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Oxyrhynchus: A City and its Texts, Virtual Exhibition: The Site: The Phocas Pillar

The ‘Phocas Pillar’

Denon, 1798

Baron Vivant Denon made a drawing of a column on the same occasion as his long-distance drawing (this column may be discerned on its right-hand side). Grenfell and Hunt make no mention of this column, nor do they show it on their plans; it must have vanished by the time of their first visit in 1897. Features in the background, still visible today, enable its position to be located.

What we see in Denon’s view is only the upper part of the column. The lower part was presumably buried in sand; at any rate, it must have been buried in 1897-1907 because Grenfell and Hunt do not mention it either, but it was partially visible by the time of Petrie’s visit in 1922.

Petrie, 1922

By this date the section of the column drawn by Denon had vanished; clearance of sebakh (the ancient site soil, prized as fertilizer: see Petrie’s letter) was slowly revealing the column’s lower courses.

The column has been named the ‘Phocas pillar’ because it bears at the top a roughly cut inscription in honour of the late Roman emperor Phocas, on the part of the Blues circus faction. The column itself is much older than this, perhaps dating from the second century AD.


Almost clear: a 1950s view in the Project’s keeping shows the column still surrounded by millions of fragments of broken pottery as if by a pebble beach. The present ground level is still a metre or so deeper down at this date. A lot more of the ruined mosque on the right was to collapse by 1981.


A more-or-less contemporary view of the column was taken by Revel Coles and is kept with the Project’s holdings. The eroded remains of the honorific inscription for the emperor Phocas may just be discerned near the top. This exhibit includes a view of Bahnasa from the north-west which shows the remains of the column today.


D. M. Bailey has produced a reconstruction of parallel honourific columns in Egypt, showing how the two parts of the ‘Phocas pillar ’ might have looked when complete with the (probably) imperial statue which would have crowned it. It would have been roughly the same size as his Antinoe example (a site in Middle Egypt).

It is possible that the complete column was only one of four, the other three having vanished completely, which formed a tetrastylon; that is to say, the four columns stood grouped in a square at the crossing of two major streets of the city. The crossing streets might pass or actually cross through the middle of the four grouped columns.

D. M. Bailey, Excavations at El-Ashmunein IV (1991), pl.39