Greece and Egypt: reconsidering early contact and exchange
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Scholarship has long recognized the vital significance of cross-cultural interaction to the development of the Mediterranean world of the early first millennium BC. Relations between Greece and Egypt, however, are often little considered in this context. Recent archaeological discoveries and the critical restudy of earlier fieldwork enable a fresh perspective on the topic, beyond the distorting prism of 19th century scholarship and the traditional focus on Greek texts, and fuzzy notions of influence based on the distribution of objects. Looking at places of direct encounter and tracing agents of contact, the article asks the question of what Greeks and Egyptians actually knew and understood of each other, and what processes underpinned their interaction, and tries to situate Egyptian-Greek contact within a broader picture of exchange between the Greek and Middle Eastern world in the crucial period of the 8th-6th centuries BC. Two cases studies, one on Egyptian bronzes found in the Samian Heraion and other Greek sanctuaries, and the other on the archaeology of the Egyptian-Greek trading post of Naukratis, suggest that over time, changes in networks and agents of trade and diplomacy fundamentally transformed the nature of contact and impact. In an earlier phase, exchange between Greece and Egypt was channelled primarily through Phoenician and Levantine networks; prestige objects moved as booty or gifts and amulets as commercial goods with the appeal of magical efficacy as much as of ‘exotic’ social currency, while traders were presumably the main agents to transfer knowledge of Egyptian culture to the elites of mainland and East Greek centres. In a later phase, the Nile Delta in particular became a key intercultural contact zone, home to Greeks, Carians and other foreigners who came to Egypt as traders and mercenaries. It was only in this phase, from the late 7th century BC onwards, that direct exposure to ideas and practices and shared, lived experience set in motion processes of exchange that were to have more profound resonances on all cultures involved.