Felling rather lighter in heart, I spent this evening creating a Wikipedia article for Leyden papyrus X. This is an alchemical papyrus codex of 20 leaves, dating from around 300 AD or just before, and dedicated to metalurgy. It came out of Luxor in Egypt, or rather, out of Thebes. It’s written in Greek with some demotic, and in the same hand as the so-called Stockholm papyrus, which contains recipes for dyes and stains to make metals look like gold or silver. The history of these manuscripts is interesting.
In the early 19th century, there was an Armenian adventurer at the Khedevial court in Alexandria. His true name is unknown, but he called himself Jean d’Anastasi or d’Anastasy. This was not long after Napoleon’s adventure in Egypt, and the rout of the Mamelukes by the French was perhaps still fresh in the minds of the Egyptians. A French name he had, anyway.
Egypt at that period was still part of the Ottoman empire. When that empire had been at its height, it had issued various legal concessions to westerners, giving immunities from the corrupt attentions of Ottoman officials, and the arbitrary and objectionable taxes and customs and simple robberies involved in being an Ottoman subject. In consequence many nations employed local people as consular representatives, and such roles were sought out for the same reasons. This d’Anastasi, at all events, obtained credentials as the Swedish vice-consul, a role that doubtless involved him in much activity on his own behalf in the name of the King of Sweden, and found him very little inconvenienced by any Swedish travellers in that period.
Such “consuls” were keenly interested in the antiquities trade. The discovery of ancient Egypt by Napoleon, and the savants with whom he travelled, had created a market for such things. The decypherment of the hieroglyphics was underway, and papyri were much sought-after. Several decades later, Amelia Edwards in her A thousand miles up the Nile records her own interest in buying such a thing.
It seems that d’Anastasi, as we may as well call him, got lucky. His agents told him of a ‘find’. In Luxor, in the ruins of Thebes of the Hundred Gates, someone discovered the tomb of a Greco-Egyptian priest, who had interests in magic and alchemy, and had taken his precious codices to the grave with him. D’Anastasi acquired them, doubtless for money. In 1828 he came back to Europe, and disposed of the lot in a series of sales, mostly to European governments. These were keen to acquire them; but such low-grade literature was of little interest to scholars mainly interested in the Greek classics. Publication with Latin translation took most of the century, and translation into English is only partial even now.
I have no list of d’Anastasi’s collection. A study of his life and times and, above all, of his collection of papyri and their modern whereabouts and contents, is one that a scholar would be well advised to undertake. It is likely that much has escaped the attention of scholars, because of the dispersal of the collection.
But let us return to our priest. A scholar he was, for his interests were antiquarian. Whether he was a practising magician we do not know. He knew both Greek and Demotic, and there is writing in Old Coptic, so he was certainly a native Egyptian. The material at his disposal was heavily influenced by ancient Egyptian magic, and also by Jewish magicians — for whom Moses was a name of power — and even elements from Christian sources. All was grist, if it “did the trick”.
We do not know his name. It’s probably written on the walls of his robbed-out tomb, if that still exists and was not destroyed for lime and raw stones. So much was destroyed, after all. Flinders Petrie, the founder of scientific archaeology, was horrified at how everything was just being destroyed all around him. The great temple of Horus at Armant was blown up with gun-powder by “a rascally Italian” to furnish stone for a sugar factory — there is a drawing of it in the Description de l’Egypte of Napoleon’s day, and little else now.
But whoever our priest was, he upheld the reputation of the Egyptians as great magicians. The texts he assembled have reached us. The Luxor find is little known, but it once again highlights just how many books there are in the sands of Egypt.