Imagine you are an archaeologist. You are a classical scholar and a devout Coptic Christian. You are on a dig in Egypt. The team that you are a part of is working to uncover the tomb of a wealthy Egyptian trader from the 5th Century C.E.. It’s hot. It’s sandy. An abrasive wind renders yesterday’s piecemeal advances almost negligible. The wind is insatiable. It’s your daily foe. You suffer the loss of many, many such yesterdays. Finally, a cavernous tomb is found beneath a wine cellar in the medieval town. It is a family crypt holding several bodies. They are all mummified.
On close inspection of the mummies you notice that they have been wrapped in papyrus. Writing can be discerned in some areas. You strain to look at it. Could it be? Yes! Is it? It can’t be? Can it? It can’t be happening to you! But it is! You recognize the Coptic script of the early Church in Egypt. Could this be the holy teachings of an early desert ascetic, a trickle from the spiritual spring that has nourished the Coptic and Early Christian churches for centuries. The mummies must be unwrapped!
But wait. Not here.What of the bodies? Should the bodies, so well preserved over the centuries, be sacrificed in a hunt for earlier human history? Regardless that their hereditary descendants at best are anonymous today, shouldn’t they be allowed their dignity? Aren’t they a valuable part of history as they are? Will their souls be offended? Should the Titanic be raised? Perhaps uncovering the teachings of the anonymous desert ascetic will help alleviate the shame of tampering with the dead, you tell yourself. The soul is eternal and so is repercussions of the truth written on the papyrus. In any case you have already destroyed a medieval cellar to expose the crypt beneath.
Back at the University the mummies are put to a barrage of tests. A fragment of the papyrus reveals that it is a palimpsest. The writing beneath the Coptic text is Ancient Greek but it’s very difficult to read. A larger sample needs to be taken. Another complication: the Coptic language used characters from the Ancient Greek alphabet, so the only way to read the text beneath is to clean off the Coptic text above it. The Holy Writ will be lost. No reason for panic yet. The ancient scribes of the Serapaeum and the Temple of the Muses Libraries of Alexandria copied many, many ancient texts. What are the odds that this is an original?
But it is. The papyrus covering the mummy contains the only complete surviving play of that megalith-playwright of the ancient world, Menander.The entire canon of Menander’s work has been missing for 900 years. Now whose history should be preserved?
This is how I imagine that Menander’s play, O Dyskolos was uncovered. I don’t know whose mummy kept his work so close. Nor do I know which Byzantine script had to be sacrificed in order to reveal this play. This is just my dramatization of how it may have happened. This blog is about making drama and the telling of theatrical history and the contemplation of such enigmas, so please excuse my little indulgence.
What astounds me about the loss of the works of Menander is how popular he was. How far his popularity spanned in the Late Roman Empire. How mosaics depicting Menander and his work have been found in Naples (Italy), Mytilene (Greece) and Antioch (Eastern Turkey). Fragments of his plays have been found in Egypt. He was lauded by Plautus and Terence. How could his work just disappear?
Imagine that 2000 years from now, all trace of Shakespeare’s works have disappeared. Only commentaries survive tellng how well he wrote. It’s unfathomable. Almost. Thinking hypothetically, if all books become digitized as we do away with paper and a massive solar flare were to penetrate all of our electronic storage, then perhaps Shakespeare’s works could disappear. In the late 4th Century in Egypt, that solar flare had a name, Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria.
Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria is said to have been a scholar in Alexandria before being made Patriarch of the Orthodox Church there in 385 CE.. As Patriarch he was the shepherd of the North African flock and one of 5 Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church, (the others being situated in Rome aka the Pope, Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem). With fury and passion he dealt with the vitalizing core of pagan and schismatic Christian beliefs, their temples and monasteries. He was following the will of Emperor Theodosius I who in 380 CE decreed that all people should worship the Christian God and that He would be worshiped as the Trinitarian God, three manifestations sharing one essence. No deviations would be tolerated. Wikipedia tells us that in Greece the Olympic Games were lost as was the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the home of the Ancient Oracle and in Rome the Order of the Vestal Virgin was dissolved. In Egypt, the Temple of Muses is thought to have already been destroyed by fire, however, its daughter library, the Serapeum was now, in 391 CE, destroyed by deliberate fire. This is not to say that all of its 40 or 400 thousand scrolls were burnt. Historian, James Hannam of the website, Bede’s Library, shows that the fate of the scrolls is uncertain. The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that Scholars fled Egypt for Constantinople. How they could have fared better there is hard to imagine. The fact that today, ancient writings are being revealed through palimpsests is a testimony to the belief that ancient scrolls survived. That the scrolls are turning up as mummy coverings tells us that in the early medieval period there was a lot of papyrus around. The fact that in the early Byzantine era even the Egyptian middle classes were being mummified may be an indication as to how plentiful recycled papyrus may have become.
It is my hope that beneath some yet to be discovered palimpsest, forgotten in an early Christian monastery in a biblical desert or in the bandages of a late Egyptian mummy, more of Menander’s work will be uncovered, unwrapped and recovered. Who knows, his work may reveal an early Karagiozis or Hadjiavatis character and indicate a Byzantine drama, subverted through Christian and Ottoman religous mandates but none-the-less alive in shadow puppetry?
To Read more on the fate of the ancient libraries of Alexandria, why not visit Bede’s Library? James Hannam questions the existence of the Serapeum altogether and goes through an array of Ancient and Byzantine sources.
A Crypt Full of Mummies, more correctly, Brno CZ Crypt at the Capuchin Monastery 02
Photo credit: Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)
Palimpsest, more correctly,Georgian paliphsest V-VI cc
Departure Mosaic from the House of Menander, Antioch
Theophilus of Alexandria