Ancient Egypt was home to numerous temple libraries long before the Library of Alexandria or even the advent of Greek literacy. There are many references to these institutional libraries, and smaller groups of texts and isolated texts can be ascribed with varying degrees of certainty to some of them. However, only a single large-scale library has survived: the Tebtunis Temple library, which was abandoned around AD 200 and whose contents span c. AD 50-200 (Ryholt 2005, 2010a, in press/a). In addition to much religious, medical and scientific literature, this library included a substantial collection of narrative literature. The present paper will use the latter group of material as a case-study showing how Egyptian papyri from the Greco-Roman era may be relevant to the study of Greek literature and historical writing.
The narratives from the temple library all have in common that they concern historical persons or events. They are, in other words, historical narratives; there is not a single example of the type of folk-tales about anonymous or fictitious protagonists known from other social contexts. It therefore seems likely that these narratives were selected and preserved as a form of historical records (Ryholt 2004: 505-6, 2006: 18, 2010a: 716). This paper will single out three aspects of these records for discussion.
(1) The first concerns collective historical consciousness and more specifically how national traumas were treated in the narrative literature. Egypt was subject to a number of highly traumatic events, which left a long-lasting memory, during the first millennium BCE. Two types of events are particularly well-attested and generated what could be described as an existential crisis on a national level. One is represented by the civil wars and foreign invasions. In the historical narratives these events are portrayed as the direct consequence of the king's failure to carry out fundamental religious obligations, and it is explicitly described as the will of the gods that Egypt should suffer hardship (Ryholt in press/b: 79-81). One of the examples which will be presented concerns the Persian invasion of Egypt in the reign of Nectanebo II, which is recounted both in Egyptian and Greek versions (Nectanebo's Dream and the Alexander Romance; Ryholt 2002). The other trauma was caused by the large-scale abduction of divine images and other materia sacra from Egyptian temples by the Assyrians and Persians (Ryholt 2004: 500, 501; 2009: 308, 309; in press/b: 150, for literary examples; Winnicki 1994, for Ptolemaic policy). The removal of its gods and the impossibility of carrying out their cult effectively left the country impotent.
(2) The second aspect concerns historical narratives that exist both in Egyptian and Greek versions. It is particularly noteworthy that some of these found their way into the historical accounts by Herodotus, Manetho and Diodorus. The examples that will be presented concern kings Sesostris (Hdt. 2.102-3, 106-10; Diod. 1.53-58) (Widmer 2002; Ryholt 2010b, cf. also 2010a: 713) and generically named 'Pheros,' i.e. 'Pharaoh' (Hdt. 2.111; Diod. 1.59) (Ryholt 2006: 13, 31-44, cf. also 2010a: 715-6).
(3) The final aspect is the extensive use of the imitatio device in Egyptian narrative literature, i.e. the modeling of events and circumstances by one party on those of another. Most common in the historical narratives of the Greco-Roman period is imitatio Alexandri, i.e. the imitation of Alexander the Great (Lloyd 1982: 37-39; Ryholt 2010a: 716, and esp. forthcoming). The discussion of this aspect will focus on its use in relation to kings Sesostris and Ramesses, which helps explain the anachronistic details provided about these kings in both Egyptian and Greek sources from the Hellenistic era onwards.
The present paper merely scratches the surface of the library's holdings, which also include stories about ancient sages to whom scientific works were ascribed—among them Petesis, according to Greek tradition Plato's Egyptian instructor in astrology (Quack 2002; Ryholt 2006: 13-16). A brief survey of these will provide further fodder for discussion.