Oxyrhynchus



Oxyrhynchus is a city in Upper Egypt, located about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, in the governorate of Al Minya. It is also an archaeological site, considered one of the most important ever discovered. For the past century, the area around Oxyrhynchus has been continually excavated, yielding an enormous collection of papyrus texts dating from the time of the Ptolemaic and Roman periods of Egyptian history. Among the texts discovered at Oxyrhynchus are plays of Menander and fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian document.

The town was named after a species of fish of the Nile River which was important in Egyptian mythology as the fish that ate the penis of Osiris, though it is not known exactly which species of fish this is. One possibility is a species of mormyrid, medium sized freshwater fish that figure in various Egyptian and other artworks. Some species of mormyrid have distinctive downturned snouts or barbels, lending them the common name of elephantnoses among aquarists and ichthyologists. A figurine from Oxyrhynchus of one of these sacred fish has many attributes typical of mormyrids: a long anal fin, a small caudal fin, widely spaced pelvic and pectoral fins, and of course the downturned snout.




History

Oxyrhynchus is about 160 km south-southwest of Cairo, and lies west of the main course of the Nile, on the Bahr Yussef (Canal of Joseph), a branch of the Nile that terminates in Lake Moeris and the Fayum oasis. In ancient Egyptian times, there was a town on the site called Per-Medjed, but it did not become an important area until after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. It was then reestablished as a Greek town, called Oxyrhynchon Polis ("town of the sharp-nosed fish").

In Hellenistic times, Oxyrhynchus was a prosperous regional capital, the third-largest city in Egypt. After Egypt was christianized, it was famous for its many churches and monasteries. It remained a prominent, though gradually declining, town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, the canal system on which the town depended fell into disrepair, and Oxyrhynchus was abandoned. Today the town of el-Bahnasa occupies part of the ancient site.

For more than 1000 years, the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped garbage at a series of sites out in the desert sands beyond the town limits. The fact that the town was built on a canal rather than on the Nile itself was important, because this meant that the area did not flood every year with the rising of the river, as did the districts along the riverbank. When the canals dried up, the water table fell and never rose again. The area west of the Nile has virtually no rain, so the garbage dumps of Oxyrhynchus were gradually covered with sand and were forgotten for another 1000 years.

Because Egyptian society under the Greeks and Romans was governed bureaucratically, and because Oxyrhynchus was the capital of the 19th nome, the material at the Oxyrhynchus dumps included vast amounts of paper. Accounts, tax returns, census material, invoices, receipts, correspondence on administrative, military, religious, economic and political matters, certificates and licenses of all kinds - all these were periodically cleaned out of government offices, put in wicker baskets, and dumped out in the desert. Private citizens added their own piles of unwanted paper. Because papyrus was expensive, paper was often reused: a document might have farm accounts on one side, and a student's text of Homer on the other.

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri, therefore, contained a complete record of the life of the town, and of the civilizations and empires of which the town was a part.

The town site of Oxyrhynchus itself has never been excavated, because the modern Egyptian town is on top of it. But it is believed that the city had many public buildings, including a theater with a capacity of 11,000 spectators, a hippodrome, four public baths, a gymnasium, and two small ports on the Bahr Yusuf. It is also likely that there were military buildings, such as barracks, since the city supported a military garrison on several occasions during the Roman and Byzantine periods.

During the Greek and Roman periods, Oxyrhynchus had temples to Serapis, Zeus-Amun, Hera-Isis, Atargatis-Bethnnis and Osiris. There were also Greek temples to Demeter, Dionysius, Hermes, and Apollo; there were also Roman temples to Jupiter Capitolinus and Mars. In the Christian era, Oxyrhynchus was the seat of a bishopric, and the town still has several ancient Coptic Christian churches.

When Flinders Petrie visited Oxyrhynchus in 1922, he found remains of the colonnades and theater. Now a single column meets the eye: everything else has been scavenged for building material for modern housing.




Excavation at Oxyrhynchus

In 1882 Egypt, while still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, came under effective British rule, and British archaeologists began the systematic exploration of the country.

Because Oxyrhynchus was not an Ancient Egyptian site of any importance, it was neglected until 1896, when two young excavators, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, both Fellows of Queen's College, Oxford, began to excavate it. "My first impressions on examining the site were not very favourable," wrote Grenfell. "The rubbish mounds were nothing but rubbish mounds."

But they very soon realised what they had found. The unique combination of climate and circumstance had left at Oxyrhynchus an unequalled archive of the ancient world. "The flow of papyri soon became a torrent," Grenfell recalled. "Merely turning up the soil with one's boot would frequently disclose a layer.

"Being classically educated Englishmen, Grenfell and Hunt were mainly interested in the possibility that Oxyrhynchus might reveal the lost masterpieces of classical Greek literature: the lost plays, histories and philosophical works of ancient Athens.

They knew that the Constitution of Athens by Aristotle had been discovered on Egyptian papyrus in 1890. This hope inspired them and their successors to sift through the mountains of rubbish at Oxyrhynchus for the next century.

Unfortunately, Oxyrhynchus was a fairly ordinary provincial town, not a centre of learning, and most of its citizens had little interest in literature or philosophy. Besides, copies of the classics were rare and expensive in ancient times, and not likely to find their way to the rubbish dump. This means that literary finds were few, and most of them were copies of the well-known standard works, such as Homer, on which Hellenistic education was based.

Of the many thousands of papyri excavated from Oxyrhynchus, only about ten percent were literary. The rest consisted of public and private documents: codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes and private letters.

Nevertheless, Grenfell and Hunt found enough to keep them going in the hope of finding more. In their first year of digging, they found parts of several lost plays of Sophocles, such as the Ichneutae and many other books and fragments, including parts of what appeared to be an unknown Christian gospel.

These discoveries captured the public imagination, and Grenfell and Hunt sent articles and photos to newspapers in Britain, arguing the importance of their work and seeking donations to keep it going.Grenfell and Hunt devoted the rest of their lives to the diggings at Oxyrhynchus, apart from the years of World War I.

Every winter, when the Egyptian climate was bearable, Grenfell and Hunt supervised hundreds of Egyptian workers, excavating the rubbish mounds, digging up tightly packed layers of papyrus mixed with earth. The finds were sifted, partly cleaned and then shipped to Grenfell and Hunt's base at Oxford.

During the summer Grenfell and Hunt cleaned, sorted, translated and compared the year's haul, assembling complete texts from dozens of fragments and extracts.

In 1898 they published the first volume of their finds. They worked closely together, each revising what the other wrote, and publishing the result jointly. In 1920, however, Grenfell died, leaving Hunt to continue with other collaborators until his own death in 1934.




Discoveries

Although the hope of finding all the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus was not realized, many important Greek texts were found at the site. These include poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus and Corinna.

There were also extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides, a large portion of the plays of Menander, and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles. (The latter work was adapted, in 1988, into a play entitled The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, by British poet and author Tony Harrison, featuring Grenfell and Hunt as main characters.)

Also found were the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus or, as many presently think, Cratippus.

A life of Euripides by Satyrus was also unearthed, while an epitome of some of the lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin.The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342291 BC), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments.

Menander plays found in fragments at Oxyrhynchus include Misoumenos, Dis Exapaton, Epitrepontes, Karchedonios, and Kolax. The works found at Oxyrhynchus have greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of Greek theater.

Of the Christian texts found at Oxyrhynchus, the fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, also known as the Sayings of Jesus (Papyrus number 1654), probably dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, but believed to preserve an oral tradition which may go back to the mid 1st century, have been outshone by the later, complete text found at Nag Hammadi.

Some Christian scholars believe that the Gospel preserves an authentic tradition of the life of Jesus older than that in the New Testament, though no major Christian denomination has accepted this. Fragments of other early non-canonical Gospels are Oxyrhynchus 840 and 1224.

Other Oxyrhynchus texts preserve parts of the Apocalypse of Baruch (chapters 1214; 4th or 5th century; number 403), the Gospel according to the Hebrews (3rd century AD; number 655), The Shepherd of Hermas (3rd or 4th century; number 404), and a work of Irenaeus, (3rd century; number 405).

Many early Christian hymns, prayers, and letters have also been found.Finds at OxyrhynchusAlthough the hope of finding all the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus was not realised, many important Greek texts were found at the site.

These include poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus and Corinna.There were also extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides, a large portion of the plays of Menander, and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles. (The latter work was adapted, in 1988, into a play entitled The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, by British poet and author Tony Harrison, featuring Grenfell and Hunt as main characters.)

Also found were the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus or, as many presently think, Cratippus.

A life of Euripides by Satyrus was also unearthed, while an epitome of some of the lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin.

The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342-291 BC), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments.

Menander plays found in fragments at Oxyrhynchus include Misoumenos, Dis Exapaton, Epitrepontes, Karchedonios, and Kolax. The works found at Oxyrhynchus have greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of Greek theater.

Of the Christian texts found at Oxyrhynchus, the fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, also known as the Sayings of Jesus (Papyrus number 1654), probably dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, but believed to preserve an oral tradition which may go back to the mid 1st century, have been outshone by the later, complete text found at Nag Hammadi.

Some Christian scholars believe that the Gospel preserves an authentic tradition of the life of Jesus older than that in the New Testament, though no major Christian denomination has accepted this. Fragments of other early non-canonical Gospels are Oxyrhynchus 840 and 1224.

Other Oxyrhynchus texts preserve parts of the Apocalypse of Baruch (chapters 1214; 4th or 5th century; number 403), the Gospel according to the Hebrews (3rd century AD; number 655), The Shepherd of Hermas (3rd or 4th century; number 404), and a work of Irenaeus, (3rd century; number 405). Many early Christian hymns, prayers, and letters have also been found.




Oxyrhynchus Papyri

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are a group of manuscripts discovered by archaeologists including Bernard Pyne Grenfell and Arthur Surridge Hunt at an ancient rubbish dump near Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. The manuscripts date from the 1st to the 6th century AD. They include thousands of Greek and Latin documents, letters and literary works. They also include a few vellum manuscripts, and more recent Arabic manuscripts on paper (for example, the medieval P. Oxy. VI 1006).

The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are currently housed in many institutions all over the world. A substantial number are housed in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University.

Although the initial hope of finding many of the lost literary works of antiquity at Oxyrhynchus was not realized, many important Greek texts were found at the site. These include poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho and Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus, and Corinna.

There were also extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides, fragments of the comedies of Menander, and a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles. Also found were the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements. Another important find was the historical work known as the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, whose author is unknown but may be Ephorus or, as many currently think, Cratippus. A life of Euripides by Satyrus the Peripatetic was also unearthed, while an epitome of seven of the 107 lost books of Livy was the most important literary find in Latin.

The classical author who has most benefited from the finds at Oxyrhynchus is the Athenian playwright Menander (342291 BC), whose comedies were very popular in Hellenistic times and whose works are frequently found in papyrus fragments. Menander's plays found in fragments at Oxyrhynchus include Misoumenos, Dis Exapaton, Epitrepontes, Karchedonios, Dyskolos and Kolax. The works found at Oxyrhynchus have greatly raised Menander's status among classicists and scholars of Greek theatre.

There is an on-line table of contents briefly listing the type of contents of each papyrus or fragment.


Oxyrhynchus Papyri




EGYPT INDEX


ANCIENT AND LOST CIVILIZATIONS


ALPHABETICAL INDEX OF ALL FILES


CRYSTALINKS HOME PAGE


PSYCHIC READING WITH ELLIE


2012 THE ALCHEMY OF TIME