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papyri discovered by the German excavators have been published, most of the Demotic, hieratic and Coptic papyri remain unpublished.[1]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.

For further reading: A bibliography and resource list for the pyramids at Meroe

It might be useful to gather in one place the sources that I have found online for the pyramids at Meroe.  Doubtless some of the links will prove ephemeral; but corrections are welcome in the comments, however late.  The material here is not up to date – the most recent from the 1950s – but I can only work from what I can find online.

Note that all my posts on Meroe may be found here, and I have excerpted or translated material from what follows in them.


  • G. A. Reisner, “The Meroitic Kingdom of Ethiopia: A Chronological Outline”, in: Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 9 (1923), p. 34-77.  Online at JSTOR here, but it is not open-access.

This is perhaps the single most important article, for anyone interested in the pyramids of Kush: i.e. of Napata and Meroe.  It assigns the Reisner numbers to the pyramids, which are used today.  It also establishes the date-order of the pyramids, and gives a list of royal pyramids in date order with their rulers (p.75-8), thereby establishing a list of kings for Napata and Meroe.  It also contains detailed maps of all the pyramids and pyramid fields, photographs of treasure from various of them, and other photographs.

  • G. Reisner, “The Pyramids of Meroe and the Candaces of Ethiopia”, in: Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin vol. 21, no. 124, 1923, p.11-27.  Online here (originally at the MFA, but no longer).

Much less important article, but … online and accessible.  Useful photographs, and discussion of who the “Candace”s were – the title is for a Queen.  (Note that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has a lot of items on its website, some online.  Search for Meroe.)

  • S. E. Chapman and D. Dunham, “Decorated chapels of the Meroitic pyramids at Meroe and Barkal”, in: The Royal Cemeteries of Kush III, Boston, 1952.  50 pages. Online here (PDF).

This is another important article, with loads of plates, and a complete list of all the royal pyramid tombs in the six Kushite cemeteries, including the Meroe North.  Plate 1 is a map of the Meroe North pyramid field, with Reisner’s and Lepsius’ codes for each pyramid.  It also discusses the early visitors to the site, and mentions unpublished papers!

B. Porter and R. Moss, Topographical Bibliography of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, reliefs and paintings. – VII. Nubia, The Deserts and Outside Egypt. Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1952.  Online here.  Meroe starts on p.235, with biblio; then p.241-3 has real scholarly bibliography, including unpublished manuscripts of material, plus a map of the pyramid field with the Reisner numbers.  This is then followed by an entry for each pyramid in turn, with finds, and bibliography.  Massive and exhaustive.


Early Travellers

  • F. Caillaud, Voyage à Méroé au fleuve Blanc fait dans les années 1819 à 1822, Paris (text in 4 vols: 1826-7; plates in 2 vols: 1823).  Plates: here and here.  See my blog posts here and here.

  • G. Ferlini, Relation historique des fouilles opérées dans la Nubie par le Docteur Ferlini : suivie d’un catalogue des objets qu’il a trouvés dans l’une des 47 pyramides aux environs de l’ancienne ville de Méroé , Rome (1838).  Online at the Bavarian State Library here.  See my blog post here.

  • G. A. Hoskins, Travels in Ethiopia, Above the Second Cataract of the Nile, London, 1835.  Online here.  Includes 90 illustrations.

  • K. Lepsius, Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien, 12 vols, 1849-59.  All online here.  See my blog post here.

I hope that this will be useful to others who learn of the pyramids of Meroe, as I have done, and wonder how to learn more.

Viewing Cailliaud’s engravings of the pyramids of Meroe at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

The first modern visitor to the pyramids of the black pharaohs at Meroe was the 18th century Scotsman, James Bruce.  In 1821 the ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, sent a huge army up the Nile and occupied the Sudan.

The next visitor, therefore, was the Frenchman Frédéric Cailliaud, who marched with the army.  Cailliaud wrote an account in 4 volumes, with a larger 2 volume Atlas of engravings. I was unable to access the latter when I wrote about him here.

But a kind correspondent has drawn my attention to the fact that the two volumes of the Atlas are indeed online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, here and here.

I find that a PDF can be downloaded of each.  Unfortunately these are locked; but it is still vastly easier to scan through the volumes this way, than online.  JPGs of the pages are also available, but it is a 3Gb download, served at a miserable 400kbs.  My rather nice 60mbs broadband is therefore effectively throttled; and IE says it will take two and half hours to download.

However you can select pages online, and request a PDF of them be created, for you to download.  This I did, for 30-odd pages, and … the generated PDF is not locked!  That means that we can view some of them together.

The original image sizes are good, high resolution, which means that on-screen the engravings are, quite frankly, imposing.  The ones in the PDF that is generated are much lower, but still usable.

The Meroe pyramids are not listed under that name, but rather under the name of the nearby town of Assour.  They begin at plate 31, with a map of the whole area, with the pyramid fields – “Pyramides principales” at the lower right.  Plate 32 is a map of the ruined pyramids close to the Nile – these presumably are the western cemetery, and plate 33 is a depiction of the view.  Plate 34 is plans and elevations of these pyramids.

Plate 35 is a map of the main pyramid fields, north and south.  Here it is:

Plate 35: the principal pyramids of Meroe. 1821. Frederic Cailliaud.

Plate 36 is an imposing view of the north pyramids from the north-east:

Plate 36. F. Cailliaud. The North Pyramids at Meroe, from the NE

Plate 37 is the same prospect from the South East.  The pyramids at this time still had their tops, not yet blown off by gunpowder.

Plate 37. F. Caillaud. The north pyramids of Meroe, from the SE. 1821.

But there are very many further engravings, plans and elevations, as far as plate 46; and then engravings of the pyramids of Nuri, ancient Napata, where is the pyramid of the Black Pharaoh Taharqa, once ruler of Egypt and Nubia; and then more at Gebel Barkal.

I won’t reproduce them all.  But I will attach a PDF of the Meroe ones here:

I’ve rotated the pages so that you can view them easier on screen.  Well worth downloading – enjoy!

A labelled map of the north pyramids at Meroe, and a Google Maps satellite view on a phone!

Let’s continue our series on the pyramids of the Black Pharaohs at Meroe in the Sudan.

Now that we have seen all these pictures and photographs of pyramids, by Cailliaud, Lepsius, and others, the question arises… is there a list, with a map attached showing the layout of the pyramid field?

In fact I see references to “pyramid XI”; or “N. XI” or even “Beg. N. XI”.   But … nowhere do I see a map.

One reason that I looked at Reisner was to see if he gave a map of the pyramids, with numbers on.  But as far as I could tell, he does not.

Well, I have spent this day looking through the literature, and, finally, I have discovered a map with the numbers on.  Here’s an excerpt of it:

Zoomed-in portion of the map of the North pyramids at Meroe, showing Beg. N. I-IX

I’ll give the full map at the end, for it is large, and unless you zoom in, you won’t realise that it has the Roman numbers on it.  Nor do all these monuments stand full height; the vile Ferlini demolished some, right down to the ground.

The cryptic numbers become clear.  “Beg.” means Begarawiyah, the modern village nearby, while “N” means the north pyramid field at that location.

The map comes from a 1923 article in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, by G. A. Reisner.[1]  Plate XIV is a “Plan of the North Cemetery, Begarawiyah”.  In fact it is a map of the pyramid field, showing the pyramid locations, and also the trenches which expose the stairs to the burial chambers, and other fore-buildings.

Here’s Reisner’s map.  You’ll have to click on it, and then zoom and zoom to get the detail; but it is there.

Meroe: a map of the north pyramid field, by G. A. Reisner, 1923.

Now for practical reasons that diagram has north at top right.  But this afternoon I was playing with Google Maps on my smartphone.  And I found … that you can see Meroe on Google Maps!  Which is quite remarkable, when you consider that Google won’t allow you to access Google Apps from within Sudan!

Anyway, just for fun, here’s what I saw when I searched for Meroe!

Google maps satellite photo of pyramids at Meroe

These are days of miracles and wonders. I can testify that, when I began adding content to the web in 1997, just accessing the JEA was a feat attainable by those few who could convince a research library to grant them access to a paper copy. Something like this was unthinkable. We must remind ourselves sometimes how fortunate we are!

And isn’t it a shame that the ordinary people of Sudan itself are cut off from all this, just because of political differences among the mighty of this world?  Nobody benefits from this.  I could wish that Britain, as the colonial power, could do something about this, surely needless, restriction on a former colony.

  1. [1]G. A. Reisner, “The Meroitic Kingdom of Ethiopia: A Chronological Outline”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, volume 9 (1923), 34-77.  JSTOR link here.

Lepsius at Meroe – the some pictures of the pyramids

The early German archaeologist Karl Lepsius came to Meroe after the treasure-hunter Ferlini had done his worst.  His engraver produced a number of rather charming depictions, which are all online here.  I thought I would include the Meroe pyramid images.

The shattered state of the pyramids is obvious.  Modern German archaeologists have done some repairs with concrete, so thankfully the situation is not as bad as Ferlini left it.



Also a map, but without numbering the pyramids, even though the text does number them!

Lepsius’ map of the pyramid fields of Meroe

I’m not an archaeologist, so I’m not that familiar with the literature.  One thing that I have been looking for today, and in vain, is a map of the pyramids, which gives the number for each of them.  For instance I see references to “N11”; but no map to show which this is!  I wonder where these come from?

The pyramids of Meroe in 1821 – the engravings of Frederic Cailliaud

The pyramids of Meroe, today Gebel Barkal or Mount Barkal, 100 miles north of Khartoum, were vandalised by an Italian, G. Ferlini, ca. 1832.  But between 1819 and 1822, a French explorer named Frederic Cailliaud also visited the area.  His discoveries were published in four normal-sized volumes of text, each around 400 pages, and two large atlas-sized volumes of plates, each of 75 pages,[1] all under the title Voyage à Méroé au fleuve Blanc fait dans les années 1819 à 1822, Paris (text: 1826-7; plates: 1823).  The volumes of text are online; the volumes of plates, sadly, do not seem to be.*

A few scattered plates can be found online, in variable quality images, and I thought it was worth giving these here.

First, a general view of the pyramid field, as it then was, taken from the north-east:

F. Cailliaud, Voyage a Meroe, plate XXXVI.

This photograph, via Wikimedia here, shows part of the same area today.  The three little pyramids in a line at right-angles, in the middle of both images, helps to see what is what:

Next, a view of the north-western group of pyramids, taken from the south-east (via here, which also shows the 4 vols of 2, and the 2 vols bound as 1 of plates):

Cailliaud, Voyage a Meroe, Plate LII.

Interestingly I found a photograph of the same group of pyramids today here:

Next, plate 35, which I have worked over a bit from a poor photograph, and shows a plan of the pyramid field:

Plate XXXV

And a couple more, also reworked by me, from the same source:


I am unsure, but I think this modern photograph by Olivier Maurice from here may be of one of these pyramids:

I suppose that I shall never see these pyramids, situated as they are in a troubled land; and indeed the same is true of most of us.  But it is deeply interesting to see these drawings, and the modern photographs also.

* UPDATE: a correspondent draws my attention to the fact that the two volumes of the “Atlas” are indeed online at the Biodiversity Heritage Library here and here.

  1. [1]Information on the volume of plates from the Victoria and Albert catalogue, here; sadly they have not made their copy available online.

Just one Italian: the pyramids of Meroe and Giuseppe Ferlini, their destroyer

Few people are aware of the amazing pyramids of Meroe in the Sudan, about a hundred miles north of Khartoum, and easily accessible by a day-trip from the city.  I have not been there myself, sadly.


Sadly they are all badly damaged these days.  They look as if the tops were blown off with gunpowder; which is, in fact, exactly what happened to them, in 1830, at the hands of a rascally Italian treasure hunter named Giuseppe Ferlini.

The Sudan was conquered by a massive Egyptian army, sent up the Nile in 1820.  Ferlini accompanied this army as a physician, but soon struck out on his own behalf.

In 1838 Ferlini published an account of his adventures in Rome, and thanks to the marvels of the internet, it is online.[1]

I embarked at Cairo on 6 August 1830.  At that time I held the rank of Doctor-Surgeon Major, attached to the first regiment stationed in the valley of Sinnaar, and its dependencies.  I was stationed there for four and a half years, but I only spent ten months in this capital of upper Nubia, i.e. Sinnaar, where the first battalion of my regiment was garrisoned.  On the arrival of Dr Botta, son of the celebrated historian, on 13 May 1832 I went to Kordofan, capital of the western part of Nubia, twelve days from Sinnaar, after crossing the White River, and passing nine days in the deserts.  In 1833 a new corps of doctors and pharmacists was formed under the direction of the Tuscan Dr Landrini.  He sent me to the Fifth Battalion, resident at Khartoum, a city at the extremity of the peninsula of Sinnaar, built by the Turks after the conquest of the country.  It is here that the White River and the Blue River merge to form the Nile, and where resides Crusut Pasha, governor of all the colonies conquered by the Viceroy in the countries that take the name of the Military Sudan.

Since my stays in Greece and Egypt, I had constantly the fixed idea of making some discovery useful to history.  To this effect, I sought to get into the good graces of the governor.  After some months the opportunity arose to ask him for permission to make some excavations in the places where there were ancient monuments.  The pasha was surprised at my request, and did not leave me ignorant of all the perils to which my enterprise would be exposed; he told me that, although he gave me his permission, he would not allow me to work until I promised to pay the workers, and that I ran the risk of losing the fruits of my four years of saving. …

He got slaves together, and joined with an Albanian adventurer calling himself Antoine Stefani.  After some adventures he reaches Meroe.

I left Mr Stefani and went with a hundred men to visit the great pyramids.  A few days later, my friend discovered another habitation as big as the first but there was no luck, just a small terracotta idol.  With this in mind I had demolished the remains of a small pyramid at the foot of the hill.  Coming to the foot of the mountain, I found black stones which seemed to have been carved by man. I sought, with the aid of the pick, to penetrate below the foundations, and found the first step of a stair… I continued to uncover the stair, and reached the ninth and last step.  This led into a small cave, where I only found some bones of camels, horses and some other small skeletons which I took for dogs.  Then I found two types of harness …

During this time, Mr Stefani, who had begun the demolition of another pyramid, in eight hours had only reached the height of the portico; he tried everywhere, this day and for several days after, to find the stair and the caves.  Among the bodies he found one covered by a stone.  We were digging at the side of the head to remove this stone, when a worker, giving a blow with his spade to a round stone, like an ostrich egg, caused a mass of glass objects to come out, of a solid, white and transparent nature. …

And so it goes on, page after page of vandalism and search for saleable items.  He must have been slightly ashamed of his own coarse methods; for he fails to mention gunpowder, at least in any section of the text that I saw.

Of course it is anachronistic to complain, in a way.  Ferlini and his men had no notion of archaeology.  We cannot sensibly complain that they didn’t act as we would have done.  It was, indeed, this useless digging that caused men to devise the science of archaeology.  He had no yardstick for comparison, beyond the volumes of the Description de l’Egypte, which he lacked the resource to duplicate.  The list of objects found, and a few drawings at the end of objects, is no substitute for any kind of proper report.

All the same, one can only curse the man.

  1. [1]G. Ferlini, Relation historique des fouilles opérées dans la Nubie par le Docteur Ferlini : suivie d’un catalogue des objets qu’il a trouvés dans l’une des 47 pyramides aux environs de l’ancienne ville de Méroé , Rome (1838).  Online at the Bavarian State Library here.

The pyramids of Meroe again

Last night a TV program showed a trip up the Nile as far as Khartoum.  They stopped off at the pyramids at Meroe, which looked spectacular as always.

Hunting around the web for some images, I stumbled across this page.  It’s full of photos from a trip to Sudan, all excellent and evocative, and I really recommend a click.  Here’s the image of the pyramids: