As part of a telling exhibition dubbed A Treasure Trove of Knowledge, ancient papyrus and manuscripts were exhibited at the Museum of the Austrian National Library in 2018. To mark International Women’s Day, Egypt Today takes a look back at the manuscripts and what they reveal about Egyptian and Arab women in antiquity.
Austria has more than 10,000 Egyptian manuscripts and papyri dating back to the period between the 3rd and 8th centuries, according to the Museum of the Austrian National Library (ÖNB) in Vienna’s official website. To mark its 650th anniversary back in 2018, the museum exhibited 300 pieces, among them two ancient manuscripts from the Austrian Papyrus Museum highlighting the position of Egyptian women in antiquity. The collection has been resident in Vienna since 1879, when a group of farmers in Fayoum sold the manuscripts and papyri to Theodor Graf (1840–1903), a Viennese national and collector of Egyptian antiquities in the late 19th century. They later contacted Professor of Oriental History at the University of Vienna and the former head of the ÖNB [otherwise known as K.K. Hofbibliothek] Josef von Karabacek, and Graf was encouraged to buy more pieces from the farmers.
Most Egyptian papyri purchased by foreign antiquity dealers discuss science and medicine, while Egypt keeps most religious papyri and manuscripts, Head of the Papyrology Restoration Department at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo Mo’men Othman tells Egypt Today.
One of the selected papyri shown at the library is a letter from a wealthy woman, Umm al-Hakam bint Al-Hakam, asking her Christian business agent Mina Bajush to buy her vegetables and grains in Fayoum, south of Cairo. The papyrus demonstrates details of the private life and women’s position in late 8th century Egypt:
“In the name of God, the most Merciful, the Compassionate!
From Umm al-Hakam daughter of al-Hakam
Peace be upon you.
Verily I praise God besides Whom there is no other god.
Now, [let] me tell you that the wife of Abu Qama has informed me that you were asking her about us. I have already sent you [an order] to buy for us three dirhams of olives and one dirham of onions. I do not know whether you are done with this or not. Also I was in Fustat until the time when the husband of my daughter arrived to cohabit with her.
In case you have already completed [the order] I had sent to you, with my client Firas, do send the things [you have bought] with him and come [to visit us] so that we see you. If you have winter grapes available, send me some.
I will send you something [for it]. I would also like to inform you that my sister Umm Hashim passed away—may God show mercy to her. ‘Abdel al-Rahman and his brother are sending their regards to you. And do convey to ‘Abdallah our regards. Peace be upon you.
If you have any wheat left, send me in advance three ardebs of wheat and barley grain before [the next harvest]. I will send it [the money] to you.
Mahmud and Abd al-Rahman are telling you to send me some bitter oranges of good quality. Also come to us to renew your contract with us.
And in case I come to the city I will drop in [to see you]
I am sending my regards to you.”
This papyrus shows the daily life of the Arabs, the economic aspects and the social system in the 12th century, says papyrologist Othman, adding, “Women [were well-respected] at that time and this [text] indicates that they were enjoying good and worthy status, and had independent financial incomes.”
This daily life of ancient Egyptian was also documented in the Greek era and was written in Latin not only in the Arabic language, says Othman. Papyri dating back to the second to fifth centuries discuss everyday life, such as Bhanasa papyri collection.
“Papyri are very seldom presented in exhibitions in our State Hall, as there are topics which are not covered in our papyri,” says Thomas Zauner, head of the press relations department at ÖNB. “Around 300 fascinating objects from the Department of Papyri are presented in one of our 6 museums, the Papyrus Museum. There, you can see a permanent exhibition and annual special exhibitions.”
The second text is a manuscript from a woman to her unfaithful husband, rebuking him for his infidelity. This excerpt reads:
"In the name of God, the Merciful, Gracious!
My letter goes to His Excellency Khitr, from Safra. I would like to tell you that I have undoubtedly believed so far that you are a man of good house, and have believed in [your] manly decency. But now—well, you know in what excellent circumstances I had lived. I was not a needy [wife], and I was not a [penniless] maid. You know which position I was in, and I do not need to remind you of which position you [are] living in. But God provides and withholds and [even] kings’ daughters have suffered [strong] blows of fate. So may God grant a happy ending!
. . . I have learned what you have secretly passed on to your beauty [your lover], and that you say to her, “By God, I have no pleasure in her appearance,’ even that you have even [divulged] things that God made secret between us. Are these the noble qualities of people of good house and decent [upbringing]?! . . . If I were not Muslim, I would curse you proudly day and night, secretly and publicly. However, there is no reason for this disgusting, angry talk. God has allowed marriage and divorce. So even if someone is hated by their spouse, they will not behave the way you do. Never has anyone who has been unfaithful to the spouse talked before like you. I did not do anything to you that could cause this talk. I treasured you despite your [wanderings]. I had so much patience (with you) because of your mother; she is a respectable woman, and God—the Mighty and Exalted—gave me love for her. But you did not honor me and did not honor yourself either. When you left, you took the food and the scales with you. I should take them from you. People have accused me of taking them [food and scales], and they said to me, ‘We will bring you both to the Chief of Police of Old Cairo!"
“The story shows that the lady was from a noble family as her letter carries an implied rebuke to her husband, and her writing style is elegant despite his infidelity,” says Othman. “The lady’s religious faith was particularly strong, as the circumstance she lived in with her husband despite his position is a matter of fate,” he continues, noting that the husband’s attitude toward his wife was morally unacceptable, albeit universally common.
“The husband did not respect his woman’s feelings and was egotistic, he also [took advantage of her wealth]. But the manuscript reveals that there was a legal entity she could resort to,” he says.
As for the writing style, the unnamed lady did not leave any space in the paper blank without writing, indicating the value of the paper at that time, notes Othman. “This paper is of high quality made from flax fiber which is why it has endured for a long time,” he adds.
According to a book on Arabic private letters from the 9th to 15th centuries published in 1996 and currently accessible at the ÖNB, “The letter was made of strong paper and written in black ink; however, it has few punches. The book also notes how Safra’s letter indicates she was not as attractive or beautiful as her husband’s beloved, at least in her husband’s point of view since she labels her “your beauty.”
Unfortunately we will likely never know how Safra’s story of her miserable married life ended for there are no further texts mentioning her husband or any citing any legal actions taken against him.
The Article is from the Magazine’s March 2020 issue.
The first photo is taken from the ÖNB.