For those who are looking for something very different to read, this book City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World by Peter Parsons (ISBN 0753822334) definitely is the answer.
It is about the Greeks who settled in Egypt shortly after Alexander’s time, i.e. during the reign of the Ptolemy’s. They often occupied important hierarchic positions as most of them could read and write, where for the Egyptians these skills were limited to a selected few scribes. The Egyptian hieroglyphs were, of course, a handicap as the average writer needed to know at least 10,000 signs by heart. In any case, the Greeks knew their business and introduced their alphabet which very soon became the official language in Egypt (How proud Alexander the Great would have been had he witnessed this!)
We have to step back in time to 1897, when two young English archaeologists started digging through several sandy mounds outside the antique city of Oxyrhynchus, a little south of today’s Cairo discovering to their amazement that these old rubbish dumps contained precious bits and pieces of papyri, sometimes even entire sections of old books.
A small portion of about 10% turn out to be official documents, theater plays, poems and other literature. The remaining part are letters and notes from daily life that shed a clear light on the organization and structure of the town. There are complaints about the water supply, the construction of new streets or the building of houses, disputes with the administration or neighbors’ quarrels, etc. And then to think that this is only the tip of the ice(sand)berg for about 500,000 pieces are being kept at the British Museum, carefully stored inside old newspaper pages locked away inside metal boxes. Whenever such a box is opened for examination nobody knows what to expect. The bits of papyri have to be deciphered first after which the experts have to find out in which context they'll eventually fit.
Most of these papyri date from the 2nd and 3rd century AD, i.e. from Roman times as the lower layers of rubbish have mostly been damaged by ground-water. The top layers on the other hand have been used by the local population over the centuries as fertilizer for their meager fields. This means that from time to time the patient reader lays hands on excerpts from books whose existence is known but that have not come to us. I still have a secret hope that one day new information about Alexander the Great will surface from this rubble - from Ptolemaic times for instance, it is a possibility, isn’t it? That would be a highly interesting discovery! The thought alone …
Yes, my imagination is giving me wings when I read a book like this. Such a source of information, and who knows what else we can learn when these personal letters, shopping lists, wills, fragments from Greek literature and censured Gospels will be deciphered. This will evidently take several more years since there are only a handful of scholars who are familiar enough with ancient texts to be able to place them in their pertaining context.
Yet each chapter of this book makes exciting reading, like for instance the one about the dikes. By the time the flooding of the Nile was expected, all citizens had the obligation to repair and rise their portion of the dikes, and to clear their section of irrigation canals. Official dike-watchers inspected the operations very closely, and you were not allowed to charge anyone money instead of doing the work or to subcontract the job. When the Romans ruled Egypt, the system was already in place for thousands of years and it worked the same way till 1889! Well, I always thought that it were the Dutch who invented the water management with their dikes, requesting each landowner to clear his own stretch of canal! It is amazing to realize that the more I dig in ancient history (in the broadest possible way) the more I see the wheel is being reinvented over and over.
There definitely is enough reading material here to entice everybody’s imagination and to lift a small corner of the veil of time. The voices of the marketers come back to life, from the donkey-drivers to the wine-merchants in and around the once flourishing bustling city of Oxyrhynchus.