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Ptolemaic Decrees and the Relation between Priests and the King

Heinz-Josef Thissen

Among the most important religious phenomena of the Ptolemaic Period in Egypt (305-30 BC) were the priestly synods, sessions of Egyptian priests, which took place mostly in Memphis or Alexandria. Although the issues they addressed varied, their main purpose was, on the one hand, to increase the honors of the king and the royal family, and on the other hand to ensure financial and economic gratification for the priests. The outcome of these synods was widely manifest, in the form of large inscriptions posted in the temples all over the country, provided in Hieroglyphic, in Demotic and in Greek versions. This paper aims to present a newly edited trilingual decree, the Decree of Alexandria, undertaken by Hartwig Altenmüller, Yahya el-Masry and the speaker, and to explore its position in the context of the other decrees.

The most famous of these is the "Rosetta Stone" more properly known as the Decree of Memphis (196 B.C.), a name derived from the synod's meeting place which was the key artifact leading to the decipherment of the Egyptian language by Jean-François Champollion. There are, however, several other decrees issued before and after the Decree of Memphis. The oldest of these is now the Decree of Alexandria, which was issued in the Egyptian capital in 243 B.C. and can be almost completely reconstructed from copies found near Athribis, in Assuan and in Elephantine. One noteworthy result of the study of these decrees collectively is that they have been found to have been modelled after older and contemporary Greek honorary inscriptions (Clarysse 1999, 48-50), and therefore represent a new textual genre transferred into Egypt in Ptolemaic times.

Among the foremost issues that have been the subject of scholarly debate concerning such decrees is whether their contents were dictated by the royal court or if the priests, who were drawn from the elites of the native population, were autonomous in deciding on the matters the inscriptions address. If the latter was the case, the extent of the priestly influence on religious "politics" would have been quite significant. Stefan Pfeiffer has argued for a priestly initiative (Pfeiffer 2004, 292-293), while more recently Gilles Gorre has concluded that the Egyptian priests did not play an important role at the royal court (Gorre 2009, 623-630). Going a step further, Jan Assmann even pleads for a politically powerless and degraded elite under the Ptolemies (Assmann 2010, 31-32). Drawing in part on the newly reconstructed Decree of Alexandria, this paper will instead argue for a rather independent position of the priestly elite meaning that the king and the priesthood are collaborators having equal rights in order to grant the stability and well-being of Egypt. Since the Egyptian versions (Hieroglyphic and Demotic) contain elements which are not represented in the Greek text, this paper will also demonstrate the importance of these decrees as royal and priestly sources for the study of religion in Ptolemaic Egypt, while emphasizing the often complementary nature of documents composed in the different languages.

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