Decolonizing the Troubled Archive of Egyptian Papyri

Decolonizing the Troubled Archive of Egyptian Papyri

by Usama gad

British Academy Visiting Fellow, Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, UK.

Tenured Lecturer of Classics and papyrology, Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt.


Egyptian papyri are the main study objects of the field called papyrology.  The founding fathers of this discipline are Western scholars who, based in study centres in Europe, the UK and the USA, were able during the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries to build a massive archive of Egyptian papyri to support their research and teaching with original artefacts. The dispersed collections of these papyri in these Western study centres is, at least to me as an Egyptian scholar of Greco-Roman Egypt, a troubled archive with a complex legacy of imperialism and colonialism. This post is a first attempt to decolonize this troubled archive and to analyze the postcolonial discourse in the academic field built upon it i.e. papyrology.


This post builds upon my study and teaching experience over the past two decades at the leading Egyptian institution in this field i.e. ASU in Cairo. The epistemological dilemma of papyrology is too clear to be ignored; while the body of knowledge of this discipline was, and to a larger degree still is, produced by Western individuals and institutions of higher education and culture, its archive is an Egyptian archive of historical documents. And while the European and Western individuals and institutions possessing these artefacts (i.e. archive), and producing an impressive body of knowledge about it, are struggling to preserve what they see as “a national heritage”, their societies are not convinced by their discourse about the past and are extremely critical of the injustices of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism and the contaminated body of knowledge produced in this and other Antiquity-related disciplines. The result is a fierce struggle for existence, in which only individuals and institutions committed to public (and global) access to education and knowledge will survive!

2019-08-04 10-53-39 AM
One of the greatest papyrological projects is struggling to survive. Starting from 1 January 2020, this massive body of knowledge will be fully accessible only to individual and institutional subscribers. Here is the call to keep it alive (
The second largest project aggregating a massive body of knowledge about papyri,, is also suffering from long-term funding. This is the call for support by donating


My ethical and scholarly position in this dilemma is clear. Without proper dialogue and conversation between Egyptian scholars, representing Egypt, and Western scholars, representing Europe and its American offshoot, there is no future for papyrology in the twenty-first century . All the geopolitical, societal and economical realities in the global North and South push me to believe firmly in this position. The present post is an updated version of the original talk read in English in the International Congress of Papyrologists that took place last week in Lecce (from 29/7-3/08/2019). I am a looking forward to the next meeting of papyrologists scheduled to be in Paris between 25-30 July 2022. I was really happy to be among these scholars and wonderful people

“As Wegner put it … in 1940, in still darker days, “A realm of knowledge like papyrology, built to so great a degree upon the collaboration of the international community of learning, makes it extraordinarily difficult, nay impossible, to separate neatly the share of the work of an individual nation from the great totality”.

Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, pp. 69-70

I can hardly recognise myself in the group photo below,  but here is a tip to find me; I am the tall man wearing a dark blue ultra-cheap linen jacket from H&M London who stands behind the five Egyptian ladies wearing hijab (headscarf)!

I do not think that this was intentional , but I can see that the papyologists posed to the camera forming three pyramids like the Egyptian pyramids in Giza, did not they?

My ethical and scholarly position is too complex to be solved by merely boycotting the consumption of Western knowledge and clothes, despite their colonial legacy and current atrocities. My position is complex, somewhat naive, but as easy and innocent as the position of a child struggling to survive in a postcolonial global world where access to education, health and knowledge is said to belong to a certain group of people to the exclusion of all the other human beings; i.e. a social privilege. I myself do not physically suffer, nor do I suffer mentally from Western cultural hegemony. Yet, I come from the global South where the legacy of Western colonialism, and its present interventionism in the Middle East and beyond are turning our lives into disasters. Rana Plaza is a key word here, but the crisis or the dilemma is, at least to me, not only an economical but an epistemological one, where Externality, Externalization and Internalization spare nothing  in the global North and South!

International pressure on the fashion industry to improve working conditions grew after the collapse of a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2013. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian


While I am not forced to work in a factory like Rana Plaza to sustain myself and my family and to remain silent all my life, I make every use of the privileged position I do have now, which could in any second be withdrawn from me for obvious reasons; I speak the naked truth, I am the naive child, I am the Egyptian farmer-turned professor of Classics and papyrology at ASU in Cairo who is saying that “the king is naked”! A European emperor or not this is not the question. The problem is that his obsession with superficiality and ideology is now global and naked, at least to me!


It is dangerous behavior to imitate in academia and life in general, but I have almost nothing to lose, but my privilege. So, I encourage everyone not to follow the lead unless s/he is aware of the dangers and risks involved and fully committed to my idea that we, humans of all description, suffer from injustices and our internal and external struggle is not against fellow humans, no matter what they did, but against the unnatural justifications that gave and continue to give them these privileges. I believe in equity among humans and I believe in good. So, how could I then refuse an invitation to participate in a public-facing panel in the 28th Congress of Papyroloists in Lecce. Below you can see a twitter thread of this panel, created by my active and beloved friend Dr. Katherine Blouin, who, in cooperation with our dear friend Dr. Rachel Mairs, has also presented an interesting paper in this panel. Their paper and an Egyptian-Arabic version of my paper are now available in this blog. Feel free to explore my colleagues’ valuable inputs through these links or scroll down to start reading my analysis of just one aspect of the postcolonial discourse in papyrology and its troubled archive.


I understand that I am not the first one to venture beyond the traditional boundaries of papyrology as constructed by classically educated and self-styled papyrologists from the global North.  In 1995, when I was a freshman at the faculty of education department of English language and literature, Prof. Dr. Roger Bagnall, the former president of the AIP wrote in the preface of his “Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History”.

“This closed environment has, I believe, fostered a generally rather unreflective climate, in which the usability and uses of the evidence of the documents are taken for granted, and in which the really difficult questions about how far one may generalize from them are barely mentioned, let alone discussed explicitly. Methodological discourse in papyrology has been limited essentially to the editing and criticism of texts.”

Roger S. Bagnall, Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient History, Routledge 2003, pp. vii-viii .

Prof. Dr. James Keenan in his turn has written in his introductory history to the discipline in the Oxford Handbook of Papyrology that

This tension between papyrology as focused on editing…and papyrology as concerned with historical expansion… is inherent in the discipline –but it’s only one aspect of papyrology’s history. This is a history that remains to be written, largely because papyrologists have generally been too busy “doing papyrology” to reflect upon their own disciplinary past. There are always pauses for retrospection during the international congresses …”

These and many other difficult questions have been taken for granted for a number of reasons that goes beyond the current analysis. Nevertheless it has been and still a rewarding exercise to think about these salient but hardly vocalized questions and I wasn’t the only one to benefit from this mental exercise. We all do benefit from it and I think anyone one will do as long as s/he does not monopolize the scholarly discourse or claim an absolute authority in or over the conversation.

In his final words of the preface to his Reading Papyri, Writing Ancient history, Prof. Roger Bagnall states that

“The process of thinking about what I might say was a rewarding one, but it led me above all to realize that this book is, for me at least, only a start. I hope it will encourage a wider discussion about some of the problems it raises, and I look forward to learning from that conversation.”

Writing this post and starting this project, I can’t but repeat his words. The current analysis is in itself a revisiting of this conversation that he started twenty-five years ago, but dates back to the very beginning of the history of our discipline. The problems that arise from it are rooted not only in antiquity-related scholarly debate, but most importantly in the modern discourse about the past in Egypt, since the invading soldiers of Napoleon Bonaparte put their feet in my land until the present moment of writing. It is in fact a part of a larger project which seeks to decolonize papyrology and its troubled archive.


I was struck by the richness of my country’s ancient archive; Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic, Coptic, Arabic, Latin and Greek text-bearing artifacts of all genres and historical eras. As a future English teacher, I first studied Greek and Roman culture, civilization and literature in English translations so, I asked myself “why not study these sources in the original and on my own Egyptian-Arabic terms? So, after I finished my first university degree in Education from Monofiya University in 1999, I enthusiastically in the year 2000 joined ASU in Cairo to study Classics and papyrology. The ASU was and still is the only higher education institution in Egypt offering BAs, MAs and PhDs in such a highly specialized field of study. Classics was backthen obscured to me by the label of the department: Ancient European civilization. Yet, on the other hand the prestige of studying European culture in its original was, and still to a considerable degree, a driving force for many Egyptians to reach modernity without turning back to their antique ancestors or land. [The case of Taha Hussein, the pioneer of classical studies in Egypt, is per se a classical example in this regard]. In 2003 and as a junior, I was introduced to Papyrology and Paleography, by Prof. Dr. Sayed Omar and Prof Dr. Alia Hanafi, respectively. The breadth of their knowledge of the field, ethics and amicitia [friendship and much more!] convinced me that I should major in this sub-field of Classics. At last my secondary school dream came true; I would enter the magnificent realm of Archaeology. Unlike Papyrology, Archaeology was and still is quite an understandable term and reality to everyone in Egypt, and figures like the Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass were in my millennial generation as popular in Egypt as American media franchises like Indiana Jones.

Dr. Zahi Hawass or as his official website describes him “The Man with the hat

In the English department and as outsider to Classics and Papyrology, I was introduced to the American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky’s revolutionary ideas in linguistics and politics as early as 1995. Edward Said was also part of the curriculum.

Almost ten years later and immediately after graduation from ASU I met Prof. Dr. Roger Bagnall at AUC in 2004 and since then I enjoyed his support, as many Egyptian students of papyrology did and never lost contact with him or with his ideas. One of them was relevant to me as it is to my paper now i.e. the dichotomy between outsiders and insiders in the field. In the preface to his seminal book quoted above we read

“Outsiders are, however, often struck not by the breadth of application of the papyri but rather by the enclosed character of papyrology and the tendency of many papyrologists not to venture beyond what they construe as the bounds of the discipline; nor are many outsiders prepared to undertake the technical preparation necessary to meet the texts on their own terms.”.

Admittedly the technical part in almost every profession is the hardest to acquire and needs practical training and years of apprenticeship in addition to a great deal of theoretical preparation, knowledge and skills. In this post we will not get into the intricate details of what is meant by the technical preparation in papyrology and how to acquire it. We will try to venture beyond what papyrologists define as the bounds of their profession in order to see the global context of geopolitical realities, and then could, in future posts, dig deeper into these boundaries, which in many cases have forced some practitioners to “copy and paste”  anachronistically from the colonial repertoire. I think that they were forced because they are unable to ignore the harsh realities of the existential threat eating up the human and financial resources not only of papyrology, but in almost every field of the Humanities and social sciences including Classics, Coptology, Arabic papyrology, Egyptology and Middle Eastern Archaeology in general.


I am not trying here to write modern Egyptians into the histories of European and Western classical or papyrological studies, simply because this needs volumes like Donald Malcom Reid’s Whose Pharaohs? or blogs like my “Classics in Arabic”, our “Everyday Orientalism” or Roberta Mazza’s “Faces and Voices: People, Artefacts, and Ancient History“. The point is not also to give an overview of Papyri and Papyrology in Egypt, simply because I’ve presented this before and my overview is available online and one of my central arguments is now integrated in the first volume of the comprehensive treatment of Digital Papyrology by my dear colleague Dr. Nicola Reggiani of Università degli Studi di Parma, Italy.

I am trying here to revisit the topic from a different angle first by asking this simple question; why do papyrology and papyri collection management systems not work in Egypt while they supposedly work perfectly elsewhere? My point here is not to answer this question, but to invalidate the arguments behind the traditional and easiest answer provided i.e. “blame the Egyptians”. Egyptians, collectively and individually as scholars, are blamed for the failures we all witness not only in the field of papyrology, but also in archaeology in general. There is no doubt that the Egyptians since 1952 are responsible for the current situation in Egypt, yet they are not, neither were they, the only players on the ground. European and Western Imperial rivalries have framed and claimed the land, its inhabitants and resources since 1798.  The Egyptians came to, or more precisely have been allowed to enter, the scholarly field in fact very late, when rules and standards were already fixed, and the classical tradition established. And even on the ground, when they were already there for thousands of years, they were absolutely and remarkably nothing to Westerners’ eyes framing and claiming the antique land. It suffices to have a close look at the frontispiece of the monumental Description de l’Égypte to see a portal of a wonderland with all kinds of antiquities; Antiqua as we say in Arabic, but alas without modern inhabitants!

It suffices to have a look at the portal of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo with its imperial Latin inscription of Egypt’s hapless ruler khedive Abbas Hilmi II and its Roman numerals of the anno Hegirae. The message is clear.

“Egyptology is a European science which has rediscovered the greatness of ancient Egypt, a forerunner of Western civilization. Modern Egyptians are unworthy heirs of ancient ones and incapable of either national greatness or serious Egyptology.”

Donald Malcolm Reid , Whose Pharaohs?Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I, University of California press 2003, p. 5.
This image is from the Wikimedia Commons

Even when the process of hunting, collecting, buying and selling antiquities, including what we label as papyri, was open to almost everyone, saving, preserving and/or the mere act of mental understanding of heritage, culture and civilization was morally associated almost exclusively with Europeans and Westerners. And while Egyptians, in many cases, were engaged basically in the same practices as their European counterparts, they were not usually given any credit. On the contrary they were given negative qualities and their images constructed as ignorant people, tomb robbers, looters, antiquities dealers etc. As Egyptians they were not equal human beings in the eyes of their European or Western colonizers and their land was not modern; it was ancient. The colonial and imperial legacy today and on the ground is extremely heavy and complex, but to continue blaming Egyptians for the current situation in Egypt with the same rhetorical clichés does not only represent a desire to continue using the same outdated stereotypes of the colonial past, but it represents also a deep desire by those who use these anachronistic and tired colonial themes to escape the harsh realities of the present-day postcolonial papyrology.


The main aspect I am exploring here is the historical, and to a substantial degree still ongoing, systematic discrediting of Egyptian scholars and scholarship in the oral, print and digital culture of European and Western papyrology. As an Egyptian papyrologist, I am speaking of this discrediting process, while I am aware that this Western European mechanism of dominance spares no one in the planet and this discrediting process goes, according to my view, beyond papyrology, archaeology and modern academia and science to extend itself diachronically and synchronically over the whole history and geography of humanity. To criticise Europe, or worse to refuse to identify yourself with it, used to mean that you are not sensible.

It is a world view and a social and epistemological ideology; supporting the cause of Europe and its dominance and hegemony all over the modern history of our world using languages and history. Outside papyrology and the realm of Egyptian archaeology it is called “The grand European narrative of history”, “European miracle“, “European Exceptionalism” or merely “Eurocentrism” and inside the epistemological realm, it is A cliché used to essentialize and discredit every voice uncomfortable and/or critical of past or present injustices. It is also a tired Orientalist theme according Michael Press who has recently deconstructed this myth of European knowledge and care of the culture and heritage of the hapless lands which they occupied and the ignorant people they ruled. Mohamed Ali Pasha, the autocratic Ottoman ruler of Egypt was the protagonist in his story. He is the ignorant Egyptian who wanted to demolish the pyramids. The subtitle is extremely telling.

“The troubling story fits a tired orientalist theme: Europeans and Americans know more, and care more, about the culture and heritage of West Asia and North Africa than their own inhabitants.”

Such anachronistic clichés are used as an extremely effective mechanism to cover modern atrocities. The inherit selectivity in such conversations/exhibitions is used to draw the discussion away from

” the modern power to acquire these objects regardless of legal or ethical concerns?”

Papyri and manuscripts are one of the main cultural objects at risk according the ICOM Red Lists of Cultural Objects at Risk.

The legacy of this systematic discrediting and othering, which historically has been going, hand in hand, and used primarily to justify the cultural appropriation of Egypt’s archaeological resources, is still present. In today’s world, the internalization processes of these external discourses about the past and Egyptians themselves up to the present moment is terrible.

2019-08-04 6-13-10 PM

An Egyptian newspaper dated to 20/10/2015: Conservation of Tutankhamun by German experts…We told you before “give the bread to its true bakers”.

The true bakers are the German experts and the Egyptians are criminals for making a present mistake in conservation. The BBC reports here

“One report, in the Daily News Egypt, quoted prosecutors as saying: “Ignoring all scientific methods of restoration, the suspects tried to conceal their crime by using sharp metal tools to remove parts of the glue that became visible, thus damaging the 3,000-year-old piece without a moment of conscience.”

Those due to face trial include a former director of the museum and a former director of restoration.

Last October, a team of conservators led by German experts began work to remove the damage and reattach the beard professionally.

Following successful restoration, the mask was put back on public display in December.”

These conscious and unconscious processes of internalization in the academic and public levels are of extreme importance to my study. It is a complex that needs a struggle, inner power, believe in natural equity among humans, resilience and resistance to this overwhelming discourse and complex of inferiority and superiority. I myself have struggled, and still struggle, with these blinding discourses and propaganda to the present moment. Nevertheless, I feel liberated, and I am not the only one. A classical example of self-liberation is Frantz Fanon (1925-1961). I find Prof. Dr. Jairus Banji‘s introduction to these figures eliminating. Below you will find his words about Frantz Fanon.  And see also the recent contribution of Dr. Girish Daswani about anthropology.


The legacy in today’s papyrology has been sadly overwhelming and disturbing. In addition to the fact that is not in accordance with our code of ethics called amicitia papyrologorum, this systematic discrediting has been to date an extremely effective mechanism to drive the papyrological conversation away from the existential threat eating up the human and financial resources of transnational papyrology and, if continued with the same speed and zeal, will spare no one. Such a way of thinking is always connected with irrational attitudes, oversimplifying statements and irrelevant justifications of harsh but complex national and international geopolitical and educational realities. Classics is also the search for scapegoats and imagined enemies of the Volk; a typical self-defensive psychological mechanism prevailing in the times of danger. Typical also is the avoidance of any real analysis of the problems discussed providing eternal description of the situation; framing and claiming that every attempt to start a serious deeper discussion of the topic, in order to have answers and work out practical solutions is either at best an unfruitful venture or at worst a ranting soliloquy on the busy stage of papyrology, is also characteristic.


The Nobel Laureate Theodor Mommson has once said that the nineteenth century is the century of Epigraphy and the twentieth century is the century of papyrology. He was right, but it seems also true that papyrology will not survive the humanities crisis of the 21st century. The crisis is a result of harsh and complex national and international geopolitical and educational realities that we are facing in every corner of this planet. Like any other crisis, it is a man-made problem and it spares no discipline. Classics and papyrology are severely affected by it, as I have shown in the beginning of my post. The raison d’être of both disciplines are severely damaged by the burden of the past and both are facing existential threats; not only financial but also and most importantly epistemological too. To solve these problems, we, individually and collectively, have first to deconstruct the reasons that led to them in the first place. This means that we should not blindly accept tradition and continue doing things as our forefathers, with all due respect to them. No, we are in a different context, we are living in a different world, we belong to a different community. Modern societies will not accept from us to provide them with answers to questions raised by dead White men. Neither will the society continue its support and funding of fields of studies that associated, or worse keep associating, themselves with elites, autocrats, ideologists and idiots on both sides of the globe. The way out, at least to me, is crystal-clear; more vigilance and less complacency about both our papyrological way of doing things and our way of presenting them to society. We are not doing pure science; we are doing work in culturally– and socially constructed fields of studies.

And even if we were doing work or trying to support our findings with what is supposedly seen as “pure technological and scientific methods and tools” like digital IT or DNA trends, one does not equal one anymore. It is two plus interest, or two minus taxes and we cannot escape this fact and take the pride of doing science and blame a certain individual and a group who “misunderstood our message”.  No, the message should be internally as externally clear. AN UP-TO-DATE CRYSTAL-CLEAR DEFINITION OF ABIDING AMICITIA PAPYROLOGORUM AND A STRONG COMMITMENT TO BEST PRACTICES OF GOVERNANCE, EQUITY, DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION.


As my knowledge of the history of Egypt under the Greeks and Romans grew over time I understood how fussy the modern constructed boundaries of the different fields studying the written culture of my country in this period are.  These frames and claims were established mostly by European and Western scholars, crystalized in the mid-nineteenth century and transmitted into the print culture of the world and my land, by translations and adaptations, to fuel scholarly as well as political debates. Accordingly, the rich and diverse cultural heritage of my country is not Egyptian, unless it is framed as Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, or Demotic. Then and only then it will be claimed by Egyptologists and serve the cause of Egypt and the Egyptians (Pharaonism and/or Pharaonicism) in the public imagination. If it is framed as Greek, it will be claimed by Classicists and serve the cause of Europe and paradoxically enough not by my Greek colleagues to serve the cause of modern Greece. If it is framed as Coptic it will be claimed by Coptologists and serve the cause of Copts, and if framed as Arabic it will be claimed by Arabs and serve in the public imagination the cause of the Arabs (Pan-Arabism) and Muslims (whose sacred language is Arabic). Traditionally these were the boundaries, but, at least to me,  all these papyri, regardless of their language, are Egyptian.


As a member of American Society of Papyrologists and the Association Internationale de Papyrologues in good standing who pays his annual dues on a regular basis, I believe in my fundamental right to express myself, my Egyptian self through the papylist, our main channel of getting in touch with each other and with all news in the field. I have once expressed my Egyptian point of view of papyrology, but it has been directly terminated as a rant. I still believe in my fundamental right and in our amicitia papyrologorum. The amicitia that led a commentator on Facebook, who is part of this community, to write in a Shakespearean style “Rant or not rant [this] is not the question. It is quite amazing to see how the Egyptian point of view in papyrology is immediately dismissed as illegitimate…his papylist question commanded one formal reply followed by deafening silence… Important issue, though. Epigraphy could go along in there too”.

And indeed, I was not refereeing, and still in the present moment not writing, only of Greek and Latin papyri, but I mean all text-bearing artefacts found in Egypt, which are by definition Egyptian not Greek to me. This might sound strange and odd to many of the readers of this post now, as it did in the last congress when Dr. Roberta Mazza demanded in her speech, supported by me and my colleagues, that the Egyptian language should be a congress language just like English, French, German and Italian (her own first language).

“By the Egyptian language I mean simply the language spoken and written by the Egyptian intelligentsia including, but not limited to, this oral and written scientific language and print culture of professors and students in the Egyptian academia. The oral level of this language is not only popular, but most importantly completely understood by almost all Arabic-speaking citizens of the Middle East due to the pioneering enterprise of the Egyptian media, especially comedy and satire. The written level doesn’t only reflect these modern realities, but the complexities of Egypt’s history and past, including the written culture. The fussy label “Egyptian-Arabic” or simply “Arabic” obscures these relevant facts to my idea.”

This is the definition I always provide whenever I am asked about what exactly I mean by the Egyptian language.

The collective response to this call was unfortunately, and still, another deafening silence defining what European papyrology understands under Egyptian “Egypt ceases to be Egypt when it ceases to be ancient”.


This deafening, but defining, silence was interrupted only by overwhelming support for my Egyptian point of view by the same Facebook commentator who happens to be a papyrologist, a scholar of late antiquity with extensive record of publications and to my extreme joy of Greek origin. This culture, popped up naturally enough, in his comment when he wrote

“Whether the West wants to see ancient Greek literature as its heritage is its own decision, but considering it was read in Egypt and then often translated into Arabic and read in Egypt again, I don’t see why the Egyptians shouldn’t do the same. All this ‘our heritage’ thing is self-ascriptive anyway.”.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary Ascription is the attribution of something to a cause, the attribution of a text, quotation, or work of art to a particular person or period and the action of regarding a quality as belonging to someone or something. It’s now clear to me what the Greek commentator meant; it’s all about Europe and the cause of Europe. Greece ceases to be Greece when it ceases to serve the cause of Europe and Modern Greek ceases to be Greek when it ceases to be ancient.


The Greek commentator continued his Facebook revelations

“the formal reply has obviously put the finger on the real problem, i.e. that …[the] article was about justifying the discipline’s existence with the powers that be, but that Western governments are in cultural self-denial is not Usama’s problem, is it? His point was different, and totally justified.”

Another commentator, who happens to be of Italian origin, replied

“Totally agree. To state that it was a rant is exactly the proof of what you’re saying. Actually, we may interpret [the] article as an academic rant to protect our subject, which we are all more or less doing these days…In X-city the department of archaeology is under revision (i.e. possible closing): yes there’s a lot to rant about…. I believe many of the points addressed by Usama in that email are also connected with what has happened with illegal acquisitions and trafficking of papyri under the misleading label of ‘let’s take care of this stuff since it is our cultural heritage, and Egyptians are uninterested or unable to take care of it properly’”.


Prof. Dr. Hans-Albert Rupprecht, a German legal historian and a juristic papyrologist cautiously defining papyrology, wrote in his introductory book to papyrology

“there is a tendency today to conceive papyrology as the scientific study of the Greek and Latin texts of Egypt as an expression of Hellenistic-Roman society and culture in the Nile valley”.

Heute or today in his definition is a clear signal about the great deal of temporality, which did not inhabit the precise definition he strove to provide, but even the post he held in the Faculty of Law at Philipps-Universität Marburg. The position was a permanent one in the Kleines Fach that is small but important field of juristic papyrology. Despite the singularity and the extensiveness of the publications of this scholar and his more than thirty years of service and promotion of papyrology at Marburg, the university decided, after his retirement, to do without juristic papyrology. My former PhD supervisor, the director of Heidelberg institute of papyrology and the current president of the AIP, Prof. Dr. Andrea Jördens, commented sadly on this incident stating that

“this loss does not only mean the end of juristic papyrology in Marburg but the end of juristic papyrology in the whole of Germany.”

The words appeared in the preface of the recently published selections of this papyrologist’s work that appeared between 1981 and 2016, see Rupprecht, Hans-Albert, Andre Jördens (ed.) 2017 Beiträge zur Juristischen Papyrologie: Kleine Schriften, Stuttgart.

It is a loss that has been rightly connected by Prof. Dr. Jördens to the German educational reforms of 1968.

These reforms are to be directly linked, without any doubt, with the socio-political protests of 1968 that hit Germany, France, UK, Italy, USA and almost every corner of this planet. The reforms led to a gradual marginalization of juristic papyrology from 1969 until its final termination in 2006. The Arbeitsstelle Kleine Fächer, a working group watching these small fields, lists now only three permanent positions; in Trier, in Köln and in Heidelberg. In 2016 and in an interview to the Süddeutsche Zeitung about these deadly reforms and in answer to a question about the future of papyrology in Heidelberg, Prof. Dr. Andrea Jördens replied that “papyrology may not survive in Heidelberg after her retirement”.

2019-08-04 9-04-27 PM


The good news comes untraditionally from Egypt and through Facebook and the website of Ain Shams University. Papyrology is gaining ground in Cairo. The building  that is about to host the recently inaugurated Institute of Papyrology at ASU is about to be finished [see here in my blog the translation, as well as the Arabic originals of the inauguration’s decree of the institute]. Five departments and five diplomas, five MA and two PhD programmes, and a respective number of permanent positions will be available in this institute. This is of course in addition to more than seven permanent positions, and two programmes (MA and PhD) already available at ASU in my department, let alone the Centre directed by my colleague Asst. Prof. Noha Salem, with an active programme of outreach activities, training seminars, an annual bulletin, a conference and a small but working library.


While papyrology is losing ground in Europe, it is gaining more ground in Egypt. The cause of the Egyptian papyrologists and their scholarship is gaining ground in Egyptian academia and in public discourses. This is real academic and societal progress, especially if compared with the European and American scarcity and shortage of funding, human resources and support. With proper management, these successes in Egypt could be used by Western papyrology to overcome its epistemological dilemma and justification of existence, as well as for outsourcing to survive beyond the existential threat eating up its financial and human resources. It is in this context that I felt deeply concerned when I first saw how the working party of the AIP perceives the situation of papyri and Papyrology in Egypt as an exceptional case of failure of almost entirely and exclusively Egyptian origins, complications and consequences. According to the working party, papyrology is suffering in Egypt. It needs care and support from the international body of scholars who know more and care more for the cultural heritage of this country. Egyptian scholarship in papyrology is in need of a complete revision, according to the members of the working party who single-handedly formulated sixteen recommendations without any consultation whatsoever with an Egyptian scholar or official in a serious matter that is, according to the party, of almost entirely and exclusively Egyptian origins, complications and consequences. In modernity, as in Antiquity, Egypt is perceived as an exception.  Othering is used to cover the real potential of this land and its modern inhabitants. Sonderstellung Ägyptens is once again crippling the present and future of papyrology as it undermined the true potential of this field in the past. As I told you before, the legacy of the past is extremely heavy. Egypt, in the early days of papyrology and archaeology, was treated as a source land of cultural raw materials, but never a source land of scholarly input or products. The raw materials in our case are papyri, where they were shipped to European and Western academic institutions to be processed by experts, who have had a monopoly of the process of knowledge production about everything Egyptian. In those manufacturing processes, the product was true to the Western standards to the degree that it did not required an adequate label on it. It has been dubbed as European or Western, not Egyptian.

“Even if one dared to label it as Egyptian, it would be essentialized as a second-hand product; repeating what the custodians of European knowledge have said about this country’s past, which could in many cases be true, but cannot in no way be the last word in this continuous discourse of modern societies and nations about the past.”


It is in this context that I felt deeply concerned when I first saw how the working party of the AIP perceives the situation of papyri and Papyrology in Egypt as an exceptional case of failure of almost entirely and exclusively Egyptian origins, complications and consequences. According to the working party, papyrology is suffering in Egypt. It needs the care and support from the international body of scholars who know more and care more for the cultural heritage of this country. The preamble preceding the sixteen recommendations formulated by members of the working party reads:

The Working Party’s terms of reference from the Comité International de Papyrologie, as approved by the Assemblée Générale of 4 August 2007, are “to study the complex legal, ethical and scholarly questions connected with the commerce in papyri and to make recommendations … on measures that may appropriately serve the purposes of scholarship, support the development of papyrological studies in Egypt and further the preservation of the documentary heritage of Egypt and other countries.”

No Egyptian is recorded among the members. A practice which resonates with the general attitude in almost all Antiquity-related discipline, as has been recently shown by Dr. Katherine Blouin in one of her blogposts about the Eurocentric composition of international associations studying Antiquity.

2019-08-04 10-29-01 PM
Try the committee test here


In a global digital age, where historical sources, scientific evidence or results are used and abused in drumming up support for the cause of an imagined free world engaged in anachronistic philhellenic war of independence, these two international societies and their individual members of every nation have an  urgent need and duty to, and will derive an enormous amount of benefit from, exercising more vigilance and less complacency in the past, the present and future of international papyrology. We are no longer living, and we have never lived, in a neutral space. In this spirit, the task and urgent need of defining many of the agraphoi nomoi that guaranteed and guarantee best practices at the transnational level of papyrological cooperation, (which has never been explicitly defined, but taken for granted by all of us), has never been more compelling.  An important pillar of these unwritten codes of ethics is our motto amicitia papyrologorum, which has been defined by Prof. Dr. James Keenan as

“…clearly implies that the field of papyrology is larger than individual papyrologists, no matter what their several contributions. It alludes to a code of courtesy even in cases of strong disagreement, where criticism is directed at an anonymous “editor” and polemics are frowned-upon exceptions. It acknowledges that the field is in constant state of growth and revision in which all papyrologists are partner. It suggests that the friendship is personal as much as professional. It also points to the internationalism of the field. As Wegner put it somewhat later, in 1940, in still darker days, “A realm of knowledge like papyrology, built to so great a degree upon the collaboration of the international community of learning, makes it extraordinarily difficult, nay impossible, to separate neatly the share of the work of an individual nation from the great totality”. 

It is the AIP’s great ideal of mutual respect that encourages many around the globe to study papyrology, let alone Egyptians who perceive papyri as their national heritage.


The best practice that the AIP should be implementing to ensure, in the short as well as the long run, the preservation of the written culture heritage of Egypt is to encourage its international members to give Egyptian papyrologists, dead or alive, the credit and credibility they have been and are systematically deprived of merely because they are colonized inhabitants of a former British colony, where Europeans and Westerners have framed, claimed and externalized their land, antiquities and history into the present moment.

[I have just been updated that my colleague Asst. Prof. Noha Salem, the director of Ain Shams centre of papyrology has been elected a member of the AIP. I congratulate my colleague, welcome this action and demand for more; Ain Shams has not only a centre, but an insitute and a department of papyrology and many papyrologists. Female professors comprise more than the half of the stuff of papyrology in Ain Shams.]

2 thoughts on “Decolonizing the Troubled Archive of Egyptian Papyri

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s