Mummy portraits have been found all over Egypt, but they are most common in the Fayum Basin. In particular, mummy portraits have been found in Hawara, which is situated in the Faiyum Basin, and the Hadrianic Roman city of Antinoopolis.

The term “Fayum portraits” refers more to a specific artistic style than it does to a specific location in Egypt. Mummy vessels made of painted cartonnage trace back to the time of the Ancient Egyptians.

These “death masks” from ancient Rome and Egypt are far more realistic in appearance than anything that will be seen in the western hemisphere for at least the next 600 years.

There is something profoundly disturbing about looking into the face of someone who lived so long ago and having them look straight back at you in a way that simulates a direct connection. Their stares are long and level, and they appear to be wondering what you are thinking.


The portraits were created during the period when the Roman Empire existed, which began in the late 1st century BC and carried into the early 1st century AD. It is not known for certain when the production of these items stopped, but new evidence suggests that it occurred around the middle of the 3rd century.

They are one of the largest groups to have survived the panel painting tradition of the classical world. This tradition continued into the Byzantine, Eastern Mediterranean, and Western traditions of the post-classical world, including the local tradition of Coptic iconography in Egypt, and they are among the very few people who have kept it alive.

The drawings were used to hide the faces of the mummified corpses before they were buried. Existing examples suggest that they were attached to the bands of cloth that were used in the process of covering the bodies.

The vast majority of the dressings have now been removed from the mummies. Typically, they only display one individual and focus on the frontal view of the head or head and upper chest of that person. When compared to Egyptian artistic traditions, it is abundantly obvious that Greco-Roman artistic traditions were more important in the creation of these images.

One category of portraits is made of paintings done in encaustic (wax), while the other is done in tempera. Both methods can be distinguished from one another. In most cases, the former holds a higher quality level.

There are 900 portraits of mummies have been discovered so far. The vast majority of them were discovered in the Fayum necropolis. Paintings in Egypt are frequently in excellent condition due to the country’s hot, dry climate; as a result, they frequently keep their vibrant colors, as if they had not been affected by the passage of time.

During the time that Greece and Rome ruled Egypt, the country was home to some Greek settlements. These communities were primarily centered in Alexandria, but they were also found in a few other cities. In these communities, Greek settlers coexisted with seven to ten million indigenous Egyptians, or, according to some estimates, a total of three to five million people of all ethnicities.

On lands that had been reclaimed from the desert, the Ptolemaic kings welcomed Greek soldier-veterans and cleruchs, who were elite military officials, to establish and make their homes in Fayum.

As attested by personal names, local cults, and recovered papyri, native Egyptians came to settle in Fayum from all over the country, particularly the Nile Delta, Upper Egypt, Oxyrhynchus, and Memphis, to undertake the labor involved in the process of land reclamation. They did this to undertake the process of reclaiming land.

During the Ptolemaic era, it is believed that up to 30% of Fayum’s population was Greek, with the remainder being native Egyptians. By the time of the Roman era, a significant portion of Fayum’s so-called “Greek” population was made up of Hellenized Egyptians or people with origins that were a mix of Egyptian and Greek.

After that, during the Roman Period, a huge number of veterans of the Roman army settled in the area after completing their service. These individual people, who were not Egyptian at first at least, but rather came from a variety of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, mixed with the local population, formed social relations with them, and intermarried with people.

The Fayum portraits, which are widely believed to portray Greek colonists who landed in Egypt, actually reflect a complex synthesis of the culture of the overwhelming Egyptian population and that of the elite Greek minority that lived in the city.

The early Ptolemaic Greek colonists reportedly married local women and adopted Egyptian religious beliefs. By the time of the Roman era, their descendants were regarded as Egyptians by the Roman rulers, even though the descendants themselves soul as being Greek.

Both native Egyptians, who made up the majority of the people at that point, and descendants of ancient Greek mercenaries who had fought for Alexander the Great, settled in Egypt, and married local women are depicted in the portraits. Many of the native Egyptians had taken on Greek or Latin names at the time because they were considered to be “status symbols.”

According to the findings of a DNA study, genetic continuity exists between the Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic, and Roman populations of Egypt. This suggests that foreign rule had only a very limited effect on Egypt’s population in terms of the genetic level.

Age distribution of those depicted

The majority of the portraits show the person when they were young, and many of them show them with their children. C.A.T. scans show that there is a link between the age of the mummy and the gender of the image, as Susan Walker describes.

She decides that the age distribution is an accurate depiction of the low life expectancy during that period. It was commonly believed that the wax portraits were completed during the individual’s life span and exhibited in their home, a practice that belonged to the traditions of Greek art. These portraits were displayed in their houses.

Given the evidence suggested by the C.A.T scans of the Fayum mummies as well as Roman census returns, this view is no longer held by a significant number of people. Additionally, some depictions were painted directly onto the coffin, either on the shroud or another component of the coffin.

Social status

It would appear that the rich patrons of the portraits included members of the upper class who held positions with the government, the military, or religious organizations.

It was out of reach for many people, so many mummified bodies were discovered without an associated photograph. Only one or two percent of the mummies that Flinders Petrie uncovered were found to have photographs attached to them, according to his research.

The prices for mummy portraits have not been found, but it is reasonable to assume that the cost of the materials was greater than the cost of the labor. This is because, in ancient times, painters were valued more for their skill as craftsmen than as artists.

In this respect, the conditions within the “Tomb of Aline” are quite fascinating. It held the mummies of Aline, her husband, two of their children, and one of her other child’s husbands.

This individual, in opposition to his wife and children, did not have a portrait of themselves but rather possessed a gilt three-dimensional mask instead. Perhaps those who could afford it opted for plaster covers rather than other kinds.

It would appear from language, archaeological, and genetic research that the people depicted were ancient Egyptians who had adopted aspects of the more common Greco-Roman culture. The majority of those depicted are of Greek origin, and the names of some of those depicted are known thanks to inscriptions.

Roman fashion has a constant and ubiquitous impact on both clothing and hairstyles. Women, children, and even animals are depicted wearing expensive jewelry and exquisite clothing, whereas men are shown wearing specialty attire that is often quite elaborate.

Greek inscriptions of names are reasonably common; occasionally, they also include the individuals’ occupations. It is unclear whether such inscriptions always represent reality or whether they may state ideal conditions or aspirations rather than true conditions. It is possible that such inscriptions could state either of these things.

There is only one inscription that is known to indicate the correct profession of the deceased individual, which was a shipowner. In addition, the word grammatike (γραμματική) was found written on the mummy of a woman called Hermione.

It was believed for a long time that this indicated that she worked as a teacher (which is why Flinders Petrie gave the portrait to Girton College, Cambridge, the first residential college for women in Britain); however, it is now believed that the term indicates the level of education that she posses.

Some portraits of males show them wearing sword belts or even pommels, which leads historians to believe that they served in the Roman military.

Man with the sword belt, British Museum.

Fayum mummy portrait of a man, 1st century AD, Oriental Institute, Chicago.

Fayum portrait of a man, mid-2nd century, Myers Collection, Eton College.

Fayum portrait of a woman, 4th century, Museo archeologico nazionale, Florence.

Fayum portrait of a woman, 2nd century, Manchester Museum, University of Manchester.

Fayum mummy portrait of a man named Herakleides, 50–100 AD, Getty Villa.

Portrait of a woman named Isidora from Ankyronpolis, 100–110 AD, Getty Villa.

Fayum portrait of a woman from Hawara, 75–100 AD, Getty Villa.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Wiki Art / Library of Congress).

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