Rome, 1868: the Arch of Drusus, defended by Bourbon soldiers!

Occasionally you see something online that really makes your eyes open.  This happened to me some time back, when I came across the following photographs on the excellent Roma Ieri Oggi website.  They depict the so-called Arch of Drusus, which stands just inside the massive Porto San Sebastiano in Rome.

This is simply amazing.  We see the modern street scene, but mingled with it the figures of little French-looking soldiers, all of them long dead, all belonging to an army which is forgotten.

History is famously written by the winners.  Well, these are the losers; the soldiers whom nobody wants to remember.  It is tremendously moving to see them.  They stand here, defending the papal state against the advancing forces of the northerners, soon to annex Rome to their new “Kingdom of Italy”.

The original photograph is this:


The only surviving handwriting of an emperor: Theodosius II and a petition from Aswan

How many of us know that there is a papyrus with the handwriting of a Roman emperor on it?  I certainly did not, until I learned of it from a tweet by Richard Flower.  But so it is.

The papyrus comes from Elephantine in Egypt, the island of Philae, opposite the modern town of Aswan, which is ancient Syene.  Papyri from the island were sold to dealers throughout the 19th century; some excavation took place in the early 20th, first by a German expedition, then a French.  Shockingly, while the Aramaic and Greek papyri discovered by the German excavators have been published, most of the Demotic, hieratic and Coptic papyri remain unpublished.[1]

The writing is by Theodosius II, who died in 450 AD after falling off his horse, and is dated to 425-430 AD.  The bishop of Syene, who had an Egyptian name, Appion, had written to the emperor (in Greek).  Nubian raiders were attacking the town.  The bishop asked for soldiers to protect it.

The emperor’s reply is not preserved, but a copy of the petition was attached to it, and on it some words in Latin, which are generally thought to be the emperor’s own hand.

The papyrus is now at Leiden, where the papyri were given letters, A-Z.  This is Leiden Papyrus Z (P. Leid. II. Z), catalogued here.  The papyrus is online at the Rijksmuseum in Leiden here.

It’s hard to even see the lettering on the papyrus, which is only written on the recto side.  Click on the image for a larger one, or visit the Rijksmuseum site for more photographs.

The emperor’s handwriting is at the top right of the sheet.  I’ve autoleveled an extract here:

Apparently the emperor wrote, “…bene valere te cupimus”, i.e. “…we desire that you be well.”

The document is translated for us in B. Porten &c, The Elephantine Papyri in English, 1996, p.441, entry D 19.  It is in two columns.  The first consists of an unreadable line, followed by the emperor’s words.  This is all that is left of the imperial reply.  The second column, headed by a Latin title “copy of the petition” contains the Greek text, written by a scribe.

For interest, here is the translation, slightly smoothed out:

[ . . . ] we desire that you be well.

Copy of Petition.

Address to the masters of land and sea and every nation of mankind, Theodosius and Valentinianus, the eternal Augusti, petition and supplication

From Appion, bishop of the legion of Syene and of Contra Syene and of Elephantine, in your province of Upper Thebaid.

Your Benevolence is accustomed to stretch out a right hand to all who are in need. Therefore I too, having learned this clearly, have come to these petitions, the matter being thus:

Situated with my churches in the midst of the sinful Barbaria[ns], the Blemmyes and the Nobadae, we are subject to many stealthy attacks by them, with no soldier protecting our places.

Therefore, since the churches under me have been humbled and are unable to protect the very ones who flee to them , I prostrate myself, rolling on the ground before your divine and immaculate footsteps so that you deem it right to decree that the holy churches [under me] be guarded by the soldiers among us, and that they obey me and heed me in all matters, just as the soldiers stationed in the fortress so-called “of Philae” in your Upper Thebaid will be at the service of the holy churches of God in Philae.

For thus we will be able to live without fear […] and follow […] most stern decree […] being issued against those who have transgressed […] what has been divinely ordained by you, every deceit of an opposing party, past or future, being null and void, with your divine [… and] special grace in this matter being addressed to the most magnificent and conspicuous count and duke of the frontier district of the Thebaid.

And having obtained this, I shall send up the customary prayers for your eternal power for all (time).

Apparently nothing in the archive of other papyri suggests that the request was honoured.

The request reminds me a little of the Donation of Constantine.  It has been suggested that this was originally composed in the 6th century during the Lombard invasions of Italy.  The idea is that it was a way for the Bishop of Rome to gain control of the remaining Byzantine garrisons, in order to protect the city.  Bishops were figures of authority in their communities in the late empire, and perhaps this story could be replicated wherever the secular power began to fail.

But how exciting to see the handwriting of a Roman emperor!

  1. [1]The Elephantine Papyri in English, p.4.

Did Origen record the burning of Marcionite literature?

Academic books have many failings, but usually we can rely on them for certain things.  In particular, if an author says that an ancient source says X, and gives a footnote and a quote, then we can be pretty sure that it does indeed contain those words, or something very much like it.  The readers of academic publishing tend to make sure of this.  We may not always agree as to the author’s interpretation of the text.  But it is rare that we find statements which, regardless of interpretation are simply not correct.

This week I encountered a book where a reference failed that test, and did so on the second page of the introduction, no less.[1]

This is a pity; because the statement was a truly interesting one!  Here it is:

Commenting on the biblical Book of Numbers, Origen explains the role of heretics within God’s creation, suggesting, as other Christian authors do, that the fire of biblical truth is not only able to refute heretics, but does also shine brighter if elucidated by false, heretical interpretations. While this is a somewhat metaphorical picture, Origen does mention at least one heretical author (Marcion) whose works were actually ordered to be burnt.[3] This shows that the idea of true faith burning and purifying false interpretations was close to the actual act of refuting and literally destroying heretical works, while the act of refutation itself helped to shape orthodoxy. In other words, there is no need for the refuted material to survive.

[3] Orig. hom. 9 in Num. 1 (GCS 30, Orig. 7:54–5): Ubi enim vera fides est et integra verbi Dei praedicatio, aut argentea dicuntur aut aurea, ut fulgor auri declaret fidei puritatem et argentum igni probatum eloquia examinata significet. … ista ergo batilla aerea, id est haereticorum voces si adhibeamus ad altare Dei, ubi divinus ignis est, ubi vera fidei praedicatio, melius ipsa veritas ex falsorum comparatione fulgebit. Si enim, ut verbi gratia dicam, ponam dicta Marcionis aut Basilidis aut alterius cuiuslibet haeretici et haec sermonibus veritatis ac scripturarum divinarum testimoniis velut divini altaris igne confutem, nonne evidentior eorum ex ipsa comparatione apparebit impietas? (The use of u/v in the Latin and of upper/lower case in sentence openings and proper names has been adapted for consistency throughout).

That’s fascinating, if true.  In the days of Origen, a synod ordered that Marcionite books should be burned?  Well, this I had to look into!

But immediately I was perplexed, as soon as I read the footnote.  I could see no mention in the footnote of anyone ordering books to be burned; certainly not Origen.  It’s all about bringing the heretical literature to the altar, to be examined in the light of the “divine fire”, and compared to the scriptures.  Nothing is being burned.  It’s all about the light of God.  Breaking down the reference:

Si enim, ut verbi gratia dicam,

For if, in theory,

ponam dicta Marcionis aut Basilidis aut alterius cuiuslibet haeretici

I put the sayings of Marcion or Basilides or some other heretics

et sermonibus veritatis ac scripturarum divinarum testimoniis

and with the words of truth and with the testimonies of the divine scriptures

haec confutem

refute them

velut divini altaris igne,

as if with the fire of the divine altar

nonne evidentior eorum ex ipsa comparatione apparebit impietas?

won’t the impiety of them appear more evident from that comparison?

Well, I thought, perhaps I am misunderstanding the Latin.  Fortunately the homilies on Numbers have been translated by no less than Thomas P. Scheck, and a preview is visible online here.  This allows us to see the full context.  And … it too is interesting, as we shall see.

Homily 9 begins on p.35 as follows:

Homily 9.
Numbers 17:1-28 (Heb, LXX) = 16:36-17:13 (RSV) [1]

Concerning the censers[2] of Korah[3] and the sedition of the people against Moses, and concerning the rods among which the rod of Aaron sprouted.

1.1. With God, as it is granted that he is to be understood, there is nothing that is nor beneficial, there is nothing pointless, but even the things that seem alienating to people and worthy of rejection are found to play some necessary role. Now the present reading suggests this understanding to us, which speaks of the censers of Korah and of the rest who sinned with him. For God does not command even these censers to be rejected, but to make them into “beaten plates” and “to surround the altar with them.”[4] So Scripture relates that by the command of God, “Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest took the bronze censers,” it says, “which those who had been burned had offered, and they made disks of these, and they placed them on the altar as a commemoration to the sons of Israel, so that no foreigner who is not of Aaron’s seed would approach to put incense before the Lord, lest he become as Korah and his conspiracy, just as the Lord said by the hand of Moses.”[5]

1.2. Through the prophet the Lord says manifestly in a certain passage: “My counsels are not like your counsels, nor are my thoughts like your thoughts.” [6]

If this case were judged today among men and if an examination were held among the rulers of the churches concerning those who have endured the penalty of divine vengeance, because, for instance, they teach things that are different from the churches, would it not be judged that, whatever they have said, whatever they have taught, whatever they have left behind in writing, all of it should utterly perish equally with their own ashes?

But God’s judgments are not like our judgments. For listen to how he commands the censers of those who have risen up against God’s prophet to be made into beaten plates and to be affixed around the altar.[7] Korah contains a figure of those who rise up against ecclesiastical faith and the teaching of the truth. Thus it is written of Korah and his company that they offered the incense of “strange fire” in bronze censers.[8] God commands the strange fire to be dispersed and poured out, “but the censers,” it says, “since they have been sanctified, make them into beaten plates, and surround the altar with them, since they were offered before the Lord and have been sanctified.”[9]

Well, to me what seems to be shown through this figure is that these censers, which the Scripture calls “bronze,” contain a figure of the divine Scripture. On this Scripture, the heretics place a “strange fire” by introducing a meaning and an interpretation that is estranged from God and contrary to the truth. They do not offer a sweet incense to the Lord, but a detestable kind. And therefore this example [forma] is given to the priests of the churches, that if at some time some such thing should arise, those things that are indeed alien from the truth should be immediately expelled from the church of God.

But if some things from the meanings of the divine Scripture are found inserted into the words even of heretics, let these things not be rejected equally with those things that are contrary to the truth and to the faith. For the things that are brought forth from the divine Scripture have been sanctified and offered to the Lord.[10]

1.3. Yet the command to join and associate with the altar things that come from the censers of sinners can be understood in still another way. First of all, the fact that they are called “bronze” does not seem to be superfluous. For when the faith is true and the proclamation of the word of God is whole, they are called either silver or gold. Thus the gleam of the gold declares the purity of the faith, and the “silver tested by fire” signifies “utterances that have been examined.” [11] But those that are called “bronze” consist in the mere sound of the voice, nor in the power of the Spirit, and they are, as the apostle says, like “a sounding bronze or a clashing cymbal.”[12] So if we bring these “bronze censers,” that is, the words of the heretics, to the altar of God, where there is divine fire, where the true proclamation is, the truth itself will gleam more brightly in comparison with what is false.

Let me give an example. Suppose I take the statements of Marcion[13] or Basilides[14] or any other heretic and refute them using words of the truth and testimonies from the divine Scriptures, as if I were using the fire of the divine altar. Will not their impiety appear more clearly by the very comparison? For if the reaching of the church were simple and not surrounded from without by assertions from the teachings of the heretics, our faith would not be able to seem as clear and as examined. But the reason why catholic teaching undergoes attacks from those who contradict it is so that our Faith will not grow sluggish from inactivity, but will be refined by such exercises.

1.4. This, after all, is the reason that the apostle said: “Now there must be heresies among you, in order that those who are proven [14]. This, after all, is the reason that the apostle said: “Now there must be heresies among you, in order that those who are proven may be manifested among you.”[15] This means it is necessary to surround the altar with the censers of the heretics,[16] so that the distinction between believers and unbelievers may become certain and manifest to all. For when ecclesiastical faith begins to shine like gold and her proclamation gleams before those who behold it like silver that has been tested by fire, then the words of the heretics, obscured with baseness and disgrace, will appear dim …

(I place the portions from the footnote in bold).

This confirms what I thought.  In fact it shows that Origen is taking a liberal view of the matter.

Origen is not saying that the books of the heretics have been ordered to be burned.  This is not present in the passage.

He says that if you assembled a synod, and asked if the words and writings of those like Korah who have been killed by divine vengeance should likewise be burned, then they would say “yes”.  But Origen says that God says “no”.  He says examine them by the light of the divine altar.  If you do this, and compare them to the genuine teaching, their shabbiness will become evident.  But whatever is true within them should not be rejected just because it is in bad company.

Let’s get rid of a possible canard here: that this is a matter of interpretation.

The author does not write that Origen’s words suggest that Marcionite works were burned.  That would be a possible, if dubious, interpretation of the text earlier in the homily.  But he does not say that.

The author writes simply that the works were actually ordered to be burnt.     But as we have seen, the reference definitely contains no such statement.

It’s very odd.  I think this is the first case that I have ever encountered where a book published by a highly reputable publisher contains a statement with a false footnote.  I wouldn’t blame the author, who perhaps simply had had a long day. But surely the publisher’s reader ought to have caught this?

Or … horrible thought … do the readers for academic publishers no longer understand Latin?

Whatever the reason, it is a valuable reminder that we need to verify references.

UPDATE: Dr Rohmann has kindly added a comment below to say that he did not believe that he said that the order to burn Marcionite books was contemporary with Origen.  The order he has in mind is the edict of Constantine referred to in Eusebius’ Vita Constantini III, chapter 56.

  1. [1]The work is the otherwise interesting D. Rohmann, Christianity, Book-burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, De Gruyter (2016).  I have not looked further into it at the moment.  The author is not writing in his native language, and something must be allowed for this.  I have no intention here to pillory the author, of course.  I am concerned that such a glitch was not picked up in proof.

A 1574 set of drawings from Constantinople in the Freshfield album

One of the great delights of our day is the digitisation of manuscript collections.  This brings to light treasures hardly seen before.

Trinity College Cambridge are the possessors of a collection of 20 colour drawings of monuments in Constantinople, made in 1574 by an unknown artist.  This item, known as the Freshfield album, came into the hands of the college a century ago, by means of a bequest from an old student.  Background information is on the college blog here.

Fortunate indeed is an institution whose old students both possess such treasures, and are well-disposed towards their old alma mater.

The college has digitised the manuscript, and it is online here.  And what a treasure it is!  For instance there is this view of the Hippodrome, before the heads of the serpent column were removed.

Sadly the images cannot be downloaded.  But there is a full-screen mode, which is something.

There is an image of the serpent column alone.  Here is the top, which once supported a tripod and dish:

Let’s zoom in on the heads:

And another:

For the upper portion of one of the heads is preserved in the museum in Istanbul, so these drawings make sense of it.  Here’s one of the images from the excellent collection at

There are many more photos of the head here.

So the Freshfield album gives us some very detailed ideas of the vanished portions.  Similarly there is this image of the porphyry column of Constantine, which still stands, but with an extra bit on the top:

Can anyone make out the Greek text of the inscription?

There are likewise in the album detailed drawings of the now vanished column of Arcadius, which resembled Trajan’s column, but was already cracking and perhaps ready to fall.


Anthony Alcock, “The concept of our great power” – online in English

Dr Alcock has translated one of the Nag Hammadi gnostic texts, and annotated it for use by students.  It’s here:

Thank you very much!

“Persia and the Bible” … and Mithras?

Review: E. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, Baker publishing (1990).  Paperback ISBN: 9780801021084. Available from:

Dr Yamauchi attended the second conference on Mithras studies in Tehran, back in the 1970s.  Coming across my pages on Mithras, which referenced a couple of his papers, he kindly sent me a copy of this 1990 volume which includes a chapter on Mithras.

The volume itself is a survey aimed at Old Testament students in the USA.  It provides an overview of Persian history, religion, archaeology and culture, but not as a standalone, but rather from where it impinges on the history of the bible.  I have not read most of this, but at points it has to descend to e.g. explaining the events of the battle of Marathon – sure sign of students being the audience!  But I did skim the chapter on Zoroastrianism, about which I know a little.  This was really very well done, in a short compass, and laid out the literary sources and the key doctrines more clearly in a short compass than any source that I have seen so far.  The footnoting is copious, and well done.

The chapter on Mithras is almost an annex, really.  I think perhaps it reflects the need of the teaching environment, and functions as a round-up of “Persian” related stuff that students may enquire about, including Sol Invictus.  It starts with the assumption of the great Franz Cumont, that Roman Mithras and Persian Mithra were in fact the same deity; but then reviews the scholarship, and indicates how this has changed in what was then the recent past.  The overview of Mithra is solid, as is the material treating Mithras, and the student comes away equipped to deal with whatever is necessary.  So … useful to have.

The book is now more than 25 years old, so the bibliography is doubtless a little dated.   The prose style is quite dense, and I found it hard going.  But there is quite a lot of useful information in a relatively small compass.

Book review: Anthony Kaldellis’ “A cabinet of Byzantine curiosities”

Anthony Kaldellis, A cabinet of Byzantine curiosities: strange tales and surprising facts from history’s most orthodox empire, Oxford University Press (2017). Available from:;

Oxford University Press (USA) emailed and asked me to review this little volume.  I agreed at once.  We need more easy-to-read collections of anecdotes and wit from antiquity, and something of the kind for the Byzantine empire can only be a good thing.  I believe Dr Kaldellis has written two preceding volumes on Roman and Greek curiosities, but I have not seen these.

Such a book is aimed at the educated general reader.  Possibly I am the ideal reader for such a book.  For I collect books of anecdotes, and humour anyway, so I am familiar with the genre; and, although I am not a professional scholar, I do love tales of antiquity, and I am even interested in some parts of Byzantine history.  So… what did I make of it?

The volume is a small hardback, with a quite magnificent cover designed by Brady McNamara.  In fact this photograph from OUP’s website does not do it justice!

The standard of book manufacture is high – no surprise from OUP.  There are internal photographs inline, taken from manuscripts, in monochrome.  These are not a success, and look very murky.  The idea is very sound; but the images should have been reproduced in colour.  As it is, the eye skips over them.

Dr Kaldellis has assembled some 200 pages of anecdotes, taken from sources mainstream and otherwise.  He gives the source in almost every case, and one can only respect the breadth of reading that is involved, particularly in hagiographical literature.  Translations are his own, and he wisely advises the reader that he has paraphrased where need be to bring out the point for the general reader.  In a book of this kind, intended for entertainment, this is entirely right and proper.

As is usual in these kinds of collections, the material is organised by topic.  A table of contents would be helpful here.  Curiously it starts with marriage and the family; then “unorthodox sex” (!?); animals; food and dining; eunuchs; medical practice;… and so on.  The ordering of this material seemed unusual to me.  Usually such volumes open with military anecdotes, scholarship, and so on, wandering into more domestic items later.  Stuff about the vices of the Byzantines should certainly have been banished to deeper inside the book.

Failing to follow the traditional (!?) order rather undermined the author’s hope to neutralise the picture of the Byzantines as a bunch of decadent back-stabbing effeminate cowardly treacherous superstitious scumbags.  In fact the content left me with precisely that impression.  For instance the negative anecdotes about Byzantine saints, although deeply valuable to me, reinforced the impression of credulous superstition.  Other anecdotes made clear how the Byzantines preferred bribery and treachery to courage, which reinforced the stereotype of weakness and backstabbing.  So here the author fails in his objective.

But this does not weaken the usefulness of the book to me, and probably to others.  I don’t object to the old stereotype in any way.  What the book gives me is solid interesting information from primary sources, that might perhaps not easily be gathered in so compact a form.  For instance how many of us know that St Simeon the Stylite developed an abcess on his foot which dripped stinking pus all down his pillar?  The charlatanry of the monks is well brought out.

And of course such books are rarely read from cover to cover.  Maybe doing so is rather a mistake.  Indeed Dr K. wisely suggests that this is the sort of book to read on the toilet.  Nor is he wrong.  Open it anywhere, read a bit, learn a bit, smile a bit – that is what such books are for.

One decision will strike the reader at once.  The author has decided, unusually, to give nearly all names as a transcription from Greek.  So “Konstantinos” appears all over the place, instead of Constantine (with the absurd result that on one page we have Constantine I facing Konstantinos V!); Ioannes rather than John; and even Isaccios Komnenos for Isaac Comnenus.  This habit, creeping in among some academics, is deplorable.  It achieves nothing, since all of us know what is meant.  It places a barrier in the way of the general reader.  It (again!) vitiates the author’s purpose, to suggest that the medieval Greeks were the Roman successors, when the names are so utterly odd and un-Roman.  This was a mistake, and OUP should have prevented this.  Many ordinary people can empathise with the brave death of Constantine XI, going out in 1453 to die fighting in the streets as the Turks breached the walls of Constantinople.  Nobody cares a bit about a king called Konstantinos XI, whoever he might have been.  I suspect that Dr. K. is not to blame, but these sorts of games, which tend to exclude the ordinary folk, are a form of elitism.

I learned a great deal from the book.  Again and again I found myself drawn, wanting to put down the volume and go and look up the original source.  (In some cases, of course, I remembered the original, and I didn’t detect any significant lack of reliability).

This is not a joke book either.  But the stories are interesting enough.  Anyone interested in Byzantium will find useful stuff in here, relatively easily absorbed.  So I think I can recommend the book, although I would definitely argue against reading it from the front.  Read it on the toilet, read it in bits here and there.  Because of the contents, I cannot recommend it as a gift for the monk in your life, however; which is a shame, since the Most Orthodox Empire is a subject that would otherwise appeal to many of them.

UPDATE: Added links to Amazon with my tag on.

The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra?

Turkish archaeologists have used ground-penetrating equipment and discovered the shrine of St Nicholas of Myra underneath the church of St Nicholas in Demre, ancient Myra, according to the Daily Telegraph.  The report seems rather sketchy, and the claims likewise.  They are also claiming that the bones of St Nicholas, supposed now to be in Bari, have in fact remained in Demre/Myra, although it is hard to see how any electronic equipment could tell that.  But of course the Turks are hoping for a boost to the tourist trade, and understandably so.

Let us wish them good luck in their excavations!

Church of St Nicholas of Myra in modern Demre, ancient Myra, in Turkey.

From my diary

I’ve been looking some more at Byzantine science.  My original intention was to write a series of posts on each area of science.  But I’m finding that in fact I don’t know enough about the subjects to do so.  In particular knowledge of Byzantine mathematics and astronomy seems to require more knowledge of the works of Aristotle than I possess.  So I will probably do no more on this.

Yesterday I was looking at an English translation of a poem by al-Akhtal, the court poet of the early Ummayads, whom I wrote about here.  This led me to wonder how to post a poem on WordPress, which is what this blog runs on.  There is no feature in the blogging platform to support the sort of alternately indented lines that a regular poem has.  I found quite a number of posts asking why there is not a plugin to make this possible.

A bit of experimentation, and I developed a basic wordpress plugin with very little difficulty, that added a drop-down to the editor with a set of new and custom styles to apply to the text.  I set up Xampp locally on Windows 10 and installed WordPress inside it.  A short article told me what a simple plugin looked like. Another told me how to use a generator to create one, which I did, although I had to create a GitHub account to use it.  Finally another article advised me on how to do the changes manually; which I did instead inside my plugin, adding the PHP code to the main generated plugin .php file, and sticking a css file in the root.  It all sort of worked, and I pushed it to GitHub.

But … it just did not work to format poetry.  The problem is not the plugin.  The problem is that WordPress strips whitespace in a manner impossible to control.  You can insert stuff in a poetic format.  But the moment you open the post in the visual editor, that format is destroyed.

This is a fundamental problem with poetry in WordPress.  It can’t be fixed, unless or until the main developers address the whitespace handling issue.

The only possible approach is to format it all as <PRE>, which is not much of an answer and looks terrible.

Perhaps it says something about the importance of poetry in our society, that the main blogging platform for writing online makes it impossible to post verse?

I need to return to translating Eutychius of Alexandria.  I have a couple of books to review.

My trip to Rome later this month will not now happen, after my travelling companion became ill.

I read this morning that the publishing industry continues its campaign against the SciHub pirate website, through which alone normal people can access most journal articles.  Apparently a US judge wants to prevent Americans from accessing it.  That should certainly give China an advantage!  The site itself is apparently hosted in Russia, fortunately.

To finish, let me attempt to post the poem by al-Akhtal, in preformatted format, as translated by Suzanne Stetkevych.[1]  I laid it out in Notepad; but my attempt to create a preformatted block and paste it in was a complete failure.  Even preformatted text is not handled well by the visual editor, it seems.  In the end I switched to text view and pasted it in there, with <pre></pre> tags around it.  This gives the following appearance:

How long will it remain formatted, I wonder?  Well, let’s see!

Here is the complete poem, that al-Akhtal delivered before the caliph, while drunk.

Al-Akhtal's Khaffa al-Qatinu: The Nasib

1. Those that dwelt with you have left in haste,
       departing at evening or at dawn,
   Alarmed and driven out by fate's caprice,
       they head for distant lands.
2. And I, on the day fate took them off,
       was like one drunk
   On wine from Hims or Jadar
       that sends shivers down the spine,
3. Poured generously from a brimming wine-jar,
       lined with pitch and dark with age,
   Its clay seal broken
       off its mouth,
4. A wine so strong it strikes
       the vital organs of the reveller,
   His heart, hungover, can barely
       sober up.
5. I was like that, or like a man
       whose joints are racked with pain,
   Or like a man whose heart is struck
       by charms and amulets,
   Out of longing for them and yearning
       on the day I sent my glance after them
   As they journeyed in small bands
       on Kawkab Hill's two slopes.
7. They urged on their mounts,
       turning their backs on us,
   while in veiled howdahs, if you spoke softly to them,
       were maidens lovely as statues.
8. They entice the tribesmen
       until they ensnare them,
   Yet they seem feeble-minded
       when questioned.
9. Forget about union with beautiful women
       when they are sure
   That you are a man whom
       old age's blossom has demeaned!
10. They turned away from me
       when my bow's stringer bent it
   And when my once jet-black locks
       turned white.
11. They do not heed the man who calls them
       to fulfill his need,
   Nor do they set their sights upon
       a white-haired man.
12. They headed east when summer's blast
       had wrung the branches dry,
   And, except where ploughshares run,
       all green had withered.
13. So the eye is troubled by tears
       shed for a now-distant campsite
   Whose folk will find it hard to ever
       meet again.
14. They are cut off, like a rope,
       and the eye follows after them,
   Between al-Shaqiq
       and al-Maqsim Spring,
15. Until they descended to a land
       on the side of a river bed
   Where the tribes of Shayban and Ghubar
16. Until when they left behind
       the sandy tamarisk ground
   And had reached high ground, or said,
       "This is the trench [that Khosroes] dug."
17. They alighted in the evening,
       and we turned aside our noble-bred camels:
   For the man in need, the time had come
       to journey.
18. To a man whose gifts do not elude us,
       whom God has made victorious,
   So let him in his victory
       long delight!
19. He who wades into the deep of battle,
       auspicious his augury,
   The Caliph of God
       through whom men pray for rain.
20. When his soul whispers its intention to him
       it sends him resolutely forth,
   His courage and his caution
       like two keen blades.
21. In him the common weal resides,
       and after his assurance
   No peril can seduce him
       from his pledge.
22. Not even the Euphrates when its tributaries
       pour seething into it
   And sweep the giant swallow-wort from its two banks
       into the middle of its rushing stream,
23. And the summer winds churn it
       until its waves
   Form agitated puddles
       on the prows of ships,
24. Racing in a vast and mighty torrent
       from the mountains of Byzance
   Whose foothills shield them from it
       and divert its course,
25. Is ever more generous than he is
       to the supplicant
   Or more dazzling
       to the beholder's eye.
26. They did not desist from their treachery and cunning
       against you
   Until, unknowingly, they portioned out
       the maysir-players' flesh.	 
27. Then whoever witholds his counsel
       from us
   And whose hand is niggardly to those
       beneath us
28. Will be the ransom
       of the Commander of the Faithful,
   When a fierce and glowering battle-day
       bares its teeth.
29. Like a crouching lion, poised to pounce,
       his chest low to the ground,
   For a battle in which there is
       prey for him,
30. [The Caliph] advances with an army
       two-hundred thousand strong,
   The likes of which no man or jinn
       has ever seen.
31. He comes to bridges which he builds
       and then destroys,
   He brands his steeds with battle-scars,
       above him fly banners and battle-dust,
32. Until at al-Taff
       they wreaked carnage,
   And at al-Thawiyyah
       where no bowstring twanged.
33. The tribesmen saw clearly
       the error of their ways,
   And he straightened out the smirk
       upon their faces.
34. Single-handed, he assumed the burdens
       of the people of Iraq,
   Among whom he once had bestowed
       a store of grace and favor.
35. In the mighty nab'-tree of Quraysh
       round which they gather,
   No other tree can top
       its lofty crown.
36. It overtops the high hills,
       and they dwell in its roots and stem;
   They are the people of bounty,
       and, when they boast, of glory,
37. Rallying behind the truth, recoiling from foul speech,
   In the face of war's calamities
       they stand steadfast.
38. If a darkening cloud casts its pall
       over the horizons,
   They have a refuge from it
       and a haven.
39. God allotted to them the good fortune
       that made them victorious,  
   And after theirs all other lots
       are small, contemptible.
40. They do not exult in it
       since they are its masters;
   Any other tribe, were this their lot,
       would be exultant, vain.
41. Ruthless toward their foe,
       till they submit;
   In victory,
       the most clement of men.
42. Those that harbor rancor toward them
       cannot endure their battle-wrath;
   When their rods are tested
       no flaw is found.
43. It is they who vie with the rain-bearing wind
       to bring sustenance
   When impoverished supplicants
       find scant food.
44. O Banu Umayyah, your munificence
       is like a widespread rain;
   It is perfect,
       unsullied by reproach.
45. O Banu Umayyah, it was I
       who defended you
   From the men of a tribe
       that sheltered and aided [the Prophet].
46. I silenced the Banu Najjir's endless braying
       against you
   With poems that reached the ears
       of every chieftain of Ma'add,
47. Until they submitted,
       smarting from my words-
   For words can often pierce
       where sword-points fail.
48. O Banu Umayyah, I offer you
       sound counsel:
   Don't let Zufar dwell secure
       among you,
49. But take him as an enemy,
       for what you see of him
   And what lies hid within
       is all corruption.
50. For in the end you'll meet
       with ancient rancor:
   Like mange, it lies latent for awhile
       only to break out once more.

The poem grows on you, as you read it.  The caliph was well pleased, as we learned last time.

  1. [1]Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, “Umayyad Panegyric and the Poetics of Islamic Hegemony: al-Akhṭal’s “Khaffa al-Qaṭīnu” (“Those That Dwelt with You Have Left in Haste”)“, Journal of Arabic Literature 28 (1997), pp. 89-122.  JSTOR.

The log book of Inspector Merer from Wadi al Jarf and the pyramid of Cheops / Khufu

So now we know how the stones were transported to build the pyramids of Egypt!!  They were moved by boat.  We know now this, thanks to a discovery in 2013 of a papyrus, in some boat storage caves on the Red Sea.  The find has caused a bunch of picture stories online this summer, such as this one at the Smithsonian, the Sun,  and I believe a TV documentary by Channel 4, Egypt’s Great Pyramid: The New Evidence.  The first volume of papyri from the find has just been published in book form.

Like most people, I tend to be sceptical of newspaper reports about wonderful finds in Egypt.  But this is entirely genuine!  There is some hard info here, and a very nice article from “The harbour of Khufu on the Red Sea coast at adi al-Jarf, Egypt” in Near Eastern Archaeology 77:1 (2014), 4-14 (PDF here), which shows a piece of the papyrus:

A detail of one page of Inspector Merer’s “diary” (B), mentioning
the “Horizon of Khufu.” Photograph by G. Pollin.

The papyrus is from the early 4th Dynasty, around 2,500 BC. It is the journal, daybook, or logbook, of Inspector Merer, who perhaps wrote it with a reed pen himself, and was in charge of a team of about 200 men.  It is, in fact, the most ancient inscribed papyrus ever found in Egypt.  It dates from the reign of Cheops, or Khufu as we must call him, the builder of the Great Pyramid.  In fact it dates from year 27 of his reign, when the pyramid was actually being finished, and its outer casing of fine Tura limestone was being fitted.

Most of the new book will be specialist stuff.  But, bless them, the team have put online a great deal of useful material!

The website of Prof. Tallet and his team is AMeRS, the “Association Mer Rouge-Sinai”.  An interview with Dr. T. is available in video here.  But even better, at this post, there is a PDF containing those portions of the book of general interest, with an analysis in English.  This includes … translations into English and Arabic (why not French?), and the post also has an English abstract:

At the end of this month, the first volume dedicated to the Wadi el-Jarf papyri will be published at the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology in Cairo. These documents, found at the entrance of the storage galleries, are exceptional, since they are the most ancient inscribed papyri ever found in Egypt. Like most of the remains of the harbor of Wadi el-Jarf, they are from the reign of Khufu. Pierre Tallet choose for this first volume, to deal with two of the best preserved papyri (papyrus A and B), belonging to the logbook written by the inspector Merer, whose team was engaged in the transportation by boat of limestone blocs from the quarry of Tura to the construction site of the great pyramid of Khufu at Giza.

English and Arabic translation of the Egyptian text and synthesis of the data [1705_Tallet]

This is wonderful, and it is remarkable how few people have linked to it.

I’ve reformatted the English translation for ease of reading, and here it is.  “Akhet-Khufu” is the Great Pyramid, the “Horizon of Khufu”.  “She Khufu” means “the pool of Khufu”, short for “Ro-She Khufu”, the “entrance to the pool of Khufu”, which is perhaps the headquarters for the administration of the pyramid project, situated on the artificial lake near the mortuary temple.  Ankhhaf was Cheops’ half-brother, and in charge of works including the pyramid construction.

First day : […] spend the day […] in […].
[Day] 2: […] spend the day […] in? […].
[Day 3: Cast off from?] the royal palace? [… sail]ing [upriver] towards Tura, spend the night there.
Day [4]: Cast off from Tura, morning sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night.
[Day] 5: Cast off from Tura in the afternoon, sail towards Akhet-Khufu.
Day 6: Cast off from Akhet-Khufu and sail upriver towards Tura […].
[Day 7]: Cast off in the morning from […]
Day 8: Cast off in the morning from Tura, sail downriver towards Akhet-Khufu, spend the night there.
Day 9: Cast off in the morning from Akhet-Khufu, sail upriver; spend the night.
Day 10: Cast off from Tura, moor in Akhet-Khufu. Come from […]? the aper-teams?[…]
Day 11: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle in] carrying out works related to the dyke of [Ro-She] Khuf[u …]
Day 12: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle carrying out] works related to the dyke of Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 13: Inspector Merer spends the day with [his phyle? …] the dyke which is in Ro-She Khufu by means of 15? phyles of aper-teams.
Day [14]: [Inspector] Merer spends the day [with his phyle] on the dyke [in/of Ro-She] Khu[fu…].
[Day] 15 […] in Ro-She Khufu […].
Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day […] in Ro-She Khufu with the noble? […].
Day 17: Inspector Merer spends the day […] lifting the piles of the dy[ke …].
Day 18: Inspector Merer spends the day […]
Day 19 […]
Day 20 […] for the rudder? […] the aper-teams.

[Day 25]: [Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle [h]au[ling]? st[ones in Tura South]; spends the night at Tura South
[Day 26]: Inspector Merer casts off with his phyle from Tura [South], loaded with stone, for Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at She-Khufu.
Day 27: sets sail from She-Khufu, sails towards Akhet-Khufu, loaded with stone, spends the night at Akhet-Khufu.
Day 28: casts off from Akhet-Khufu in the morning; sails upriver Tura South.
Day 29: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.
Day 30: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura South; spends the night at Tura South.

[First day ] the director of 6 Idjer[u] casts of for Heliopolis in a transport boat-iuat to bring  us food from Heliopolis while the Elite (stp-sȝ) is in Tura.
Day 2: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling stones in Tura North; spends the night at Tura North.
Day 3: Inspector Merer casts off from Tura North, sails towards Akhet-Khufu loaded with stone.
[Day 4 …] the director of 6 [Idjer]u [comes back] from Heliopolis with 40 sacks-khar and a large measure-heqat of bread-beset while the Elite hauls stones in Tura North.
Day 5: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle loading stones onto the boats-hau of the Elite in Tura North, spends the night at Tura.
Day 6: Inspector Merer sets sail with a boat of the naval section (gs-dpt) of Ta-ur, going downriver towards Akhet-Khufu. Spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 7: sets sail in the morning towards Akhet-Khufu, sails towing towards Tura North, spends the night at […]
Day 8: sets sail from Ro-She Khufu, sails towards Tura North. Inspector Merer spends the day [with a boat?] of Ta-ur? […].
Day 9: sets sail from […] of Khufu […].
Day 10: […]

[Day 13 …] She-[Khufu] […] spends the night at Tur]a South.
[Day 14: … hauling] stones [… spends the night in] Tura South.
[Day 15:] Inspector Merer [spends the day] with his [phyle] hauling stones [in Tura] South, spends the night in Tura South.
[Day 16: Inspector Merer spends the day with] his phyle loading the boat-imu (?) with stone [sails …] downriver, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 17: casts off from She-Khufu] in the morning, sails towards Akhet-Khufu; [sails … from] Akhet-Khufu, spends the night at She-Khufu.
[Day 18] […] sails […] spends the night at Tura .
[Day 19]: Inspector Merer] spends the day [with his phyle] hauling stones in Tura [South ?].
Day 20: [Inspector] Mer[er] spends the day with [his phyle] hauling stones in Tura South (?), loads 5 craft, spends the night at Tura.
Day 21: [Inspector] Merer spends the day with his [phyle] loading a transport ship-imu at Tura North, sets sail from Tura in the afternoon.
Day 22: spends the night at Ro-She Khufu. In the morning, sets sail from Ro-She Khufu; sails towards Akhet-Khufu; spends the night at the Chapels of [Akhet] Khufu.
Day 23: The director of 10 Hesi spends the day with his naval section in Ro-She Khufu, because a decision to cast off was taken; spends the night at Ro-She Khufu.
Day 24: Inspector Merer spends the day with his phyle hauling (stones? craft?) with those who are on the register of the Elite, the aper-teams and the noble Ankhhaf, director of Ro-She Khufu.
Day 25: Inspector Merer spends the day with his team hauling stones in Tura, spends the night at Tura North.
[Day 26 …] sails towards […]

Day x+1: [sails] downriver […] the bank of the point of She-Khufu.
Day x+2: […] sails? from Akhet-Khufu […] Ro-She Khufu.
Day x+3: [… loads?] […Tura] North.
Day x+4: […] loaded with stone […] Ro-She [Khufu].
Day x+5: […] Ro-She Khufu […] sails from Akhet-Khufu; spends the night.
Day x+6: [… sails …] Tura.
Day x+7: [… hauling?] stones [in Tura North, spends the night at Tura North.
Day x+8: [Inspector Merer] spends the day with his phyle [hauling] stones in Tura North; spends the night in Tura North.
Day x+9: […] stones [… Tura] North.
Day x+10: […] stones [Tu]ra North;
Day x+11: [casts off?] in the afternoon […] sails? […]

x+1 […Tura] North […] spends the night there.
x+2: […] sails [… Tura] North, spends the night at Tura North.
x+3 [… loads, hauls] stones […]
x+4 […] spends the night there.
x+5 […] with his phyle loading […] loading a craft.
x+6 […] sails [… Ro-She?] Khufu […]
x+7 […] with his phyle sails […] sleeps at [Ro]-She Khufu
x+8 […]

It is really fascinating to read this account of the days of a man much like ourselves, writing some 4,500 years ago!  Well done, Dr Tallet and friends, for making this accessible to us all!

Pierre Tallet, Les papyrus de la Mer Rouge I: Le “Journal de Merer”.