Papyrus | The writing of the papyri | The languages of the papyri | Greek and Roman Egypt


Papyrus was the most important writing material of antiquity. It was used by various cultures around the Mediterrenean from 2500 BCE up to the gradual introduction of paper from China in the latter half of the first millennium CE. The last papyrus to be used was a Papal bul, dating 1057 CE.

The writing material papyrus was made from the papyrus sedge, which was ubiquitous in ancient Egypt. The stem from this sedge was first peeled; from the interior small strips (about 30 cm. long) were taken. One layer of these strips was outlined vertically, another was added on top horizontally. By hammering the papyrus, the juices of the plant would allow the strips to join together, making a sheet of papyrus. Twenty such sheets were then pasted together, forming a roll of ca. 3.20 meters. Whole rolls were used for books and official reports; the text was written on it in columns. For smaller documents one just used a part of the roll.

Other writing materials that were regularly used in Egypt and have survived among the Tebtunis material include potsherds (Gr. ostraka, sing. -kon), which was used for more ephemeral documents (tax receipts; writing exercises), and wood.

The writing of the papyri

Greek was written with a reed pen (Gr. kalamos). Texts were written in capitals and continuously without word-division, accents, or comma’s, full stops, etc. While this may seem at first sight a major barrier to using the texts even for a native speaker, one should realize that the texts were meant to be read aloud. As is apparent from the following example, even an English text can be understood quite well when written continuously.


Egyptian was written with a brush, enabling the writer to vary the thickness of the lines. Writing with a brush was very hard to learn and only native Egyptians would seem to have mastered the craft. Whenever one finds a Greek text written with an Egyptian brush, one may conclude the text was written by a native Egyptian. Eventually, however, Egyptians started to use the Greek rush-pen as well.

The ink used consisted of a mixture of water, Arabic gom, and soot.

The languages of the papyri

Most of the Tebtunis papyri were written in (ancient) Greek, the language of Egypt’s administration from Alexander the Great to the Arab conquest (332 BCE – 640 CE). Greek was used also by the native Egyptians, especially when communicating with the government, or when entering the ranks of the bureaucrats themselves. Egyptians also continued to use their own script, Demotic, which is a terrifying cursive form of the Egyptian Hieroglyphs. A dozen papyri, finally, were written in Latin, which never replaced Greek as common written language in the eastern part of the Roman empire.

Greek and Roman Egypt

The term Greco-Roman Egypt refers to that period of Egypt’s history when it was first ruled by a dynasty of kings and queens from Greek (Macedonian) extraction, the Ptolemies (332-30 BCE), and then was part of the Roman empire (30 BCE – ca. 300 CE).

During this period, much in Egypt remained precisely the same as it had been for thousands of years. The river Nile would still rise and flood the land in August/September of each year, leaving a fertile sediment on top of the fields; farmers would still plow and sow their fields in early November, and harvest in April/May; they would still pay their dues to the state no matter who actually ran the country.

On the other hand, of course, much in Egypt changed. For one thing, the presence of foreigners in Egypt would be felt more than before. Before 332 BCE Greeks had been present in Egypt both as mercenaries and as tradesmen; in 332 BCE they came to stay, bringing with them their own language, culture, customs. Greek soldiers from all over the then Greek world arrived in Egypt in the army of Alexander the Great and remained there. As a reward for their services, they received a substantial plot of land, and settled in the Egyptian countryside in little towns such as Tebtunis.

The artifacts and papyri found at Tebtunis (and the remainder of Egypt) are lively witnesses of the co-existence of these two cultures. Some examples are displayed here.

On the Greek side we find this wonderful pair of statuettes. Everything about these statuettes points to the Greek side of society: their outward appearance (with so-called Praxitelean S-curve) is Greek; the inscription they carry is Greek; the person who dedicated them (Herakles) is Greek. Nonetheless, the statuettes were found in the enclosure of the temple dedicated to the Egyptian crocodile god Soknebtunis.

On the Egyptian side we find a relief depicting the ancient Egyptian gods Sobek, Isis and Amon. These gods had been worshipped for millennia in Egypt. The style of the picture is distinctively Egyptian; it was found in the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis. Nonetheless, the date of this fragment is late Ptolemaic or Roman, that is during the timespan when Egypt is considered to be a Hellenistic kingdom, or part of the Roman Empire.

From Arthur Verhoogt, From Mummy to Megabyte: the first hundred years of the Tebtunis Papyri; paper presented at the opening of the symposium The Tebtunis Papyri: the first 100 years, University of California at Berkeley, september 1999.

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