Monday, March 10, 2014


Oxyrhynchus 1

Oxyrhynchus, ancient Egypt, known in the Dynastic period as Per Medjed is a city in Upper Egypt, around 160 km southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya, which rose to prominence under Egypt’s Hellenistic and Roman rulers. It was considered as one of the most important discovered archaeological site. During the Hellenistic times, this city was a prosperous regional capital and the third city of Egypt as well as the home town of the sophist Athenaeus.

Oxyrhynchus 2
It became famous for its various churches and monasteries after Egypt was Christianized and presently the village of al Bahnasa covers part of this ancient site. After the invasion of the Arab of Egypt in 641, the canal system was in need of repairs and was abandoned. The inhabitants of this city for over 1,000 years had been dumping garbage at various points of sites in the desert sands beyond the town limits and the town was built on a canal instead of the Nile itself which saved the city from getting flooded every year with the rising of the river unlike the other districts surrounding the riverbank. When the canals got dried up the water level fell and did not rise again. The west area of the Nile did not receive any rain and hence the garbage dump of Oxyrhynchus got gradually covered up with sand and was forgotten over the years.

Oxyrhynchus 3
Since the Egyptian were governed bureaucratically under the Romans and Greeks and being the capital of the 19th Nome, all the material were dumped, which included huge amount of paper, tax returns, accounts, invoices, receipts, census material, correspondence on administrative, military, economic, religious and political issues. Besides these, certificates and licenses of all types which were periodically cleaned from government office were put in wicker baskets and discarded out in the desert. Other citizens also added their own measure of unwanted paper. Since papyrus was expensive, paper was reused often and one would find a document with farm account on one side and a student’s text of Homer on the other side. Hence an Oxyrhynchus Papyri often contained complete record of the life of the people of the town, its civilization and the empires. Over the past year, this site has been repeatedly excavated bringing about huge amount of collection of papyrus text dating way back to the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history. From the discoveries of text recovered at Oxyrhynchus, there are plays of Menander, some fragments from the Gospel of Thomas and from Euclid’s Elements.

Oxyrhynchus 4
The town city of Oxyrhynchus itself had not been excavated since the modern Egyptian town was built over it though it is believed that the city had various public buildings which included a theatre having a capacity of around 11,000 audience, a hippodrome, four public baths together with gymnasium as well as two small ports on the Bahr Yussef. There was also a possibility of military buildings like barracks since the city supported military garrison on various occasions during the Byzantine and Roman periods. Moreover during the Roman and Greeks period, Oxyrhynchus also had temples to Zeus Amun, Hera Isis, Atargatis Bethnnis and Osiris. They also had Greek temples to Apollo, Demeter, Dionyss and Hermes together with Roman temples to Mars and Jupiter Capitolinus. With regards to Christian era, Oxyrhynchus was the seat of a bishopric where the modern towns still have some ancient Coptic Christian churches.

Oxyrhynchus 5
Towards 1882, while Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire and under the British rule, the British archaeologist started a systematic exploration of this country and since it was not considered as an important ancient Egyptian site, it was neglected till 1896. It was then explored by two young excavators, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, of Queen’s College of Oxford. Their first impression of the site was not favorable where the rubbish mounds seemed rubbish to them though they soon realized the importance of their discoveries. With the combination of climate and circumstances, Oxyrhynchus had an unmatched archive of the ancient world and the findings of papyri soon multiplied in great number. These findings inspired them further to sift through the mountain of rubbish where their efforts were rewarded since they were interested in the possibility of finding the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature at Oxyrhynchus.

Their discoveries were estimated to over 70% of all the literary papyri with both copies of well know standard works, together with previously unknown works of great authors of antiquity. From the various papyri excavated, only around 10% were known to be literary and the rest consisted of public and private documents, edicts, registers, codes and much more. They found sufficient text of more general interest which kept them going with the hope of retrieving more discoveries. During their first year of excavation, they recovered parts of several lost plays of Sophocles namely Ichneutae besides many other books and fragments including parts of unknown Christian gospel. All these discoveries drew the attention of people’s imagination and the two excavators sent articles together with photos to newspapers in Britain indicating the importance of their work with a request for donation to keep the same going.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.