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Roger Bagnall
Director, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, Professor of Ancient History, New York University

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Greek Culture in a City of Egypt’s Dakhla Oasis

Deep into Egypt’s western desert, 850 km from Cairo, is what the ancients called the Great Oasis. The western part of this region, the Dakhla (“inner”) oasis, has been the object of regional survey and excavation for the last thirty years. Because the oasis is so far from the valley, it posed great challenges for travel and transportation. It was occupied already in prehistoric times, when underground fossil water came to the surface in artesian springs, and it was explored and occupied by the Egyptians already in the 4th dynasty under Khufu, the builder of the Great Pyramid. But it was in the Roman period that the oasis experienced a tremendous growth in population and the economy, for the most part (I believe) because of demand for its olive oil and cotton.

For the past seven years I have directed an excavation at Amheida, or Trimithis, as it was called in this period, in the west part of this oasis. Because the site has never been reoccupied, we can study an Egyptian Graeco-Roman city at its full extent, something only rarely possible. The city stretched out on a terrace that wraps around the foot of a hill.

We began excavation with a 225 square meter late Roman house in the center of the site. Coins tell us that the house was constructed in the fourth century, probably around 335-340. A major renovation took place, probably around 350. The coins give the impression that the house went out of use around the mid to late 360s. Trimithis was then still an active center of a prosperous region, but surface finds of coins across the site have yielded so far nothing datable later than the 380s.

The house has yielded hundreds of ostraka (potsherds with writing), dated to the same period, which help us to understand the economic and social standing of the owners. Most characteristic are the numerous tiny tags, typically 2 to 3 centimeters on a side, originally embedded in mud stoppers on top of jars of wine. They record the name of the well, the name of an individual, and a date. Other texts have made it clear that in its last period the house belonged to a family of which the head, named Serenos, was a member of the city council. Serenos was not only himself wealthy but was clearly involved in managing other people’s property as well.

The focus of attention in this house is the central painted room, with some scenes still in place on the wall, others preserved in fragments of collapsed wall. Among the scenes present on these walls, now or originally, are Ares and Aphrodite taken in adultery, with a whole squadron of gods and a figure representing City, the Greek Polis, looking on; the washing of the feet of Odysseus by Eurykleia upon his return to Ithaca; Perseus and Andromeda; Orpheus charming the animals; a satyr pursuing a not-too-reluctant maenad; and Europa and the bull. A Judgment of Paris may have figured to the right of the Ares and Aphrodite scene. Below the figural scenes run designs intended to suggest stonework.

Three of the four rooms along the west side of the house were painted with decorative schemes. The northern room was painted in purplish panels with birds and the names of various Greek gods. To the south were rooms with geometric and floral designs, one green, one red. From another house came several fragments of Greek poems in epic dialect.

To the north of the house is an area with storage and work spaces. We expected them to be of modest interest. We were wrong. The earliest levels belong to Roman baths that stood on the site before the house existed but were demolished before its construction. The northwest corner was occupied by a rectangular room with inscriptions in red paint on one wall and a bench below the facing wall. In modern terms, the wall was a teacher’s whiteboard. What was written on it is unmistakably a teacher’s model for students, Greek elegiac couplets written in a careful hand and equipped with accents, breathings, macrons, marginal symbols, and high dots for caesura. The poems themselves are all addressed by the teacher to his students, sometimes with explicit headings, using terms like paides and scholastikoi. They are urged to drink deep from the fountain of the Muses, to emulate Herakles’ labors, and to follow Hermes, the god of rhetoric. The discovery that versified rhetorical composition was being taught in this remote town is of enormous importance for the history of ancient Greek education.

But this was not the end. When we extended excavations further to the north, we found at first what looked simply like a large area full of rooms used for some kind of processing of farm produce. But that area was only a reworking of a space created earlier, at the same time the house was built, and that space turned out to contain at least two more schoolrooms, with the tell-tale benches used by the students along the sides. On the wall of one of them was a passage from book 4 of the Odyssey, where Helen is making a potion to make Telemachus and his party forget all their woes. Above that was another passage, badly damaged but evidently an anecdote closely related to one in a work of Plutarch.

On the hill overlooking this villa stood the Temple of Thoth, the baboon god equated by the Greeks with Hermes. This was a purely Egyptian building; it has been entirely destroyed, but our excavations have uncovered hundreds of decorated or inscribed temple blocks. Even here we have a reminder of Greek culture. On one block, someone had written ἀνθρώπων βιότοιο κυβερνήτης μέγας Ἄμμων. A nice pagan hexameter verse written on what was probably originally the base of a statue. Above this line of writing there are some rather faint traces of additional writing in a much smaller hand. I believe that it says ete pnoute, “that is, God,” which I take to be a Coptic gloss putting forward the view that it is the Christian God who is the governor of life, not Ammon.

Wall paintings, a school with Homer and Plutarch, rhetorical verses, the fragmentary poem from the unexcavated house, the graffito about Ammon: literary culture, and in particular the late antique love for poetry, were alive and well in the most remote part of the Roman Empire.

Roger Bagnall
Director, Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, Professor of Ancient History, New York University