The Oxyrhynchus Papyri
The Oldest Christian Hymn


Oxyrhynchus is an archaeological site in Egypt, one of the most important ever discovered. For the past century the area around Oxyrhynchus has been continuously excavated, yielding an enormous collection of papyrus texts from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods of Egyptian history.

We know more about Oxyrhynchus as a city, and about its people as living individuals, than we do about many more glamorous and famous historic ruins because because of one thing: the town garbage dumps. These remained intact right up to the late nineteenth century, as they were not considered likely sites for treasure-hunters. They have yielded the largest collection of ancient papyrus ever discovered. Among the texts discovered at Oxyrhynchus are plays of Menander and the Gospel of Thomas (an important early Christian document), and the oldest known music notation and lyrics of a Christian hymn.

The Greek language flourished in Egypt for a thousand years. It first began to be widely spoken there when the country was conquered by Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria in 331 B.C. and then set off to extend his empire in the East.

For all this time in every part of the Greek-speaking world books and documents were written on a paper made from the papyrus reed, which was rare outside Egypt, and even there died out in about the tenth century A.D. It is now to be found chiefly in the Sudd, a vast area of swamp in the Sudan covered with thickets of papyrus.

In Hellenistic times Oxyrhynchus was a prosperous regional capital, the third largest city in Egypt. After Egypt was converted to Christianity, it was famous for its many churches and monasteries. It remained a prominent, though gradually declining, town in the Roman and Byzantine periods. After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641, the canal system on which the town depended was allowed to fall into disrepair, and Oxyrhynchus was abandoned. Today the town of el-Bahnasa occupies part of the ancient site.

For a thousand years the inhabitants of Oxyrhynchus dumped their rubbish at a series of sites out in the desert sands beyond the town limits. The fact that the town was built on a canal rather than on the Nile itself was important, because this meant that the area did not flood every year with the rising of the river, as did the districts along the riverbank. When the canals dried up, the water table fell and never rose again. The area west of the Nile has virtually no rain, so the rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus were gradually covered with sand and lay, dry, sterile and forgotten, for another thousand years.

Because Egyptian society under the Greeks and Romans was governed bureaucratically, and because Oxyrhynchus was a regional capital, the material at the Oxyrhynchus dumps included vast amounts of paper. Accounts, tax returns, census material, invoices, receipts, correspondence on administrative, military, religious, economic and political matters, certificates and licenses of all kinds — all these were periodically cleaned out of government offices, put in wicker baskets, and dumped out in the desert. Private citizens added their own piles of unwanted paper. Because papyrus was expensive, paper was often re-used: a document might have farm accounts on one side, and a schoolboy's text of Homer on the other. The Oxyrhynchus papyri thus contained a complete record of the life of the town, and of the civilizations of which the town was a part.

The recovery of papyri began in the middle of the eighteenth century, when the remains of a Greek library on papyrus rolls were found in Italy at Herculaneum, preserved by the debris of an eruption of Vesuvius. By the end of the eighteenth century a few papyri had been discovered in Egypt, the country whose dry climate is most favorable to their survival, and the number slowly grew. By the eighteen-nineties exciting finds of Greek literature, lost works by such authors as Aristotle and Hyperides, encouraged the Egypt Exploration Fund (later Society) to commission excavations specifically in search of papyri. In their second season, in 1896/7, B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, two young fellows of Queen’s College, Oxford, found the site that was to produce the largest collection of all — Oxyrhynchus.


Oxyrhynchus Hymn

We have created a PDF with notation of a multi-part arrangement of the hymn. This arrangement can form the basis for creating various versions using this melody. Instruments include the melody instrument, keyboard, harp, guitar (with chord names), bass.

MP3 sample of the arrangement

Purchase the PDF arrangement of the
ancient hymn.
- $3.00

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The following translation of the words for this hymn comes from M.L. West: Ancient Greek Music...

Let it be silent
Let the Luminous stars
not shine,
Let the winds (?) and all the noisy rivers die down;
And as we hymn the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
Let all the powers add "Amen Amen"
Empire, praise always, and glory to God,
The sole giver of
good things,
Amen Amen

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