You are here

Documenting Travel in Imperial Egypt: Papyrus vs. Inscribed Letters

Patricia Rosenmeyer

My paper compares two texts documenting tourism in Egypt in the imperial period (late 1st/early 2nd c. CE): a papyrus letter and an inscription on a monument in Egyptian Thebes, both describing devotional marks (proskynemata) on nearby stone surfaces. I investigate the relationship between the two texts, with particular reference to communicative efficacy, and suggest that we can better understand the function of certain inscriptions if we consider them as open letters to future travelers, similar to Themistocles’ letter inscribed on the cliffs at Artemisium (Hdt. 8.22).

Sometime in the late 1st century CE, a certain Nearchos wrote to his acquaintance Heliodoros, describing sightseeing in Egypt (P. Lond. III 854). After cataloguing a cruise up the Nile, he informs his addressee that he left graffiti, a “sign of worship”, at the “rock cuttings”, i.e. the Tombs of the Kings:

[καὶ] εὔτομα ἱστόρ[η]σα καὶ τῶν φίλων

[ἐ]μ[ῶν τ]ὰ ὀνόματα ἐνεχάραξα τοῖς ἱ[ε]-

ροῖς ἀειμνήστως τὸ προσκύνημα…

and I investigated the rock cuttings, and I scratched the names

of my dear ones on the sacred [monuments]

as a sign of worship always to be remembered…

We can compare Nearchus’ letter to a contemporary inscription by a Roman official, Celer, etched onto the Memnon colossus in Thebes, a statue of divinized Memnon that mysteriously “spoke” to visitors every dawn (Bernand 23). He, too, writes of visiting sacred sites and leaving a mark of his devotion, both “here” and “elsewhere”, i.e. at the Temple of Hatshepsut:

Κέλερ στρατηγὸς ἐνθαδεὶ παρῆν

Μέμνονος οὐχ ὅπως ἀκούσεται.

Ἐν κονεῖ γὰρ αὐτῇ τῇ τῶν χωματων

παρῆν θεωρὸς καὶ προσκυνήσων ἅμα.

Μέμνων ἐπιγνοὺς οὐδὲν ἐξεφθέγξατο.

Κέλερ δὲ ἀπῄει ἐφ' ἃ πάλιν π[α]ρῆν

μέσας διαστήσας ἡμέρας δύο.

Ἤκουσεν ἐλθὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τὸν ἦχον,

(ἔτους) ζ Ἁδριανοῦ Καίσαρος τοῦ κυρίου, Ἐπεὶφ ς, ὥραν α.

The strategos Celer was here

But not in order to hear Memnon

For he was here in the dust itself of the dirt mounds

In order to see and to mark his devotion.

Memnon understood and did not speak out at all.

But Celer then came back again to the place he had been,

After having spent two days elsewhere.

Arriving, he heard the voice of the god,

In the 7th year of our ruler Hadrian Caesar, the 6th of Epiph, at the first hour.

Both texts, while in different media, reflect epistolary conventions: 1) identification of sender/addressee: Nearchos’ addressee is named, but Celer’s lines are destined for future visitors; 2) temporal or geographical distance between sender/addressee; 3) newsworthy items, as both authors describe their travels; 4) reference to previous writings, as both mention inscribing their names elsewhere; 4) specific date and place: Nearchos’ data may be lost, but Celer’s are expressed with epigraphic deictic detail, dating his message with both Roman  and local Egyptian terminology, as was the custom for officials stationed in the area; 5) an expectation of a response: Nearchos’ in terms of a return letter, Celer’s in the form of additional inscriptions on the colossus; of the 107 Memnon inscriptions, many show evidence of “answering” one another in the manner of latrinalia.

Using this evidence, I explore how the permanent medium of stone affects composition and communication. Celer’s inscribed “letter” blends epistolary and dedicatory conventions. The documents of his visit remains long after his departure, speaking to subsequent tourists and worshippers who will respond with their own lines on the same surface. By remaining immobile, requiring readers to come to it rather than being sent to them, Celer’s open letter runs no risk of being intercepted, misdirected, or lost. Even if its medium and method of delivery are unusual, Celer’s inscription functions as a letter, and benefits from being read as one.

Session/Panel Title:

Epistolary Epigraphy

Session/Paper Number

53.4

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy