Glimpse into the Daily Life of Early Arab Egypt
9 February 2015
Photo: Institute for Papyrology
In researching the emergence of Islam, the Early Arab period in Egypt is especially important. The papyrus collection of Heidelberg University, one of the largest of its kind in Germany, holds numerous documents from this period that provide glimpses into the daily life of this early Islamic world of the 7th and 8th centuries. The papyrus documents, which have yet to be scientifically indexed, will now be deciphered, translated and annotated in a new research project. “These artefacts of everyday life give us important insight into the initial phase of the transformation of a Christian society to a Muslim-influenced society,” explains Lajos György Berkes of the Institute for Papyrology. The Volkswagen Foundation is providing 264,000 euros in funding for the three-year project, entitled “Testimonies of a multicultural society: papyri on the cohabitation of Christians and Muslims in Early Arab Egypt”.
With approximately 11,000 objects, the Heidelberg collection is the second largest papyrus collection in Germany after Berlin. All the documents originate from Egypt, mainly from the 3rd century B.C. to the Middle Ages. They found their way to Heidelberg mainly through the antiquities trade and the Baden excavations in al-Qarara and el-Hiba. In the research project, Lajos Berkes is delving into papyri from the 7th and 8th centuries, the period after the Arab conquest in the mid-7th century. “Until then, Egypt, which was originally conquered by Alexander the Great, belonged to the Roman Empire and was heavily influenced by Christianity from the 4th century onward,” explains the researcher. “Thus emerged a complex, multicultural and multilingual society with ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Christian traditions. After its conquest by Muslim troops, Egypt slowly evolved into an Arab-speaking and Muslim country, which is reflected in the papyri being studied.”
The documents include letters, contracts, receipts and payment lists that offer insight into the everyday life of the period and the beginning of Egypt’s transformation from a Christian into a Muslim society. “The papyri document, for example, how Arabs and Muslims gradually appeared in Egyptian cities and villages. They also show the relationship between the Arab rulers and their subjects and give detailed witness to the administration of the Early Arab state and its effect on the local population. Christian communities, for example, had to supply mariners for attacks against Byzantium or various craftsmen to build mosques in Jerusalem or Damascus,” explains Lajos Berkes.
As part of the research project, the scholar will decipher and translate the papyri, and provide thorough historical and linguistic annotations. The goal is a published volume of Heidelberg papyri from the Early Arab period, with the results also appearing in an open-access database. The history of the acquisition and collection of the ancient archive will also be traced. In cooperation with the collection of the Institute for Egyptology and the University Museum, an exhibit on the cohabitation of Christians and Muslims in the Early Arab period is also planned. The Volkswagen Foundation is funding the research project as part of its “Research in Museums” initiative.