Thursday, April 17, 2014


Carolin Arlt, Martin Andreas Stadler (ed.), Das Fayyûm in Hellenismus und Kaiserzeit: Fallstudien zu multikulturellem Leben in der Antike. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013. Pp. vi, 226. ISBN 9783447069250. €48.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Frederick Naerebout, Leiden University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The volume under review is a collection of 14 papers that were presented at the fourth international symposium on the Fayyum, held in Würzburg in 2011; a fifteenth paper (by Reiter) is a replacement for the original paper that could not be included here because it dealt with unpublished sources. Two more papers presented at the symposium, by Friedhelm Hoffmann and Anna Monte, were published elsewhere. 10 papers are in English, 4 in German and 1 in Italian. There are no summaries.

The introduction by Martin Andreas Stadler introduces the individual papers, grouping them thematically. It is difficult to understand why in the actual book the papers are arranged alphabetically under the names of the authors – in discussing them I will return to a thematic clustering. Stadler stresses that most material discussed here is not specific to the Fayyum, but that the interest of the Fayyum lies in it being extremely well-documented, and constituting an Egypt 'en miniature'. Thus the rich evidence from the Fayyum can be used to further our understanding of the whole of Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. But what in particular do we seek to understand? Rather disconcertingly, Stadler does not discuss the multiculturalism of the subtitle at all, except for the remark that there was a lot of it in Egypt, and especially in the Fayyum. So the question is whether the fifteen papers will do any better.

I will divide the papers into three groups: papyrological, archaeological, and historical, based on the main focus of each paper. In the first group, there are eight papers. I group those according to geography, moving from the north, anti-clockwise around Lake Moiris, to the south.

Capasso gives a rapid overview of ostraca and papyri found at Soknopaiou Nesos during the 2007-2010 excavation campaigns in the temple area (a map would have been helpful). The papyri found are all small and somewhat unexciting: one is oracular and mentions Ammon Soknopieios, some others are for use as amulets and carry figurae magicae. Multiculturalism does not enter into the story. Arlt zooms in on a particular type of material from Soknopaiou Nesos, the so-called name ostraca. These are 1st-2nd c. AD ostraca carrying a male name and a patronymic, rarely adding some title and the name of the grandfather. Of the 359 ostraca that are readable, 355 are demotic, 1 bilingual, and 3 Greek. Arlt discusses the possible interpretations: lots, ballots, or oracular 'tags' (the ostracism of her title was never a serious option). The result is as yet inconclusive, and there is no attempt to discuss the (lack of) bilingualism in these ostraca.

Next we move from Soknopaiou Nesos to Euhemeria/Euhemereia: Reiter replaces his original paper with a re-edition of the papyrus SPP xxii 78 (= P. Vindob. Inv. G 24936 = SN 87). I will not discuss this here (there is no multicultural angle), except to note that we literally move from Soknopaiou Nesos to Euhemeria in this text: it concerns a financial deal between inhabitants of Soknopaiou Nesos, who register their contract at Euhemeria. This might indicate the closure of the grapheion at Soknopaiou Nesos, around 160 AD, and the concentration of the grapheion business at Euhemeria. Ast and Azzarello discuss the early 2nd c. AD archive of some 100 papyri from Euhemeria related to the Roman veteran Lucius Bellienus Gemellus, now scattered across many collections, of which they are preparing an edition. Here they debate who authored and/or wrote which papyri. That discussion would have benefitted from a reference to the extensive 2006 coverage of the archive by Ruben Smolders at Trismegistos (under the heading of 'Epagathos estate manager of Lucius Bellienus Gemellus'). Again, Ast and Azarello have nothing on the ethnicity of the protagonists, or on anything related, except for a reference to one Jewish individual – whose Jewishness apparently is of no account.

Our next stop is the Arsinoitis: Quenouille gives an overview of the Fayyum papyri in Leipzig, and publishes here three that date to the 3rd and 4th c. AD. They appear to belong with the already known dossier of Alypios, who was a high-level administrator of the property of Aurelius Appianus, but who apparently had properties of his own as well. Here too, a reference to Trismegistos would have been helpful – but the rich web-based sources for papyrology are neglected in this paper, as indeed they are throughout the volume.

Our last stop is Tebtunis: Hoogendijk re-examines the contracts from the late 2nd-early 1st c. BC that have emerged from the the so-called 'first batch' of crocodile mummies at Tebtunis. Brian Muhs has shown that the demotic contracts from Tebtunis came from the village grapheion; Hoogendijk considers the possibility that the Greek contracts too were not only registered (in demotic registers), but also drawn up and kept at the grapheion. If this is so, and she makes a strong case, this implies the presence of an even more bilingual environment than we thought there was. There might be a connection with Tebtunis for two new papyrus fragments from Lecce, published here by Marmai. The fragments carry on their recto a land survey of the late 2nd c. BC, on their verso an account of crops and seeds of somewhere between 88-83. There are similarities between these texts and the dossier of Menches, komogrammateus of Kerkeosiris, found at Tebtunis, but the discussion of their actual provenance ends inconclusively.

Not geographically limited is Lippert's lengthy examination of the so-called 'Book of the Fayyum', a mythological-theological account, preserved in several different versions, of the Fayyum landscape, kulttopographisch, as she terms it. She argues, with a lot of specialist comment on the hieroglyphic version of the text, that this priestly topography parallels that of Egypt at large, and that indeed it reflects the colonization of the Fayyum by people migrating from elsewhere in Egypt in Ptolemaic and even pre-Ptolemaic days. Where the religious topography of the Fayyum differs from that of greater Egypt, the Fayyum may have been considered as a kind of ameliorated, 'sanitized' version of Egypt. This very interesting paper seems to be somewhat out of place in this volume.

We come to my second category: the five archaeological papers. I again move from the more specific to the more general.

We begin at Karanis. Cappers et al. introduce the work done by the URU consortium (UCLA, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, University of Auckland) at Karanis since 2003. This is very much an account of research in progress, with few firm results; nevertheless, the paper is interesting and informative. The description (and illustrations) of the deterioration of the site of Karanis through exposure, looting and vandalism is shocking. This is an urgent plea for immediately back-filling any excavation. With Wilburn we zoom in on a single well-known wall-painting of Harpocrates and Tutu in Karanis, in the building known as Granary C65 (1st-2nd c. AD). Wilburn argues that these were, in this particular context, protective deities that guarded the entrance. This is not a revolutionary hypothesis, but the material he adduces about the protection of entrances is interesting. In a final sentence, he tries to turn his paper into a multicultural enterprise, noting 'a confluence of interest' : a local sitologos has a nice apotropaic picture of Egyptian deities done for a Roman granary.

Next we return to Soknopaiou Nesos. Davoli describes the work done by the University of Salento on the building history of the temenos between 2007 and 2010. High points are the survey of the unique raised dromos leading up to the temenos, the ceramics survey of the surrounding area, and the discovery of a fragmentary stele with a three-headed god: Horus, Sobek, Pramarres (?) as portraying 'Soknopaios who listens to prayers'.

In a quite different vein, Monson, in a paper that is not only substantially but also methodologically very interesting, addresses the question whether the Fayyum was really the immensely fertile area that Strabo and all authors since have made it out to be. He adduces figures from 1959-1963 (before the Aswan Dam was finished) to show the Fayyum to have had very low fertility compared to the Nile Valley and the southern parts of the Delta due to salinization. Papyri seem to support the view that this was already so in the ancient world, with references to land that is halmyros ('salted') and/or embrochos ('water-logged'). Next, Monson tries to extract some supportive figures from the wheat rents, and although his present exercise may not be completely convincing, he nevertheless shows that there is some potential here. Also ecological is Römer's look at the disappearance of villages from the Themistou Meris, in the northeast Fayyum in the 4th c. AD (with the one, unexplained, exception of Dionysias). According to her analysis of the archaeological and papyrological evidence, this is not the result of increasing salinization, but of the water supply breaking down: it is drought that kills off the villages. An opposition to Monson's paper is implied, but in fact the hypotheses of Monson and Römer do not seem incompatible.

Two papers make use of papyrological evidence, but discuss issues of the history of Fayyum religion in a wider perspective, so I put them in a category of their own.

Kockelman takes a look at the neglected subject of theophoric toponyms. The Fayyum onomastics shows a strong Greek influence, but the point is of course whether this is merely a case of language (Egyptian religious names and concepts translated into Greek) or (also) of a true interpretatio graeca. Kockelman shows that there are other interpretative problems as well: thus there is no simple equivalence between a theophoric place name and the cults of that place at a given moment in time. In the end, Kockelman's paper is inconclusive, with only Bacchias as a possible case of interpretatio graeca. Van Lieven contributes a paper on Sobek cults, and argues that gods carrying human personal names like Petesuchos, Harpagathes and Satabous are not merely variants on Sobek, but are originally deified humans. It is a pity she does not attempt any discussion of the background of the believers in these cults.

The Fayyum specialist and the serious papyrologist will find information here that is to their liking, but for the non-specialist this is a somewhat disappointing volume. The subtitle is misleading; indeed, I myself was led astray, expecting test cases (Fallstudien) that would illuminate the multicultural nature of the Fayyum. But this collection is a handful of studies on disparate subjects that have a more or less intimate connection with the Fayyum. Its multicultural character is hardly discussed: Hoogendijk comments on it in her conclusion, Kockelman obliquely deals with it without ever mentioning it, and Wilburn throws in a single sentence. So we have to see this for what it is: an all-too-common collection of proceedings without a true focus that mixes the worthwhile with the relatively insignificant. This said, I want to stress that some papers, especially those by Lippert, Hoogendijk, Cappers et al., Monson and Römer, deserve to be read by a wider audience than is likely to read this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.