Greek Papyri and Oxyrhynchus: 1

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.

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