Learning from papyrus
The Khufu papyrus archive on show at the Egyptian Museum shows the highly efficient administrative system in place during the pharaoh’s reign
A collection of three dozen fragments of papyri has been put on display for the first time in a special exhibition in the foyer of the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo after their discovery in 2013 in the entrance to two caves at Wadi Al-Jarf 119 km from Suez by a Franco-Egyptian mission led by French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet and Egyptian Egyptologist Al-Sayed Mahfouz, writes Nevine El-Aref.
Mahfouz described the discovery of the papyri as “very important” because they show the history of international maritime navigation in Egypt and of ancient Egyptian writing during the Old Kingdom. The papyri are written in early hieratic writing and hieroglyphics.
Wadi Al-Jarf is one of the oldest ports discovered anywhere in the world, though two others, Wadi Gawasis south of Safaga and Ain Sokhna south of Suez, are of similar structure and have also been discovered on the Red Sea coast dating from the later Middle Kingdom.
The papyri make up “the oldest archive of ancient Egyptian writing ever discovered,” Mahfouz told the Al-Ahram Weekly, explaining that that they were older than the Al-Gebelein papyri dating to the end of the Fourth Dynasty and the Abusir papyri dating to the end of the fifth.
“We know from these papyri that the reign of Khufu was 26 years long and not 16 or 20 as had previously been thought,” he said. He added that the papyri contained documents recording the commodities delivered to workers in Wadi Al-Jarf in antiquity. These came from various places in the Nile Delta, confirming central control over the country’s affairs at the time.
The text of the papyri is in the form of a table showing each category of commodity and registering what should be given to workers. Black characters show what has been delivered by the administration, and red is used to indicate what is still expected.
Among the papyri are two fragments of a large papyrus measuring 1.5 to 2m long known as the “Log of Merer” and showing the daily lives of workers at Wadi Al-Jarf. Mahfouz said that Merer, whose name means “beloved one,” was a middle-ranking official in charge of skilled workers and sailors, probably numbering around 40 men, at the time. These used to transport limestone blocks from the Torah quarries on the east bank of the Nile to the Pyramid of Khufu at Giza.
The blocks were moved across the Nile and by canal in two or three days. The document indicates that there was also a logistics centre called Ro-She Khufu where most of the procedures were carried out. This was under the authority of vizier Ankh-Haef, a half-brother of Khufu, who was probably the architect responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramid in its final stages as the original architect, Hemiunu, died during the construction work.
“This papyrus in particular is a very important discovery because it gives details of the administrators who directed the construction work on the Great Pyramid and the strong administrative regime during Khufu’s reign,” Mahfouz said, adding that it also showed that the Pyramid’s construction was a national project.
A collection of ropes, the remains of boats, and anchors was also discovered.