Glorious and Most Glorious City of the Oxyrhinchites

Christopher Kelly

  • City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish: Greek Lives in Roman Egypt by Peter Parsons
    Phoenix, 312 pp, £9.99, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 7538 2233 3

Between 1896 and 1907, the Oxford Egyptologists Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt spent six seasons digging the low, sandy mounds surrounding the village of el-Behnesa, a hundred miles south of Cairo and ten miles west of the Nile. In concentrating on the ancient town of Oxyrhynchos (literally, ‘city of the sharp-nosed fish’), they were not aiming to uncover another set of impressive ruins that could rival those of Leptis Magna, Ephesus or Pompeii. Their interest lay in Oxyrhynchos garbage dumps, where the dry Egyptian climate had preserved thousands of scraps of papyrus mixed up with earth and other refuse.

Papyrus sheets were manufactured from thin strips cut from the reed-like stems. Under pressure, two layers of strips – the first laid vertically, the second horizontally – were welded together by the plant’s sticky pith. After drying, the papyrus sheet was smoothed with a stone or seashell. Individual sheets, roughly A4 in size, could be glued at the edges to form a roll, typically between 20 and 26 feet long.

In the rubbish tips of Oxyrhynchos discarded papyrus had accumulated in drifts up to 30 feet deep. In all, Grenfell and Hunt recovered more than half a million fragile fragments of ancient writing. Back in Oxford, each piece was flattened or unrolled, allotted an inventory number, placed between pages of the Oxford University Gazette and carefully stored in a tin box. In 1898, the long process of scholarly investigation began; in 2006, the 70th volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published; at least forty more are planned.

Most of the papyri salvaged from the city of the sharp-nosed fish were written between the second and fourth centuries AD. During this period, Egypt – like the fifty other provinces stretching from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates – was firmly part of the Roman Empire. Until the excavation of Oxyrhynchos it was not possible to hear the concerns of the empire’s inhabitants. Here at last was evidence of the ordinary: the tattered remains of letters, draft contracts, census returns, official reports, horoscopes and school exercise books that had remained forgotten and unread for fifteen hundred years.

In City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, Peter Parsons sets out to capture the experience of life in an Egyptian town under the Roman Empire. His aim is to reconstitute Oxyrhynchos from its waste-paper, to evoke ‘a virtual landscape which we can repopulate with living and speaking people’. Parsons presents without scholarly fuss or unnecessary pedantry a detailed description of some of the economic, religious, educational, legal, financial, administrative and personal concerns which Oxyrhynchos’ inhabitants chose to commit to writing.

Peter Parsons’s affable prose masks the erudition that underpins his account. Plainly put, even to be able to read the material from Oxyrhynchos is a remarkable technical achievement. Most of the documents are written in Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean. (Latin, the language of imperial domination, was used only when official protocol demanded it.) The script, a kind of running-writing using capitals, often borders on an illegible scrawl. The more skilled the scribe, the more letters he could write without lifting his pen from the papyrus. There are no spaces between words, no punctuation and frequent abbreviation.

Worse still, most of the surviving documents are torn, pitted and worm-eaten. Abruptly, right in the middle of a word, the text may just break off. Modern science offers some help: the binocular microscope, infrared light, the digital scanner and multispectral imaging have all been used to sharpen abraded or worn ink. Even so, making sense of the straggling columns of blotched and broken symbols requires a sharp eye and a highly trained mind: ‘the eye looks for shapes, and the mind looks for sense, and the two in alliance will (all being well) turn a string of symbols into intelligible text.’

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