The 27th Congress of Papyrology

Last week the University of Warsaw hosted the 27th Congress of Papyrology. The venue was very fitting, given both the very important center for papyrological studies at the University (in the Institute of Archaeology), producing also the peer-review Journal of Juristic Papyrology, and the tendency lately to choose Warsaw for international conferences, thanks to the low prices in many services and products in Poland, as well as the beauty of the landscape in the Polish capital, and not least the happy mood of the Poles themselves!

But what do papyrologists really study?

One would guess that they study papyri and the texts they have preserved for us. But it is not that simple. For if one was asked to describe what comes to one’s mind when referring to papyrus, the answer would surely have to do with Pharaonic Egypt and the hieroglyphic script. However, these papyri and these texts are not the object of papyrology! Rather, papyrologists studied initially the papyri of the Greco-Roman period in Egypt, that is mainly Greek and secondarily Latin texts. Subsequently, the discipline included also the study of papyri found at Herculaneum or in the Near East. And then of course, Demotic and Coptic texts too. Moreover, one could not exclude from the discipline texts written on other materials, like pottery, parchment and even paper. Or in other languages, like Arabic. In sum, it seems somehow that papyrology has stopped focusing on a specific language or a specific writing surface (stone is still excluded of course, since it is the focus of monumental epigraphy), on a specific region (although Egypt is naturally still the focus of the discipline) or a specific genre of texts. It focuses, however, on a long period of time that includes the Hellenistic, the Roman, the Byzantine, and the Islamic civilizations.

The programme of the 27th Congress of Papyrology reflected these interests and the latest changes in the field. This reflection was cleverly expressed in the naming of the five spaces at the Old Library of the University of Warsaw that hosted the almost 400 participants of the conference: Alexandria, Edfu, Petra, Oxyrhynchus, and Herculaneum!

A major renewal in the topics addressed during the conference regarded Arabic Papyrology. The recent interest in the study of Arabic papyri, ostraka, and other manuscripts brought to the fore-scene scholars working with such texts and even one of the plenary papers was dedicated to the “little brother” of the papyrological community (by Lucian Reinfandt from Vienna, titled “Coptic and Arab Egypt: Arabic papyrology”). The comparisons that can be made between let’s say Coptic and Arabic texts during the first couple of centuries of the Islamic period of Egypt is only one of the numerous positive results deriving from this renewed interest in Arabic papyrology. For the field has an immense corpus of study, a variety of further languages related to its main focus (e.g. Turkish or Persian), and a potential for crucial interference with the present-day conditions of religion and politics in the “Arabic” world (just think of the possibility of working on a critical edition of the Quran itself based on the most ancient manuscripts preserved to our days!).

Arabic was also included in the logo of the conference, something that gave deep pleasure to the scholars interested in Arabic papyrology. For us the pleasure had another dimension too, for the creator of the logo was our dear friend and colleague Dr. Dobrochna Zielinska (for previous “appearances” of Dobrochna in our blogs, see HERE and HERE – interview no. 10). Everyone engaged in research on Medieval Nubia recognizes the need for more work with the Arabic texts produced by and about the Christian communities of the Middle Nile Valley.

Dobrochna was also responsible for the layout of the exhibition that accompanied the conference in another hall at the University right behind the Old Library: Voices from the Nile Valley. Polish Archaeology between Alexandria and Dongola. This was the most “heard” of the Nubian voices in the conference (the pun is intended, since already a second volume of the Nubian Voices supplementum of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology is being planned). The rest were four talks that I list hereby in the sequence they appeared during the conference:

On Wednesday, Grzegorz Ochała (Warsaw – Geneva), spoke about “Multilingualism in Christian Nubia: case study of the monastery of Ghazali”; and later on the same day, Agata Deptuła (Warsaw), about “Byzantine roots of Christian Nubian hymnography”. On Thursday, Tomasz Płóciennik (Warsaw), presented the “Latin papyri from Qasr Ibrim – palaeographic aspects”; while Alexandros Tsakos (Bergen), had a paper discussing “The Greek manuscripts discovered at the monastery of Qasr el Wizz, Lower Nubia”.

Further interest for Nubian studies could be gleaned from the principles that professor Jacques van der Vliet presented in his plenary paper on the “Coptic documentary papyri after the Arab conquest”. The relation between Greek and Coptic (described as “siamese twins”), the degree that there was a “Coptic” church and “Copts” in Byzantine and Islamic Egypt (Van der Vliet is of the opinion that the term “Coptic” should be used only for the language), and the end of Sahidic Coptic (in the 11th century CE) offer methodological and conceptual markers for Christian Nubia too.

Nubia was also mentioned in the last plenary paper of the conference, that by Tonio Sebastian Richter (Leipzig), on “Juristic papyrology: Coptic documents”, for Lower Nubia has produced ca. 20 legal documents in Coptic (mainly coming from Qasr Ibrim).

Documentary papyri took in any case the lion’s share of the programme. There appeared, however, attempts to bridge the split between documentary and literary texts, by scrutinizing the use of literary passages in the body of the documentary papyri preserved. The plenary paper by Jean-Luc Fournet (Paris), on “Culture et document dans l’Egypte byzantine”, was a magisterial display of the potential of such an approach, while it also threw new and intriguing light into the materiality of the texts.

Fournet was also active in the discussions after various papers. I profited a lot from his questions regarding the system(s) of diacritics used in Nubian manuscripts, while it was on a codicological criterion (the size of the papyri used for correspondence in the Byzantine period) that he disproved the reading of a letter presented by the Egyptian professor of Ain Shams University Alia Hanafi. Irrespectively of the quality of the individual papers, an impressive group of seven papers from Ain Shams University were presented in Warsaw – out of 16 papers from Egyptian scholars in total. May the new state of affairs in the country bring even better results in the Egyptian academia…

Talking about statistics, it was interesting for us to observe that among the four papers from researchers based in Norway, two were prepared by Greeks! Alexandros’ paper and the one by Anastasia Maravela (Oslo), titled “New light on early Christian letters of recommendation”. The latter showed that there is still a lot to learn from the papyri collection of Oslo.

Finally, let me note that a good deal of the conference’s papers concerned not only unpublished texts, but also work on unknown or forgotten collections, new electronic data bases, and online tools. Among all these, I will just make a reference to two presentations: the one by Alain Delattre and Paul Heilporn – responsible together with Alain Martin for the bibliographical data base of the Université Libre de Bruxelles – that focused on new developments in papyrological bibliography as can be seen through www.papyri.info; and the work on the collection of the French National Library that may reveal a very interesting new set of finds relating to Late Antique Sudan. Katherine Blouin from Toronto presented the paper titled “Papyri à Paris: The Greek papyri collection in the Bibliothèque nationale de France” and mentioned the possibility that four leather manuscripts might preserve for us information regarding the relations between the Roman Empire and the Beja peoples of the Eastern Desert!

The present review of the conference does not do justice to all the participants and their papers. It would have been impossible to have a personal overview of the entire congress, despite the efforts of the organizers and the chairmen to coordinate the timing of the lectures. A special mention should be made, however, to all the organizing committee for setting up this great venue and for offering to all of us a great opportunity to present our research, learn about the progress of the work of friends and venerated colleagues, and promote what – at least – twice was phrased in the conference as an expansion from an “amicitia papyrologorum” to an “amicitia papyrologiarum”…

Έρροσθε & mashallah!!

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