Oxyrhynchus: City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish

[adapted from “Oxyrhynchus” http://www.csad.ox.ac.uk/POxy/mainmenu.htm ]


Once it had walls three miles round, with five or more gates; colonnaded streets, each a mile long, crossing in a central square; a theater with seating for eleven thousand people; a grand temple of Serapis. On the east were quays; on the west, the road led up to the desert and the camel-routes to the Oases and to Libya. All around lay small farms and orchards, irrigated by the annual flood — and between country and town, a circle of dumps where the rubbish piled up.

The citizens of this county town, five days journey by road (ten by water) south of Memphis, called it Oxyrhynchus, or Oxyrhynchon polis, ‘City of the Sharp-nosed Fish’.

[bronze statuette of fish] [steatite amulet of fish]
bronze statuette: Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin steatite amulet: image © 1997 Fragments of Time

The fish was sacred: the Greek settlers after Alexander’s conquest adopted Egypt’s sacred animals alongside their own gods. The descendants of these settlers ran Egypt for a thousand years, right down to the Arab conquest. In their towns they spoke, wrote and read Greek; worshipped their fish and learned their Homer.

Even the ruins have perished. When Egyptologist Flinders Petrie went to Oxyrhynchus in 1922, he found remains of the colonnades and theatre. Now a single column meets the eye: everything else has gone, building material for modern houses.

Yet we know far more about Oxyrhynchus as a functioning town, and about its people as living individuals, than we do about many more glamorous ruins.

We know where Thonis the fisherman lived, and Aphynchis the embroiderer, and Anicetus the dyer, and Philammon the greengrocer. We know how much farmers had to pay when they brought in dates and olives and pumpkins to market. We know that on 2 November, AD 182, the slave Epaphroditus, eight years old, leaned out of a bedroom window to watch the castanet-players in the street below, and slipped and fell and was killed. We meet Juda, who fell off his horse and needs two nurses to turn him over; Sabina, who hit Syra with her key and put her in bed for four days (ancient keys are good solid objects); Apollonius and Sarapias, who send a thousand roses and four thousand narcissuses for the wedding of a friend’s son.

The reason we know so much, and in such detail, is rubbish.

The town dumps of ancient Oxyrhynchus remained intact right up to the late nineteenth century. They didn’t look exciting, just a series of mounds covered with drifting sand. But they offered ideal conditions for preservation. In this part of Egypt it never rains; perishables which are above the reach of ground water will survive. In the dumps was something which the famous sites of classical Greece and Italy could not preserve: papyrus, the ancient equivalent of paper.

[outlying rubbish tips]The rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus


Papyrus meant two things: documents and books. On both scores, these Greeks on the Egyptian fringe could fill blanks in the record.

The traditional classical world leaves us only the grand official documents it inscribed on stone. Oxyrhynchus yielded a huge random mass of everyday papers — private letters and shopping lists, tax returns and government circulars…maybe 50,000 in all.

The traditional classical world leaves us no actual books: the great Library of Alexandria, the twenty-eight public libraries of imperial Rome have disappeared without trace. We are left with copies of copies, chance survivals through the Empire and Middle Ages. We have ideas of what’s missing, but these losses seemed final.

The finds were collected in baskets, then boxed and shipped back to Oxford. The papyri offered quite new problems: strange fragmentary poets, whom no one in the West had read for fifteen centuries; documents in late technical Greek from this unknown outpost of Hellenic civilization.

Sixteen substantial volumes appeared, published jointly: each editor revised what the other wrote. It was an ideal partnership: Grenfell impetuous and extrovert, Hunt shy and cautious; one contributing ideas and intuitions, the other control and critical judgement.

It was not to end happily. In 1920 a third nervous breakdown ended Grenfell’s working life; Hunt went on until 1934, his last years clouded by the early death of his only son. But their partnership had achieved extraordinary things. They had brought back to life both the people of Oxyrhynchus and the books they read.


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