BMCR 2012.03.51

Documentary Arabic Private and Business Letters on Papyrus: Form and Function, Content and Context. Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, Beiheft 29

Eva Mira Grob, Documentary Arabic Private and Business Letters on Papyrus: Form and Function, Content and Context. Archiv für Papyrusforschung und verwandte Gebiete, Beiheft 29. Berlin; New York: De Gruyter, 2010. xix, 269. ISBN 9783110247046 $140.00.


This doctoral dissertation, the first comprehensive work on Arabic private and business letters on papyri (with the exception of the Qurra ibn Sharik archive) appeared shortly after its defense at the University of Zurich. Under the able supervision of Professor Andreas Kaplony, Eva Mira Grob has produced a major work of research. Grob has also been active as one of the contributors to the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD), conceived in 2002 and currently giving access to some 2,500 documents. This dissertation is therefore both personal research on early Arabic epistolary materials and a companion to the APD. Scholars from a variety of horizons — historians, linguists, Arabists, paleographers and codicologists — will find here plenty of food for thought. For paleographers and codicologists, Grob’s dissertation will prove to be a milestone in the footsteps of Geoffrey Khan’s scrupulous analysis of papyri scripts.

Egyptian papyri have long been a valuable source for historians: commercial practices, lists of goods, private orders by all actors of society can be followed from Ancient Egypt to the Byzantine and Muslim periods. Arabic papyri are no exception. Grob concentrates on “letters written on papyrus from Egypt, between the 1 st – 4 th /7 th -10 th c. with a focus on the 3 rd /9 th ”. The papyrological and codicological study proper is illustrated with a number of useful charts where the reader can see at a glance the quantity of internally dated Arabic documents on papyrus, paper and parchment between the end of the seventh and the mid-thirteenth century CE, or the distribution of papyri by date and genre. The first business letter, discovered by Y. Raġib, who assigned it to the first century Hijra [= 16 th July 622 to 3 rd August 718], is written over a Latin text on parchment, and not on papyrus (cf. Grob, p. 1, n. 2). After 255/870, papyrus declined with the arrival of paper introduced from Syria (pp. 10-11), which finally took over in the 4 th /10 th c. (It is a feature of Arabic codicology that paper documents can be older than parchment, while for Western manuscripts paper replaces parchment at the end of the 13 th c.). But as Grob remarks, “dating of paper documents is highly problematic, and palaeographic studies are an absolute desideratum.” (p. 7).1

The introductory chapter on the extant material and archives also considers the difficult question of the ‘Arabisation’ and ‘Islamisation’ of Egypt. Aware that no generalisations are appropriate since relatively few documents have been published (about 2,500 from 130,000 extant pieces!), Grob mentions “several parallel developments,” including a “growing Arabic-speaking population [near] al-Fusṭāṭ”.2 For Grob, the “increasing number of Arabic documents reflects the on-going Arabisation of the native population through conversion to Islam,” a process in which the 3 rd AH/9 th CE century would have been pivotal. She states further that “…conversion to Islam can be assumed for most people writing Arabic (…), an Egyptian Christian — even if he were able to write in Arabic — would most probably have resorted to Coptic when writing to a fellow Christian…” (Grob, p. 86).3 But one may have liked to find more references to recent research on the different Christian denominations in Late Antique Egypt, including that of the Copts. As we know, Late Antique religions in Egypt and the Middle East display a complex intricacy of Egyptian, Pagan Greek, Roman, Judeo-Christian, and Gnostic layers. Furthermore, the fact that Arabic belongs to a family of cognate languages spoken in the area — Syriac, Nabatean, South-Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew — is oddly almost never a criterion in the analysis of the processes of ‘Arabisation’. Polyglossia may have been just as common as it is today on the African continent. Besides, Arabic was written in different alphabets before the advent of Islam (e.g., Nabatean and Sabaic). To write Arabic therefore may not have implied a particular ethnicity.

Chapters 2 and 3, on the “epistolary formulary”, demonstrate the organisation of Arabic letters in different sections and the “pragmatics” of letter writing in Arabic. Attempting a discourse analysis on the Arabic epistolary material, Grob discovers what she calls the “algorithm” of the formulae linking expressions of politeness and religious formulae, such as “invocations”, “blessings and “others, such as glorifications and prayers.” A chart provides an “overview of the typical sections and their sequence” (pp. 82-83) and appendices at the end of the book offer samples of translated letters following different themes, all showing the existence of the ‘algorithm’ according to which the formulae are organized. The inevitable conclusion is that we are in the presence of a highly sophisticated language. Grob’s analysis leads her to insist on an important difference between 7 th – 8 th c. and 9 th -10 th c. letters: the mandatory prescript has been replaced by a mandatory “initial blessing” section.

The fourth chapter, “Language”, is too brief. It is well known that papyri have been used to support a claim for the existence of an intermediary register between Classical and Vernacular, called “Middle Arabic” by some. But instead of taking a clear position in this debate and its related questions — the existence of a Middle Arabic (Blau, Hopkins), Old versus Neo-Arabic (Blau, Owens), and Pre-Classical versus Classical (Fischer, Kinberg) — Grob posits a new concept of “documentary standard” (p. 156-158).4

It is disappointing that a long discussion on qad and anā as “pivotal points structuring the sentence” occupies much of the fourth chapter. Qad is considered a “classical feature,” but nowhere do we find an explanation of this statement. As qad is overwhelmingly present in early poetry and the Quran, its broad use is well-attested. Grob (p. 140) follows Hopkins in stating that the use of qad is striking, but neither of them seems to be aware that it is still widely used in the dialect of Ṣanʻāʼ (Yemen). Grob states that qad is important in “discourse structuring” (p. 141), but some of her examples to assert the particle’s role are less relevant than others.5 The explanation (p. 155) on qad versus anā, where it is noted that they both serve for “heavy coding”, with qad as the onset of discourse spans and anā a pivotal point for comment-parts, is no more than an explanation of the use of “nominal” and “verbal” sentences in Arabic.6 The further comments on anā (p. 149, n. 82; pp. 149-150; p. 152; p. 154 ex. 206) as introducing information about what the writer is doing or about to do are trivial, because these are precisely the functions of the mubtadāʼ and khabar in a jumla ismiyya.

In the final chapter, “Script and Layout,” Grob states that “Arabic private and business letters have not received much attention regarding script development, for they do not exhibit sophisticated script styles…” Grob notes that the date of 3 rd /9 th c. for papyri has usually been assigned on palaeographic ground, but that it should be considered rather as a default-category covering “papyrus letters, written in a script of advanced cursiveness, without prescript” (p. 7, p. 207). The illustrations she gives (pp. 160-161) illustrate her point well: the earlier are the less “cursive” and at times close to a semi-Kufic (see, for example, Illustration 8 p. 161). This makes her dissertation (like G. Khan’s publications) the source of an innovative method for further studies in Arabic palaeography. In addition Grob points to an evolution in the “script orientation” and comments that “…[noting] script angle, hanging of baseline, and degree of slanting would help (…) in bringing together documents written by the same scribe.” (p. 168) On the layout specifically, Grob gives new insights on the regularity of certain patterns, a “typology of intentional text markings,” namely: indentation, linea dilatans, abusive ligatures… (see p. 188 f.). Through the examples given, one can immediately see that the “algorithm” is here underlined in the very layout of the letters.

Translations are usually excellent as they try to reflect the construction of Arabic.7 On the other hand, the transliteration system, which adopts the rules followed by the APD, is not entirely satisfactory for the early Arabic of the papyri. Full iʻrāb should be reserved for the Quran and poetry, and a middle ground between papyrologists and epigraphists methods should be sought. Notwithstanding these minor points, Grob’s dissertation will be for years to come a reference work for scholars of various fields, from papyrologists and specialists of Arabic codicology and palaeography to historians of Late Antiquity and Early Islam.


1. It might have been useful here to cite M. Beit-Arie’s typology of paper manuscripts, and his mention of the oldest paper manuscript, discovered in Alexandria’s municipal library and dated 838 CE: M. Beit-Arié, “The Oriental Arabic Paper,” in Gazette du livre médiéval, 28 (1996), pp. 9-12.

2. On this matter J.-C. Vadet, «L’acculturation des Sud Arabiques de Fusṭāṭ au lendemain de la conquête arabe,» Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales, 22 (1969), p. 7-14 might have been quoted.

3. The author also raises the use of religious formulae such as the basmala: “…the early letters with the profession of faith in the prescript reflect the close association of Arabic letters to Islam”. (p. 11) but see K. Almbladh, “The Basmala in Medieval Letters in Arabic Written by Jews and Christians,” Orientalia Suecana, LIX (2010) pp. 45- 60 where we find the basmala used in letters between Jews in Egypt from the 9th to the 13th c. CE, and already in the 8th c. for letters written by Christians.

4. Although wishing to skip the confused issue of Middle Arabic, she states that the term should be reserved for written, literary texts. If that is the case, why not mention the literary papyri, and why leave them out of the APD?

5. Thus, example 176 p. 142 does not show much more than qad ’s role as a verbal particle,

6. To quote W. Wright’s A Grammar of the Arabic Language, vol ii, pp. 251-252: “The difference between verbal and nominal sentences (…) is properly this, that the former relates an act or event, the latter gives a description of a person or a thing, either absolutely, or in the form of a clause descriptive of state. This is the constant rule (…) unless the desire to emphasize a part of the sentence be the cause of a change in its position.”

7. The following corrections can be suggested: on p. 27 “He is the master of it and able to do it” for ’innahu waliyyu ḏālika wa-l-qādiru ʻalayhi is awkward and does not reflect the emphasis on God’s omnipotence. On p. 31, mālinā is translated “your money”, instead of “our money” or “my money”. In Example 58, p. 62, the translation lacks “my daughter” ( ya bintī); on p. 64 n. 110, “pass by me” is a mistake for “to bypass me”; p. 205 wa-saʻādataka should be “your happiness,” rather than “your luck.” On p. 135 tawwan is not translated either by Raġib or by Grob. It is commonly used in Egyptian dialect to refer to “a short while ago” (taww). See Lane, Dictionary, vol. I, 321. Finally, the name of a Muslim woman might be “Khansā’ bint Muslim” rather than “Khunasa bint Muslim,” (p. 81, n. 151).