Interview: Dominic Perry, History of Egypt podcast 

Temple of Rameses II
Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) 90M Views via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

 

I feel thoroughly spoilt. Dominic Perry of the History of Egypt podcast has allowed me to interview him. Dominic took on the herculean task of presenting the history of Ancient Egypt, reign by reign beginning with the Old Kingdom. I love his podcast. Wonderous but never onerous he delves into religion, mythology, politics, daily life, literature. . .  Literature! I particularly enjoy his readings of translations of ancient texts (Hatshepsut – very dramatic). He includes archaeological updates from the field and gives his take on it all. And then there are accompanying visuals on his website! For my recent series of posts where I have attempted to recreate a cloth Nemes crown, I have leant heavily on his podcasts to get a handle on who the ancient Egyptians were and how they would approach things. Here he answers my questions on Egypt, digs, rituals, theatre, Oedipus and Akhenaten. Enjoy.

 

  1. What first fascinated you about Ancient Egypt?

I got into it as a child, and at first I have to admit it was mostly the gold and the treasure. Over time I became more and more fascinated by the idea of the pharaohs – what they represented, how they lived, what they wore etc. Then finally I became absorbed in finding the little details of their lives – particularly the economic aspect; how people lived and organised themselves, what they had to do to make sure their community functioned properly. It’s been an evolving series of interests!

  1. Do you ever get nervous going on Egyptian digs?

Sure! I’m not a natural traveller – I like home and my creature comforts. But it’s important to overcome that internal desire, in order to do something special. It’s a rare opportunity to get paid to dig up a long-dead civilization, so I just sort of “suck it up” and get stuck in to the work. In terms of safety there’s never been a problem – Egypt and Sudan are a lot safer and friendlier than people realise.

  1. What has been the most surprising thing that you’ve seen come out of the ground?

When I was excavating a Roman-era wall that had been built over an old Egyptian temple we unexpectedly found a pharaonic-era statue that had been used as part of the masonry. This whole torso of an ancient pharaoh suddenly showed up among the bricks. That was definitely a surreal moment.

  1. The Festival of Drunkenness seems like a showy event. Do you think that ancient Egyptian rituals ever crossed over the boundary of ritual into theatre?

Yes. Egyptian festivals and rituals seem to have had pseudo-theatrical “re-enactments” of legendary events. Osiris’ death became a big one; the battle between Horus and Seth; the rampage of Hathor and her slaughter of mankind. These were important stories in the heritage of the ancients, and they were constantly reviving and renewing them to keep the memory alive. I often think of Japanese Noh-theatre as an analogy – legendary figures and supernatural beings interacting with the human world, and making a grand show of it. The Egyptians may have done something similar, but in a more religiously formal context. Over time that probably developed into something we would recognise as a theatre-esque “performance piece.”

  1. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex was a King of Thebes (Greece) who killed his father and married his mother. Do you think that this story may have had Egyptian origins?

Anything is possible, especially when Greek writers like Herodotos were fascinated by Egyptian history and culture

Of course you’re thinking of the pharaohs’ habit of marrying sisters or cousins. That certainly happened, but we’re still not certain of the role these sister-wives played – were they symbolic unions (platonic marriages)? Or did they consummate them? Our moral sensitivity would have us lean to the platonic end; but there must have been some incest going on occasionally. It’s a big question, and it can have a big impact on how you view their morality.

  1. It was accepted for Egyptian kings to marry their daughters. Was there ever a case where the succession passed down via an Egyptian Sister/Daughter of the king marrying her son? Do you think that would that be considered taboo?

Not taboo, but it would be unnecessary. The legitimacy of the line appears to have been carried by the females (though there is debate on that). If a King died without heir, but his sister or daughter had a son, that son would be a perfectly acceptable heir. Queen Khenty-kaus I (about 2450 BCE) was the sister of King Menkaure, and when he died without heir she seems to have put her son Shepseskaf on the throne, ruling as a regent on his behalf.

  1. With your current podcasts set in the New Kingdom, I am eagerly awaiting your take on Akhenaten. Was he a perspicacious, pious profit or more of a profiteering, propagandising politician?

Tough question! He was certainly a megalomaniac, but he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly adept politician – he alienated a great many of his subjects, and built an unsustainable legacy that was expunged after his death. As for his faith…I think he was a true believer in his religion – the kicker is determining exactly what his religion represented? Was Akhenaten worshipping a separate, all-powerful god, or was he worshipping a deified form of his father (the incredibly vain and grandiose Amunhotep III)? A lot hinges on how you interpret the god Aten, and what he represents.

If I can give a (spoiler!) glimpse at my take on Akhenaten I would describe him as a visionary, but a visionary unable to compromise enough to make his dream a reality. I think his religious beliefs became more extreme the more he felt he was being challenged. Akhenaten was not necessarily fit to be a king; he was either unprepared or unsuited to the role, which required a lot more compromise than we might expect. He was a remarkable man, but not always for the right reasons.

Thanks for having me!

Find the History of Egypt Podcast on iTunes, your favourite podcast platform, and at http://egyptianhistorypodcast.com/

2. Voila! Silenus Spoila?

He had the legs of a goat, the tail of a horse and a magnificent and outstanding phallus. Silenus the satyr, like Pan, has a very long association with the theatre, particularly comedy. He raised Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre and is best remembered for his love of indulgence and mischief.  Comedy is said to have arisen out of the hijinks of satyr-figures like him in villages and at harvest festivals(1). It’s not hard to imagine men dressed as satyrs running through crowds and processions with their horseplay. When St John Chrysostom (349-407 C.E.) wrote his homily on  I Corinthians (2) he was aghast at the goings-on at pagan weddings. He disparaged the night-time parade of bride and groom through the city streets with its requisite singing of licentious songs, dancing, music, carousing and laughter. Were his ministrations provoked by a myriad of merry-making Silenus’ bobbing through the streets? Did their glorious masculinity, ribaldly heralding the consummation of the marriage compact, offend him? It was a pagan world.

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Satyr, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Silenus and his satyrs were institutionalized very early in theatre history.The first theatres were built on hillsides, where goats grazed freely and Dionysus was worshiped in adjacent sanctuaries. The earliest chorus leaders were said to have worn goat’s heads. Looking like goat-men, their ceremonial origins weren’t lost. Was it during a religious ceremony, revering the goat that both fed and clothed him, that Thespis broke away from the singing supplicants and addressed them? Becoming the first actor, he created the first audience.

When the dramatic festival, the Dionysia, was given in Athens, the competing playwrights had to give three tragedies and a satyr play as entry into three days of dramatic competition. A day of procession preceded. The only surviving, complete, satyr play, The Cyclops, was written by Euripides. It’s a satire poking fun at the mythology that was treated so seriously in the tragic plays. Its chorus is made up of satyrs and its chorus leader is Silenus. Menander’s comedy, O Dyskolos, also features a satyr, Pan. When you consider costuming in ancient comedies – the masks, the micro-mini tunics, the elevated footwear, and the ostentatious phalluses, the link to Silenus with his cloven feet, forthright phallus and sensuousness is obvious.

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos

Archaeological Travel guides to Thasos. The Silenus Gate, featuring a 2.4m high relief statue of Silenus is featured on the left

On Thasos there was a stong cult of Silenus. Up on the hillside there remains ruins of a temple to Pan. In the oldest part of the archaeological site Silenus enters the city through large stone walls, the Silenus Gate. This is the best preserved section of the ancient city. Here successions of inhabitants built over and extended residences of previous ages. Their progress can be traced in the masonry. The brickwork became smaller and more refined as time progressed. The Ecole Francais D’Athens’, Directory of Thasos, pictured above, describes how single story dwellings became double, roads were added and the neighbourhood spread. Missing from the monumental gate is its overhead lintel stone. If it had survived we would walk beneath a massive stone. Would it have carried carvings? In Argos, a citadel of comparable masonry sports a pair of lions over its gateway.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

The Lion Gate with its monumental lintel, from the Citadel at Argos, Greece.

Would the Selanus Gate have been adorned with goats?

Co-incidentally, in another part of the Island about 2 km inland from the Agora, a small Christian chapel can be found amidst tired, olive groves. It too, is built of stone bricks.

St Marina's Chapel, just a few kms north of te Ancient Agora of Thasos.

St Marina’s Chapel, just a few kms north of the Ancient Agora of Thasos.

It too, features a rather small creature with cloven hooves, horns and a tail. A  goat-man. He, too, has been associated with wanton desires and incontinence. He is not a pagan god, however. He is a Christian devil. He is bestial desire and wantonness. He is temptation. He is what St John Chrysostom preached against. Was he once a satyr? Selanus? Was this once his place? How old is it, St Marina’s Chapel? Is it old enough to be pagan? Was it his, before it was hers?

Icon stand, St Marina's chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison.

Icon stand, St Marina’s chapel. The needlework cloth depicts St Marina holding a hammer that she used to pummel to death a devil who tormented her when she was in prison. The devil has worn away in the icon in the chapel.

The fixtures inside the chapel are definitely not ancient, but then they aren’t as permanent as the building itself. St Marina’s lintel is a riddle. It looks ancient and out-of-place with the rest of the brickwork. Does being ancient preclude being Christian? Could those goats really be sheep, and so symbolic of Jesus flock? Early Christian archaeological features found on Thasos have included this capital:

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos

Early Christian Capital found on Thasos, Thasos Archaeological Museum

Could the chapel have been demolished and rebuilt? Was the lintel part of the original structure? It’s hard to tell for a layperson. Could the lintel be spoila from the archaeological site? If so, it isn’t the only Christian Church that’s taken pagan, architectural features and recycled them.

St Marina's Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seems to have been exposed to the elements more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

St Marina’s Lintel. Notice the difference in the brickwork and the lintel. The goats too, seem to have been exposed to the elements, more than the shelter of this chapel allows.

Another possibility is that the site was pagan. That the shepherd who guarded this flock revered Pan, the goat-man That the chapel was built to subsume the site into the Christian faith. That by dedicating it to St Marina, the satyr would now be re-imagined as a devil. The presence of the icon of St Marina killing the satyr, is a strong symbol of the tenacity of Christianity over the pagan worship of Olympian Gods. Were the early Christians trying to make a point? Did it always belong?  Or is it just spoila from the Temple of Pan? Or a vestige of what the chapel was earlier in its history, Christian or pagan?

One thing it definitely isn’t, is the lintel to the Silenus Gate.

 Traditional Icon of St Marina, from St Andrew’s, Constanta, Romania
the bubu / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

References / Further Reading

(1) Hartnoll, Phyllis, The Theatre: A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, 1985, The Greek and Roman Theatre.

(2) Clark, Elizabeth A., Women in the Early Church, Michael Glazier Inc., 1983, Volume 13:Message of the Father’s of the Church, p.71

Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, “McGilchrist’s Greek Islands”, Genius Locii Publications, London, Volume11: Thasos.

Ecole Francaise D’Athens, “Odigos tis Thasou”, Galliki Scholi Athinon, 2012, Vol 3: Sites et Monuments. There is no English translation of this book. The original is in French. I have referred to the Modern Greek translation.

1. Voila! Silenus Spoila?

When you have only read about ancient civilizations, you can only understand so much. Photos and footage will help you, tricking you into believing you have a good idea. Being there, walking through a town that was once inhabited is an experience of its own. Walking in and out of shops with their residences no longer on the floor above, or down a road defined today by its storm-water gutters, just like ours are, brings their daily lives into our sphere of understanding. What separates us from them? Is it merely technology? The realities of their lives are the realities of ours. But they’re dead. They’re anonymous. Their concerns have been silenced.

As you wander through the vestiges of their lives, their silence is palpable, oppressive, contained. It’s a directive, an order. Stop. Perceive. Smearing wheels over dirt roads are muffled and consumed. The mythic monster, Yesteryear, is a jealous, posturing tyrant. Engage only with it. Engage with the bustling noise of a city trying to penetrate through ether masquerading as air. Did you hear its hum? It’s in the breeze. Turn around fast enough and you may see them. Did you catch them? Did the sky steal them away? The sky belonged then as it does now. Time and the sky. Cronus and his father, Ouranos, fraternize, conspiring to keep us and their ancient supplicants in separate cells. Cells woven with silence, contained in the compression of tymbals. Any warp is perpetually mended with the laboured ticking of the cicadas. It’s a love song heard then and now.

The Kouros statue from the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, now in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos

On Thasos, the ancients daily interaction with their gods resounds through the archaeological site.  Nigel Mc Gilchrist, author of a series of books for travellers to the Greek Islands, describes Thasos thus:

“most valuable of all, is the vivid picture it gives of how the Ancients sensed that a network of divine presences with different areas of influence participated in, and watched over the daily life of their community. Dionysus caroused with the artists, performers and drinkers in the thick of the town; Apollo watched from the lofty height of his temple, way above the city; and Pan sometimes kept company with the lonely guardsmen on the highest look-out posts of the acropolis, when the autumn mists descended. This is the unusual gift of Thasos – that it presents not just a multitude of ruins, but the living texture of an ancient city and its whole imaginative world.” (1)

 

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two-storey building.

The ancient town of Thasos now at Limenas was walled. It stretched from the present day archaeological museum and up the hillside to the cliffs. It had two ports, a series of lighthouses leading to them, boat drying sheds, two theatres, jewellery workshops, a farmstead, potters workshop, an agora, shops, double storey residences, shrines and temples. Within the length of the walls are several gates, dedicated to various ancient deities. One of these is dedicated to Silenus.

Head of Silenus, in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos

Silenus, in the Archaeological Museum at Thasos

 

Reference

(1) Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, Mc Gilchrist’s Greek Islands, Volume 11. Thasos, Genius Loci Publications, London, pp 10-11.

 Photo Credit

The Kouros statue from the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo, now in the Archaeological Museum of Thasos – Panegyrics of Granovetter / Foter / CC BY-SA

1.To Thasos with Shakespeare to guide us!

Holidaying in Greece this northern Summer, we were blessed. Our vacation was a time of reconnecting with relatives, many of whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of knowing as adults. Getting to know them now, was like making new friends minus the awkwardness. They were so hospitable, so generous with their time, so indulgent.

Catching up, of course, meant answering the inevitable question of what am I doing with my time. Kids. House. Family. Writing …blogging. About what? Which fixation should I go with? Karagiozis? Menander? Shakespeare?

The modern day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern day one.

The modern-day township of Limenas, built up over centuries of history. The ancient marina is submerged beneath this modern-day one.

Did I know Thasos wasn’t too far away – when you consider the distance already bridged that is – Sydney, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Thessaloniki? We could go tomorrow. Why not? On the morrow with Pericles in hand and a child being cared for by the extended family, my cousins Michail and Aristea, drove me, my husband and eldest son, through Chalkidiki, north to Kavala and onto the ferry for Thasos.

We were there to answer the question, “How well acquainted with Thasos was Shakespeare?” With so many holes in the historical record, could he have slipped through a trip to Thasos without leaving a trace on the fabric of history? Are the details of Tharsus so precise that they describe Thasos? Unless I looked, all I would be left with was my own conjecture.

The place I wanted to find the most was the Governor’s, Cleon’s, residence. I imagined that he would have lived in a castle or fortress. Being unsuccessful in my attempts at googling archaeological sites on Thasos, in English, we headed for the archaeological museum to make our first enquiries. Just across the road from the museum’s entrance was the entrance into the Roman Agora. I was thrilled. I had placed the action of the play during the time of the Seleucid Empire, which coincided with the Roman occupation of Thasos. The Agora, just metres inland from ancient boat sheds and marina, was a place of interest in forming the possible cityscape of Shakespeare’s Tharsus. It was the heart of the ancient city.

Ancient Agora of Thasos

The Ancient Agora of Thasos

Could this archaeological site be all that is left of:

This Tharsus…
A city, on whom plenty held full hand,
For riches strew’d herself even in the street;
Whose towers bore heads so high, they kissed the clouds,
And strangers ne’er beheld, but wondered at…

Riches? Ancient Thasos was a mineral rich island. There had been a succession of mining activity on the island that began with ochre in pre-history and moved through gold and silver and continues today off-shore, with oil. If statues can be numbered as riches, Thasos honoured gods, civil leaders and a home-grown athlete, Theagenes, with public installations.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

The ancient drain, to the right of which was the two story building.

Walking through the Agora and along a drain that cut across the width of the site, it was hard to imagine a double storey structure by it.* Harder to imagine towers. Walking deeper into the site and under a small bridge that accommodates the present day road, we came to an area only partially excavated by the French archaeological school in the 1930s. Beyond this and only recently excavated is a Roman official’s villa and bath. The mosaic floor has been relocated to the forecourt of the archaeological museum. It is one, complete floor, shown in the next couple of photos.

Roman Official's Villa -  Mosaic Floor

Roman Official’s Villa – Mosaic Floor

Detail of Roman Villa's Mosaic Floor - joins the previous image

Detail of Roman Villa’s Mosaic Floor – joins the previous image

Having found the city and possibly the Governor’s residence, I was euphoric. I wanted to find more. Is this how Richard Roe felt during his searches for the real settings of Shakespeare’s Italian plays? Did he get carried away wanting to find more?

More? What about Marina? That’s a nice Christian name belonging to a saintly maid. Marina, the virtuous, despoiling the clientele of Mytilene’s brothel with her philosophising! Shakespeare’s Marina whitewashed their blackened souls. St Marina, a wealthy young woman of the Eastern Mediterranean world shunned marriage for her loftier religious ideals. Could there be a connection between Shakespeare’s Marina and St Marina? Was Shakespeare thinking of the saint when he named Pericles daughter? Has there ever been a connection between Thasos / Tharsus and St Marina? And what of more specific connections between the text of Pericles and Thasos? I’ll leave these for next time.

Acknowledgments

I’d like to especially thank Michail Papalexiou and Aristea Londou for their enthusiasm, generosity and patience in making this search possible and the extended Papalexiou family for their caring and capable child minding.

*Mc Gilchrist, Nigel, Mc Gilchrist’s Greek Islands:11. Thasos,Genius Loci Publications, London, p.27.

Menander, the Mytilenean Mosaic

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

Mosaic portrait of Menander from the Mytilenean mosaic floor

It’s inevitable when you travel in Greece that you will find yourself at an archaelogical site. They are everywhere. Now, how fulfilling the experience will be depends on your expectations. It’s probable that you will find yourself in a bizarre grid of knee high “walls” that you could easily walk over – no scaling, no hurdling, necessary. They were once barriers for privacy, indicators of ownership, providers of shelter – structural components to house a family, a company of players, a committee of civic officials, a communion of ancients. Now they define a bare necropolis. Who for, or why each square was occupied is lost not only to the recalcitrant gait of time but also to the process of their rediscovery and conservation. You see these squares are bereft of ornamentation. If you are lucky the little vases, the palm-sized votive statuettes, the misshapen, worn coins, the fragile, foil jewels – these little glimpses into the ancient reality of the living spaces you are standing before are behind glass in the local museum. Often they are in Britain, France, Germany, the United States or wherever the country of origin is of the archaeological school that is responsible for the dig. A healthy imagination and some background reading will help fill in your enthusiasm.

When I arrived in Mytilene I was determined to see the House of Menander even if it meant foregoing many of the touristy sites on the island to find it. I didn’t just want to imagine it. Travelling with children always means a trade off. Having shared the misadventure of looking for the HIppodrome in Istanbul with my husband and children, I was a little anxious about our prospects of finding the House of Menander. Would my children have patience for the search? or would their droning pleas for the beach sap the enjoyment out of the experience?

We began our search at the New Archaeological Museum of Lesvos. As I approached the reception desk, doubts troubled me. What if they had no idea what I was talking about? It was a possiblity, Menander is not that well known and I had come across the mosaic’s existence through social media platforms. The mosaic’s images seemed credible at the time. But I had also come across an image of the restored Hippodrome on social media. The restored Hippodrome. What Hippodrome! How should I pose the question of the mosaic’s existence and whereabouts without being insulting, condescending or presumptuous?

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found new the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The plays of Menander as depicted in the mosaic floor found near the Ancient Theatre of Mytilene.

The lovely tour guide, Toula, listened to me finish my waffling, prattle patiently. “It’s just here,” she said as she led us across the foyer and into the first room of the museum. She then took us through all of the rooms regaling us with anecdotes. Apparently the archaeological team responsible for the dig were Greek which explained why the mosaic floor has remained in a local museum just blocks away from where it was found.

One story left me asking whether it was a modern-day fable of sour grapes. Apparently, when the mosaics were found there were voices of doubts from the international community. It seems the brightness of the tiles had brought into question the authenticity of the mosaics. Tesserae tiles were often made of glass or ceramic and as such had to be coloured. Why hadn’t the tesserae tile’s pigments not deteriorated if the floor was actually dated to the 2nd century C.E..?

Right side detail of the Mosaic floor depicting in individual square cells, Menander, His plays and Thalia the Muse of Comedy

The right side of the floor – Thalia, the muse of comedy. The square directly above her doesn’t depict a play but three ancients including the philosopher Socrates. The rest are plays written by Menander, mainly lost.

Was this a fair question?

In the ancient theatre district of the island of Delos there are a number of ancient mosaics. A colourful, outdoor example shot in situ is the image of a winged messenger astride a tiger. From the state of conservation of the mosaic, it can be safely assumed that the tesserae tiles have not been restored to their original colours. Of all of the photos on this post, this is the only one that I have increased the intensity of the colour, purely to bring out the detail of this ailing artwork. The intensity of the colours of both mosaics are comparable.

Mosaic from the Island of Delos depicting a messenger on a leopard

A messenger or Nike (Victory) astride a tiger, Delos in 1999.

Tellingly, the Mytilenean mosaic of Menander was also found in a theatre district. Both mosaics deal with theatrical themes. The Delian mosaic is symbollic. It seems to be concerned with a theatrical contest, hence Nike astride a tiger, the symbol of Dionysus, god of theatre. The fallen vase to the side, a trophy perhaps, may indicate a defended title lost or a disregard for the results of the contest.

Other considerations arise at the archaelogical site of the ancent town of Olynthos in Chalkidiki. Its mosaic floors bask under the heat of the sun. They depict images in black and white that are said to be of the oldest in Greece. They were excavated in the early 20th century. To look at them closely you cannot fail to see that each building “block” is not perfectly tesserae – a four sided tile –  but a water washed pebble. Did the designer have a black and white image in mind and collected only black and white pebbles or have the pigments in the pebbles deteriorated over time regardless of having been underground?

IMG_0975.JPG

Bellerophon (background); 2 griffons devouring their prey (foreground) Olynthos

I would suggest that the simplicity and boldness of the design requires the contrast of black and white to achieve the designer’s goal. That they are black and white by intent. That no pigment deterioration has occurred here. The mosaics are of naturally occurring mineral materials.

Bold black and white floor mosaic from the archaeological site at Olynthos.

Black and white mosaic –  Olynthos.

Toula’s answer to the sceptics was simple. The tesserae tiles making up the mosaic floor on Mytilene are not glass or ceramic tiles but naturally occurring rocks that have been cut and shaped. Their colours hold faster than man made pigments for this reason. Evidence for the existence of these rocks on Mytilene is abundant. I photographed some when the kids got their wish and we took them to the beach.

Pebbles in the seashore at Vatera, Lesvos

Beaches near Mytilene – more pebbly than sandy. Vatera, Lesvos

To Toula, I send thanks for a great tour. For the international detractors – a case of sour grapes it would seem.

History is an Onion

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.

Brno CZ Crypt at the Capuchin Monastery 02

A Crypt full of Mummies

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.

Palinpsest

Palimpsest

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.

Departure Mosaic from the House of Menander in Antioch 250 CE 3

Mosaic from the House of Menander in Antioch c. 250 C.E.

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.

Theophilus, Patriarch 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

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Departure Mosaic from the House of Menander, Antioch

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Theophilus of Alexandria

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0