Know the ancient Egyptian woman through the Vienna Papyrus

Austria has ten thousand Egyptian manuscripts and papyri dating from between the 3rd and 8th centuries AD. They are manuscripts containing Arabic texts in addition to Greek and Coptic manuscripts. Most of the Vienna Papyrus discusses the fields of science and medicine.

Some time ago, the Austrian National Library Museum (ÖNB) celebrated its anniversary; Exhibiting 300 Egyptian manuscripts of these manuscripts, including two ancient manuscripts that shed light on the status of Egyptian women during the first decades of their entry into Islam in Egypt.

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These two manuscripts have been in Vienna since 1879. An Austrian citizen – one of the looters of Egyptian antiquities during the nineteenth century – called (Theodore Graf), among other manuscripts, bought them from a group of farmers in the Fayoum governorate.

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One of these papyri bears a letter from a wealthy Egyptian woman, whose name is: (Umm al-Hakam bint al-Hakam), asking her Christian Egyptian agent named: (Mina Bagush); She asks him to buy her vegetables and grains in Fayoum and other things.. The text of the papyrus is:

“In the name of God, the most Merciful, the Compassionate!

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From Umm al-Hakam daughter of al-Hakam

Peace be upon you.

Verily I praise God besides whom there is no other god.

Now, [let] me tell you that the wife of Abu Qama has informed me that you were asking her about us. I have already sent you [an order] to buy for us three dirhams of olives and one dirham of onions. I do not know whether you are done with this or not. In addition, I was in Fustat until the time when the husband of my daughter arrived to cohabit with her.

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In case you have already completed [the order] I had sent to you, with my client Firas, do send the things [you have bought] with him and come [to visit us] so that we see you. If you have winter grapes available, send me some.

I will send you something [for it]. I would also like to inform you that my sister Umm Hashim passed away—may God show mercy to her. ‘Abdel al-Rahman and his brother are sending their regards to you. In addition, do convey to ‘Abdallah our regards. Peace be upon you.

If you have any wheat left, send me in advance three ardebs of wheat and barley grain before [the next harvest]. I will send it [the money] to you.

Mahmud and Abd al-Rahman are telling you to send me some bitter oranges of good quality. Also, come to us to renew your contract with us.

In addition, in case I come to the city I will drop in [to see you]

I am sending my regards to you.”

As for the second manuscript, it bears a moving message from a woman to her traitorous husband reproaching him in it. This is its text:

“In the name of God, the Merciful, Gracious!

My letter goes to His Excellency Khitr, from Safra. I would like to tell you that I have undoubtedly believed so far that you are a man of good house, and have believed in [your] manly decency. Now—well, you know in what excellent circumstances I had lived. I was not a needy [wife], and I was not a [penniless] house cleaner. You know which position I was in, and I do not need to remind you of which position you [are] living in. However, God provides and withholds and [even] kings’ daughters have suffered [strong] blows of fate. Therefore, may God grant a successful conclusion! 

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. . . I have learned what you have secretly passed on to your beauty [your lover], and that you say to her, “By God, I have no pleasure in her appearance,’ even that you have even [divulged] things that God made secret between us. Are these the noble qualities of people of good house and decent [upbringing]? . . . If I were not Muslim, I would curse you proudly day and night, secretly and publicly. However, there is no reason for this disgusting, angry talk. God has allowed marriage and divorce. Therefore, even if their spouse hates someone, they will not behave the way you do. Never has anyone who has been unfaithful to the spouse talked before like you. I did not do anything to you that could cause this talk. I treasured you despite your [wanderings]. I had so much patience (with you) because of your mother; she is a respectable woman, and God—the Mighty and Exalted—gave me love for her. However, you did not honor me and did not honor yourself either. When you left, you took the food and the scales with you. I should take them from you. People have accused me of taking them [food and scales], and they said to me, ‘We will bring you both to the Chief of Police of Old Cairo!”

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