From my diary

Oof!  A concerted effort, and I have just turned the last page of the massive tome that I got from the library and which I have been scanning all week.  I can’t afford to buy a copy — no-one could — and yet I need to consult it.  Solution: photocopy a library copy, or — in modern technology — create a PDF of the page images.  It’s hard, back-acheing work, tho.

Next I need to go through the images, check that they are all there, check that they are not skewed or with bits of flaked-off paper blocking the text.  Then I need to take a copy, and crop them all to a fixed size, with the text central.

Once I have a bunch of TIFF files, I can run a script (using ImageMagick) to add whitespace around them, so that they fit one of the standard sizes for (although why Lulu don’t just do this, if the pages are too small, I have never known).  And then I can create a PDF from the new images, upload it to Lulu, and get a perfect bound copy for my own use, to read, to scribble on, and to absorb.

It’s actually 700 pages.  I suspect it might be best to split it into two halves.  The Lulu books tend to be on the thick side, and I want something that doesn’t twist my wrist!  I want to actually read this thing.

But I shan’t be doing any more of that tonight!

While sitting at the scanner, mechanically turning the pages, I was surfing the web for “Old Coptic”.  There are sections in the 4th century Greek Magical Papyri written in Old Coptic, and I wanted to know more. 

I stumbled across The multilingual experience in Egypt, from the Ptolemies to the Abbasids, and p.76 on Google books gives us a lot of hard information.

Old Coptic turns out to be the version of ancient Egyptian adopted during the late Ptolemaic period.   There are various papyrus archives retrieved from the sands of Egypt which contain it. 

It forms part of the process by which the Egyptians moved from Demotic to Coptic.  The former was written in the difficult Demotic script, which consisted of hieroglyphic symbols given a wildly cursive form.  Vowels were not written in general, so the script was also a shorthand. 

When the Greeks gained control of Egypt under Alexander, and then his Ptolemaic successors, they found a well organised state with an official bureaucracy where the records of taxes and lawsuits were kept in Demotic.  But under the Ptolemys, little by little, Greek grew in importance.  A time arrived quite quickly at which Demotic documents had to be presented with a Greek transcription.  Soon after, Demotic documents were not acceptable by themselves as evidence, a step which marked the end of the importance of Demotic archives.  In addition there are signs that the scribes themselves are finding difficulty with demotic, and mixing Greek vowels into the script.

Old Coptic, then, is what we call ancient Egyptian written in Greek letters from this period.  The texts are entirely pagan, and entirely ancient Egyptian in nature.  It is a transitional form between demotic and Coptic, and appears extensively in papyri in the early centuries of the Christian era.  Coptic also is written in Greek letters, with a few characters borrowed from Demotic but given a Hellenistic twist to make them look more Greek.

In the process of learning this, I learned of Dioskoros of Aphrodito, author of one of the bilingual Greek and Coptic archives.  Leslie S. B. MacCoull’s book Dioscorus of Aphrodito: His Work and His World (1998) is actually online here.  It contains some fascinating material.

In 1901, during the reign of Khedive Abbas Hilmy and the proconsular administration of Lord Cromer, some villagers in Kom Ishgaw were digging a well. Their Upper Egyptian village lay on the left (west) bank of the Nile, four hundred miles south of Alexandria, south of the sizable and half-Christian city of Assiut, north of what had been Shenoute’s White Monastery at Sohag. As so often happens in Egypt when digging is done, they found not water but antiquities: in this case papyri, masses of them, the bundled tax archives of a city. Someone called the police, but before anyone in authority could arrive, many of the papyri had been burned by villagers anxious not to be caught with the goods. The surviving papyri were dispersed through middlemen and dealers, most to find their way to the British Museum and the University of Heidelberg. The science of papyrology was young then, and no scholar had ever seen anything like these voluminous tax codices written in thin, elegant, almost minuscule hands. Bell in England and Becker in Germany identified them as the records kept by Greek and Coptic scribes under the eighth-century Arab administration of a town called Aphrodito.

Four years later, in 1905, matters repeated themselves, again by sheer chance. During house-building operations in Kom Ishgaw, the mudbrick wall of an old house collapsed, revealing deep foundations that had covered over yet another massed find of papyri. The local grapevine alerted Gustave Lefebvre, the inspector of antiquities, who hurried to the spot. A few acts of destruction similar to the earlier burning had taken place, but this time most of the papyri were dispersed to dealers, and thence worldwide from Imperial Russia to the American Midwest, to libraries eager to participate in the new rebirth of Greek literature made possible by papyri. Among the papyri there was indeed a text of Menander; but the body of the find consisted of the private and public papers of the sixth-century owner of that text, the lawyer and poet who would become known as Dioscorus of Aphrodito.

The papyri that Lefebvre managed to keep from middlemen and traffickers he brought to the Museum at Cairo (then at Boulaq). He went back to Kom Ishgaw twice more, in 1906 and 1907, and succeeded in finding more sixth-century papyri on the site of the original find. A few had been bought by a M. Beaugé, of the railway inspectorate at Assiut. These documents also were brought safely to Cairo, and the whole lot was assigned to the editorship of Jean Maspero, a young classical scholar and son of the head of the Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero. Before his death in battle in 1915, Jean Maspero managed to produce the three pioneering volumes of Papyrus grecs d’époque byzantine, of which the first was published in 1911. Together with Bell’s 1917 edition of the sixth-century Aphrodito papyri that had been acquired by the British Museum (P.Lond. V), and Vitelli’s 1915 edition of those bought by the University of Florence (P.Flor. III), these texts constitute the bulk of what we know as the Dioscorus archive of sixth-century Aphrodito, the city that lay under Kom Ishgaw.

Our evidence for the life, work, and world of Dioscorus thus comes from one find (over time) from one place, in preservation widely dispersed, yet in intention forming a unity. The papers kept during a single human lifetime that spanned much of the sixth century reveal the background, activities, and interests of the person who chose to keep them. Numerous discoveries of Byzantine Egyptian remains at sites all along the Nile Valley, from the Fayum to Syene (Aswan), provide a perspective on the period broader than could be obtained from the archives of just one individual in one city. Most of these discoveries were made in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, when the political climate still allowed exploration in the field of what was once Christian Egypt.

Isn’t that interesting?  Yet I for one had never heard of the man!  The Menander codex is known as the “Cairo Codex” of Menander and contained a bunch of his plays.  It was edited and translated in the 1921 Loeb edition of Menander, which is on 

Many of the Aphrodito papyri have not been edited, even, MacCoull says.  And he refers to clandestine digging in the 1930’s, the fruits of which are only now becoming known.

He continues:

Aphrodito stands on a hill. Unusual among Egyptian sites, which more often lie below the present ground level, the modern village of Kom Ishgaw perches atop a tell that must conceal remains of the Byzantine and Umayyad city (see Figure 2). Aphrodito has never been scientifically explored. The papyrus finds were made by accident, and Quibell and Lefebvre simply looked around the papyrus findspots to gather what they could in the way of artifacts—only a few carvings of wood and bone; the late period was of little interest at the beginning of this century. We do not know what Dioscorus’s house or the Apa Apollos monastery looked like. Until, in some better future, field archaeologists have found the physical remains of the Byzantine/Coptic environment:, we can try to reconstruct the city of Dioscorus from the documents, and view it in its own landscape.

Kom Ishgaw lies amid a network of irrigation canals in the wide cultivated belt west of the Nile’s edge (see Figure 3). South of Assiut, the road toward Kom Ishgaw goes by Sidfa with its Uniat school; Tima, largely Christian even today; the Uniat bishopric of Tahta; and Shotep, the ancient Hypselis, where the late sixth-century Coptic exegete Rufus wrote his extensive biblical commentaries. This is a Christian heartland of great antiquity. Some 45 miles to the south is Shenoute’s town, Sohag; across the river from that lies the Panopolis (Akhmim) that was the target of Shenoute’s attacks on paganism and gnosticism. East of these twin cities, up the river’s bend, is the Pachomian headquarters of Pbow (near Chenoboskion), where the monastic library once included Homer, the Bible, Menander, and the Vision of Dorotheos; in the same vicinity were deposited the texts that have become famous in our own time as the Nag Hammadi Codices. To the north, some 110 miles by river, lie the chief twin cities of Upper Egypt: Hermopolis on the west bank, and Antinoopolis (Antinoë), seat of the Duke of the Thebaid, directly across the Nile on the east. Around Aphrodito itself are the well-documented monastic sites of Bawit, Der Bala’izah, and Wadi Sarga. Dioscorus, the proud son of an elite family, was at home in a landscape of deeply rooted classical and Christian culture. This is the land of the wandering poets and of the founding fathers of the Coptic church.

Dioscorus was, as well, a citizen of no mean city. If buildings and amenities help to define a city, Aphrodito had its share. …

Doesn’t it make your fingers itch to go and find papyri?  It does mine!

On his blog, Alin Suciu of Heidelberg University has been reporting on his own efforts to analyse Coptic papyri.  He has found fragments of Cyril of Alexandria’s scholia, some new Chrysostom material, another leaf of the Ancoratus of Epiphanius, and much more.  All of this is lavishly illustrated on a blog which is a model of how to do this.

In the past I’ve found papyrologists rather off-putting.  But we do need, clearly, more people working professionally in this field.  When Coptic texts are unpublished for a century, then the Academy should feel something like shame.


12 thoughts on “From my diary

  1. The issue is that there are lots of papyrii to translate from Coptic, and few peoples able to work on them. Coptic is much less “sexy” than Greek and Latin papyrii, and then you have the competition between documentary and religious texts… Which reminds me that I have to upload a new version of the Brussels Coptic Database for my friend Alain, with metadata for a few hundreds more documentary coptic papyrii…

  2. You might want to look into scantailer ( to convert the scanned images into white spaced books. It is what I use for my photo scans and it is really easy to work with, check out the video tutorial here


  3. What papyrology needs is a database of all papyrus fragments. Preferably scanned in three dimensions so that the papyrus fibres and writing characteristics can be minutely measured and matches such as those Mr. Suciu found can become a computers job to find.

    Several batches of coptic fragments have also been on ebay in the last several weeks, coming out of Turkey I think. So many finds are handled by amateurs at first often with fragmentary losses in initial acquisition that haunts later handlers (ie: Bodmer?). But without the amateurs so much less would be coming to light.

  4. Within the past year or two, I think Oxford advertised for a postdoc to help launch a project with the Oxyrhynchus papyri and crowd-sourced identification/transcription via Zooniverse. It got a little coverage in Time Magazine, though I haven’t heard any more about it since. If it ever comes online, it seems like it would be a very good thing indeed.

  5. @Mat, thank you for the mention of scantaylor — this looks most interesting!

    Thank you everyone for the info on papyri. The Oxyrhynchus idea sounds like a good one! Coptic papyri on eBay … these could well be forgeries, if they are coming out of Turkey. But good to see that people have a motive to preserve them.

    @Bryaxis: I would have thought Copts themselves would be interested!

  6. I would like to highlight – nearly all of the Greek texts mentioned in MacCoull’s book are available online at, e.g.;1;67087. You can also search on variants of the name spelling to find a number of other documents:

    Every text is also now available for editing by anyone (click the “open in editor” link on an individual document’s page), with publication of proposed changes following review by an editorial board composed of papyrologists. Additionally, we make the complete data set and its revision history publicly available for download and reuse:

    We are actually in the last phase of development on this project, and one of the components is to work with the Coptic papyrological community to incorporate the changes they need for their documents, as well as create mechanisms in the editing environment to allow sub-communities of editors (e.g. a community of coptologists with its own editorial board which can vet submissions for Coptic texts).

  7. In a pleasant coincidence, this was just announced by Clement Kuehn on Papy-L:

    “One hundred years ago, Jean Maspero published the first collection of poems by Dioscorus of Aphrodito (c. 520-585): Un dernier poète grec d’Égypte (Revue des études grecques 24: 426-481). In celebration of the centennial, we are beginning to make available the Critical Edition of the poetry. One poem is in place for your preview. Simply go to:

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