Thursday, 17 December 2015

One God to rule them all: Garry Shaw on Faith After the Pharaohs at the British Museum

This is an excerpt from my review of the exhibition Faith After the Pharaohs at the British Museum for The Art Newspaper...

In the British Museum's latest exhibition, Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs, there is a long fragment of papyrus, one of many on display, written in Greek and called the Gospel of Thomas. What is striking about this fragment is not its beauty or penmanship, but the era in which it was written. In Oxyrhynchus, an Egyptian city, the scroll’s Christian owner had copied the text less than 300 years after the death of Jesus, a time when the ancient Egyptian gods were still widely worshipped, before the acceptance of Christianity across the Roman Empire and before the appearance of Islam. To many of his contemporaries in Egypt, this ancient copyist—a man simply trying to preserve his messiah's sayings—would have been a rebel. He could not have predicted how Egypt, and the whole world, would change over the coming centuries, or that the church would forbid Christians from reading the very text he was copying once the contents of the New Testament had been agreed upon.

Religious development—its continuation and transformation—is at the heart of Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs. It is what makes the show so fascinating and ambitious. Taking visitors from 30BC to AD1171, the exhibition is divided into three main sections, covering the Romans in Egypt and their interactions with the Jews and early Christians, the transition to Egypt as part of a Christian Empire and then, through the Byzantine Era, onwards into the Islamic Period. It is a millennium often ignored by museums in favour of Egypt's more ancient glories. Wh ere most exhibitions end, this one begins.

To read the rest of the review, please click here...

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

France: The Heretics of Languedoc: Travelling in Cathar Country

Carcassonne. Photo: Garry Shaw
My latest article for Timeless Travels magazine is about travelling in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France in search of Cathar history.

Here's the opening section:

It isn't recorded what Guillaume Bélibaste, the last Cathar ‘Perfect’, thought as he slowly burned to death at the stake, but given his beliefs, it was probably something like, ‘thank god!’. Now, this isn't because Bélibaste liked the idea of such a death, but rather because he, like the other Cathars, saw anything physical as associated with evil, even his own body. Your flesh was a prison for the perfect soul, stuck in a world created by an evil god and only released in death. If you'd lived a perfect life, your soul went straight to heaven. If you hadn't, you'd be reincarnated. It says a lot about life in the 14th century that to this Christian sect reincarnation was a worse threat than hell.

Intrigued by this unusual medieval religious movement, now wiped from existence, I'd travelled to the Pays Cathare, ‘Cathar Country’, as it's advertised by the French tourism authority, in the Aude Department of Languedoc-Roussillon, just north of the Spanish border. In the 12th century, when Cathar beliefs first became popular, this area hadn't yet fallen under the control of the French crown and remained divided up among the Count of Toulouse and his vassals, and the King of Aragon and his vassals. Even before the Cathars, this region, mainly left to its own devices, had a reputation for liberal sympathies. And it wasn't just among the common folk; the Count of Toulouse, Raymond VI, one of the most powerful men in the region, was twice excommunicated by the Pope. Towing the Catholic line wasn't the region's strong suit.

You can download a pdf of the article here: The Heretics of Languedoc.

And if you enjoy it, please download the rest of the Winter 2015 issue of Timeless Travels (it's free!). It's full of wonderful history-themed travel pieces. You can find it at: 

Monday, 14 December 2015

Garry's Soapbox: Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Visitors with the LK-3 lunar lander 
in the Cosmonauts exhibition © Science Museum
Here's my latest soapbox blog for SC Exhibitions, this time on the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum London.

The box room is bathed in an eerie blue light. Mellow Russian music plays on a synth piano. The tones are transcendent. Illuminated in yellow at the centre of the room, a mannequin of Yuri Gagarin – the first man in space – is cradled in a metal net, itself resting within a polygonal glass coffin. He stares up at a red-glowing rectangle on the ceiling, representing, so I’m told, the possibility of a mission to Mars. The sensors covering his body once recorded radiation levels while he orbited the moon. On one wall is written, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever – Tsiolkovsky, 1911.” With its mellow ambience, I feel as if the exhibition is giving my brain a soothing massage.

This, the final section in the Science Museum’s latest show, Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, is a fitting, yet curiously abstract and arty end, to a bold and ambitious exhibition, driven, for the most part, by solid human endeavor, technological innovation and exhausting persistence. It’s also the first time in recent years that an exhibition has truly surprised me; after propelling you through galleries tightly wrapped in technology, filled to bursting point with the relics of Soviet space equipment, videos, photos and information panels – above, beside, below and sometimes stacked one above the other – the exhibition doesn’t so much as come to an abrupt end, as leave your senses suddenly weightless and freed, floating in an electric blue orbit alongside mannequin-Yuri. I half expected David Bowie to turn up.

To read the rest, please follow this link: Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Ancient Egypt 2.0—project launched to scan the pyramids

My latest article for The Art Newspaper...

The Giza pyramids at night. Photo: Garry Shaw
Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities plans to use high-tech non-invasive scanning technology to investigate the pyramids at Giza and Dahshur. The new project, called Scan Pyramids and led by an international team from Egypt, France, Japan and Canada, aims to shed new light on ancient construction techniques and reveal any currently unknown chambers. “Their goal is to probe Egypt’s largest pyramids, without touching them or drilling the slightest opening,” Egypt’s head of antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty told Ahram Online.

To read more, click here...

Monday, 19 October 2015

Garry's Soapbox: Get Dressed by Angels

Costumes from the 1971 movie The Boy Friend
at Dressed by Angels. Photo: Garry Shaw
I've recently been invited to write a monthly column for SC Exhibitions on museums and culture. My first piece focused on the new exhibition Dressed by Angels that opened recently in London.

Here's the opening three paragraphs...

"In this new culture blog, I'll be taking a look into the world of exhibitions, exploring some new openings and the big touring shows, as well as some of the less covered aspects of exhibitions, from promotional posters, to the technology used to bring the displays alive. I'll also take a look at the creative process, and the people behind some of your favourite shows.

For this, the first edition of my blog, I figured that it'd be smart to get some divine help, and what better way than to visit the new Dressed by Angels exhibition, which just opened at the Old Truman Brewery in London. There, until 3rd January 2016, you'll find a large selection of costumes from stage and film, created by the famous costumiers, Angels, on Garrick Street.

Atmosphere is key for a show like this, and Dressed by Angels does a wonderful job of extracting you from the normal world and placing you into a realm of theatrics and fantasy. As you enter the venue, you're surrounded by white walls and tall glass windows. Reality is stark and bright. But to enter the exhibition, you descend a set of steps into a dark space. Like stepping onto a stage, you pass through black curtains into a world of spotlights. This is to be a performance, and the costumes, basking in the lights, are the stars of the show."

To read the rest, please follow this link: Get Dressed by Angels

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Malta: Islands of Giants

A figure from the Xagħra Stone Circle on Gozo
Photo: Garry Shaw
As many of you know, as well as my Egyptology work I also write travel articles. My latest article for Timeless Travels magazine is about the Neolithic monuments of Malta.

Here's the opening paragraph:

"Once upon a time, Sansuna, a giantess on the island of Gozo, went to the town of Ta’ Cenc, placed huge stones upon one of her shoulders and carried them 4 km to their current resting place at Ġgantija, "the Place of Giants". A multi-tasker, she did this while holding her half-giant, half-human baby over the other shoulder. Taking these heavy stones, she then built the temple complex of Ġgantija and afterwards allowed the local people to worship within. More unusually, and perhaps irrelevant to the story (but hey, it’s often the little details that make a tale believable), she lived exclusively on broad beans and honey (though some versions replace the honey with water). As old legends go, it’s an entertaining one but it’s not the only explanation for Ġgantija's megalithic prehistoric temple complex. I had also read that it had served as a defensive tower, again built by a race of giants (naturally)."

You can download a pdf of the article here: Islands of Giants

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Signs point to two hidden rooms at Tutankhamun’s tomb, experts say

My latest article for The Art Newspaper.

Early evidence uncovered by archaeologists working at Tutankhamun’s tomb in Luxor, Egypt suggest that two additional chambers may lie hidden at the boy pharaoh’s burial site.

A physical examination of the tomb walls by specialists, led by Egypt’s head of antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty and the British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves, suggests that the ceiling continues behind its north wall, and that this may once have formed part of a corridor.