What do Tebtunis and Las Vegas have in common? Well, not the gambling (at least not as far as we know!). Surprisingly enough, the two towns do show some similarities: they are both surrounded by a desert, they both see, at some point in their history, the presence of a lively community of people of Greek descent, who far away from Greece, gather together to preserve their Hellenic heritage. The chronological span of this presence of course differs from a place to another: while a Greek community could be identified in Tebtunis for several centuries from the third century BC into the third century AD, a Greek community gathered in Las Vegas only for a few days in October 2015. I’m talking about the annual meeting of the National Hellenic Society (NHS), a festive event that gathers together members of the Society as well as a number of guests, for one purpose: the celebration of Hellenic culture.
One of the highlights of the weekend was the inclusion of CTP in the Heritage and Culture Panel, during which Tebtunis was in great company. Patricia Moore-Pastides, the University of South Carolina’s first lady and public health professional, engaged the public with a fascinating defense of the Greek diet, convincingly demonstrating how eating well can improve our overall lifestyle. Chad Cohen and Jared Lipworth, National Geographic producers, presented a preview of the documentary ‘The Greeks’ (aired next Spring on PBS), impressing with images and clips of some of the cultural achievements of the ancient Greek civilization, including the spectacular Sicilian temples and Greek tragedies.
But first came Tebtunis and its papyri.In the spirit of the event, my presentation explored, through a selection of papyri from CTP, the ways in which the Hellenic culture penetrated into a remote but lively Egyptian village during the Hellenistic and Roman periods: through literature, as documented by the papyri including the work of Sophocles and Homer; through social gatherings and communal celebrations, as attested, for example, by the festival for Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest; and through the language, which over time became the official language of the administration of Egypt.
How did the people of Tebtunis live? What do we learn from the papyri? These were the central questions asked in the presentation. Among the papyri discussed are of course some of the unique pieces yielded by the Berkeley collection, like a fragment in Greek of the lost original, in Latin, Chronicle of the Trojan War, but Dictys of Crete
and a fragment of a lost satyr play by Sophocles, the Inachos.
The Tebtunis papyri give voice to the people who read Homer and Euripides, to those who owned estates and land, and to women, like Zois, who appears in a sale of land as a consenting wife. Her husband Didumos is selling his plot of land, and to be final the sale needs his wife’s approval. ‘Hellenism’ and the celebration of it could be seen everywhere over the weekend, and once the panel presentations were over it was time for party. At the Glendi dinner offered on the Friday night, everybody dressed in white and delicious Greek food and wine were appropriately accompanied by live Greek music and group dances.
The setting (an open portico), a sky full of stars and the warm air all contributed to recreate the vibe and atmosphere of a Greek late summer evening, and it was exciting to see the Tebtunis Papyri showcased at this unique event!