'The Book of the Faiyum'

Detail from "The Book of the Faiyum," Egyptian, Roman Period, late 1st century BCE -2nd century CE, ink on papyrus. (Walters Art Museum, Handout / April 29, 2013)

Henry Walters and J.P. Morgan were frenemies.

Both were the sons of powerful fathers. They didn't come into their own until they reached middle age, when they were widely acknowledged as two of the premier financiers of the Gilded Age. Both displayed an inclination toward collecting art as children. As grown-ups, the two titans competed over who would acquire the next painting or objet d'art.

So it's only fitting that portions of a 2,000-year-old Egyptian papyrus known as "The Book of the Faiyum" belonging to institutions founded by each mogul are being displayed for the first time in 150 years in a new exhibit opening Sunday at the Walters Art Museum.

"There was this kind of early-20th-century friendly rivalry between J.P. Morgan and Henry Walters," says Julia Marciari-Alexander," the director of the Baltimore museum.

"They were constantly vying to see who could put together the best art collection. It's not surprising that we have half of the Book of the Faiyum, and that the other half is in the Morgan Library in Manhattan."

Marden Nichols, the Walters' assistant curator of ancient art, has surrounded the papyrus with nearly 100 other artworks — sculptures, statues, coffin paintings — that have been borrowed from 10 museums around the world. These objects help to expand upon and illustrate the story being told in the manuscript of the enigmatic tale of Sobek, the crocodile god thought to bring the sun to the Faiyum, an oasis to the west of the Nile River and south of Cairo.

Nichols, who helped put the exhibit together, emphasizes that "this is a different side of ancient Egypt" without the pharaohs, mummies and pyramids that most people associate with that ancient culture. There's just one mummy on display, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The tiny, exquisite crocodile shrouded in linen lived sometime between 400 B.C. and A.D. 100.

Another highlight is a nearly 2-foot-tall limestone sculpture of the bust of Sobek dating from about 1800 B.C., which is owned by a British museum.

"It is the most amazing piece," says Betsy Bryan, a professor of Egyptian art at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It really makes you stop and turn your head. I can't believe that the Ashmolean Museum [in Oxford, England] was willing to loan it. I think people will look at it and realize that these artists who lived a very long time ago could carve like nobody's business."

But the centerpiece of the exhibit is the length of very old paper suspended between two scrolls. The paper roll is crammed with elaborate miniature drawings in a dark ink that, despite the passage of two millennia, remains remarkably dark and vivid.

The exhibition is called "The Mysterious Book of the Faiyum" because there are so many unanswered questions about the manuscript, according to Nichols.

It's not known, for instance, who made up the audience for the document, or how it was used. Chances are that the book served multiple purposes that don't necessarily correlate neatly with modern practices. But from one perspective, the book seems to be part creation myth, part travel brochure and part blockbuster.

"The Book of the Faiyum brings together all the myths and legends of Egypt and puts the Faiyum oasis in the center of it," Nichols says. "It's an attempt to create a local culture around the Faiyum that's similar to the culture around the Nile. It's saying, 'The Faiyum is the place to be.' "

Richard Jasnow, a professor of Egyptology at Hopkins, says that the number of times that the Book of the Faiyum was copied demonstrates its popularity. About 30 copies survive.

"You find it quoted on temple walls around the Nile valley," he says. "It must have been a very popular and important composition. New versions and other fragments still are being found."

But not all of those copies are illustrated, as is the papyrus on display in Baltimore. Many are composed of myriads of tiny fragments, while the sections owned by the Walters are mostly intact.

What sets this copy apart, Nichols says, "is that it has the most illustrations and it is the best preserved."

Even without the drawings, the papyrus would be gorgeous in its own right. The fibers of the original plants still are visible, giving the manuscript a nubby texture reminiscent of raw silk, and the dried pulp has turned nut brown.

For visitors of a certain age, reading glasses will be required to marvel at the artistry of those long-ago scribes (there were at least four) and the skill with which they captured the tail scales and blunt, powerful toes of the crocodile god.