Seminar on the study of ancient religion

On 19 September, ancient historians, Copticists and researchers of ancient religion came together for the first project-organized seminar of the academic year. Mattias Brand (University of Zürich), in his lecture titled “Lived Religion, Multiple Identities, and Monocausality in the Historical Study of Religion\s”, argued for a situational approach to ancient religion and introduced the concept of ‘group styles’ is a helpful concept in thinking about religious practices without the pitfalls of thinking in groups as stable, easily distinguishable social entities united by a shared doctrine. Brand also broke a lance for historically contextualized comparative research in the study of religion

Blog: How monks at a hermitage in Kellia established the time for eating

In Late Antiquity, Kellia (“the Cells”) was an internationally renowned monastic community located ca. 60 km southeast of Alexandria, on the edge of the Western Desert. According to monastic tradition, it was founded by the fourth-century hermit Amun of Nitria. Following the advice of Antony the Great, “the father of Christian monasticism” (d. 356), he chose a location twelve miles from Nitria, so that hermits from this community could first eat at the ninth hour (ca. 3PM) and visit the brethren in Kellia before sunset, and vice versa. Being known as a place where hermits lived a more strict ascetic life, Kellia was famous for its holy men, who attracted admirers seeking spiritual edification or intercessory prayer. Notable pilgrims from abroad include Rufinus of Aquileia (Italy), translator of the History of the monks in Egypt, and Palladius of Galatia (in central Turkey), author of the Lausiac History, an account of Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism. Kellia is also known as one of the main locations in various Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which exists in several versions, has been translated in many languages and is still popular as spiritual literature today.

Covering an area of about 11 km (7 miles) in length, Kellia consisted of more than 1,500 buildings, organised in seven clusters ranging in number from 30 to 550 constructions, including churches and freestanding hermitages. The earliest hermitages are likely to have been very simple, consisting of at least a cell and a prayer niche, but the buildings uncovered during French and Swiss excavations include more facilities, for the hermit himself and his disciple (or disciples), and represent a later development (sixth century). They were surrounded by a rectangular enclosure wall and comprised the habitation unit of the elder in the northwest, a kitchen in the northeast and a courtyard with a well and probably a vegetable garden in the east. The elder’s rooms included an oratory with a niche in the east, a cell with a store room and a workroom, which were usually separate spaces. The disciple had his own habitational unit, usually to the south of the elder’s rooms, which also consisted of separate spaces for living, praying, working and storing food. Depending on the number of occupants, there were two or more latrines against the south wall of the enclosure. One of the larger hermitages in Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, called Kom 88 by French archaeologists (the Arabic word “kom” refers to an archaeological mound), also included a multi-storey tower against the south wall, where the elder and his disciple could hide in case of attacks by marauders.

Kom 88 measured about 28 × 39 m. The French team partly excavated it, uncovering the habitation unit for a disciple, a silo, communal rooms and a kitchen on the north side, and part of the tower and a room with two latrines against the south wall (Fig. 1). The habitation unit of the elder and the vestibule leading to it were located to the northwest. Two rooms preceding the vestibule probably served as waiting rooms for visitors wishing to meet the elder: the walls were decorated quite elaborately, with crosses and floral designs, and many visitors left (Bohairic) Coptic graffiti with requests for prayer for deceased loved ones or for their own sake. Another Coptic inscription, in the niche in the west wall of the southern room, was painted by an occupant for a practical reason: it is a shadow table recording the average length of a shadow in feet for each Egyptian month at the ninth hour, which enabled the hermits to determine when it was mid-afternoon – time to break their fast and eat a meal, usually the only one of the day (Fig. 2).

The columns of the months and the length indications are badly aligned, as if the hermit painted them one after the other and got confused about which lines should correspond, but the table is supposed to indicate that it was time to eat in Paoni (end of May and most of June), when the shadow measured 7 feet (2,13 m), and in Koiak (end of November and most of December) when it was 15 feet (4,57 m). The other values increase and decrease according to a regular pattern (Fig. 3). It is the only known shadow table in Kellia and differs from other examples in Egyptian monasteries, which record shadow lengths for multiple hours per day (at Deir Abu Hennis, south of Antinoöpolis, and at Deir Anba Hadra near Aswan) or for the first and fifteenth days of each month (Bawit).

The shadow measured for calculating time was usually that of a standing man and the lengths recorded in the table are not exceptional, but if a man cast the shadow, another person was needed to measure it, as the standing man could not move. For a single person it would be easier if a fixed pole of similar height was positioned in such a way that even the longest shadow would remain completely visible on a flat surface, without colliding with the shadows of other constructions. As Egypt is located in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun moves from east to west, causing the shadow to turn to the northeast, the best position for a standing man or pole seems to have been in the southwest, so that the shadow would fall between the elder’s rooms and the tower.

Inspired by anecdotes in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I can imagine that the usual routine of the occupants of Kom 88 was as follows: while the elder followed his own regime of praying, meditating and working in his habitation unit, the disciple would prepare the meal and check the length of the shadow. At the ninth hour, he would call the elder through a conduit in the northwest corner of the room where the shadow table is, and they would eat together. When the elder was entertaining guests, they would be invited to join them, before returning home.

Renate Dekker

Further reading

  • [D. Brooks Hedstrom], “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project North (YMAP-North): Kellia and Pherme”, Yale Egyptology: Current expeditions, Yale University 2023 (with further references).
  • R.-G. Coquin and several others, “Neuvième campagne de fouilles aux Kellia (avril 1983): rapport préliminaire”, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 70 (1984-1985), 107-124 (esp. 117-124 and pls. III-V on hermitage 88).
  • R. Dekker, “Amoen van Nitrië”, Lucepedia: Digitale theologische encyclopedie, Tilburg University, 2012.
  • A. Delattre, “Une curieuse table d’ombres au monastère de Baouît”, Le Muséon 123 (2010), 273-286 (re-edition of the shadow table at Bawit, with a list of other shadow tables in Egypt and Nubia, including the one at Kellia, on p. 7, under e.)
  • A. Guillaumont and others, “Kellia”, in: A. S. Atiya, The Coptic Encyclopedia 5, New York 1991, 1396b-1410a, available online in the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, Claremont Graduate University, 2009–present.

Blog: Another Busy Day at the Office

The rhythm of our lives is largely structured by obligations for work or studies. Many of us keep track of work activities and appointments in a calendar, creating an overview of what we still have to do, while at the same time recording what we have done for future reference.

Within the papyrological sources from Egypt we find some examples of similar overviews of working activities. It is, however, highly doubtful if these sources help us to answer questions about a typical workday of, let’s say a magistrate:

‘22nd                         Nothing.
‘23rd                          Nothing.
’24th                          Nothing.
‘25th                          Nothing.
‘26th                          Nothing.
‘27th                          (dies) Iovis.
‘28th                          Nothing.
‘29th                          Nothing.
‘30th                          Concerning the opening of the will of . . . sister-in-law(?) of Apius(?), assessor . . .
‘Phaophi 1                Nothing.
‘2nd                            Nothing.
‘3rd                            Nothing.
‘4th                            (dies) Iovis.
‘5th                            Asclepiades, in charge of baggage-animals somewhere(?), made a deposition containing an accusation that the mules were not given their fodder.’

This excerpt of a daybook from Oxyrynchus can be dated to 313 CE. Some have argued that this document, usually referred to as P. Oxy. 54 3741, must stem from the office of the logistes, the main magistrate during these times. We cannot be sure, but it does appear to register the activities of some sort of official charged with legal business. The document is unfortunately incomplete. The preserved dates run from the 4th of September (Thoth 6) until the 8th of October (Phaophi 10), where the fragment shown above shows the dates from Thoth 22 to Phaophi 5. It is presumed that the original document started with the 29th of August, since that date corresponds with the first day of the Egyptian year, Thoth 1.

The first thing that catches the eye is the sheer number of times the word οὐδέν (nothing) is used – this was not a busy official. Would a logistes not have had more work to do, being one of the foremost authorities of the city? Surprisingly, he readily admits his inactiveness, which gives rise to the question what the purpose of this overview was. It certainly does not look impressive. In all probability, these kinds of official records simply had to be kept, perhaps only noting the legal matters the official was involved in.

The other remarkable feature of this document is the significance of the word Dios, the Greek genitive of the name Zeus, whom the Romans called Jupiter. This word appears every seven days, which leads to the conclusion that the term was used for the same day of the week. The year 313 is the most likely in a list of possible years, in which the Dios-dates of this daybook fell on a Thursday, the day named after the god of thunder. On these days no (official) work was done, but the word οὐδέν is missing. Apparently, it being the day of Zeus was reason enough to refrain from work on these days. The occurrence of Dios in this daybook seems to indicate that Thursday was a special day in honor of Jupiter, at least in an administrative environment. This practice is not well documented, but there are two other papyri, dated to the late third and early fourth centuries, that hint at this custom as well (P. Oxy. 22 2343 and P. Oxy. 60 4075). Perhaps this sacred day was inspired by the Jewish Sabbath, a tradition the Romans were quite familiar with, as a ‘pagan’ version of a day upon which working was not allowed, as Ilaria Bultrighini (2018) suggests. In this sense, Thursday could be seen as a predecessor of the Christian Sunday as well.

In 321 the Christian emperor Constantine made it official by law that no legal activities were permitted on a Sunday. The first evidence from Egypt that this was put into practice is found in the proceedings of a court case dated 325 (P. Oxy. 54 3759), indicating Sunday as the Lord’s day. This is only four years after Constantine’s law and a mere twelve years later than the daybook. The changes in temporal practices happened fast in fourth century Egypt. It was only in the course of the sixth century that Sunday became a day on which any kind of work was prohibited.

It would seem that the Sunday replaced the Thursday in this respect, but interestingly enough, this does not seem to have been the case everywhere. In sixth-century Gaul church leaders, notably Caesarius of Arles and Martin of Braga, condemned the ‘pagan’ custom of refusing to work on Thursdays, possibly by people who called themselves Christian:

‘No one shall dare to observe the fifth feria (= Thursday) in honour of Jupiter by abstaining from work. I confirm, brothers, that nobody, man or woman, shall observe this practice, unless they wish to be regarded by the Lord as pagans, rather than Christians. For they sacrilegiously transfer to Jupiter’s day ( = Thursday) what should be observed on the Lord’s day (= Sunday).’

(Caesarius, Sermon 19.4)

There is no further evidence from Egypt regarding the Thursday as a special honorary day. For the official of the daybook this practice meant even more days without work. In total, he did not work on 20 of the listed 35 days, meaning he had time off for 57% of the time. You would be hard pressed to find such a work-leisure ratio in our modern schedules.

Elsa Lucassen

Seminar on the Festival Calendar of Egypt in Late Antiquity

June 13th, Dr. Élodie Mazy (UCL) shed her light on the festival calendar in Egypt from the fifth until the eight century AD in her talk titled “Ἔργα καὶ ἑορταί: works and feasts in Late Antique Egypt”. Not only did she show how she has used Greek and Coptic papyri and ostraca to reconstruct the festival calendar, but she also expanded on the socio-economic circumstances of the celebration of these feasts. Easter, for example, was a moment to open the books and account for expenses of the past year, next to a religiously motivated feast that was preceded by fasting. Dr. Mazy’s research touched upon several topics under investigation by the project team and her talk was followed by an interesting exchange of ideas. Elsa Lucassen afterwards showed how, during the first year of the project, she has been investigating the impact of the changing festival calendar in Egypt on social cohesion in Late Antiquity. She used the Calends, Roman New Year, as case study to look at the role of festivals in changing times.

Blog: The Era of Oxyrhynchus: A Political Statement?

Dating formulas abound in Roman Egypt. One could, for example, name the acting consuls to identify the year, or count the regnal year of the reigning emperor(s). Eras, that is a continuous count of years from a significant moment, were late-comers in Egypt. The common era, which counts the years since the birth of Christ, was an invention of the sixth century, and took several centuries to spread. In the fourth century CE, however, another, remarkable era appears in Egyptian documents from the city Oxyrhynchus, which consists not of one year count, but, e.g. year ρπθ ρνη = 189/158. This is quite practical. Instead of writing down entire names, a few numerals suffice to pinpoint exactly which circle around the sun is meant by the author. This comes in very handy when one orders a delivery of wine, or when one sends a very short note to a servant. And when one year is badly legible, the other number will bring clarity. But where does this dating formula come from?

According to Roger Bagnall and Klaas Worp (Chronological Systems of Byzantine Egypt, 2004: 55-58), who in turn refer to the early twentieth-century scholars Preisigke, Grenfell, and Hunt, the formula, in the static form we encounter it from the fourth to sixth century, is based on continued use of the regnal years of Constantius II (324-361) and Julian (355 – 363). Julian was Constantius’ cousin, whom he co-opted as (junior) co-emperor to manage the enormous Roman Empire. The ‘real’ first year of Era of Oxyrhynchus would then be, according to Bagnall and Worp, 40/9 (cf. P. Oxy. 63.4373), that is: 363-364 AD – the year in which Julian’s reign ended and the decision to nevertheless continue to count his regnal years was taken. For the attentive reader: that they continued to count Constantius’ years after his death in 361 is not taken as significant, as they did the same with the regnal years of his father Constantine the Great, who had likewise made his sons co-emperor. But this lasted only briefly, whereas the count of the regnal years of Constantius II and Julian was continued for centuries.

At first sight, the choice for Constantius II and Julian II is an odd one in the Later Roman Empire, in which Nicene Christianity eventually turned out to be the dominant religion. Constantius II was an Arian (a form of Christianity that got the label of ‘herecy’). Julian is often nicknamed ‘the Apostate’ because he swore off Christianity altogether. People could have opted to restart counting with the regnal years of new emperors, as they had done before. Is there some secret message behind the use of Julian’s regnal years? Did it start out as a declaration of loyalty from Oxyrhynchite crypto-pagans to the last pagan emperor? Or were people in Oxyrhynchus simply tired of keeping up with who was emperor at which point in time? 

Let us take a look at the ‘political option’. How conscious are we, today,  of the exact meaning of our dating formulas? It is not likely a lot of people – in the Netherlands, at least – think of baby Jesus when they write down the present year, even though there is no Dutch equivalent for ‘Common Era’ and dating things in temporal distance to the birth of Christ is still very much in use, especially when someone is talking about something before the year 1 AD. Even though most people know the medieval monk who calculated the birth of Christ probably was four years off, everyone sticks to 1 as a point of reference for BC and AD. It seems to be a matter of convenience, certainly when 1 forms the divide between the secular BCE and CE. People who employ the Anno Mundi (3761 BC(E)) or Hegira (622 AD/CE) in a country that in majority uses ‘1 AD’ appear to make a more conscious, religiously motivated choice – to give examples of non-convenience motivated choices. 

So, is there a secret message behind using the unending reigns of Constantius II and Julian II as dating formula on short notes from Oxyrhynchus? There sure was not at the beginning of the sixth century, in 513 AD. When on P. Oxy. 16.2005 Ioannes, a village elder of Sephta, acknowledges he has received money for the repair of a wall, he adds a (Christian) cross to the note he dates with the reigns of Constantius and Julian and starts the summary on the back of the note with a chi-rho. Ioannes seems to have been consciously Christian and unknowingly using the reign of the last pagan emperor to date his little note. Ioannes might not have been aware of the origin of his dating formula. Were people in the centuries before him?

Most of the documents we possess are fairly neutral. A shipmaster declared he had received a certain amount of grain in 371 (P. Oxy. 48.3395) and Nikon paid his debt in 391 (P. Oxy. 72.4897). In 392, the Oxyrhynchus Era was used to describe the start of a period in which Apollonia, a perfume-seller, had to pay a certain amount of money on a daily basis to Syrion, master of the guild of perfume-sellers (P. Oxy. 75.5064). The only ‘political receipt’ we find comes from 362, a time in which Julian was still alive. On the back of an order to pay dated by the reigns of Constantius II and Julian II, someone had felt obliged to write down a confession of his faith: ‘There is one god’ (P. Oxy. 7.1056). The contents of the receipt have nothing to do with Julian, so we cannot conclude this profession of faith was somehow anti-Julian. What we do find, is the fact that using his regnal years for dating e.g. the reception of grain has survived his damnatio memoriae.

Oxyrhynchus seems to have been the only Egyptian city to have used the reigns of Constantius II and Julian II for their ‘Era’. Was the choice efficiency-driven? Starting anew after the death of every emperor, might, eventually, cause confusion. What if the same combination of numbers occurs twice, e.g. 40/9? All in all, the most probable explanation is that people in Oxyrhynchus decided to keep on counting the years of Constantius and Julian this makes business a lot easier. If, hypothetically, a contract has a duration of four years, one would not have to convert the dates to the new system of regnal years in case both emperors died during the four years agreed upon in the contract. The main reason for sticking to two (controversial) emperors appears to have been a matter of efficiency, nothing more. The orders of wine and other short receipts (with and without crosses) dated in years of the Oxyrhynchus Era probably are not very political. Optimalisation of business operations is likely to have been a goal of government officials, household servants and entrepreneurs alike. More detailed research into the use of this dating formula will have to establish whether this suspicion is correct.

Kevin Hoogeveen

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

Seminar with Johannes Thomann and Eugenio Garosi

The workshop of 7 February 2023 centered around time practices in the early Islamic world. Dr. Johannes Thomann (University of Zürich) shared interesting examples of what research into weeks and weekdays in the early Islamic world could yield. This seems to be unscathed territory. He showed how literary and documentary sources, both in Egypt and Al-Andalus, are suitable for this kind of new research. Afterwards, Dr. Eugenio Garosi, a member of the project team, shared his thoughts on dating formulas and scribal practices in the early Islamic imperial administration. As the dating formula is one of the few elements of official documents that allow for a scribe’s individual expression, one asks oneself what the differences in (the use of) dating formulas between chancelleries and document types mean and express.”

Identifying unpublished papyri at the Allard Pierson Museum

The Allard Pierson Museum has its own collection of papyri. The project’s team is helping the museum staff to identify which hidden treasures still lie unpublished in the museum’s depot. Monday 5 December was the first day of this collaboration at which Sofie Remijsen, Elsa Lucassen, and Kevin Hoogeveen took a look at some Greek papyri. A nice coincidence: the last papyrus in the box –  an order to pay a wine seller, already published as P. Amst. 53 – turned out to be written on the 5th of December as well (Choiak 9 in the year 110/79 of the Oxyrhynchite era, or 443 CE).”

Sofie Remijsen and Elsa Lucassen
Photo: Kevin Hoogeveen
P. Amst. 53
Photo: Sofie Remijsen