Home / News / Ancient Papyrus Reveals Earlist Armenian Writing

Ancient Papyrus Reveals Earlist Armenian Writing

By: Arakel Arisian

Among the many sources of ancient history, one that is often overlooked is the study of papyri or papyrology.  On Thursday, Nov. 4, 1999, Dr. James Clackson, a Fellow of Cambridge University, gave a lecture titled, “An Armenian Learning Greek in Late Antique Egypt.”  Clackson spoke about a papyrus (the ancient equivalent of paper) from the 6th or early 7th century found in Egypt written in Armenian.  Dr. Dickran Kouymjian who has a personal interest in the papyrus introduced him.  The lecture was co-sponsored by the Armenian Studies Program, the Classics Program, the History Department, the Smittcamp Honors College, and the Armenian Students Organization.

3aThis ancient papyrus is not only of interest to Armenian historians but also to classical scholars.  The papyrus is written with Armenian script, but the entire text is in Greek.   Among the hundreds of thousands of papyrus fragments discovered during the past century, it is the only one written with Armenian letters.  It brings together a number of disciplines.

The papyrus was first reported by Professor A. Carri in Paris in the 1890s.  It then disappeared and as Dr. Clackson pointed out, was rediscovered by at the Biblioth que Nationale du France in 1992 by Kouymjian who has published three preliminary studies on it. Clackson and Kouymjian met through the internet in 1996 and have been collaborating ever since.

Most papyri are written in Greek and Egyptian; they contain literary texts and information about everyday life.  They are found almost exclusively in Egypt, where the climate is dry, thus preserving the documents.  For decades, archeologists have been digging up papyrus.  Clackson pointed out this particular papyrus was found through an Arab papyrus dealer, thus it has no archeological context.  Everything known about the papyrus comes from document itself.

The papyrus has writing on both sides, but some parts are cut off or missing.  It was found broken into many pieces and those pieces had to be put together like a puzzle.  Originally, it was organized and photographed incorrectly. Clackson, a specialist in Greek and Armenian linguistics, was able to translate the text and rearrange the pieces   correctly.

The front side of the document has Greek phrases, questions and answers, declensions and lists of words.  In a very detailed manner, the writer wrote all of the body parts, words for military equipment and other lists of common words.  The back side contains three tales about the philosopher Diogenes, more lists of words and other phrases and sayings.  The sentences are crammed together and are very messy in some places.

Although Clackson has deciphered what the papyrus says, he is not certain of the identity of the person who wrote it or its purpose.   Since it is written in Greek with Armenian letters, there are a limited number of possible uses of the papyrus.  It was most likely used as some sort of tool to learn Greek.   There are similar documents written in Greek and other languages, but they had both the words and their translations like a glossary.   This text had only the words.


Even though the exact purpose is unknown, the document does give historians some concrete facts.  It shows an Armenian presence in Egypt and in the Greek world.  It also has linguistic value for both the Greek and Armenian languages.   As the studies of Kouymjian have pointed out, the Armeno-Greek papyrus is also the oldest example of written Armenian we have, predating by several centuries the earliest surviving manuscripts.

Clackson has written a couple of major articles analyzing the language of the document and its importance to both Greek and Armenian language studies.  These, along with a complete transcription and translation, are in press.  The lecture was an eye-opening experience to a different way to learn about history.