The Harris Homers and the Crocodile Pit of Maabdeh

In the 2017 issue of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, I have an article that ended up being a sort trip down the rabbit hole. The title gives you an idea of the curious combination of topics: “The Crocodile Pit of Maabdeh, Florence Nightingale, and the British Museum’s Acquisition of the Harris Homers.” This all started because I wanted to cite a particular papyrus, the so-called Harris Homer.

The first thing to note is that there are actually two different manuscripts that are sometimes called “the Harris Homer.” Both were part of the collection of Anthony Charles Harris (1790-1869), a British merchant and collector of antiquities who lived in Alexandria in Egypt. One of the manuscripts was the remains of a papyrus roll containing book 18 of Homer’s Iliad. The other, the one that first interested me, was a rather strange papyrus codex. In its present form, it consists of 9 sheets of papyrus folded in half to make a single-quire codex of 36 pages. What is peculiar about it is that only the right-hand (recto) pages were inscribed with text of parts of books 2-4 of the Iliad. The left-hand (verso) pages were left blank. At a later point, someone turned the codex upside down and copied the Technē grammatikē of Tryphon the grammarian on some of the blank pages. This book was also bound with a curious method (stabbed through the inner margin rather than sewn through the central fold), which is what drew my attention to the book in the first place).

Harris Homer Bifolium from Schironi To mega biblion

Bifolium from the Harris Homer Codex; source: F. Schironi, To mega biblion (Durham: American Society of Papyrologists, 2010), 169.

But back to the story: I was curious about where both these books had come from. They now reside at the British Library, the roll inventoried as Pap. 107, and the codex as Pap. 126. All the standard reference works say that they originally came from “the Crocodile Pit at Maabdeh” (variously spelled Al Maabdah, El-Maabde, Ma‘abda, Amabdi, Mahabdie, etc.). I confess to having no idea what this place was. A little bit of digging revealed that the site was a well-known tourist attraction in Egypt in the 19th century. The town of Maabdeh sits on the east bank of the Nile opposite the larger town of Manfalut on the west bank.

Crocodile Pit Maabdeh Map 3

Source: T. Zimmer, Les Grottes des crocodiles de Maabdah (San Antonio: Van Siclen, 1987), 10.

In the cliffs to the east of Maabdeh, there was said to be a cave about 30 km due north of Asyut (ancient Lykopolis) that contained thousands of crocodile mummies as well as human mummies. The travel literature of that era gives us a number of stories of visits to this cavern. Some of these tales are quite dramatic—stories of encounters with the corpses of previous explorers, attacks by bats, and so forth.

Other guidebooks make a visit seem almost routine:

On the summit of the rocks of Gebel Aboofayda, near their southern end, are the caverns of Maabdeh, commonly called the crocodile-mummy pits. The entrance to them is through a natural fissure in the rock at the top. Besides the thousands of crocodile mummies which fill the interior, there are several human mummies, some gilded from head to foot, and others less richly decorated. …Candles, matches, rope, and water should be taken if it is intended to penetrate into the caverns. There is no danger attending this attempt; but it is fatiguing, and the confined space, and close, stifling atmosphere may produce unpleasant effects. (A Handbook for Travellers in Egypt, 4th rev. ed. [London: John Murray, 1873], 367)

A few of the accounts were illustrated, but the images often seem derivative, and it’s not clear if they have any connection to reality.
Le_Tour_du_monde Crocodile Pit Entrance

Le_Tour_du_monde Crocodile Pit Interior

Source: M. A. Georges, “Excursion aux grottes de Samoun ou des crocodiles,” Le tour du monde (1862), 166-173.

The Harris Homers are said to have come from these caves. According to the published records of the British Museum, the Harris Homer roll was part of a group of papyri from the Harris collection acquired in 1872. The fragments of the Harris Homer roll “were obtained by Mr. A. C. Harris, of Alexandria, from an Arab who had discovered them in ‘the crocodile pit’ at Ma’abdey, near Monfalat, in Egypt, on the 9th of December, 1849” (Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1854-1875, Volume II [London 1877], 832-833). Of the Harris codex, we are told “The MS. was discovered in 1854 by Mr. A. C. Harris in the Crocodile Pit at Ma’abdeh (whence he had previously obtained Pap. CVII), and was sold to the Museum in 1888.” (Catalogue of Additions to the Manuscripts in the British Museum in the Years 1888-1893 [London 1894], 391). So, Harris is said to have bought the roll from an Arab who found it in the caves in 1849, and then found the codex himself in the caves in 1854. But there are different accounts of exactly how and when Harris obtained the codex (these are all outlined in my article) and when it became part of the British Museum collection (again, the details are in the article). There earliest sources I was able to find are three published letters by Harris that make some pretty amazing claims. Here is just one of them, published in The Athenaeum of 7 December 1850 (p. 1281):

I have had the great good fortune to find a portion of the missing part of this papyrus, consisting of 171 lines:—leaving 139 lines in verses to be sought for, and which I have a faint hope of recovering. I have obtained also another Papyrus in a book of primitive form which, if it were complete (and I regret it is not so), would, by the indication on it, contain other four books of the ‘Iliad’ (α, β, γ, δ), together with the grammar of Tryphon of Alexandria. …I believe that these documents have been taken from the body of Tryphon; and an arm which I preserve in my study as a relic, I consider to be the arm of the grammarian torn from the mummy in order to release the papyrus roll, and delivered to me with the fragment first purchased.

There are a couple interesting points here (aside from Harris’s belief that the mummified hand he kept in his study was that of Tryphon). First, he already had the codex in 1850 (recall that the British Museum records said he acquired it in 1854). Second, nothing here indicates that he himself found the codex in the pit, and other letters suggest either that his servant found the codex in the pit or even that the codex was purchased from a dealer. All of this means the connection to the pit is likely coming either from dealers or from Harris’s own imagination.

The story continues after the death of Anthony Charles Harris in 1869. He left his collection to his daughter, Selima Harris (ca. 1827-1899), who attempted to sell it to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and the British Museum in 1871.

A C and Selima Harris

Anthony Charles Harris and Selima Harris; source: Morris Bierbrier, “The Doomed Prince and the Harris Collection,” British Museum Magazine 24 (1996), 13.

Nightingale NPG 1856 bw

Florence Nightingale, ca. 1856; source: National Portrait Gallery

Assisting her in this endeavor was none other than Florence Nightingale, whom she had met on a trip to Egypt in 1849-1850. Nightingale mentions her efforts to mediate the sale of the collection in two letters (published in full in my article). Nightingale also attributes the discovery of the Harris Homer codex to Selima Harris herself, who is said to have spent a week in the “tomb” before finding the book. With the help of Nightingale and her connections, Selima Harris sold part of the collection to the British Museum in 1872. Some pieces, however, like the Harris Homer codex, were not acquired by the Museum until 1888. Where the codex was between 1872 and 1888, I have not been able to determine. According to one report, the codex was in the possession of the collector Frederick George Hilton Price (1842-1909) before its eventual arrival at the British Museum.

And what happened to the Crocodile Pits? There is no hard evidence, but an account from the 10th edition of A Handbook for Travellers in Lower and Upper Egypt (London: John Murray 1900) doesn’t seem entirely implausible:

“The caverns were thoroughly explored in 1885 by Dr. E. Lansing, and found to contain nothing but the charred remains of the crocodile mummies. Some years ago the mummies were accidentally set on fire by a party of tourists who never emerged again from the caves” (710-711).

The best source for the Crocodile Pit is a study by Thierry Zimmer, Les Grottes des crocodiles de Maabdah (Samoun): Un cas extrême d’analyse archéologique (San Antonio: Van Siclen, 1987).

On Anthony Charles Harris, see Alessandro Capone, “Anthony Charles Harris,” in M. Capasso (ed.), Hermae: Scholars and Scholarship in Papyrology (Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2010), 2.17-19.

On Selima Harris, see Amara Thornton, “The Venerable Miss Harris,” 3/7/2014

About Brent Nongbri

Visiting Professor at Aarhus University
This entry was posted in Anthony Charles Harris, Antiquities Market, British Museum, Harris Homer, Selima Harris. Bookmark the permalink.

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