Palimpsests, Papyrus, Performers … the Point?

Looking over my previous blog posts regarding the Greek shadow puppet theatre and its connection to Ancient New Comedy and a possible Byzantine Shadow stage I realise that I have waffled on, alluding to my point but its meaning eluding my page. So here it is. My point, “.”.

I believe that the existence of the popular shadow puppet characters, Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis are not entirely dependent on the Ottoman shadow puppet tradition.Yes, their names are derived from their Turkish counterparts (see my previous post on Building the Sultan’s Palacebut their appearances are very different (See When Hadjiavatis Pulls His Beard Will Menander Reappear – Part One). I believe that there is a strong possibility that these comic characters existed before the Ottomen arrived in the Balkan peninsula.

I don’t believe that the only Byzantine theatrical performances were the comic and dance mimes at the Circuses. I suspect that dramatic and satyric, narrative performances existed regardless of the cultural suppression exercised on the people by the Byzantine Regime and the Ottoman after them (See my previous post Shadows in the Library of Alexandria).I suspect that these characters were part of a tradition that was perhaps hidden, perhaps not pious enough to inspire conservation and probably improvised so difficult to document. 

I believe the evidence can be found beneath the surface of Byzantine and medieval palimpsest – papyri washed clean and overwritten. These papyri are found in monasteries, museums and in private collections. If technology allows the hidden layer to be revealed without damaging the current face of these palimpsests then we will be able to understand Byzantine theatrical practices better. We may even have a glimpse into cultural resistance under two totalitarian regimes. The characters of Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis may be remnants of such a theatre. Perhaps even throwbacks to the ancient theatre of Menander.

Time and Technology will tell.


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.



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


Shadows in the Library of Alexandria

In previous posts Crafty Theatre has explored the possibility that the folkloric heroes of the Greek Shadow puppet theatre, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis, had a place in the Byzantine world. It began with a simple question, “Why does Hadjiavatis pull his own beard?” Further questions ensued. Why do the Greek shadow puppets with their very definite, prescribed appearances differ so greatly from their Turkish namesakes? Similarities between the surviving works of Plautus, the Ancient Roman playwright, were considered. Character driven situation comedy; the use of a nebulous stage setting that is on the road and in front of closed doors; indoor action related after the event outside; the anti-hero as protagonist; slapstick; and clever word play all feature in Plautus’ adaptions of Menander’s plays and in the Karagiozis puppet theatre. Hadjiavatis with his often limited role in the Greek Karagiozis scenarios seems more of a plot device. Similar to Ancient Greek tragedy’s messengers, he enters the stage providing the impetus for the action and then leaves. So like the Messenger in Sophocles’ Antigone, who begs for mercy from those he brings news to, is Hadjiavatis pulling his own beard to poke fun at the messenger role that he plays?

To answer these questions we need to see more of the lost works of antiquity resurface. Where might you ask? Egypt! Why Egypt?


Ruins at the Oasis of Siwa, ancient seat of the Oracle of Ammon

In 332 B.C.E. Alexander the Great marched his Greek speaking, Greek practicing, Macedonian army into Egypt. He was conveniently declared the son of the king of the Egyptian gods, Ammon, by the Oracle at the Oasis at Siwa. Thus he became Pharaoh. He founded a new port west of the Nile Delta near a village called Rakotis, and called it Alexandria.The Greek written language, Alexander’s language, with its ability for subtle and precise description was used to administer Egypt. Alexandria became the seat of government and in time a major cultural centre.

Head of Ptolemy III

Head of Ptolemy III found in the archaeological site of the now sunken Library of Alexandria

When Alexander died he was succeeded by one of his generals, Ptolemy. Ptolemy became Pharaoh and founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Under the Ptolemaic regime, both Egyptian and Greek cultures thrived independently of each other, salting each other’s experience. The Pharaoh, Ptolemy I, is thought to have built the Temple of the Muses (Museum) with its famous Library of Alexandria. Here science, philosophy, literature, music, drama and scholarly learning was fostered. Here the Ancient Greek Goddesses inspiring science, philosophy, literature, drama, music and scholarly endeavours were worshipped. Ptolemy II brought to Alexandria prominent writers and thinkers of the ancient world including Theocritus, Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes. His son, Ptolemy III (reign 246-222 B.C.E), built a second temple / library in Alexandria in honour of the Greek-Egyptian god, Serapis, the  Serapeum

The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that the scholars who were active in the “Museum” (Temple of the Muses) in the mid 3rd Century B.C.E. onwards were probably responsible for the preservation of earlier Greek texts. It was probably here in the Museum that Zenodotus, the Library’s first librarian, edited Homer. The Museum had lecture halls, meeting rooms, gardens and the incredible repository of papyrus scrolls known as the library.

Papyrus fragment with lines from Homer\'s Odyssey

Papyrus fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria with variant lines from Homer’s Odyssey

The library seems to have had a religious mandate: to acquire all of the learning of the Classical world. It procured all of the manuscripts that it could and copied them. Scholars were sent to other ports to collect works to copy and books that arrived in the Port of Alexandria were requisitioned for copying for the library. So industrious were the scribes in their transcriptions that a shortage of papyrus was felt across Europe. As a result, parchment was developed to fill the need.

In 30 C.E., after the death of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic Pharaoh, Octavian ushered in Roman rule. Egypt saw many changes. The Greek and Egyptian cultures had co-existed under the Ptolemaic Pharaohs by having two law systems, one for Greek speakers and one for Egyptians. Under the Roman rule, the Romans attempted to bring Egypt under a single, decentralized, Roman system. Revolutionizing administration, not scholarship, was the primary concern of the Romans. The Libraries suffered a shift of focus. The Temple of the Muses is said to have suffered two destructive fires in this period.

Change was slow going. It was not until 305 C.E. that Latin replaced Greek as the language used by the Egyptian bureaucracy. When the Roman-Byzantine Empire converted to Christianity in the mid 4th century C.E. more changes were ushered in. Egypt was no longer administered from Rome but Constantinople.

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III)

The Serapeum of Alexandria (III), the Daughter library of the Great Library of Alexandria. It was destroyed by the Byzantine (Coptic) Pope Theophilus in 391 C.E.

By this time the verbal, Coptic language of the people of Egypt was rendered into a written script based on the characters of the Greek alphabet.The Bible and writings of the Holy Fathers now became accessible to all strata of Egyptian society. The Coptic speaking Egyptians embraced Christianity. The Orthodox Church in Alexandria rivalled and perhaps surpassd Constantinople in its fervour and teachings. The monastic ideal of renouncing the material world, imitating Christ in His self-sacrifice and devotion to God, and struggling alone with the temptations of the nous, saw many intellectuals and pious faithful unable to resist the call of the Egyptian desert. The sayings of the Holy Desert Fathers and Mothers of Egypt still inform the Orthodox faithful today.

Along with these pious ascetics there were also zealots. Zealots with power. The transition from pagan Egypt to Christian Egypt was anything but smooth. By 391 C.E. the Byzantine Church adopted a vigorous agenda to eradicate the Empire of pagan gods, temples and practices. The assiduously created collections of scrolls of now lost and rare knowledge disappeared. This was no ordinary puff of smoke, nor was it a pyre. Luckily, not all of the scrolls burnt. Luckily, papyrus was still a valuable commodity and could always be reused.

Next: Menander Recovered, Uncovered and Unwrapped

The text source for this history of Egypt comes chiefly from the 15th Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:Macropaedia, Volume 6:Earth – Everglades. I have also relied on Wikipedia to fill in the gaps.

The Oasis of Siwa

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Head of Ptolemy III from the site of the Libraty of Alexandria

Photo credit: diffendale / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Papyrus Fragment from the Ancient Library of Alexandria

Photo credit: peterjr1961 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Ruins of the Serapeum of Alexandria

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When Hadjiavatis pulls his Beard will Menander reappear? – Part 3

Hadjivatis and Hacivat; Karagiozis and Karagöz; two pairs of similarly sounding names for two pairs of visually different shadow puppets. Could Hadjavatis and Karagiozis have preceded the Ottoman era? Could they have been part of a satiric, comic tradition enjoyed by the Byzantines? Are their origins older still, Ancient Roman or Greek?

Byzantine Dancer

Relief Carving of a Byzantine Dancer

By the time Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium in 326 C.E., the fashion for Classical drama had passed. The new Christian empire did not care to preserve pagan writings that didn’t support the teachings of the Church. The popular, satiric, dance mimes enjoyed in the early circuses, like the Hippodrome, were discouraged or forbidden. Popular entertainment like mimes by their nature didn’t and don’t require scripting. Subsequently very little has survived in writing about Byzantine, satiric theatre. What has survived is in the decorative features of household items and personal adornments.  The Middle Eastern Dance Guild blog provides some lovely examples of artifacts illustrating Byzantine dance history, including a crown, a jewel box, a hair comb and textiles. 

Byzantine dancers were considered mimes and comic actors. This may seem a little too modern in terms of subtlety however it isn’t unique in theatre history. In the late 16th Century C.E. Japan, the female, Shinto shrine dancer, Izuomo no Okuni, dressed as a man and danced provocatively in dry riverbeds and within shrine compounds. While using the gestures of young children, she danced depicting males flirting with prostitutes. Morals were perceived as being corrupted and the authorities banned all performances by females in 1629. A little too late. A new theatre style had been born.

Okuni was the founder of the now, all male, Kabuki Theatre. I imagine Byzantine dancers to have had a similar approach to satire, as they too were censured by the Trullan Synod in 692 C.E.

20130518 99 Izumo no Okuni

Statue of Okuni the shrine dancer from Ikuomo, carrying both a fan and a samurai sword. She danced dressed in male attire and sent up men soliciting prostitutes.

Could Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis have existed within the Byzantine circuses as “dancer-clowns”, bereft of their names? As we have seen in earlier posts, their names are Turkish. Could their characters have existed as Byzantine, satiric mimes/dancers? Could they have been part of a performance tradition that harked back to Ancient Rome or even earlier to Menander?

Karagiozis, as we have seen, is tied to his Turkish counterpart Karagöz by the sound of their names and the earthy quality of their humour. Both characters have undergone a watering down of their bawdiness over at least, the last century. We know from early scenarios of the Karagöz and Hacivat shows that they display the kind of situation comedy that the Ancient Roman playwright, Plautus employed. He followed Menander in style. The use of stock characters, satirising ‘types’ in the community was a comic writing technique first employed in the theatre by Menander in the 2nd Century B.C.E.. He had studied the work of the philosopher Theophrastus. Theophrastus’ Characters was a discussion of personality types that included the Gossip, the Buffoon, the Parsimonious one and the Friend of Rascals among a list of others. Menander’s inspiration was subsequently taken up by Plautus. Although the Karagöz and Hacivat scenarios have their own unique character and structure, there is enough of a similarity to Plautus’ comedies to warrant thought.

By the time of the earliest references to Karagöz and Hacivat, in the early 16th Century or even perhaps during the time of the Seljuk Turks in the 1300s, the Byzantine world had replaced its official language, Latin, with Greek. Did the desire to read older Greek sources increase with this language shift? Could any of Menander’s scripts have survived to influence the emergence of Karagöz? Or did the circus performers, clowns, carry a tradition of Menander’s characters that influenced emerging theatrical forms and has survived into the present day as the shadow puppets, Karagiozis and Hadjiavatis?

Just considering the look of Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis certain observances can be made. Hadjiavatis, who is always garbed in Turkish attire, always tugs his beard. Why? He is a comic character. Is he appealing to himself for mercy? Is he so full of himself that he is showing himself a form of deference used in Ancient Greece? In Ancient Greece, a man’s beard was an outward sign of his maturity and his wisdom. By holding Zeus’ beard, Thetis implored him to aid her son Achilles in the Trojan War; Medea implored Creon’s mercy when he ordered her to leave Corinth; and the Centaur implored Herakles (Hercules) for his life. Is Hadjiavatis sending up this form of respect/obeisance?

NAMA Héraclès & Nessos

The Centaur implores Herakles (Hercules) for mercy by tugging his beard

Create a picture of Karagiozis in your mind. Not only is he short, in many instances he is disproportionately small. He has a hunchback with a bulbous, segmented arm. He is barefoot and wears green. This description can almost fit the satyr, Seilenos, pictured below. Seilenos, the foster-father of the god of wine and theatre, Dionysos, has a tendency to be lazy, drink too much wine, have too much fun and generally overindulge. If we lift the modern era meaning behind Karagiozis’ catch phrase, “We shall eat, we shall drink and go to bed hungry,” it could also be applied to Seilenos with a very different meaning. In the present day the phrase refers to Karagiozis’ perpetual poverty; for Seilenus it would refer to his insatiability.

A foot from a Roman couch depicting the satyr-like Seilenos, henchman of Dionysos the god of wine and revelry 1st-2nd century CE Bronze

Wine, laziness, revelry, a hunch back, short stature, long arms – all attributes of Seilenos and Karagiozi.

In the most complete surviving play by Menander, O Dyskolos, the prologue is delivered by Pan. Pan, like Seilenus, is a satyr. Given the use of situation comedy, stock character types and the similarity of Karagiozis to Seilenos, and Hadjiavatis beard tugging, can we hope to see evidence of the existence of a Karagiozis/Silenus figure in the as yet to be discovered history of Byzantine theatre? What of Hadjiavatis?

Comic actor

Ancient Comic Actor – Is that his beard that he is tugging?

Where might this evidence materialise? See the ancient comic actor above. He, like Hadjiavatis, pulls his own beard. Was he an earlier predecessor of Hadjiavatis, a prototype even? If only we could see the front of his face! Is he Roman or Byzantine and beardless or Greek and bearded?  From which time period does he brown-eye us? Where was he found and IS he tugging his beard? Intriguing.

Where else might evidence be found? Egypt, perhaps? In the final part of this exploration the importance of Egypt, it’s wonderful library in Alexandria and the discovery of Menander’s works will be explored.

Crafty Theatre’s Kabuki Theatre board on Pinterest

Byzantine dancer

Photo credit: jimforest / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Ikuomo no Okuni

Photo credit: Awfulknitter / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Detail of the Nessos Painter’s Amphora depicting Herakles and the Centaur

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Seilanos / Pan

Photo credit: mharrsch / / CC BY-NC-SA

Comic Actor

Photo credit: Taifighta / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear? – Part Two

The Byzantine Empire: God’s Kingdom on Earth. A world of mysticism, asceticism and philanthropy. A colourful world of pantomimes in the hippodrome, bride shows in the palace and liturgical processions through the polis. A byzantine court of intrigue and propaganda where the head of state and the heads of the Church toggled power and policy. A history peopled with philosopher-monks, pirate-archons, poet-nuns, emperor-saints, mercenary soldiers, eunuchs and slaves, marauding crusaders, cross-dressing clerics and fools for Christ. A people who lived their daily lives in, out and around awe-inspiring basilicas, thundering arenas, urban and remote monasteries, civic baths, hospitals and hostels for the poor. The Byzantines: a society that regarded itself as Roman but spoke Greek.

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

When Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient town of Byzantium in 313 C.E.he named his New Rome, Constantinople. The language and culture of his new seat of power was Latin. Theatrical pastimes were those of the late Roman empire. Gone was the popularity of classical dramas and comedies. Carnival and spectacle entertained the masses. Animal fights, chariot races and gladiatorial bouts were enjoyed along with jugglers, dancers, mimes, pantomimes and dramatic recitals.

2009-04-13 ConstantineTheGreat York

Constantine I aka Constantine the Great aka St Constantine

By moving his capital to the East, Constantine may have given himself a fresh start however the Empire would suffer the tensions of a division of east and west for centuries.When eventually the rift saw the independence of the West in 6th century C.E., Greek was adopted as the administrative language of the remaining Empire. The people of the Empire however, still regarded themselves as Romans.

They also believed they were God’s legacy on Earth.  They ordered their world to mirror the organisation of Heaven. As God had His hierarchy of angels, the Byzantines had a hierarchy of priests and civil servants. As the Church gave them laws and admonished their behaviour, the state collected taxes and provided infrastructure.

It was the Church that made a rudimentary education available to all. Ecclesiastical learning was the norm. For the wealthy classes, pagan texts written by the Ancient Greeks  and Romans were available. Texts that complimented the teachings of the Christian Church were encouraged e.g., Plato. However, texts that couldn’t throw light on the understanding of Christian tenants and dogmas were discouraged e.g., Aristotle. Pagan theatre did not fare well.

From the earliest dates, Ancient Greek drama was inseparable from pagan ritual. Early dramatic texts commemorate the pagan gods. The ancient plays were presented at festivals in honour of the Olympian gods e.g., Dionysus and Apollo. The cult of Dionysus with its Bacchanalian  festivities; bawdy humour and the practice of wearing short tunics to show off long, detachable  phalluses  would not be accepted by the new Christian religion.

The Christian God was a jealous god. Worship of all or some of the pantheon of pagan gods was not acceptable. The Trullan Synod, a gathering of over two hundred clerics in c.692 C.E., tried to snuff out pagan practices including theatrical ones. Performers would be denied Christian rights if they did not repent of their sin – performing.

Greek terracotta statuette of a Mime made in Myrina about 100 BCE (1)

Terracotta Statuette of a Greek Mime c. 100 B.C.E.

A consequence of this was the loss of many ancient texts. Monks and nuns didn’t break taboo and transcribe these works freely. By this time the ancient classics were no longer in vogue neither with audiences nor performers. Now even God frowned upon them. The carnival style amusements replacing them were visual, satiric, had an immediate response and were not dependent on scripts. The desire to investigate ancient plays would interest few. And then there was the curse of good house keeping.

In the way of the pre-modern world, nothing was disposable. The papyri of the ancient sources were more precious than the plays written upon them, plays that espoused pagan virtues and excesses. It was a matter of good economy and good virtue to wash out the original text and reuse the papyrus in a higher Christian cause. In this practice many palimpsests were created. It was because of this practice that the work of Menander was lost in the middle ages and then rediscovered in Egypt in 1907.

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

Menander (341/2 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), the greatest writer of New Comedy in Ancient Greece had a heavy-handed influence over the later Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Through the adaption of his scripts by Plautus and Terence his inspiration and style would influence the Commedia Dell’arte and later playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. His work took the subject matter of the Ancients away from the realm of the gods and into the domestic situation of citizens. In his most complete surviving play, O Dyskolos, he acknowledges Pan in the prologue by having him deliver it.

Menander’s comedy was one of character, situations and ribald innuendo. He took the satiric writings of the philosopher, Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE) off the page and created live character types in masks for the stage. Thus he gave prototypes for the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’arte. Despite his dramas winning the Lenaia Festival 8 times and Plautus and Terence acknowledging his influence over their work, knowledge that his comedies existed was all we had for 900 years. The scripts were somehow lost in the Middle Ages.

Can more be recovered?  How many lie dormant, hidden within palimpsests?

In the next part of this article, I will look at Egypt’s unique place in the hopes of recovering ancient texts and the connection the Karagiozi and Karagöz puppet theatre have with late Roman comedies and Byzantine theatrical performances.

See images of Byzantine artefacts  on the Crafty Theatre, Byzantine, Pinterest board.

Map of the Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Emperor Constantine I

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Greek Mime Artist c. 100 B.C.E.

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A Menander Palimpsest on Papyrus

Photo credit: The Egypt Exploration Fund / Foter / Public domain

When Hadjivatis pulls his beard, does Menander reappear? – Part One



Hadjiavatis by Crafty Theatre, inspired by the illustrations of Michalis Benetoulias

Hadjiavatis, the town crier. Every time I look at him I can’t help wondering why he holds his beard. Why? Puppeteers’ depiction of him may differ: He may wear shoes or he may wear boots and within the confines of his Turkish garb of culottes, a turban, a jacket and  bearded face, the colour and style of his clothing may vary but he always holds his beard. Or pulls on it. Hacivat, his direct Turkish antecedent does not. It’s peculiar. Hadjiavatis is a Greek derivative of the Turkish name, Hacivat, but he looks nothing like him. What can it mean?

The Crafty Theatre Hadjiavatis puppet  pictured here is typical of the Greek puppet. The image of Karagöz and Hacivat below is also representative of these Turkish theatrical characters. Hacivat is on the left and Karagöz is on the right. Hacivat holds his fists directly below his beard. He definitely doesn’t pull on it or hold it.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand - Antique shop in Istanbul.

Hacivat and Karagoz, two authentic puppets that I found in a Second Hand – Antique shop in Istanbul.

Both Hacivat and Hadjiavatis are town criers. Hacivat is educated and represents the middle classes. Hadjiavatis, while not near homeless as Karagiozis seems with his derelict hovel, isn’t as privileged as Hacivat. Hacivat is better known for his comic dialogues with Karagöz. Hadjiavatis dialogue with Karagiozis is not singled out as particular. Karagiozis interacts similarly with all of the characters, they are his foils. Hadjiavatis generally enters the screen early in the story with news from the seray that will prompt the action and problem solving of the drama. Often he seems to be just a plot device driving the story. He doesn’t necessarily grace the screen again. His role is similar to that of the messenger in Classical drama. Which prompts the question, did Hadjiavatis as a character exist before the Ottoman period?

Karagöz and Hacivat puppet shows were a permitted entertainment in the Ottoman Empire. Linda and Kostas Myrsiades in their book Karagiozis: Culture and Comedy in Greek Puppet Theater, tell us that the Ottoman puppeteers overcame the Islamic directive against the realistic depiction of people by piercing holes through the hides of the shadow puppets to allow the characters spirits to escape. Could it be that in order for a native theatrical character to continue under Ottoman rule, it had to take on the characteristics of the Turkish shadow puppets? This then poses another question, was Hadjiavatis in his Turkish garb, pulling his own beard sending up his Turkish overlords?

If indeed Hadjiavatis survived from an earlier time we have to remember that beard pulling was a way of entreating mercy in Classical drama. Is Hadjiavatis begging himself for mercy?

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Menander, the greatest playwright of the Classical New Comedy. His works vanished for 900 years

And what of Karagiozis himself? The bare-footed, undersized man dressed in green with a hunched back and an extra, extra, extra long arm? Visually Karagöz and Karagiozis are very different. Was there a pre-Ottoman antecedent for Hadjiavatis and Karagiozis? Perhaps Byzantine, perhaps Classical?

To determine this we must look at the Byzantine Empire, its span, society and attitude to theatre. We must also look at the survival of pagan Classics in the hands of the Byzantines. Menander, in particular. What sort of Greek speaking society would neglect or even censor the comic works of the greatest writer of Classical Greek New Comedy?

Then we will see whether Menander or one of his satyrs is lurking within Hadjiavatis beard.


The Crafty Theatre, Hadjiavatis puppet and Karagiozis’ Hovel stencils are now on the Crafty Theatre facebook page as well as the Crafty Karagiozis board on the Crafty Theatre Pinterest page.

Photo Credit

Bust of the Greek playwright Menander modeled after a Greek bronze sculpted by Kephisodotos the Younger and his brother Timarchos Roman 100-150 CE Marble

Photo credit: mharrsch / / CC BY-NC-SA

Building the Sultan’s Palace

In the long-standing dispute of who came first, the Turkish Karagöz or the Greek Karagiozi, even the story of their origin is in contention. The crazy thing is that beside the pronunciation of the character names their story is the same. It centres on the building of the Sultan’s palace in Bursa, or in some versions of the Greek tale, in Constantinople.

The Sultan wanted a palace, so he had need of craftsmen. Hacivat (Turkish) or Hadjiavatis (Greek) was employed as the overseer. He was responsible for the project running on time. He also employed the craftsmen who worked on the building.

One particular carpenter was a joy to have on the site. He was always clowning around and telling jokes. Karagöz or Karagiozi. He was an incorrigible comedian. He had his co-workers laughing so much that construction of the palace slowed. Only the Sultan was not happy. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was made to give an account. In consequence his comic carpenter was ordered to stop his incessant joking or suffer a severing of his head. Faced with this ultimatum requiring him to be something he was not, Karagöz / Karagiozi laughed his head off (with the help of the Sultan’s soldiers.)

The Green Mosque in Bursa

Inside Yesil Cami, the Green Mosque, Bursa

The outpouring of grief that followed his death confounded the Sultan. He regretted having Karagöz / Karagiozi put to death. He erected a statue to the memory of carpenter to appease the people and ordered Hacivat/ Hadjiavatis to come talk to him about Karagöz / Karagiozi, and especially relate his jokes.

The shrewd Hacivat / Hadjiavatis, not wishing to suffer the same fate as his carpenter friend, made shadow puppets and presented the comic tales to the Sultan from behind a screen. Hoping to separate himself from the bawdy humour and social satire of his carpenter-friend,  his puppets’ substanceless shadows delivered the indelicate punchlines before the Sultan.. The ploy worked. Hacivat / Hadjiavatis was safe from the Sultan’s wrath. For it was not he who laughed at authority. No – that was air, breath and an immaterial substance,  and an absence of light, an absence of being, a spirit being, a being only with light – a shadow, Karagöz / Karagiozi’s shadow.

Karagöz / Karagiozi’s spirit, his shadow, had succeeded in making the Sultan laugh. Now the Sultan wanted to laugh and laugh again. And he did. So began a theatrical tradition that was openly enjoyed and endorsed in the Ottoman world and is still enjoyed today.

But in whose culture does this story belong? The Greek or the Turkish? The answer lies in Bursa.

Bursa was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Written account of the performance of Karagöz dates back to the early 1500’s. Looking at the grand architecture of Bursa from the 15th and 16th centuries the Green Mosque presents an interesting possible answer to the origin-story dilemma.

The Green Mosque (Yeşil Cami) or the Mosque of Mehmed I was built in Bursa between 1419 and 1421 A.D.. An inscription above niches over the entrance door dedicates the building to its architect, Haci Ivaz. Haci Ivaz, as it is written, looks a lot like Hacivat. Wikipedia gives Haci Ivaz as an alternate form of Hacivat together with Hacivad. We are told that Haci Ivaz was the son of a civic man of authority, Ahi Beazit, who held the position of prefect of Bursa. He would later become Bursa’s governor. Wikipedia tells us that as such a high ranking official in Bursa, Ahi Beazit was conceivably involved in overseeing the project. Teamwork and craftsmanship of the Mason’s Guild would get the job done. It is not a leap to think that the architect and his father’s role’s in the project were conflated and given to the character of Hacivat. This would make the origin story Turkish. But does it mean that Karagöz as a theatrical character preceeded Karagiozi?

The Green Mosque in Bursa

The Entrance to the Green Mosque, Bursa

If the origin story belongs to Karagöz, does it prove that Karagiozi grew out of it? In a previous post I brought up the concern that written records could not exist before the Greek War of Independence for performances of Karagiozi. This is due to the cultural genocide practices inflicted on Greeks during the Ottoman occupation. Written records for performances of Karagiozi begin in the mid 1800’s. The Karagöz puppet theatre was permitted by the Ottoman Turks and then transformed into the Karagiozi puppet theatre enjoyed by the Greeks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This has been well documented. At a quick glance it would seem that the development of the character of Karagiozi was one directional, from Karagöz into Karagiozi. However, more questions arise when you look at the drawing of the puppets themselves.



In visual presentation Karagöz and Karagiozi have very little in common. Karagiozi is easily recognizable in his threadbare and patched green coat and culottes, bare feet, bare head, hunched back and exceedingly long arm. Karagöz, also an illiterate and impulsive clown who chases get rich quick schemes, looks totally different. His arms are in proportion to his body, he does not wear patched clothing nor is his clothing green. He does wear shoes and also a hat. He looks to be of the middle class, not living the life of poverty that Karagiozi emerges from.

Karagöz Muzesi in Bursa - Karagöz


Hacivat and Hadjiavatis also differ. Both are town criers however Hadjiavatis is always presented pulling on his own beard. Hadjiavatis is not as poor as Karagiozi but he is not the comfortable and highly educated Hacivat, blowing through his flute in the Turkish tradition. There is no beard holding or pulling in the presentation of Hacivat.

Hadjiavatis and Karagiozi have very specific deviations from the visual presentation of Karagöz and Hacivat. The symbolism of which is a reference back to the pagan times, before the Ottoman Turks and before even the Byzantines. Their appearance prompts questions about the performance of Greek drama not only in the Ottoman Empire when Greek culture was suppressed but also in the Byzantine Empire when pagan cultures, even Greek ones, were suppressed.

Contemplating the peculiarities of Karagiozi and Hadjiavatis appearances, I find myself asking, “When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear?”

The fodder of next times post.
On Facebook and coming soon to my Crafty Karagiozi board on Pinterest, Karagiozi’s Hovel and the Vizier’s Seray. Also scroll through my Karagöz and Hacivat board and Karagiozi board on Pinterest for still images of these lovely shadow puppets.

Inside Yesil Cami, The Green Mosque

Photo credit: CharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA

The Entrance Door to the Green Mosque

Photo credit: C, BursaharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA


Photo credit: / CC BY-SA


Photo credit: CharlesFred / / CC BY-NC-SA