Ancient Egypt, science and Greek literature

To most, the thread that connects ancient Egypt to science and literature is the Library of Alexandria. Founded in third century BC by Ptolemy I Soter, the first king of the Ptolemaic dynasty that would rule in Egypt for the next three centuries, the library (in Greek bibliotheke) soon became a major cultural center in the ancient world, attracting the most renowned students and thinkers of the time. Although the history and size of the library of Alexandria are now shrouded in some aura of mystery, mostly due to its destruction in later periods, ancient sources confirmed that it contained a remarkably large collection of papyrus scrolls (what we call ‘books’), covering a wide spectrum of fields, from medicine, astronomy and physics to geography and literature, just to mention a few. Philology, that is the study of textual criticism, became one of the main and most developed fields of studies in the Hellenistic period, and the library of Alexandria played a fundamental role in the development and promotion of new philological methodologies. A scholar that well embodied the establishment of this new discipline is Callimachos. A Greek erudite, he was raised in the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya, and educated in Athens, before moving to Alexandria, where he worked in the library. Among the most famous chief librarians is Eratosthenes, another Greek from Cyrene who received his education in Athens. Eratosthenes is mainly known to have been the first to measure the circumference of the Earth. However, he was not only a mathematician. His interests were broader, ranging from geography to poetry.

In today’s busy society, universities replaced the ancient libraries as large centers of research, while time constraints and the need to be specialized in one specific field have made culture more compartmentalized than ever. Yet, the fascination of the ancient world has not died out. Regardless of what our job is, we cannot help but stand in awe in front of the Athenian Parthenon or be captivated by the immensity of the Egyptian pyramids. And it is not just fascination. The ancient world is an integral part of our heritage and history (although often we seem to forget that), and knowledge of that history never fails to result in innovative ideas and creative empiral interpretations when applied not only in fields like politics, but also in the social settings of everyday life.

Leonidas Petrakis, who holds a PhD in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and was recently Department Chairman and Senior Scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a perfect example of the ways in which literature and science meet. Not only passionate about the ancient world, Leonidas has a deep knowledge of the ancient Greek language and culture. In a fascinating article that he has published a while back in the largest Greek American newspaper, The National Herald, he investigated the relation between ancient Greeks and modern science (a link to his article can be found here:

Recently Leonidas spent some time at the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri (CTP) working on unpublished texts. Thousands of pieces here at CTP are still kept in boxes, waiting to be unfolded, read and analyzed. Leonidas went through the fragments of one of these boxes, and patiently examined each piece. His efforts were soon rewarded when he found three small papyri written in the unmistakably capital hand-writing used for literary works. The three pieces included lines from the Iliad by Homer. This remarkable discovery has the potential to shed further light on the culture and society of the people living in Tebtunis, Egypt, over 2,000 years ago. A confirmation that ancient villages were not mere rural settlements, but could play the more important role of mini-cultural centers, where world-class literature, like Homer, had an independent tradition of dissemination. Leonidas is currently in the process of editing these two fragments for publication, in collaboration with the writer of this blog and with the director of CTP, Professor Todd Hickey. This edition will illuminate important issues, such divulgation and readership of Greek literature in a village of the Roman Empire.