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Letters a 'time machine' to daily business of Egypt

Matt Malczycki, Ph.D. candidate at U., finds ancient businessmen sophisticated, polite, literate.
Matt Malczycki, Ph.D. candidate at U., finds ancient businessmen sophisticated, polite, literate.
Laura Seitz, Deseret Morning News

They look like scraps of paper covered with lines of ornate faded script and mounted between sheets of glass. But to Matt Malczycki, they're a time machine offering glimpses into the commerce of medieval Egypt.

Malczycki, a Ph.D. student in history at the University of Utah, has been translating and analyzing the 777 documents and fragments of the Utah Papyri Collection, believed to be the largest collection of Arabic papyri in North America. And he has found that 1,000 years ago, Egyptian businessmen were sophisticated, polite and literate.

Papyrus was made by slicing reeds into long strips and gluing them together crosswise. The result was stable, durable, flexible writing material much like paper, which could be rolled, folded or bent, said Malczycki. It was used in Egypt for thousands of years.

The U. collection was acquired by the late Prof. Aziz S. Atiya and donated to the university a number of years ago. His wife, Lola Atiya, compiled a basic inventory of the documents and protected them between plates of glass. They are stored in the vault of the Marriott Library's Middle East Library.

During the Deseret Morning News' visit last week, associate curator Luise Poulton showed some specimens and made sure they were well protected.

Most of the documents date to between AD 800 and 1050. But at least one may be even older. "This piece is probably from the early 8th century, the 700s," said Malczycki, pointing to one document.

"Papyrus was very expensive in this period," he added. A set of the material equivalent to our ream of paper might have cost about as much as the monthly rent a shopkeeper would have to pay on his store. "So generally they used every bit of space," writing in a small, neat hand.

"Most of the documents that we have are business letters. We do have a couple of literary texts and some administrative documents," he said.

The documents stood the test of time purely by accident.

A businessman working in the year 1000 might collect a stack of his correspondence the way people today gather their bills. "Someone would throw it in a box or a jar, in a closet," he said.

Eventually the notes would be taken to the medieval version of a landfill. A thousand years later, the landfills' soil was fertile because of the material that was thrown away. Farmers would plant cotton there and pieces of papyrus would surface.

"After they figured out that Europeans would pay handsomely for it, they started looking for it in order to sell it," the scholar explained.

During his studies over the past 10 years, Malczycki has been carefully translating the earlier writing into modern Arabic, and then retranslating it into English. Along the way the native of Fayetteville, Ark., has to contend with differing handwriting and some assumptions that make translations more difficult.

In modern Arabic writing, dots help distinguish letters that are otherwise similar in appearance. "Well, those dots aren't there, in a lot of those documents," he said. Letter-writers might have thought it would be insulting to include them.

"The assumption was that whoever was reading the letters would be smart enough to figure it out without the dots."

That makes his job harder, as have the bug damage, worm holes and the humidity that harmed some texts. But he is able to cope.

"Most of the letters are between merchants and landowners, and generally speaking they're talking about buying, selling and distributing goods. There's a lot of talk about money. It definitely was a cash economy."

Much bartering also was going on, Malczycki said, but merchants had to keep track of the value of different kinds of currency.

Besides the business notes, "there are some personal letters," he said. "It's pretty mundane stuff, people asking how so-and-so's brother is doing . . . and the like."

He is finding that people in those days were highly literate with a complex economy.

"They talk a lot about trading wheat and cotton, and they also talk about textiles," he said.

"They might say, 'I have found excellent linen cloth at X-number of dinars per pound. I'm going to go ahead and buy these on your behalf. I think we'll turn a tidy profit.' "

The authors were extremely courteous in the letters. "Almost all of them begin and end with several lines of very polite greetings," he said.

The main impression that sticks in his mind is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

"I mean, these guys were conducting business much the same way they conduct business today. They were placing orders, taking orders. They had partnerships.

"They were involved in trade not only in their own country but well beyond."

Often they engaged in all sorts of commerce. "I haven't found any examples so far of anyone in one kind of trade," Malczycki said. Someone might buy cotton, then linen. He might trade linen for wheat.

Studying the world of medieval Egypt is a marvelous opportunity for him.

"These materials have survived for over 1,000 years and they come from halfway around the world," Malczycki marveled.

"So to have one of these things in your hand is a really exciting experience. In a very real sense, it's connecting with the past."