Oxyrhynchus and Its Setting

Oxyrhynchus has had several names through history.  The ancient Egyptians called it Pr-Medjed (in Coptic Pemdje).  Today modern Arabic-speaking Egyptians call it el-Bahnasa.  It is approximately 160 km southwest of Cairo, and west of the Nile.  After the Greeks conquered Egypt in 332 BC, the city was re-founded as Oxyrhynchus –“the town of the sharp-snouted fish.”  Such a fish was important in ancient Egyptian mythology and lived in the Nile River. (Today it is uncertain exactly which species was meant.)

oxyrhynchus map
Fig. 1. Yomangani. Oxyrhynchos map. 13 October 2008.

Oxyrhynchus was an important town.  It was capital of the 19th upper-Egyptian nome, or administrative section, of Egypt. 

The town’s location on the so-called Canal of Joseph (Bahr Yussef) meant that the area was not flooded every year (as were districts on the riverbanks of the Nile).  In the early centuries of the Common Era (C.E. or A.D.) the canal system dried up.  Since the area receives very little rain, the water table in the soil fell and never rose again.  The trash that was dumped outside of town became covered by dry sands.

The government in the Ptolemaic period (323—30 BC) and the Roman period (30 BC—618 AD) was a bureaucracy that used a lot of paper, or papyrus.  Every so often all kinds of documents were cleaned out of government offices, collected in wicker baskets, and dumped outside of town.  Private citizens also dumped documents there.  Since papyrus was expensive, it was often re-used, sometimes several times.  As a result, all the papyrus dumped outside of town reveals a great deal about Oxyrhynchus: tax receipts, invoices, all kind of correspondence including private letters; school texts, lists, etc.  In the dry and nearly anaerobic conditions under the sand, the papyrus survived untouched for centuries. 

oxyrhynchus mounds
Fig. 2. Hunt, A.S.? View of Oxyrhynchos: 1903? 13 October 2008.

Oxyrhynchus also supported a military garrison in several periods, and Roman Egypt was often a preferred residence for retired military officers.  Originally the city had many temples, which in some cases became churches as Christian influence in the area grew.  Oxyrhynchus became the center of a diocese, and the modern town of El-Bahnasa has several Coptic Christian churches.

As the area became drier after 900 AD, the area supported fewer and fewer people and much of the site of ancient Oxyrhynchus was abandoned.  (Since modern El-Bahnasa continues to cover some of the site, it has never been fully excavated.)

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