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Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: Introduction

Greek Papyri and Oxyrhynchus:

Greek flourished in Egypt for a thousand years. It first began to be widely spoken there when the country was conquered by Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria in 331 B.C. and then set off to extend his empire in the East. When he died, his governor in Egypt, Ptolemy Soter, established a dynasty of Greek-speaking monarchs, the last of whom was the famous Cleopatra. She joined Mark Antony in his struggle for power in Rome against the man who was to become the first Roman emperor, Augustus. Her fleet was defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Soon afterwards Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. The Romans made no attempt to introduce Latin in Egypt or any other of their Eastern possessions, which continued to be administered in Greek. Even the Arabs, when they conquered Egypt in A.D. 641, had to carry on the administration for a time in Greek, but within about a hundred years the language had lost its importance and an era of about a thousand years was at an end.

For all this time in every part of the Greek-speaking world books and documents were written on a paper made from the papyrus reed, which was rare outside Egypt, and even there died out in about the tenth century A.D. It is now to be found chiefly in the Sudd, a vast area of swamp in the Sudan covered with thickets of papyrus.

The recovery of papyri began in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the remains of a Greek library on papyrus rolls were found in Italy at Herculaneum, preserved by the debris of an eruption of Vesuvius. By the end of the eighteenth century a few papyri had been discovered in Egypt, the country whose dry climate is most favourable to their survival, and the number slowly grew. By the eighteen-nineties exciting finds of Greek literature, lost works by such authors as Aristotle and Hyperides, encouraged the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society) to commission excavations specifically in search of papyri. In their second season, in 1896/7, B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, two young fellows of Queen’s College, Oxford, found the site that was to produce the largest collection of all — Oxyrhynchus.

Oxyrhynchus. Its exotic name means ‘sharp-snouted’ and was the Greek for the Nile fish regarded as the incarnation of a god by the original inhabitants. Many other cities in Egypt got their Greek names in the same way — Cynopolis ‘City of Dogs’, Crocodilopolis, and so on. Oxyrhynchus was the chief town of its district and the seat of a local governor. In the Roman period it was a flourishing place with about twenty temples, colonnaded streets, and an open air theatre. When Christianity came, it was famous for the numbers of its monks and nuns. In the fifth century A.D. it had a hippodrome for chariot races and other shows. Almost nothing of all this remains. The stone was carted away for use elsewhere or burnt to produce lime to spread on the fields. A modern village now occupies part of the site. What Grenfell and Hunt found was the rubbish of Oxyrhynchus, which had been carried out and piled into a heap until it became more convenient to start another heap elsewhere, and so on. In the huge rubbish heaps were papyri, sometimes by the basketful, many rotted and fragile, but in such numbers that it took six seasons of excavation to bring them away. 65 volumes with transcripts, translations, and commentaries on the texts have been published so far. Vol. 66 is in preparation. Many more volumes will be needed before all that is interesting has been extracted. Besides the famous literary papyri, there are many documents, some official, illustrating the workings of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in a way that can be revealed by no other sources, and some private, contracts, letters, accounts and lists, which give us valuable glimpses of the everyday business and life of a civilization interestingly different, but not so very different, from our own.

John Rea