The 1941 discovery of works by Origen and Didymus at Toura in Egypt

At the beginning of August 1941, a group of Egyptian labourers employed by British forces in Egypt were labouring to clear some of the ancient quarries of Tura, some 10km from Cairo, so that they could be used to store munitions.  The quarries are pierced with galleries constructed by the ancient Egyptians in order to obtain stone to build the monuments of Memphis, and open into the flank of the mountain, where they fan out from a vast rotunda inside.

In one of the three galleries of quarry 35, around 20-25 metres from the rotunda, a worker placed his hand by chance on a considerable pile of papyrus.  This pile lay on the floor of the gallery, without anything to protect it or hide it, and covered only by the dust and chippings that had fallen on to it little by little during the centuries.  This formed a small mound about a metre high on one side of the gallery. 

The fellahs promptly divided the find among themselves.  Bindings until then intact were broken, folios dispersed.  Some say that some of the pages were used for fuel a fire for coffee.  Others were dunked in water to bring out the colour in order to make them seem more appealing to the dealers.

A week later, around 10 August, the police and the Service of Antiquities became aware that a find had been made, but too late.  Only one part of the found was retrieved by purchase, at a  high price, through the intermediary of the servant of an antiquary.  Three lots were successively acquired and deposited at the Cairo museum.  The rest — the main part — were removed and sold, page by page, at inflated prices to collectors.  The destination of some is no doubt even today unknown.

The manuscripts were written around the end of the 6th century on papyrus.  The language of the texts was Greek.  The state of the manuscripts was variable.  Each manuscript was composed of quaternions, each of four sheets folded to make sixteen pages.  The number of quaternions varied.  The quaternions were what was traded around, since there was little associating them together in the find into manuscripts.  The find was as follows:

Codex 1.  This was 29.5 x 16 cm, 6 quaternions, and contained Origen, Dialogue with Heracleides, and On Easter.  The quaternions were linked together, and so formed a unit.  It seems unlikely that the codex ever contained more.

Codex 2.  This was 28 x 18 cms, 6 quaternions, and contained extracts of Origen’s commentary on Romans; Extracts of his Contra Celsum; and a homily on the Witch of Endor.  This also seems to be complete.

Codex 3.  This was 27.5 x 24 cms, 15 quaternions, and contained the Commentary on Ecclesiastes, probably by Didymus the Blind.  This codex, like 4-7, had suffered in antiquity, since each of its quaternions was cut in two horizontally, then the two halves rejoined, and rolled up.  The cuts were done with great care to avoid the lines.  Since Ecclesiastes is 12 chapters long, it can be inferred that this manuscript was originally 25 quaternions long.  Part of the manuscript is in the Cairo collection, the rest in 1955 was in a private collection.

Codex 4.  This was 27 x 23 cms, 16 quaternions, and contained the Commentary on Genesis by Didymus the Blind.  The quaternions are numbered 1-16, and take the text up to Gen. 16:16.  Quaternion 1 is only fragmentary, however; the 6 pages of quaternion 16 are likewise falling apart.  If the work covered the whole of Genesis, this would require two codices of 30 quaternions; but it seems doubtful that these were at Tura.  The manuscript has blank pages, suggesting that the copyist did not complete the work.

Codex 5.  This was 27 x 24.5 cms, 14 quaternions, and contained the Commentary on the Psalms by Didymus the Blind.  Most of the pages of this were in private hands. 

Codex 6.  This was 27 x 22 cms, 26 quaternions, and contained the Commentary on Zachariah by Didymus the Blind.  This codex is complete.

Codex 7.  This was 31.5 x 15.5 cms, 25 quaternions, and contained the Commentary on Job by Didymus the Blind.  All but the last quaternion were at the Cairo Museum, the other being in private hands.

Codex 8.  This was 28.5 x 22 cms, 1 quaternion of 12 pages, and contained a Commentary on the Psalms of the Mountains and on John 6:3-28, by an unknown author.  It escaped notice in early reports.  The first page is blank, and much of the second also.  The commentary follows the Alexandrian exegesis. 

The museum thus ended up with 1,050 pages of the find, by various means.  It is permissible to wonder how much of it escaped.

These notes from H. Puech, Les nouveaux ecrits d’Origene et de Didyme decouverts a Toura, Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses 31 (1951), 293-329, and L. Doutreleau, Que savons-nous aujourdhui des papyrus de Toura, Recherches des sciences religieuses 43 (1955) 161-193.

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