A collection of papyri from the Fayoum has been put on display for the first time in nine decades at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, writes Nevine El-Aref
Some 80 km southeast of Cairo is the small village of Karanis, once one of the largest Graeco-Roman towns in Fayoum. It was established in antiquity by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, as part of a scheme to settle Greek mercenaries among indigenous Egyptians and exploit the fertile Fayoum basin.
Karanis flourished until the end of the 3rd century CE, when the town started to decline due to troubles in the wider Roman Empire. The town was abandoned by the beginning of the 5th century, as part of momentous socioeconomic, political and religious changes taking place throughout the Mediterranean region.
The site was forgotten, buried by the sands, until the early 19th century when farmers unearthed papyri among organic debris left by the ancient inhabitants. It is these papyri, suitably conserved and restored, that have now been put on display at the Egyptian Museum.
Archaeological excavation, led by British Egyptologist Bernard Pyne Grenfell and papyrologist Arthur Surridge Hunt, started in Karanis in 1895. However, they did not continue their work, deciding that the site had been too plundered in antiquity to produce anything of value. The few papyri and artefacts they stumbled upon were not considered important enough to lead to a better understanding of the history of the site during the Graeco-Roman period.
In 1924 the archaeological rescue of the site began, continuing for the next 12 years under the leadership of an American mission from Michigan University directed by Francis W Kelsey. Two temples, residential houses and urban districts were discovered, along with cisterns, public baths and a collection of household objects of different shapes, sizes and materials. A large collection of papyri, now exhibited at the Kelsey Museum in Michigan in the US, was also unearthed.
The papyri are historically significant as they provide an idea of the lives led by the town’s inhabitants in ancient times, as well as of Egypt’s relationship with the Roman Empire. The papyri were written at the same time and unearthed from the same place, all of them written in Greek and dating to the period between the reign of the emperor Diocletian and the 370s CE.
“It is the dry climate of Karanis which preserved these papyri,” said German papyrologist Cornelia Römer, who noted that although the papyri had been taken to Michigan the university had given part of the collection back to Egypt in 1952. This part was then put in storage at the Egyptian Museum and had not been closely studied.
In 2010, Römer came to Egypt for excavation work in Fayoum, in an area called Filoteris, five km from Lake Qarun. She hoped to investigate drainage systems used in Fayoum during the Graeco-Roman period. But due to her interest in papyri and her desire to promote papyrology in Egypt, Römer started to study the Karanis papyri, often known as the Michigan papyri.
In collaboration with young restorers at the Egyptian Museum, Römer started conservation work on the papyri, which are of different sizes and in different conditions of conservation. Some of them are tiny fragments in a poor state of conservation, while others are larger and in a much better condition.
Romer then published the results of her work in collaboration with professors from Alexandria University and Cairo and Ain Shams Universities in Egypt.
“When I came face to face with the papyri, I was very excited as I could not have expected what I would find,” Römer told the Weekly. Her work concentrated on a group of papyri found in the house of a man called Socrates who lived in the 2nd century CE. He was a tax collector who went door to door to collect money from people for the Roman state.
“We knew his profession from papyri found inside his house, which include long lists of names and numbers,” Römer said, adding that he kept a register of who had paid what in the village. Studies of these lists revealed that people had to pay taxes for baths and guards, among other things. Tax rates were the same for everybody and did not depend on income.
The papyri show that Socrates was a rich man who gained a lot from his profession. In Roman times, Römer said, a tax collector typically took more than he needed to remit to the state. “Obviously, he was a clever and rich man in the village,” Römer said, adding that he lived in a large house located in the best area, was married, and had two sons and a daughter.
“From the names of Socrates’s family and the names written in the tax lists, we also know that ancient Karanis was a multicultural society,” Römer said. While Socrates bore a Greek name, his wife and two sons had Roman names, while his daughter had an Egyptian name and her husband had a Roman name. The names written on the lists are in Latin, Greek and Egyptian.
Römer said that when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BCE Egypt became part of the Hellenistic world. His former general, Ptolemy, established a Greek-speaking dynasty in the country that then ruled it for the next 300 years. Even after the beginning of Roman rule in 1st century BCE, tens of thousands of Greek-speaking people lived in Egypt, working in the army and administration of the country.
The Ptolemies created new settlements for the newcomers, including in Fayoum, a depression centred on Lake Qarun south of Cairo. A sophisticated system of canals and dams was built to lower the level of the lake. “Thousands of new fields were created and Fayoum was declared a new settlement to host the new settlers,” Römer said, adding that the town of Karanis was among these new settlements.
Study of the papyri show that the number of inhabitants in Karanis reached 1,500 people, two thirds of whom were Egyptians and one third Greek. In the 2nd century CE, when Socrates lived, the population reached nearly 4,000 people.
Along with tax records, Römer said that literary papyri had also been found. It seems that in order to fit into society in Karanis, Socrates thought it important to hone his Greek culture and read classical Greek literature.
“We found papyri of poems written by the Greek poet Homer and Greek plays written by the dramatist Menander who lived in 300 BCE,” Römer said. She added that this highlights the fact that people continued to read Menander’s comedies 450 years after they were written. Ancient Greek comedy “always has a happy ending,” Römer said. As well, fragments of a play called “A Man on Trial” were found.
She continued to say that among the papyri at the Egyptian Museum is a love letter written by an unidentified woman, as well as notifications of death and complaints about robberies. Among the latter was one presented by a man who was attacked and beaten on the road, and another by a farmer who lost some of his harvest to thieves.
“Studying these papyri has taken us deep into the daily life of this society,” Römer said. It has even been possible to identify the type of clothes people wore. One text complaining of a robbery said that a man broke into the author’s house and stole boxes of clothes, she said.
“Living standards in Karanis were lower than in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt at the time, but the inhabitants tried to imitate the life of the capital nonetheless,” Römer said.
The Greek comedy that Socrates had been reading was to the taste of people living in rural areas, whereas in Alexandria, tragedies considered too difficult for people in the provinces would have been read. “However, the existence of such literary texts indicates that residents were keen to show themselves to be well educated in Greek,” she added.
A medical handbook from the first century CE showing surgical techniques was also found. Part of it shows a dislocated shoulder and the recommended treatment to fix it. “This piece is a section of a papyrus roll and the other part is in the British Museum in London,” Römer told the Weekly.
The papyri will now be on display for three weeks in the temporary exhibition hall at the Egyptian Museum. The display includes information about Socrates and his family, his library and the excavation work carried out.
Clay and bronze statues depicting Greek and ancient Egyptian deities found in the houses of the town’s inhabitants are also on show, along with glass vessels of different shapes and sizes.
“I am very happy with the results of the collaboration with Egyptian restorers, and I aim to continue studying the rest of the Karanis papyri,” Römer said.