In 1896, when two scholarly papyrus-hunters, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, arrived at the same spot, now called el-Behnesa, they found the village depopulated for fear of Bedouin raids, with nothing to show for the departed glory but a single Corinthian column. “A thousand years’ use as a quarry for limestone and bricks had clearly reduced the buildings to utter ruin,” wrote Grenfell. The most prominent features nearby were some low hills, the dumps where rubbish had accumulated long ago. And here the papyrologists struck gold – or rather manuscripts.
There were seams of fragmented papyrus buried in the sandy soil in little drifts, preserved by the dry desert climate. Some held lines of Greek poets that had been lost to the world. More detailed the daily lives of the Greek-speaking citizens of this ancient Roman territory on the banks of the Nile. Others reflected the growth of Christianity that had so impressed the fourth-century pilgrim. In all there were 500,000 papyri, and they are still being deciphered and published. The 72nd volume has been printed, and 40 more are expected.