Blog: How the Lived Time Database Contributes to the Study of the Workweek of Scribes in Eight-Century Egypt

In the first months of my postdoc project, I have been entering information on dated Coptic texts in the Lived Time database, including deeds, tax receipts, letters and inscriptions. Sofie had already imported sources available at the papyrological platform, and I expanded the corpus with texts from less easily accessible publications or recent editions. Databases are wonderful tools for organising different kinds of information that are difficult to present in a clear overview in any other way. Normally, they can only display the data that has been entered, but what I appreciate about our database most is that it adds the day of the week, which offers the possibility of examining the working week of well-attested persons.

Such a study can only be successful, if the dates in the database are correct, and dating Coptic texts is a challenge: many documents, such as tax receipts, are not precisely dated, but refer to an indiction year (in a 15-year cycle which was used for taxation purposes), resulting in two or more options, e.g. 715 and 730 AD. Fortunately, researchers can propose specific dates by arranging such texts in a relative order on the basis of the persons involved, some of whom are also known from precisely dated deeds. In recent years, colleagues in Coptic papyrology checked and, where necessary, corrected many of the tax receipts published decades ago. As a result, it is possible to reconstruct to a certain degree the administrative apparatus of the town of Jeme, west of modern Luxor, from the 6th to the 8th centuries AD. 

Sometimes, I need to correct the precise date given in older editions. About twenty years ago, colleagues became aware that the indiction year started four months earlier in Upper Egypt than was previously assumed: not on the first day of the Egyptian calendar (August 29), but around the first of May. Consequently, texts dated to May–August turn out to be a year older, and to have been written on a different weekday. In the case of single documents the difference is trivial, but when reconstructing the administrative network in Jeme and its development under Islamic rule, it is crucial that the dates are calculated correctly. 

The tax receipts published so far were issued by village headmen in the period 710-730. Many of them refer to the poll tax, which non-Muslim (Christian) men had to pay to the Umayyad authorities. The scribes known by name included Psate, son of Pisrael (ca. 713-726), Psan, son of Basilios (717-719), Anastasios (719), Ktistes (726), Johannes, son of Lazaros (726-727), Kyriakos, son of Petros (727), and Aristophanes, son of Johannes (727-730). By exporting the dates of their receipts from the database to Excel, we can create tables that show to what extent their tenures overlapped (Table 1) and in which months, or on which weekdays, they were most active (Table 2).

Table 1 suggests that the tax administration intensified: Psate’s activity is spread over fourteen years, but he wrote most receipts during the winter (December–March) and harvest (April–July); Aristophanes was active for four years, but wrote more receipts, almost as much during the inundation (August–November) as during the harvest. Other scribes worked for increasingly shorter periods, ranging from two years according to the Julian calendar, but only during part of the year (Psan and Joannes), to a month (Ktistes, but his dossier is likely to be incomplete).

Table 2 seems to confirm the impression that tax-related scribal activity increased in Aristophanes’ days: whereas his earlier colleagues were most active during particular months and on specific weekdays, but hardly on Sunday (the Christian day of rest), Aristophanes was called upon during most of the year and every day of the week, including Sunday, which happened quite frequently. Friday, the day on which Muslims gather for prayer in the afternoon, appears to have been a fairly quiet day for most scribes. It would be interesting to know to what extent office days for Muslim officials influenced the workweek of the Christian scribes at Jeme, and whether they could choose their workdays.

Further research is necessary to explain these patterns. My analysis of scribal activity could be refined by adding more tax receipts, written by the above-mentioned scribes or less well-known ones, and the same method can be applied to the village authorities and tax collectors who issued and checked the receipts. Still, even in this very preliminary stage, it demonstrates the value of the database for reconstructing the administrative apparatus of Jeme, which in turn can lead to a more thorough study of the history of one of the best recorded towns in Egypt in the early Islamic period.

Renate Dekker

Blog: Being Late at a Party

After a wonderful night of dancing at the royal ball, Cinderella – in the exquisite dress given to her by her fairy godmother – looks at the clock and notices to her great dismay that it is already almost 12 o’clock. Afraid of being too late and being unmasked as an intruder to the high society assembled for the occasion, she panics, starts running and loses her slipper.

The ancient mosaic shown here reminds the viewer of this story. It portrays a nicely dressed party-goer looking at the clock (an ancient model, namely a sundial). The person realizes it is getting late and starts to run, losing a slipper in the process. This mosaic was made in the third or fourth century CE in Antioch in Syria (modern-day Antakya, Turkey), one of the largest cities of the ancient Mediterranean. Next to the similarities there are also some major differences with the fairy tale. The protagonist of the mosaic is male and the time on the clock is not midnight – a sundial is in fact useless at night– but the ninth hour of the day (the symbol Θ above the clock is the Greek numeral 9). Greco-Roman hours are not easy to convert exactly, because the duration of daylight was always divided into 12 hours, on short winter days as well as during long summer days. In any case, since the count started at sunrise, the ninth hour is always in the (later) afternoon. 

Image adapted from this source
For information about its discovery, see here

The protagonist on the mosaic is, moreover, not running away from a party, but heading to one. The Greek letters ΤΡΕΧΕΔΙΠΝΟΣ (trechedipnos) explain that he is a man running (trecho) to dinner (deipnon). There are many ancient texts, and a few more mosaics just like this one, confirming that the ninth hour was indeed the normal time for the start of dinner parties. There are even ancient invitation cards on papyrus confirming this. But, of course, not everyone ate their dinner in the middle of the afternoon. The average farmer or artisan would still be at work: in winter, when days were short, workers were still taking advantage of the natural light, and at summer the scorching midday heat was just receding, making working conditions ideal again. So, what we have here is the dinner time for special occasions and for the leisured classes who could afford to have lazy dinners every day of the year.

Despite all these differences, a comparison between the mosaic scene and the famous fairy tale works when we interpret both events in terms of social anxieties. Cinderella is anxious not to leave the ball too late, for she knows that when the magic wears off, she will show her real situation in life, namely that she is an impoverished orphan who would not be accepted by the high society assembled in the palace. Our anonymous party-goer likewise dreads to be late. The old figure behind him is labeled on the mosaic as ΑΚΑΙΡΟΣ (akairos means ‘ill-timed’) and is therefore a personification of bad timing. This gives the otherwise amusing scene a dark undertone – which is reinforced by the fact that the symbol Θ is, besides the numeral 9, also an abbreviation of the word ‘death’ (thanatos). The fear of being late was also a social anxiety in the Roman empire: only poor people needed to work and would not be available in the middle of the afternoon. A well-integrated member of the elite had all the leisure in the world, had internalized elite temporal norms and hence always arrived on time. One of the stock characters from Greek comedy is the so-called parasite, a flatterer who tries to get introduced into elite circles well-above his own station to get free meals. But to get accepted into these circles and to get these free meals, he does need to come on time. Arriving too late at a dinner party means running the risk of being seen as a parvenu, and our Roman-day Cinderella does not want to run that risk!

Sofie Remijsen

Blog: Food for the Soul (and more) in Early Islamic Palestine

The Muslim expansion of the 7th century turned the Ancient World upside down. Less than 30 years after the death of their Prophet, Muslims from Arabia ruled over much of what had been the Eastern Roman and Sassanian empires. But what did this mean for the average person of the day? How did the rule of the new masters affect their habits and prospects (if at all)?

Figure 1 P.Mird 42. Reproduced from A. Grohmann, Arabic Papyri from Hirbet al-Mird (Louvain, 1963), pl. XVIII

Overall, we know very little of how the rise of Islam influenced the daily grind of your average 7th-and 8th-century Joe. Fortunately, some light is shed onto these  kinds of questions by texts such as the one shown here. This is a papyrus written in Arabic, found in the town of Ḫirbat al-Mird (the ancient Hyrcania; ca. 20 km east of Jerusalem). It is the left half of a letter written just about 100 years after the Arab conquest. Texts such as this one are quite different from chronicles and literary works we base most of our understanding of antiquity and the pre-modern age on. Rather than talking of battles and treaties, they tell us simpler stories. But it is surprising how much one can learn from even a single fragmentary document.

From our example, for instance, we learn about the exchange of a food-merchant (the writer) and a business partner (the recipient). In the text, the writer asks his associate if he has any “food of Ramadan” and “food and drinks for the breaking of the fast”(fiṭr in Arabic)to sell. What we have here is in all probability one of, if not the earliest references to the festival of the ʿĪd al-Fiṭr (“feast of the breaking of the fast”), the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the sacred month of Ramadan. To this day, the Feast remains a joyous occasion in which Muslims gather together for prayer and (more to the point of the papyrus) to celebrate the end of the fasting period by eating food and sweets. 

For more earthly minded businessmen such as the writer of our letter the celebrations of the Feast also presented an unmissable opportunity. Our writer’s nose for business becomes apparent in the next paragraph of the letter, when he instructs his partner to send what he has or go himself (the text is not clear) to the nearby city of Ramla. This was the new capital founded by the governor of Palestine (and future caliph) Sulaymān b. ʿAbd al-Malik, the early Islamic ruins of which are still visible today. It is possible that our dynamic duo expected to find not only a higher concentration of buyers there (Muslims were, after all, still only a minority of the total population at that time) but also to encounter a wealthier clientele of Muslim magnates and courtiers. 

Figure 2 Ramla, “Pool of Arches” (789 CE); photo by E. Garosi

We do not know much about the protagonists of the letter beyond their profession (not even their names in fact!). Towards the end of the letter, our writer uses the occasion to ask his partner to greet a few dear ones back home on his behalf. Since all the persons mentioned in the greetings, as well as a third business associate, carry typically Christian and Jewish names (Samuel, Joseph, Mary, Tomas, and George), it is quite possible that our protagonists were not Muslims themselves. 

This tiny snapshot from the distant past (and many more similar ones with it) gives us an unparalleled opportunity to peek behind the curtains of historical events. It appears that only a few generations after the Arab conquest, the newly introduced Muslim holidays were becoming a hub for multireligious encounters. The fact that the correspondents of our letter wrote in Arabic suggests that they had assimilated to some degree into Arab culture and society. What is more, we see how the introduction of Muslim festivals had a way of setting rhythms of everyday business beyond Muslim circles – not unlike how Christmas holidays continue to shape general family and shopping habits in Christian-majority countries! 

Eugenio Garosi