Greek Papyri and Oxyrhynchus: 2

Oxyrhynchus. Its exotic name means ‘sharp-snouted’ and was the Greek for the Nile fish regarded as the incarnation of a god by the original inhabitants. Many other cities in Egypt got their Greek names in the same way — Cynopolis ‘City of Dogs’, Crocodilopolis, and so on. Oxyrhynchus was the chief town of its district and the seat of a local governor. In the Roman period it was a flourishing place with about twenty temples, colonnaded streets, and an open air theatre. When Christianity came, it was famous for the numbers of its monks and nuns. In the fifth century A.D. it had a hippodrome for chariot races and other shows. Almost nothing of all this remains. The stone was carted away for use elsewhere or burnt to produce lime to spread on the fields. A modern village now occupies part of the site. What Grenfell and Hunt found was the rubbish of Oxyrhynchus, which had been carried out and piled into a heap until it became more convenient to start another heap elsewhere, and so on. In the huge rubbish heaps were papyri, sometimes by the basketful, many rotted and fragile, but in such numbers that it took six seasons of excavation to bring them away. 65 volumes with transcripts, translations, and commentaries on the texts have been published so far. Vol. 66 is in preparation. Many more volumes will be needed before all that is interesting has been extracted. Besides the famous literary papyri, there are many documents, some official, illustrating the workings of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in a way that can be revealed by no other sources, and some private, contracts, letters, accounts and lists, which give us valuable glimpses of the everyday business and life of a civilization interestingly different, but not so very different, from our own.

John Rea

First page / Intro