The modern village of el-Bahnasa, in the governorate of el-Minya, is the location for the destroyed site of the capital of the 19th Upper Egyptian nome. Little is known of the pharaonic history of the town of Per-Medjed, except that a species of mormyrus fish was worshipped there in a local cult. The ‘sharp-nosed fish’ is reputed to have been one of the three species of Nile fish who, according to legend, ate the phallus of Osiris when the god’s body was cut into pieces by his brother Seth. Plutarch tells of a dispute which broke out between this town and its neighbour, Cynopolis, who worshipped a dog – each community being accused of killing and eating each other’s sacred emblems. Per-Medjed was called Oxyrhynchus (or Oxyrhynchonpolis) by the Greeks who named their town after the sacred fish.

Late Period Bronze Oxyrhynchus fish statuette. (Ashmolean Museum Oxford)

The town began to gain in importance during Ptolemaic times when it became a prosperous regional capital and under the Greeks and Romans became the third city of Egypt. Oxyrhynchus was a large and sophisticated town during Roman times, with access to the camel-routes between the Nile Valley and the western oases. It is thought to have housed as many as 6000 people during its prominence, and a few structures have been revealed from this period, including part of a colonnade and a substantial Roman theatre. Textural evidence tells us that there was also a gymnasium, public baths and about twenty temples. The site was visited by Denon and other early travellers, before Petrie dug there for the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1896. The site had long been quarried for its stone and brick and remaining structures were few. However it was Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell who were to make the name of Oxyrhynchus famous.

The two archaeologists from Oxford had been excavating for papyri for the newly-formed Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund, especially in the Faiyum area. In 1896 they turned their attentions to Oxyrhynchus, where they discovered, in the town’s rubbish mounds, a large quantity of papyri scrolls ranging from the Roman conquest to the early Islamic period. Between 1896 and 1906, Oxyrhynchus yielded an impressive collection of texts for Grenfell and Hunt, mostly written in Greek but also in Latin, Coptic and Arabic. Literary works included plays and poetry, several previously lost classical works, as well as known texts of Plato. Fragmentary Christian texts were also found, including a collection of Logia, or sayings of Christ, some which do not appear in the gospels. Other discarded manuscripts found in the rubbish dumps consisted of letters and texts which shed an important light on daily life in Roman Egypt. Details of political, financial and religious concerns have been revealed in this, one of the largest and most important finds of papyri in Egypt. Together Grenfell and Hunt went on to edit and publish many volumes of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri for the Egypt Exploration Fund.

How to get there

The village of el-Bahnasa is situated on the west bank of the Nile, to the west of the road between Maghagha and Beni Mazar and out towards the edge of the cultivation. Today the village occupies part of the archaeological site.

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