Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.23

Josef Locher, Topographie und Geschichte der Region am ersten Nilkatarakt in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Archiv für Papyrusforschung, Beischrift 5.   Stuttgart/Leipzig:  B.G. Teubner, 1999.  Pp. viii, 365.  ISBN 3-598-77538-5.  

Reviewed by M. Bontty, UCLA
Word count: 1545 words

In Egypt, the Graeco-Roman period was one of great importance which witnessed the flowering of Hellenistic culture as well as the annexation of Egypt into the Roman Empire. As the title says, this book, which is derived from a doctoral thesis supervised by Heinen, deals with the topography and history of the first Nile cataract in the Graeco-Roman period. Due to the complexity of the source material, never before has the topography and history of the first cataract been presented in such a form. The author is to be congratulated for producing this work, as this volume has a plethora of material to offer the reader. No doubt this book will prove to be indispensable to both Egyptologists and scholars in other disciplines for a long time to come.

Thanks to a clear format, the material is easy to comprehend. Not only has the author succeeded in incorporating written and archaeological data, but he was also fortunate enough to have access to geology and hydrology. Although at present the topography of the cataract region is subject to constant change, before human intervention, especially the construction of the high dam, the topography of the region had remained almost unchanged from the Graeco-Roman period. Chronologically, the volume covers the period from the conquest of Alexander in 332 BCE down to 298 CE, when Diocletian withdrew troops from Lower Nubia and reestablished the border of the Roman Empire at the first cataract.

Following an informative introduction summarizing important topics such as the historical setting, the author helps to orient the reader by presenting the chronological extent of the study, as well as the various written sources at hand. At first, one is struck by the wide range of available resources, which include Greek, Latin, Demotic and Egyptian (hieroglyphic) documents. Unfortunately, these sources are not evenly distributed and there is clearly a preponderance of Greek texts used. However, such a situation is not the fault of the author, but rather due to that fact that Greek materials are published in large amounts, while Demotic papyri and ostraca are not as readily available for scholars. In spite of this state of affairs, the present volume gives a good idea of the political and historical dealings in the first cataract in the Graeco-Roman period.

The main section of the book commences with a systematic enumeration of sources. Next, the volume is divided into two main sections and follows a fixed plan with the author providing valuable information on many significant cultural centers of the cataract region: Elephantine, Syene, Contra Suenem, Setis, Philae Tsumanis and the respective surrounding locations, just to name a few. Additionally, the Ombite nome, Peri Elephantinen kai Philas, Lower Nubia and a list of toponyms incorrectly placed in the cataract area make up the volume's second part. Lower Nubia is included in this study since it was part of the traditional imperial extension of Egypt. An excursus on the nileometer and an excellent summary are also found.

Each toponym is treated in detail, and the hieroglyphic and Greek renderings (and orthographic variants) of each name are especially useful for those interested in the etymology of these names. Additionally, the reader is treated to an evaluation of the historical, political and cultural significance of each area as well as a brief analysis of its most important features. Each location is well referenced and up to date. A complete and thorough analysis of the archaeological and architectural evidence complements the textual material and allows a reconstruction of the historical framework. Locher has also revised the prevailing Egyptological conception of the Dodeskaschoinos as a "gift." His careful scrutiny of known documentation shows that this land was not a gift to the temple per se, but rather, the temple exercised a ius occupandi atque utendi, with the king as nominal sovereign. All in all, the author presents scholars, whether they are interested in the topography, settlements, political history or the economic structure of the cataract area, with extensive and highly informative material. Due to space constraints, the reviewer must restrict commentary to just a few examples.

Locher provides an excellent overview of historical and political developments in the first cataract, which served as the border between Egypt in the north and Ethiopia in the south. As the author correctly states, it is best not to think of a fixed border between the two civilizations but rather as a zone between two regions. Texts detail the changes in the political relationships between the two lands, which ranged from friendly to that of a state of war. From 332 B.C.E. the border was constantly shifting, with frequent annexations into Lower Nubia until Diocletian's withdrawal to Philae in 298 C.E.

Those scholars interested in economic history will not be disappointed with the present work. By his critical analysis of material, consisting primarily of tax documents, the author shows that the economic structure of the area, in contrast to that of Ancient Egypt, was not strongly based on the cultivation of plants and animals. In his opinion, the non-agricultural base of the cataract area is rather exceptional.

Although it is difficult to give a general picture of the administration due to the lack of written sources before the second century B.C.E., considerable and valuable details about the bureaucracy are found in this volume. Due to the fragmentary evidence, the author offers three hypothetical administrative scenarios as well as several titles of office holders. Given the vast amounts of Demotic texts which await translation, those individuals interested in the administration are provided a starting point for further research.

Closely related to the administration is the topic of law which is also well covered. Due to the paucity of judicial papyri, the author is correctly cautious in what can and cannot be said about the adjudication of disputes. Documents show that in the Ptolemaic period there existed a traveling royal court in addition to priestly justice. However, these few surviving sources available suggest that the temple of Philae was subordinate to that of Elephantine, especially in cases involving blasphemy, such as when a wife complained about her husband's disturbing the peace of the Abaton, the tomb of Osiris. Such information is important for legal historians because it gives an idea of the jurisdiction of the different "courts," as well as indications of who or what was considered liable for a transgression. Another interesting point raised by the author is a case involving the deletion of divine elements from a theophoric name. Such action is an isolated occurrence and not attested elsewhere in Egyptian history. A comparison with the ancient Egyptian practice of deleting or altering of names could no doubt give some insight into this interesting topic.

Religion is another aspect which is discussed. Although the Egyptians were dominated (at least politically) by a Greek and then Roman minority, the culture of the native majority blossomed during the Graeco-Roman period, something which is well presented by the author. We are well informed concerning native and non-native cults found in the area. For example, there exists evidence of a Caeserion, where worship of the Roman emperor may have taken place. Nubian and Egyptian deities such as Imhotep were also represented in the cataract region. As Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, pagan religion gradually came to an end in most locations in the cataract area. Such information is important because it provides the reader with a glimpse of culture and life during the Greco-Roman period. The cataract area was a crossroad of culture, combining Greek, Egyptian and Roman influences to form the society which Egypt was becoming.

In spite of the wealth of information revealed by the texts, written sources cannot always indicate the location of important places such as the Abaton or the aforementioned Caeserion. However, documentation has suggested that these two sites may be found at Tsumanis and the isle of Elephantine respectively.

Four very useful indices are included (an enumeration of tax receipts, a list of civil servants, hieroglyphic texts cited in the volume and citations relating to the "endowment" of the so-called Dodekaschoinos) and they combine to make this book a very informative and useful research tool. Excellent translations of the Egyptian provided in the index were no doubt meant for those unfamiliar with Egyptian, thus making this volume useful to scholars from other disciplines.

A map, to be found in the back sleeve, is included for use with the work. Unfortunately, it is at best fair in quality and not particularly helpful to those individuals who may be unfamiliar with the area. In the opinion of the reviewer, given today's technology, a superior reproduction of the cataract region could have been produced to better suit the reader. However, the map does not detract from the overall quality of the volume.

Despite a few critical observations, this extremely detailed and extensive volume succeeds in filling in yet another gap of what we know about ancient Egyptian topography, history and politics. Primary and secondary sources are exceptionally well researched and evaluated. Furthermore, the author's integration of the materials is excellent, and with this volume he demonstrates how something new can be attained by an interdisciplinary analysis. This book is well written and interesting, and the author is to be commended for this fine contribution to scholarship.

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