Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Papyri, a precious source of information

As far back as the ancient Egyptians (that is as far back as 4,000 BC), papyrus was used as writing support for important documents. The manufacturing of papyrus is an art by itself and a very time consuming operation. The papyrus reed has to be picked upstream of the Nile where the stems were harvested. After being cleaned the triangular stems were cut in long strips. These thin strips were then laid out in two layers, one horizontal and one vertical, that were then pressed together and dried to form the ultimate papyrus sheet. Thanks to its natural gum, these sheets could also be laid side by side to produce a roll, which when inscribed would become the known scrolls from antiquity. It is mind-blowing when you think how much reed had to be turned into papyrus to produce all the literature from antiquity. We cannot even imagine how many people were involved in making papyrus, whose production must have been organized on an industrial scale.

In the dry desert climate of Egypt such scrolls could safely survive for centuries as was proven by the thousands of pieces that emerged from the garbage heap at Oxyrhynchus. Elsewhere documents were preserved mostly by chance. One of such finds happened for instance in Herculaneum, the Italian city that was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

In those days Herculaneum, just like Pompeii, was a plush resort town where rich people from Rome sought solace from the summer heat. One such Roman was Lucius Calpurnis Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, who built a grand seaside villa which he lavishly decorated with more than eighty bronze and marble statues of the finest quality. This is the villa which Paul Getty copied in Malibu, California, to house his collection of antiquities.

Beside the impressive collection of art-work Piso’s villa also yielded a library of some 2,000 scrolls, the only one that survived from the classical world. Unfortunately we cannot read any of these scrolls since they turned into lumps of charcoal, the result of the pyroclastic blast that carbonized the papyri before the city caught fire and sank into oblivion under the volcanic ashes. When first discovered, these black burnt logs were not recognized as scrolls and some were hacked into pieces. A later conservator of the Vatican tried in the 18th century to painstakingly unroll them, spending four years on one single scroll and many chips just broke off. Even in the 1980’s experts from Oxford University were not able to do much and the reading was extremely difficult even under changing light or under a microscope. Manipulating the papyri did more damage than good as fragments crumbled down to mere dust. Towards the end of the 1990’s infrared light helped to decipher some of the texts followed by multi-spectral imaging providing clearer images of the letters and texts. Unrolling the scrolls was the major problem. In 2009, the Institut de France in Paris used Computerized Tomography (CT) scans to read the internal surfaces of the scrolls. Even with this modern technology, the task was very difficult since the rolls were tightly wound and also creased. The easy sections could be converted into 2D images but another problem arose when it was discovered that the chemistry of the ink blended in with the chemistry of the paper; the main reason for this being that ancient ink does not contain any metal.

This all means that we may need new technology or new procedures to come to our rescue in order to decipher these scrolls that may contain lost works from known or even unknown antique authors.

The Hellenistic world which ruled the Mediterranean roughly from 323 to 31 BC counted several major libraries, the best known and probably the greatest being the Library of Alexandria founded in 300 BC. It was severely damaged by Julius Caesar’s fire in 48 BC and finally destroyed at some time between 270 and 275 AD during the attack of Emperor Aurelius. Next in order was the Library of Pergamon with some 200,000 volumes, which Marc Anthony “generously” gave to his wife Queen Cleopatra. The Roman Empire created its own libraries in Rome, often apparently located in separate buildings and containing both Greek and Latin works. We possess a catalogue listing all the buildings of Rome in circa 350 AD in which no less than 29 public libraries are being mentioned!

It is clear that since Hellenistic times many people were literate and could fluently read either or both Greek and Latin texts. What a shame that so much knowledge and such linguistic skills were lost since then!

In an article published in the BBC News Magazine,  Robert Fowler, Professor of Classic at University of Bristol was so kind to compose a list of the main lost works from antiquity: 
Aeschylus - only 7 of his 80 plays survive
Aristophanes - 11 out of 40 plays survive
Ennius - his epic poem Annales, is almost entirely lost
Euripides - 18 of his 90 plays survive
Livy - three-quarters of his History of Rome are lost
Sappho - most of her nine books of lyric poems are lost
Sophocles - only 7 entire plays survive of 120 he wrote

But returning to the Villa dei Papyri, we should be aware that the scrolls found so far laid in and around one room but there are more rooms on the same level that have never been excavated, neither have the lower levels of the house. Some of the scrolls that were discovered were packed in tubular boxes (capsae) used to carry them around, which could suppose that they came from another room or from another part of the Villa. There is a theory that this Villa was not only a holiday residence but a mouseion, a place where the owner could show off his collections of works of art and literature.

It is obvious that new and more in-depth excavations in Herculaneum may answer many of the above questions but the Italian authorities are not too keen to allow more excavations as the antique site is located just underneath the modern town of Ercolano. This is an understandable argument, of course, but let us not forget that Mount Vesuvius is an ever present menace, the last major eruption occurred in 1944 and the next one may bury the fragile remains of Herculaneum under an even deeper layer of ashes.

[Picture of the Getty Villa is from their site - click here]

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