The Arabic Papyri
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
For over 4000 years the main type of writing material used in Egypt was papyrus. It was manufactured from the plant Cyperus Papyrus L, which is a native to Egypt. Papyrus was easier to make and handle than other alternatives such as wood, skin and clay tablets. Also it could be made in a range of thickness and qualities and this contributed to its widespread use. The use of papyrus was taken over by Arab Muslims when they conquered Egypt in the 7th century CE, and it continued as the main writing material of the country until the 10th century when paper started to become more common.
It is hard to estimate the extant Arabic papyri. Adolf Grohmann estimated that there were approximately 16,000 Arabic papyri in the various collections that he was familiar with in Europe, North America and Cairo (A. Grohmann, From The World Of Arabic Papyri, 1952, Royal Society of Historical Studies, Al-Maaref Press: Cairo, p. 2). This figure refers to moderately preserved documents. It can be said with fair certainty that the total extant papyrus fragments exceeds this number. The vast majority of the documents include accounts, legal deeds, administrative documents, private letters, etc.
A large number of Arabic papyri were found at various sites in the Fayyūm as well as at sites lying further south including al-Bahnasā (Oxyrhynchus), al-Ushmūnayn (Hermapolis Magna), Kom Eshqaw (Aphrodito), Ikhmīm (Panopolis), al-Gabalayn (Pathyris), Edfū (Apollinopolis), Dandara and Aswān. Several thousand pieces were also found in the ruins of Fustāt. In 1901, a cache of papyrus letters written by Qurra bin Sharīk, the Umayyad governer of Egypt from 90-96 AH / 709-714 CE, was discovered in the Upper Egyptian village of Kom Eshqaw, 7 km south-west of Timā, formerly known as Aphrodito in the Greek sources. Some of these letters are written in Arabic, some in Greek, and some are bilingual (Arabic and Greek). They subsequently found their way into various papyrus collections. These letters cast a great deal of light on the otherwise poorly documented Umayyad administration in Egypt.
Several other Arabic papyri have been discovered at sites outside Egypt, such as in Damascus; a small number were unearthed at Sāmarrā’ by the German excavations of 1911; thirteen Arabic papyri from the period 52-70 AH / 672-689 CE were discovered at ʿAwjā’ al-Hafīr (Nessana) by the H. Dunscombe Colt expedition of 1936-7; and a large number of papyri, most of which date from the first two centuries AH and nearly all of which are in a fragmentary condition, were discovered in Khirbat al-Mird in the Judaean desert in 1950s.
The discipline of Arabic papyrology was given a sound foundation by a series of careful and masterly studies of selected papyri documents from the Erzherzog Rainer Collection by Josef v. Karabacek. Adolf Grohmann, who had published and edited more Arabic papyri present in various museums and collections, dominated the field of Arabic papyrology for years.
Our aim here is modest. We will deal with some of the examples of the Arabic Papyri originating from the 1st century of hijra. The Arabic Papyri is perhaps one of the most obscure fields of Arabic palaeography and hopefully the material below would help understand the field of Arabic palaeography. Apart from the well-known Qurra papyri (90-96 AH, 709-714 CE), examples of a few of which are given below, there are others that predate them. The papyri is divided into the following:
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Bilingual protocol texts are usually from early years of Islam. This was when Arabic was not yet the “official” language of the state.
A biligual papyrus being an individual debt receipt.
A demand note for fodder and meals for horses and soldiers, respectively.
The above papyrus represents a letter sent by ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ, the commander of Muslim army in Upper Egypt, to the pagarch of Herakliopolis. This letter retains the original clay seal.
A demand note for provisions to be supplied to troops and armourers.
Perhaps one of the earliest and the most famous of all the Arabic papyri, is a part of Archduke Rainer Collection (usually abbreviated as PERF). It shows diacritical dots on the letters ج، خ، ذ، ز، ش and ن, suggesting that dotting was already available for Arabic script in 22 AH.
It is a papyrus fragment of a receipt for the settlement of accounts. This is one of two earliest Arabic papyri. The other one is the celebrated PERF No. 558. Diacritical dots can be seen on the letter ن.
Fragment of an edict, dated by Adolf Grohmann to 25-30 AH / 645-50 CE. Not much attention had been paid to this papyrus because of its fragmentary nature.
The papyrus is dated to the death of ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, d. 43 AH / 663 CE. The Coptic text is in a sloping and almost ligatureless hand. Although not an Arabic papyrus, it gives a snap-shot of dealings between the Christians and early Islamic administration.
Dated to 42 AH / 662-663 CE. A papyrus dealing with debt with the dating formula sunnat qaḍāʾ al-muʾminīn (“jurisdiction of the believers”).
A leather document dealing with record of debt. This document contains a previously unattested validity clause sunnatan (“in accordance with normative precedent”), a shorter form of the formula sunnat qaḍāʾ al-muʾminīn (“jurisdiction of the believers”).
The papyrus is a register of debt acknowledgments, apparently three, concluded exclusively between individuals, one of whom is a Christian. The name of the debtor has been deliberately erased as it is the case with the other registers of this kind.
Dated to 54 AH / 674 CE. An entagion is an announcement of taxes owed by the local community. This entagion was found during excavations at Nessana, 59 kms south of Beer-Sheba. It is a light brown, fine papyrus, written in brown ink. The papyrus was folded up. In the center of the fold an oval – Nile mud seal measures 1.2:0.9 cm. Diacritics appear on ب، ث، ز and ق.
Dated to 57 AH / 676-677 CE. A papyrus dealing with debt with the dating formula qaḍāʾ al-muʾminīn (“jurisdiction of the believers”).
Dated to 15 Rabīʿ al-Awwal 57 AH, this fragmentary papyrus most likely deals with debt acknowledgement.
Dated to 22-54 AH / 643-674 CE by Adolf Grohmann. Rough, light brown, somewhat in parts dark coloured papyrus. The Byzantine protocol (in Greek) is written in four lines with brown ink parallel to the vertical fibres. In the last line of the protocol text an line in Arabic in black ink is parallel to the vertical fibres, which shows the typical writing features of the first half of the 1st century of hijra and is partly dotted. Dotting is seen for the letters ز، ق and ن.
This papyrus deals with a dispute and its possible resolution. It is also the earliest papyrus to mention the phrase “peace be upon him who follows the guidance”; part of the phrase constructed as lacuna. In its content, it is similar to the Qurra papyrus such as this from 91 AH.
This is the earliest datable item of documentary evidence attesting to the use of the term / concept dhimma – in this particular context dhimmat Allāh wa-dhimmat rasūlihi. Dhimma is already mentioned twice in the Qur’an, namely Sūrah Tawbah 8, and 10, and many times in the ḥadīth literature.
Sahl bin ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz wrote a letter to ʿUqba b. Muslim, conveying a message from the amīr al-muʾminīn, the caliph. The caliph had announced that the time had come to make the Ḥajj, and had exhorted all Muslims to do so.
Dated to Dhūl-Qaʿdah, 87 AH / October-November, 706 CE. Bilingual papyrus. The Arabic text is written in on the recto in black ink at right-angles to the horizontal fibres; the Greek text running in the same direction is written in the brown ink. The verso is blank.
Dated to 90-91 AH / 709-710 CE. Yellow-brown, fine papyrus. The text of the protocol is written in blackish-brown ink. Only the right half of the protocol is preserved. The margin remains upon the right side only, the top and left side are broken off, parts of the text are destroyed.
Dated to 95-96 AH / 714-715 CE. Yellow-brown, in several places darker coloured, coarse cardboard-like papyrus. The text of the protocol, written in blackish brown ink, occupies the first sheet of the roll entirely. On the reverse there are two lines of a Coptic text written in black ink across the horizontal fibres.
Dated to 86-96 AH / 705-715 CE. It is a light brown, strong papyrus. The text of the protocol, written in blackish brown ink, occupies the whole first sheet of the roll, 18.4 cm. high; the annexed second sheet of the roll, of which a piece, 17.4 cm. high, still survives, bears eight lines of a Coptic document written in black ink across the horizontal fibres. More than half of the protocol has disappeared from the right hand side.
Dated to 98-99 AH / 716-717 CE. This bilingual fragment mentions the names of Umayyad caliph Al-Walīd and the governer Sulaymān b. ‘Abd al-Malik.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December – January, 710 CE. Light brown, tolerably fine papyrus. The Arabic text is written on the recto in the black ink by the hand of Rāshid at right angles to the horizontal fibres, diacritical points are added sparingly. Broken off on all sides and worm-eaten in the middle. At the top, remainders of the Greek minute, in rust coloured ink, are preserved.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December – January, 710 CE. Light brown, tolerably fine papyrus. The text is written on the recto in black ink at right-angles to the horizontal fibres. Diacritical points are sparingly added. Verso is blank. The papyrus breaks off directly after the last line of the Arabic text, the Greek minute above the basmala, as also the Greek text below line 7 is lost. The extant portion of the text is in fairly good condition.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December – January, 710 CE. Brown, tolerably fine papyrus. The bilingual text contains eleven lines written at right-angles to the horizontal fibres. The Arabic part is written in black ink by the hand of Rāshid, diacritical points are few but sparsely added, ق has one point above. The Greek text is in the brown ink in a neat miniscule hand.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December – January, 710 CE. Brown, tolerably fine papyrus. The bilingual text contains twelve lines written at right-angles to the horizontal fibres. The Arabic part is written in black ink, diacritical points are few but sparsely added, ق has one point above. The Greek text is in the brown ink in a neat miniscule hand. Verso blank. It is a good state of preservation. The clay-seal on the folded margin below the text has disappeared, but the place where it was originally affixed is still recognizable.
Dated to Rabī‘ I, 90 AH / January 18 – February 16, 709 CE. Medium brown, very fine papyrus. Slightly worm eaten; right half much broken, but fortunately between the lines.
Dated to Rabī‘ I, 90 AH / January-February, 709 CE. Light brown, fine papyrus. The papyrus is in a very fragile and brittle condition, especially in the outer parts. The ends of the lines 2, 5, 9, 11-13, 16, 18, 20-22 are broken off, but besides this mutilation the leaf is perforated and badly worm-eaten. Verso blank.
Dated to Rabī‘ I (or II), 90 AH / January-February (February-March), 709 CE. It is a light brown, fine papyrus. The letter is written in black ink parallel on recto, verso is blank; diacritical points are but sparingly added, which in line 2 are in the form of small slanting lines, are but sparsely added.
Dated to Dhūl-Qa‘dah / Dhūl-Hijjah, 90 AH / September – October, 709 CE. Medium brown papyrus. The first part is lost; the rest is in very good condition. The writing throughout is clear and has suffered hardly any loss at all. It contains an admonition and that makes it interesting to read.
Dated to Muḥarram, 91 AH / November 9 – December 8, 709 CE. Medium brown, very fine papyrus. The beginning is broken off and missing; part of the upper left section is also lost; the right margin is clipped at the “fold” but the writing is not much affected.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December 9, 709 CE – January 6, 710 CE. Medium fine papyrus, light brown. The entire length of the piece is preserved, but it is considerably damaged by worms. The seal in the end is of dark clay, in perfect condition, showing the figure of a four-footed animal with a star above its back.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December 709 CE – January 710 CE. It is a yellowish-brown, fine papyrus. The letter, of which 21 lines are preserved, is written by the clerk Muslim b. Lubnān on recto in black ink. Verso is blank. Diacritical points are entirely wanting. Words are freely divided at the end of a line.
Dated to Ṣafar, 91 AH / December 709 CE – January 710 CE. Light brown, tolerably fine papyrus. The letter, of which 17 lines are preserved, is written by Muslim b. Lubnān in black ink on recto at right-angles to the horizontal fibres. Diacritical points are added sparingly, words are written freely divided at the end of the line. Verso blank. With the exception of the lost heading the letter is very well preserved.
Dated to Rabī‘ I, 91 AH / January, 710 CE. Light brown, fine papyrus. Diacritical marks are but sparsely added, words are freely divided at the end of the line. Verso is blank. The papyrus is, owing to the folding, brittle and perforated. The heading is lost.
Dated to Jumada II, 91 AH / April-May, 710 CE. Light brown papyrus. The text of the letter is written on recto in black ink, at right angles to the horizontal fibres, diacritical points are added sparingly. The back is blank.
Dated to Rabī‘ I, 91 AH / January – February 710 CE. Two fragments: Egyptian National Library Inv. No. 331 and P. Lond. Br. Mus. Or. 6231 (3). It is a light brown, fine papyrus. The text of the letter is quite exceptionally written in black ink parallel to the vertical fibres, i.e., on verso; diacritical points, which in line 2 are in the form of small slanting lines, are but sparsely added. The recto is blank.
Dated to Shawwāl, 91 AH / August 710 CE. It is a light brown, fine papyrus. The letter is written by a scribe called ‘Umair in black ink on recto, verso is blank; diacritical points are but sparingly added. Words are freely divided at the end of a line. Three selis-joints are visible.
Dated to 90-91 AH / 709-710 CE. Medium brown, fine papyrus, but in poor condition. The beginning and the left half along almost the entire length are broken off and missing. This document deals with arrears from ‘Abd Allāh ibn ‘Abd al-Malik’s time, it was probably among the first of Qurra ibn Sharīk’s documents and hence dated 90 AH, at the latest 91 AH.
Dated to 90-91 AH (709-710 CE). It is a light brown, partially dark coloured, fine papyrus. The letter is written in black ink on recto, verso is blank; diacritical points are but sparingly added, which in line 2 are in the form of small slanting lines, are but sparsely added. The heading is lost. With the exception of some gaps the letter is well preserved.
This parchment letter from Sogdiana was discovered in 1934 and is the oldest Arabic manuscript from Central Asia. It was sent from the local Sogdian governor Dīwāstī to his overlord in Khurasan, Al-Jarrah bin ‘Abdallāh. Al-Jarrah was in office for 17 months, from 99-100 AH (from 718 to April 719 CE), to which period this letter can, therefore, be dated.
An early mention of Ḥajj and al-ʿizār in a papyrus.
The corpus of dated Muslim texts until 72 AH / 691 CE for the study of early Islam.
The corpus of dated texts containing the Qur’an from 1-100 AH / 622-719 CE proving the early codification of the Qur’an in Arabic.
The corpus of dated non-scriptural Muslim and non-Muslim texts mentioning Prophet Muhammad from the first Islamic century.