religious beliefs of modern Egypt are very different from that of two millennia ago. Long before it was an Islamic country, Egypt’s primary religious belief system was a form of Christianity. The country was one of the first to accept Christianity after it was brought there as early as 40 AD by missionaries, but it was over 300 years before it was officially adopted as the official religion. These followers were called Copts, and actually split from the branch of the Byzantine Orthodox church after a dispute erupted over the divinity of Christ; Copts refused to accept Christ as anything but divine and refused to believe, as the Byzantine Church believed, that Christ was both human and divine.
The most visible legacy left in Egypt today from the ancient Copts are the paintings, sculptures and art they left behind. For the many illiterate Coptic believers, the paintings on ceilings and walls served as picture Bibles that showed famous events. Though almost 1800 years old, many are still vibrant and colourful.
The oldest frescoes were painted in Alexandria, and they extended southwards along the Nile as the religion spread. The styles also changed from very basic early scenes to more elaborate depictions of plants and animal forms, including events in the lives of Adam and Eve and Jesus. Greek and Persian art also influenced the style, particularly the sculptures and carvings.
Where to see Coptic art and tombs
The Coptic Museum in Cairo is an excellent introduction to Coptic art, and can make an interesting visit before heading south to see more.
The most famous place to see Coptic paintings is in Bagawat near the Kharga oasis in southern Egypt. 233 sites here containing paintings, many in monasteries and churches which can be visited, making Bagawat an interesting excursion from Luxor or stop off on a desert trek. Though there is a sizeable minority of Egyptians who still practice this religion (less than 10% of the country’s population), the tombs left behind by Copts in Bagawat are the most interesting historical link to these people. They are easily visited while on a trek to the Western Desert, though you will need to give a small tip to a local who can unlock the more interesting tombs for you to see the frescoes and paintings, still visible after almost twenty centuries.
A visit to Bagawat offers a glimpse into the time before Islam, which was introduced in 642 AD, and is now practised by 90% of Egyptians, making Egypt the largest Muslim country, in terms of inhabitants, on earth.