Date of this Version
Published in Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert, ed., Egyptian Textiles and Their Production: ‘Word’ and ‘Object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods) (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2020).
While flax culture was a major economic sector in Egypt throughout antiquity and the medieval period, one can only agree with John R. Rea, the editor of P. Coll.Youtie II 68, when he says: “it has not escaped notice that surprisingly little information about [flax and linen] has been recovered from the Greek papyri”. By way of example, the specific word for the flax plant, linokalamē, appears in Greek papyri only in around 60 of more than 60,000 published texts. More specifically, the agricultural conditions set to produce flax are seldom visible in the texts: little more than twenty documents are relevant to this topic.
A first explanation for this lack of data concerning flax in the papyri is that the main region of flax production was the Delta, which has yielded almost no papyri because of its humid climate. In a recent study, Katherine Blouin convincingly gathered the evidence for flax production in the Delta, specifically the Mendesian nome, underlying how this area enjoyed suitable conditions for flax growing. As she points out, Pliny the Elder, our main source on flax culture in Roman Egypt, listed four varieties of Egyptian linen, three of which are associated with towns located in the Northern Delta: Tanis, Pelusium and Bouto.
This explanation is not fully satisfactory because, while the Delta was probably the main region of production, flax was also cultivated in the Valley and in such proportions that it should be more visible in the texts. Several sources can be mentioned to attest, if needed, that flax was also a cash crop in Upper Egypt. First, the fourth variety listed by Pliny refers to the city of Tentyris, modern Dendera. Medieval sources also mention flourishing centres of flax and linen in this part of the country: “When the merchant Ibn Ḥ auqal described the countryside of Egypt around the middle of the tenth century, the distribution of cash crops was dominated by a certain specialization, with Aswan (Syene) noted for its abundance of date palms, Ashmunein for flax, ‘Fayyum’ (the former Arsinoe) for fruit orchards and rice cultivation, Bahnasā (Oxyrhynchus) for its diversified textile industry, and so on”. In the documents from the Cairo Geniza, dating from the 11th century, twenty-eight varieties of flax are mentioned, “some of them are named for the location in which they were cultivated”.8 These places are not all identified but at least we can recognise from Upp er Egypt the “Asyūṭī (Suyūṭī), Ashmūnī, Iṭf īḥī” and “Fayyūmī”. Indeed, a few papyri from Ashmunein (Hermopolis) and a more important group of a dozen papyri from Oxyrhynchus mention flax growing in these two cities in the 4th century AD. Recently, Jennifer Cromwell studied textile production in Western Thebes as documented by Coptic papyri from the 6th to the 8th century and she analysed the attestations of flax production, in particular on land owned by the monastery of Epiphanius. At the important monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit in the Hermopolite nome, although its important body of documents illustrates wheat and wine production, only one text alludes directly to flax growing: a 7th- or 8th-century list of wine distribution for the workers hired for the harvest of flax.
Africana Studies Commons, African Languages and Societies Commons, Classical Archaeology and Art History Commons, Fiber, Textile, and Weaving Arts Commons, History of Art, Architecture, and Archaeology Commons, History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Commons