Easter Season in Egypt, 1834: ‘Smelling the Breeze’, Making Kishk, Eating Colored Eggs & Salted Fish

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened mi...

A bowl of kishk topped with sautéed onions, an Egyptian dish made with thickened milk or yogurt and topped with fried onions. It is described in the following text as a 19th century treat. In the village where I lived, it was still a great treat that was made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, by E. Lane, is a two-volume set filled with lore about Egypt during the author’s time (1834). And although it makes for fascinating reading, the book is now largely ‘put down’ by post-colonial theorists who are troubled by the Orientalist mind-set of Lane and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, taken at descriptive value, it – as so much of the colonial literature of exploration – provides views both into lifestyles of local people at the time and their (presumed) thoughts – as well as mindsets of the authors themselves; of colonial mentality.

The following excerpt describes common practices during Orthodox Easter time in Egypt (1834), and includes a recipe for kishk, which was eaten as part of the celebrations for Good Friday. Kishk is still a very popular dish, eaten year-round, and I remember the delicious kishk that was made in the Izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt where I lived while doing research.

Salted fish ( فسيخ), lettuce, and onion are also eaten as part of this spring celebration, which is commonly organized as a picnic.  It is said that these practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though I cannot find solid information about this.  Nevertheless, it is a celebration that encompasses both Muslims and Christians and transcends socio-economic strata.

An izba in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived. Kishk was a great treat, as made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities.  Source - Village by Ahmed Moustafa

An izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived.  The green matter on the roofs is fodder, crop leavings, and oven fuel.  Source – oilpaintingsonline.com, the painting is by Ahmed Moustafa, of Alexandria.

Of particular interest in the following description, is the melding of Muslim, Coptic, and non-religious activities into one ceremony – called, as still today,  Shamm al-Nasim (شم النسيم – literally, ‘sniffing the breeze’).  Some of the activities described below are still found, while others, such as ritual washing with a particular plant, are no longer to be commonly found.

Until the presidency of Nasser (mid-20th century), there was a large Jewish community in Cairo and it is possible that the Jewish celebration of Passover, which takes place during the same time period in Egypt, also incorporated aspects of the Shamm al-Nasim celebration.

IT is remarkable that the Moos’lims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious or superstitious nature at particular periods of the religious almanac of the Copts [Orthodox Christians of Egypt]; and even, according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather.

Thus they calculate the period of the Khum’a’see’n [khamsiin], when hot southerly winds are of frequent, occurrence, to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of Pentecost (or Whitsunday); an interval of forty-nine days.

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo...

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wednesday next before this period is called Ar’ba’a Eiyoo’b, or Job’s Wednesday. Many persons, on this day, wash themselves with cold water, and rub themselves with the creeping’ plant called raara’a Ei-yoo’b, or ghoobey’ra (inula Arabica, and inula undulata), on account of a tradition which relates that Job did so to obtain restoration to health. This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Moos’lims in the towns, and by more in the villages.

The other customs just alluded to are that of eating eggs, dyed externally red or yellow or blue, or some other colour, on the next day (Thursday); and, on the Friday (Good Friday), a dish of khul’tah, composed of kishk*, with foo’l na’bit**, lentils, rice, onions, &c.

Washing before a meal, a necessary task. Source: Lane, Manners and Customs…

* Kishk is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it: what remains in the sieve is thrown away: what parses through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire: some leaves of white bete, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

** foo’l na’bit are Beans soaked in water until they begin to sprout, and then boiled.

On the Saturday, also, it is a common custom of men and women to adorn their eyes with kohhl. This day is called Sebt en-Noo’ r (Saturday of the Light); because a light, said to be miraculous, appears during the festival then celebrated in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A custom termed Shemm en-Nesee’m* (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khum’a’see’n. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon, many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, generally northwards, to take the air, or, as they term it,smell the air, which, on that day, they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country.

This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the nesee’m: but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to smell it.

*شم النسيم

Source: Edward William LaneAn Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833, -34, and -35, partly from Notes made during a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and 28. In Two Volumes
Posted in Colonial, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt, Food, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Monsters: Ancient Egypt and Beyond –

Ancient Egyptians were most curious regarding both domestic and wild animals as well as their procreation, magical attributes, and so forth.  They did attempt to domestic several species of desert animals during the predynastic and early dynastic eras, and thus it would not be a surprise if attempts might also have been made to crossbreed certain animals – both domestic and wild.  The whimsical appearance of a zonkey – as a cross between two creatures – might well have appealed.

We may never know, of course, but the speculation is nevertheless interesting and may be related to the late predynastic and early dynastic burials of various wild and domestic creatures that have recently been excavated,  Some of whom could perhaps have been residents in a kind of royal zoo that contained elephants, aurochs, and other creatures.

Regarding the interred elephant, and Aurochs found at Hierakonpolis, the site states =

Perhaps not surprisingly the most prized appears to be the ten-year-old male African elephant (Tomb 33) and the aurochs (Tomb 19), both requiring extraordinary efforts to acquire as probably neither were locally available at the time. Both were found alone in large, fenced tombs, wrapped in vast amounts of linen and matting. Whether they were endowed with additional grave goods remains unclear, but both were given a substantial final meal, as a great deal of it was still present inside them.

In addition to half-digested items of settlement debris, detailed analysis of the botanical content of the elephant’s final meal indicate that he dined on river plants, acacia twigs and emmer wheat, both chaff and grains, suggesting he was well maintained…

I believe (some) DNA studies have been conducted – or attempted – on various of the animal remains but do not have details here with me. More details can be found here –


Here are a few other egyptomania links – brought to you via April Fool’s day!

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Sacred Huts and Magical Aspects of Food

Robert Nassau, as David Livingstone before him, was a missionary, explorer, and recorder of people, geography and customs in the areas through which he traveled and lived.  Also, as Livingstone, he was a product of the colonial era of the nineteenth century, and thus his writing, analyses and claims should be read in relation to that historical and political paradigm.

. . . . . .

palm and plantain leaves made into clothing for the traditional doctor. Source, Rev. Nassau

Palm and plantain leaves have been made into clothing for this traditional doctor. Source, Rev. Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa. 

Earlier, I wrote the following about ‘magicality and food’

“Pre-modern cuisine in many parts of the world can be more fully understood not simply as a technical  ‘recipe’ to be constructed – but also in relation to the context in which it is situated.  Hence, there may be social, sexual, political, religious or other aspects that figure in the total recipe as presented in the finished product.  It is our Western proclivity to disassociate fact from context that may create difficulties in understanding a given cuisine in its totality.

“During his forty years of missionary work in west Africa, the Rev. Nassau seems to have learned this important fact – although it is not specifically stated as such in his works. To examine the approach he uses in incorporating what I shall call the ‘magicality of cuisine’  in an  otherwise secular dish.  I will talk about the role of  Sacred Huts and Magical Aspects of Food.”

Source – The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa



The Rev. Nassau explains:

In some part of the long single street of most villages is built a low hut, sometimes not larger than a dog-kennel, in which, among all tribes, are hung charms ; or by which is growing a consecrated plant (a lily, a cactus, a Euphorbia, or a Ficus). In some tribes a rudely carved human (generally female) figure stands in that hut, as an idol. Idols are rare among most of the coast tribes, but are common among all the interior tribes.

Votive hut next to a residential hut in Burundi, c. 1910. Source. Meyer-Barundi

Votive hut next to a residential hut in Burundi, c. 1910. Source. Meyer-Les Barundi: Une etude ethnologique en Afrique

That they are not now frequently seen on the Coast is, I think, not due to a lack of faith in them, but perhaps to a slight sense of civilized shame. The idol has been the material object most denounced by missionaries in their sermons against heathenism.

The half-awakened native hides it, or he manufactures it for sale to curio-hunters. A really valued idol, supposed to contain a spirit, he will not sell. He does not always hide his fetich charm worn on his person; for it passes muster in his explanation of its use as a ” medicine.”  That idol, charm, or plant, as the case may be, is believed for the time to be the residence of a spirit which is to be placated by offerings of some kind of food.

I have seen in those sacred huts a dish of boiled plantains (often by foreigners miscalled “bananas “) or a plate of fish. This food is generally not removed till it spoils. Sometimes, where the gift is a very large one, a feast is made; people and spirit are supposed to join in the festival, and nothing is left to spoil.

a-traditional-spiritual-hut-at-the-gate-of-kaya-kinondo.  the sacred mijikenda kaya forests - UNESCO: World Heritage sit

a-traditional-spiritual-hut-at-the-gate-of-kaya-kinondo. the sacred mijikenda kaya forests – UNESCO: World Heritage sit

That it is of use to the spirit is fully believed ; but just how, few have been able to tell me. Some say that the ” hfe ” ‘or essence of the food’ has been eaten by the spirit ; only the form of the vegetable or flesh remaining to be removed.

Decle [‘author of “Three Years in Savage Africa”] also describes the religious habits of the Barotse tribes of Southern Central Africa : ” They chiefly worship the souls of their ancestors. When any misfortune happens, the witch doctor divines with knuckle-bones whether the ancestor is displeased, and they go to the grave and offer up sacrifice of grain or honey. 

They also bring to the tombs cooked meats, which they leave there a few minutes and then eat.  When they go to pray by a grave, they also leave some small white beads. Whilst an Englishman was journeying to Lialui, he passed near a little wood where there lay a very venerated chief. The boatmen stopped, and having sacrificed some cooked millet, their headman designated a man to offer up  a prayer, which ran thus:

* You see us; we are worn out travellers, and our belly is empty ; inspire the white man, for whom we row, to give us food to fill our stomachs.’  “

 Among the Wanyamwezi, ” Every chief has near his hut a Musimo hut, in which the dead are supposed to dwell, and where sacrifices and offerings must be made. Meat and flour are deposited in the Musimo huts, and are not, as with many other peoples, consumed afterwards. The common people also have their Musimo huts, but they are smaller than that of the chief, and the offerings they make are, of course, not so important as his.

nassau-fetich-doctor-patch-hair-is-the-professional-tonsure.  Source, Rev. Nassau

fetich-doctor-patch-hair-is-the-professional-tonsure. Source, Rev. Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa.

Text source – Nassau-Fetichism in West Africa; Forty Years’ Observation of Native Customs and Superstitions, by the Rev. Robert Hamill Nassau. University Press, Cambridge, U.S.A. 1904.

Other entries in this series are:

  1.  The Magicality of Cuisine 1: Meat Cooked in Plantain Leaves as a Love Philtre, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  2.  The Magicality of Cuisine 2: A Recipe for a complicated Love Filtre for Men. 19th Century Gabon
  3. The Magicality of Cuisine 3: A Dish of Fish and Plantains to Guarantee Successful Fishing, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
  4. The Magicality of Cuisine 4: Feeding the Soil a Stew of Leaves and Bark to Guarantee Successful Gardening, 19th Century Gabon, West Africa
Posted in Africa-General, Cuisine, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Magic, Missionaries, Recipes, Robert Nassau | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Hoard of Greek Coins from an Automatic Holy-water Machine in Egypt?

Mechanical inventions seem to have been quite popular among the elite Greek [and later] Roman populations of Egypt. During the time I was working at the Phoebe Hearst Museum at Berkeley, I came a cross a hoard of Greek coins – from the Tebtunis finds of Grenfell and Hunt – that had not been properly cataloged or recorded.

ps308925_l BM  pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

ps308925_ BM pot-hoard from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos

A library search revealed a type of machine used at a temple that would allow a certain amount of holy water to be given in exchange for a coin. The hoard may well have been part of  such a machine at the Fayum in Egypt.

The pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source -

The Pneumatics of Heron of Alexandria 21. Source – Pneumatics

The Greek coins, part of the finds of Grenfell and Hunt in their excavations in the Fayum,  were associated with literally thousands of manuscripts – some of which – as seen in the following picture – had been reduced to a confetti size:

A suitcase full of parchment pieces, Fayum 1931. Source -

A suitcase full of the cellar papyri, Fayum 1931. Source – tebtunis.berkeley,edu

An extraordinary cache of papyri, apparently dumped as rubbish with a few objects (coins, statuettes, etc.), in some priests’ rooms along the western side of the enclosure wall, was uncovered in stages, first by Grenfell and Hunt, then perhaps by Rubensohn, then by sebakhin, and lastly in 1931, when the Italian expedition cleared out the two underlying cellars. [Suitcase A of the cellar papyri]

The cache comprised thousands of documents, most of which are still unpublished. The upper layers consisted mainly of private and administrative documents concerning the affairs of the priests and temple (like those cited above), of the first to mid-third centuries AD.

The lower layers contained mostly religious, literary, scientific and reference texts in Greek, demotic, hieratic and hieroglyphic, mainly of the same period, but including some ‘antique’ documents. These texts must have come from the temple library, the ‘House of Life’, or from the priests’ own collections …

Source – Dominic Rathbone, A Town Full of Gods: Imagining Religious Experience in Roman Tebtunis (Egypt)

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Souirce - Wiki

Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Source – Wiki

The first keyboard musical instrument and the ancestor of the modern church organ, the hydraulis was invented by Ctesibius of Alexandria in the 3rd Century B.C.

This video tells the story of the ancient hydraulis and its modern reconstruction and includes a performance of this remarkable instrument.

Source – The Ancient Hydraulis

Picture below is a reconstructed hydraulis – the only example of the Roman instrument.



From ancient times, several texts have survived that contain technical descriptions of the Roman water organ. Heron of Alexandria describes in his book ” pneumatics “a simple organ type with a piston pump and a register. Julius Pollux, who lived in the second half of the 1st century AD, distinguishes between small organs that are operated with bellows and large instruments that use water. 

Source – The Roman Hydraulis

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source - HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

THE PNEUMATICS OF Sacrificial Vessel which flows only when Money is introduced. Source – HERO OF ALEXANDRIA

Here are several links to performances – from here, I’m having trouble with them, perhaps you can link to at least one; the first is quite nice:

Ginsberg-Klar, Maria E. 1981. “The Archaeology of Musical Instruments in Germany during the Roman Period“. World Archaeology 12, no. 3

12th Olympia International Film Festival for Children and Young People and 9th Camera Zizanio, opening ceremony, December 5, 2009 at Apollon theatre, Pyrgos, Greece.
Hydraulis, the earliest organ.

Source – You Tube link


Web links: (http://www.archaeologychannel.org/ )

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Baking Emmer Bread in Ancient Egypt – Discoveries from Amarna

The side of the excavations being discussed is the old capital of Amarna, the city built by the pharaoh Ikhnaton.  Source - Samuel-Bread making and social interactions...

The site of the excavations being discussed is the old capital of Amarna, the city built by the pharaoh Ikhnaton. Source – Samuel-Bread making and social interactions…

Dr Delwen Samuel is an archaeobotanist and a leading expert in the production of bread and beer in ancient Egypt – particularly at the site of the Amarna Project (1353–1336 BC); shown in the map, above.  Through both archaeology and using bread-making tools of the era, she has identified an important step in the production of emmer bread that has been left out of ‘recipes’ that are based solely on artistic records:

Pounding emmer spikelets in the mortar (Fig. 6) very quickly established that water was essential for successful de-husking.  The quantity is not critical, but, if there is too little, most of the spikelets fly out of the mortar, whereas too much water makes them slosh out of the shallow bowl.

Source - Samuel-A new look at old bread

Source – Samuel-A new look at old bread

It does not take long to pound a measure of emmer spikelets but it requires strength and stamina.  The ancient Egyptians who carried out the pounding had to repeat the process over and over again, because the small mortars could take only a limited volume of spikelets at a time. …

Source - Samuel-Bread making and social interactions.

The steps that are needed is the 3rd down – ‘pounding with small amount of water’ and then drying.  Source – Samuel-Bread making and social interactions.

… I made replicas of the tools [used], based on specimens
excavated from arid settlement sites or recovered from tombs. Excavations showed that the ancient Amarna villagers built
elaborate mud-brick and plaster rims around their mortars … or simply set the mortars into the ground with the rim protruding slightly…

The following references have been used in briefly describing the ‘water-step’ in Delwen’s work:

Samuel – Bread Making and Social Interaction at the Amarna Workmen’s Village

Samuel – A New Look at Old Bread...

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Farming in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt – What Happened to the Producers?

This entry is part of a dialogue with  Rachel Laudan, regarding the taxation of producers/farmers in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, based on sources found in the Fayum. Below, a little background information and more to follow on this much-delayed topic.

Egypt- the Fayum www-lib-umich-edu.jpg

Egypt- the Fayum www-lib-umich-edu.jpg

Several of the most interesting manuscripts retrieved through archaeology in the Fayum are called The Karanis tax rolls, which document taxes retrieved from producers:

This official archive is composed of four long tax-rolls (and some fragments) recording taxes for the years AD 171/172, 172/173, 173/174 and 174/175 … The rolls record different types of money taxes cashed in Karanis day-by-day, e.g. the poll tax, professional taxes and taxes connected with animals or land.

The arrangement is topographical and not alphabetical: the tax collectors visited house by house, family by family, where they received the taxes, usually in cash, though bank payments were also possible (SHELTON 1977).

Several entries show an ‘official’ left side (mentioning the landowner who was officially responsible for the payment of land taxes) and an ‘informal’ right side (mentioning, often between brackets, for instance the lessee who actually paid the taxes).

The ‘official’ left side is uniform, contrary to the ‘informal’ right side, which was of no interest to the fisc.

Source – Youtie (H. C.) et Pearl (Ο. M.). Tax rolls from Karanis. Part, II. Text and Indexes. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1939. (Michigan Papyri. Vol. IV) 1970).

Each entry  of the Karanis Tax-role contains the taxpayer’s name, his father’s name, and his hometown, matched in the right column by the amount of money paid.

This is one column from a tax roll found in Karanis which measured over one hundred feet long. Each entry contains the taxpayer's name, his father's name, and his hometown, matched in the right column by the amount of money paid. source - www.lib.umich.edu

This is one column from a tax roll found in Karanis which measured over one hundred feet long. Source – http://www.lib.umich.edu

Detailing the various taxes that are recorded in The Karanis tax-rolls, the following list records subsidiary charges (Youtie and Pearl, 1944, 24):

  • dichoinikia: a crown tax of 1/20th of an artaba per aroura of land, retained from the Ptolemaic period (Johnson, 1936, 508);

  • prosmetroumena: a supplementary charge, originally imposed by Augustus as compensation for differences in the content of local measures used in collecting grain dues and those specified bv the state for accepting tax payments (Boak, 194i, 27; Wallace, 38);

  • pentarabia: a 5% tax when payment was made in barley rather than wheat (Johnson, 1936, 511);

  • dragmategia: a charge for transporting sheaves from the field to the threshing floor (Johnson, 1936, 508).

Source: Gadza, Discoveries of the University of Michigan Expedition to Egypt (1924-1935). Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 1997

An example of the entries, from Column 82 of the tax-rolls – 

“Maron, son of Limnaios, grandson of Maron, mother Thaisas, drachmas 16 obols 28;Horos, son of Horos, grandson of Horos, mother Taharmouthes, drachmas 4;in total for the day drachmas 216 obols 25.Epeiph 21 likewise:Petheus, son of Pasoxis, grandson of Petheus, mother Segathis, drachmas 4 copper drachmas 4;Kephalon, son of Isidoros, grandson of Petesouchos, mother Tasoucharion, drachmas 8;Charidemos, son of Leonides, grandson of Papeis, mother Tapetheus, drachmas 24;Achillas, son of Ptollis, grandson of Hieranouphis, mother Thermouthis, drachmas 8;Maron, son of Satabous, grandson of Maron, mother Tkonnos, copper drachmas 4;Mysthes, son of Patkonnis, grandson of Harobrotos, mother Ptolema, drachmas 4;Satabous, son of Dioskoros, grandson of Satabous, mother Tahorion, copper drachmas 4;Petaus, son of Pnepheros, grandson of Phanomgeus, mother Thaesis, drachmas 8;Pnepheros, his son, mother Thaesis, drachmas 4;Ptolemaios, son of Naaraus, grandson of Horion, mother Taorsenouphis, copper drachmas 8;Ptolemaios, son of Petheus, grandson of Sokmenis, mother Tauris, copper drachmas 4;Petheus, son of Petheus, grandson of Onnophris, mother Taphaseis, drachmas 8;Harsiesis, son of Petheus, grandson of Harsiesis, mother Thatres copper drachmas (of priests) 4;Petsiris, son of Petesouchos, grandson of Petheus, mother Apia, drachmas 32;Thaesis, daughter of Maron, mother of Longinius, physician, through the agency of Longinia Kyrilla;(in left margin: drachmas 8 obols 16) orchard taxes of year 12 apomoira drachma 1 obols 5 chalki 2, tax on the produce of olives obols 2, naubion obol 1 chalki 2, surcharges obols 3;eparourion drachma 1 obol 1.5, surcharges obol 0.5, kollybos obol 0.5, in total drachmas 4 obols 2;geometria of year 12 drachmas 4 obols 4 chalki 2, surcharges obol 1.5 chalki 2, in total drachmas 5;Leonides, son of Ptolemaios, grandson of Pnepheros, mother of Heras, drachmas 4;Horos alias Karanos, son of Petheus, grandson of Herakles, mother Tauris, drachmas 4 copper drachmas 4;Heras, his son, mother Tamystha, drachmas 4 copper drachmas 4;Petheus, son of Horos, grandson of Petheus, mother Sambathion, drachmas 8;Ammonios, son of Ammonios, grandson of Ammonios, mother Tninis, drachmas 4 copper drachmas 4;Anoubas, son of Horos, grandson of Anoubas, mother Tepheros, drachmas 4;Valerius, fatherless, mother Valeria, copper drachmas 4;Onnophris, fatherless, mother Taeuhemeros, drachmas 8;Chairemon, son of Pasoxis, grandson of Pasoxis, mother Tanephremis, drachmas 4;Pakysis, son of Phanomgeus, grandson of Pakysis, mother Tepheros, drachmas 4 obols 20;Paoueites, son of Petheus, grandson of Phasis, mother Tapetheus, drachmas 4;Ptolemaios, son of Leonides, grandson of Papeis, mother Tapetheus, drachmas 8;in total for the day drachmas 212 obols 7;(Epeiph) 22 likewise:Imouthes, son of Keras, grandson of Menandros, mother Tepheros, copper drachmas 8.”

Traveling in the Fayum from Karanis to Tebtunis

A series of short videos giving a brief view of two of the most important sites in the Fayum Karanis and Tebtunis – there are several short videos, which will automatically open for you – well worth a look

Posted in Egypt-Ancient, Fayyum, Graeco-Roman era | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Grain Taxes and The Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS)

Egypt- the Fayum www-lib-umich-edu.jpg

Egypt- the Fayum www-lib-umich-edu.jpg

Major sites in the Fayum; sources of manuscripts and archaeological work.  Source -

Major sites in the Fayum; sources of manuscripts and archaeological work. Source – http://www.lib.umich.ed



2009figure2  Granary C123 in 1920s. Source - www.archbase

2009figure2 Granary C123 in 1920s. Source – http://www.archbase

The manuscripts and archaeological remains from the Fayum have provided us with an important view of administration and life in Ptolemaic and Roman times in Egypt.  As the plan and photo of a granary in Karanis above shows, this was a region of important grain storage and taxation:

Ten large granaries and seven smaller ones revealed by the excavators underscore the dominant role that grain production played in the local economy. These buildings housed the tax-grain but were also leased for private use.

All of the large granaries at Karanis were constructed along lines similar to Roman military storehouses. Rooms used as offices or living quarters fronted onto the street. Behind them was a central courtyard, three sides of which were lined with storage bins or, more often, chambers with vaulted ceilings that reached a height of about three meters above the floor.

The interiors of these chambers were subdivided into four or six bins, each about a meter deep. A small window high in the arch provided ventilation.14 This arrangement conforms remarkably well to the type prescribed by Columella, in his agricultural treatise of the first century AD:

[The] best place for storing grain … [is] a granary with a vaulted ceiling … [and] divided into bins to permit the storage of every kind of legume by itsef.

Source – Columella, I.6,   http://www.umich.edu/

Below follows a bit more information on these important sources, as being developed in the important APIS project, about which more to follow:

The Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) was planned, starting in 1995, by Roger Bagnall, †Traianos Gagos, and †John Oates, representing Columbia University, the University of Michigan, and Duke University. Berkeley, Princeton, and Yale joined the effort soon after.

The project was launched in 1996/7 with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the six original institutions.

The goal was to create a collections-based repository of information about and images of papyrological materials (e.g., papyri, ostraca, wooden tablets, etc.) located in collections around the world; it was envisaged as a first stage in creating a comprehensive papyrological working environment online. A total of six NEH grants, along with institutional support, foundation grants, and private donations, sustained the development of APIS through 2013.

At present it includes twelve full member institutions along with another fifteen collections that have contributed data, including some archaeological field projects.

Its founding vision was more completely realized when it was systematically linked to the other resources in the Papyrological Navigator through the Integrating Digital Papyrology project, in several phases, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and directed by Joshua Sosin.

APIS contains physical descriptions, provenance, dating, and bibliographic information about these papyri and other written materials, as well as digital images and English translations of many of these texts.

For many there is also information about the acquisition history of the objects. APIS includes both published and unpublished material in all languages. Generally, much more detailed information is available about the published texts. Unpublished papyri have often not yet been fully transcribed, and the information available is sometimes very basic.

If you need more information about a papyrus, you should contact the appropriate person at the owning institution. Active development and hosting of the APIS technical infrastructure was carried out at a number of APIS partner institutions over the period 1996-2013, principally Columbia University, the University of Michigan and New York University. As of 1 July 2013, the host and steward of canonical APIS data is papyri.info, which is served by the DC3 and Duke University Libraries.

The collections module, with a metadata record editor, of papyri.info is now open to all institutions, whether or not they are APIS members. Collections of any size may contribute catalog records, images, texts, translations, and metadata to papyri.info directly, once they establish an authorized editorial structure. Interested collections should contact dcthree AT duke DOT edu.

Source – APIS – Advanced Papyri Information System

tebtunis crocodile inscription source - www.lib.berkeley.edu

tebtunis crocodile inscription source – http://www.lib.berkeley.edu

The Tebtunis papyri were found in the winter of 1899/1900 at the site of ancient Tebtunis, Egypt. The expedition to Tebtunis, which was led by the British papyrologists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt, was financed for the University of California by Mrs. Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

The Tebtunis papyri form the largest collection of papyrus texts in the Americas. The collection has never been counted and inventoried completely, but the number of fragments contained in it exceeds 30,000.

This web site, which is under continuous development, will provide electronic access to images of the Tebtunis papyri as well as textual information.

Source – APIS – Advanced Papyri Information System

 Umm el-Breigat, ancient Tebtunis, is situated in the southwest corner of the Fayum basin in Egypt. Its history covers some 3,000 years, from the early second millennium B.C. into the thirteenth century A.D. Its best documented epoch is the Graeco-Roman period, roughly from the third century BC through the third century AD.

Tebtunis’ center was marked by the temple of the crocodile god Soknebtunis (“Sobek, lord of Tebtunis”). The temple enclosure itself and the ceremonial way (dromos) leading up to it can easily be recognized on an aerial photograph made of the site in the thirties.

Karanis 1934 aerial photograph, Source - http://quod.lib.umich.edu/

Karanis in the Fayum, near the site of Tebtunis, 1934 aerial photograph in which the cereonial way [dromos] leading up to the temple can be seen. Source – http://quod.lib.umich.edu/

The subjects illustrated by the written material from Tebtunis [and Karanis] vary. They include the contents of the temple library and the notary office, family archives of various village dignitaries, and much, much more.

Besides texts from Tebtunis itself, the site has also yielded papyri from neighboring villages, such as Kerkeosiris and Oxyrhyncha, that were used in the mummification of both humans and crocodiles that were buried in the necropolis of Tebtunis.

Research into this rich corpus of documents (and their related archaeological objects) is being done at various institutions worldwide and will significantly enrich our understanding of the administrative and socio-economic history of the entire ancient Mediterranean world.

Source – The Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Several Examples of manuscripts in the APIS collection that were retrieved from crocodile cartonnage at Tebtunis 18.5 –

Holding Institution:
Bancroft Library, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley
Call Number: 
P.Tebt.0001 (1) Recto
Vault; 1 frame
Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II, King of Egypt, d. 116 B.C.
Type of Text/Title: 
Decrees of King Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II : copy
On recto Col. II, Anthology: fragments; on verso, list of names and numbers.
Recto Col. II, published; verso unpublished.
Copy of the decrees found in P.Tebt.5.
25 x 22.3 cm.
10 lines, on recto along the fibers.
Physical Properties: 
Margins: top, 3 cm.; left, 1.5 cm.; bottom, 13 cm.; in top margin, in red ink “1”.
Paleographic Description: 
Well-formed semi-uncial, with occasional lapses to cursive forms.
Publication Status: 
Modern Date: 
ca. 100 B.C.
UC Inventory Number: 
Crocodile cartonnage at Tebtunis 28.5
Royal ordinances (Ptolemaic law)
Commencement of the decrees of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II.
Constitutional law, 332-30 B.C.; Politics and government, 332-30 B.C.; Ptolemaic dynasty, 305-30 B.C.
P.Tebt., I.1; C.Ord.Ptol., no. 53 bis; Plate: C.Ord.Ptol., fig. 1

PAPYRUS – On recto col. I, Decrees of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II: copy; On verso, Lists of names.

Holding Institution:
Bancroft Library, Univ. of Calif., Berkeley
Call Number: 
P.Tebt.0001 (2) Recto
Vault; 1 frame
Type of Text/Title: 
Anthology : fragments
On recto col. I, Decrees of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II: copy; On verso, Lists of names.
Recto col. I published; verso unpublished.
For another copy of the same anthology by the same scribe see P.Tebt.2 (a-c).
30.5 x 30.4 cm.
19 lines, on recto along the fibers.
Physical Properties: 
Margins: top, 3.7 cm.; bottom, 9 cm.; right, 2.2 cm.; in top left corner, and in lower left intercolumnar space, in red ink “1”; sheet join 4.7 cm. from right edge.
Paleographic Description: 
Well-formed semi-uncial, with occasional lapses to cursive forms.
Publication Status: 
Modern Date: 
ca. 100 B.C.
UC Inventory Number: 
crocodile cartonnage at Tebtunis 18.5
Literary papyri, Unidentified authors; Poems
Lyrics addressed by Helen of Troy to her husband Menelaos; an elaborate lyrical description of woodland solitude; and 2 epigrammatic couplets concerning the passion of love.
P.Tebt., I.1; Page, D.L. Gr.lit.pap., I.92; Plate: P.Tebt. I.p1. I; Plate: Roberts, C.H. Gr. Lit. hands, pl. 7. no. 1606
Bibliography Corrections: 
Pack, R.A. Greek and Latin literary texts from Greco-Roman Egypt (2nd ed.) no. 1606; I.O. Powell, Collectanea Alexandrina, p. 185-186, nos. 6-8.
(Lines 1-4) O sweet delight didst thou seem to me, when thou lovedst me, when with hostile spear thou didst sack the Phrygians’ city, desiring to take me only as thy spouse back to thy native land; but now, heartless one, wilt thou depart, leaving me a lonely wife, for whom went out the band of the Danaids, for whose sake Artemis carried off the unwed maid, Agamemnon’s victim?
(Lines 5-11) The brown birds singing hard-by through the wood deserted of commanders, perched on the topmost branches of a pine, chirped and twittered in mingled chorus, some beginning, others pausing, others silent, others in full song; then the hills speak with voices, and chattering Echo, lover of solitude, answers in the dells; the willing busy bees, blunt-faced and dusky-winged, summer’s thronging toilers, who leave their sting behind, deep-toned, workers in clay, full of eagerness, unsheltered, draw out the sweet nectar, honey-laden.
(Lines 12-13) In admonishing a lover you are ignorant that you are seeking to quench a smoldering fire with oil.
(Lines 13-14) A lover’s spirit, as a torch fanned by the wind, is now ablaze, and now again dies away.
(Lines 15-16) We are drunk with drinking and no longer in our senses, and love has consumed me with … that are like fire.
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