The longest private letter of the ancient world was discovered in Alexandria

Egyptian-style bust of Alexander

When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC he could not know that the Greek language he introduced into this ancient civilization was to dominate it for more than a thousand years.

Until well after the Arab invasion of Egypt in AD 640-642 Greek was used for official documents rather than the indigenous language, Egyptian, which was used for religious texts and private documents written in Hieratic or Demotic script and, from the third century AD onwards, with the aid of the Greek alphabet. The last-mentioned combination of an indigenous language and a foreign script is called Coptic.

During this millenium millions of Greek and Coptic and thousands of Hieratic and Demotic documents were written for public and private use. A small number of these survive today. The published number of Greek papyri is only about 50,000. There are at least seven times as many still to be published.


A letter to Mother

About a hundred papyri in the Duke collection that originally belonged to the archive of Ammon, a lawyer from Panopolis in Upper Egypt. While he was on a business trip in Alexandria in AD 348 he wrote a letter to his mother, the longest private letter from the ancient world. The letter (pictured) is written in impeccable Greek and very carefully executed, no doubt to impress his mother (he was about forty by then). He relates how his brother Horion and a Nubian prince left Alexandria to meet the emperor Constantius. The last column of the text contains greetings to his family and friends back home.

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