Saturday, May 24, 2008


A facinating new book compiled from an ancient Egyptian rubbish dump offers glimpses into life in the City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish Khaled Diab

Thanks to nearly half a million papyrus fragments uncovered in Hellenic Egyptian rubbish dumps that have been gradually decoded by the Oxyrhynchus Papyri Project, the fragments of ordinary people's lives have been salvaged from the dustbin of history.

The rubbish dumps in question belonged to the provincial but thriving Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus (City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish), about 100 miles south of modern Cairo, which was established during the pharaonic New Kingdom and became Hellenized in Ptolemic times, but was eventually reduced to a single standing column. Most of the unearthed documents, discovered in 1896 by two young Oxford archeologists, Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt, date from the time when Egypt was part of the Roman empire, and include a treasure trove of lost classics and non-canonical gospels.

Peter Parsons, an archaeologist who spent two decades leading the team deciphering the papyri, has written a book called The City of the Sharp Nosed Fish published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson that offers a fascinating reconstruction of life in Oxyrhynchus. It is available from or your local bookstore, in paperback at $19.63. Check the reviews on Amazon. They are 5 stars.

Says Parsons, (Peter Parsons, Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford emeritus) "For me, the mundane aspects of ordinary life highlighted in correspondences and letters in the book are among the most enthralling of all the finds because they reveal both how familiar and how different that lost world is. "... "Write to me about your health and what you need from here," Achillion exhorts his brother, Hierakapollon. "If you do this, you will have done me a favour: for we shall have the impression, through our letters, of seeing one another face to face."

Not everyone is as friendly as Achillion. Some letters reveal ancient snobberies and grievances. "You exult in your wealth and your great abundance of possession and so you look down on your friend," Theoninos chastises Didymos.

Serenos informs his wife, Isidora, of his sense of abandonment: "From the time you went away from me, I have been mourning, weeping by night and grieving by day ... You sent me letters that could shake a stone."

Of course, most of the names above sound Greek. That is because, following Alexander's conquest of Egypt, in 332 BC, Oxyrhynchus and other Egyptian cities were Hellenised. This meant that, over the next millennium, they became home to perhaps 500,000 Greeks as well as Hellenised Egyptians. How "Greek" these urban dwellers were is open to question, since their culture and lifestyle was a heady blend of Egyptian and Greek elements. But they did speak Greek and studied the classics. "To some extent, the Greeks remade Egypt; to a much larger extent, it remade them," notes Parsons.

At the same time, as a "foreign" ruling elite, the Greeks of Egypt looked down on the native Egyptians and mocked their weird beliefs and practices, such as sibling marriage. Greek myth, like many strands of Orientalism, stereotyped Egyptians as "cruel, perverse, depraved and treacherous".

One area of particular venom was the relative freedom enjoyed by Egyptian women. "Egyptians rear all their offspring," one Egyptian Greek mocked, referring to the fact that Egyptians did not dump their unwanted children, particularly girls, in the city's rubbish dumps.

Prior to the Hellenisation of Egypt, Egyptian women enjoyed equal legal rights with Egyptian men and "marriage" was an oral affair, easily entered into and easily dissolved. In Hellenic Egypt, Greek norms in which women had no independent legal status from men began to filter into the Egyptian system. Roman rule brought a certain amount of relief for women because it allowed women with three children to own property and conduct their own affairs.

So, much about Oxyrhynchus is like contemporary city life but with a peculiarly ancient twist. The city had its own town council, with a mayor (prytanis) and magistrates. However, the council was staffed by prominent citizens who had to pay out of their own pockets if they failed to meet their targets. Tax collecting was outsourced to private individuals, and the city
implemented a Roman version of the dole in which free rations were given to the wealthy and prominent citizens, not the poor and needy. Oxyrhynchus, like other towns, had the equivalent of banks, bank accounts and cheques, and clients could order payments to be made or receive funds in other cities, too. The twist here was that wheat was a recognised currency back then. People also entered into surprisingly detailed and binding contracts.

Just as the ordinary people of Oxyrhynchus were ignored by history, they also paid little heed, judging by the fragmentary evidence, to the grand events of history going on about them: the rise and fall of different emperors in Rome, rebellions in Alexandria and Judea, and the persecution of Christianity followed by the persecution of pagans. "We hear nothing about political attitudes, nothing about the deeds, characters or deaths of great men. It may be a matter of prudence; it may be a matter of indifference," Parsons observes. In a way, that's poetic justice.


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