Documents (papyri, parchment, ostraca etc.)

How to get started?

Arabic Papyri (like papyri in other languages) contain documents, letters, notes, receipts, amulets and other forms of textual and sometimes none-textual clues that were never drafted to survive time. Unlike for example beautifully crafted Quran manuscripts that were meant to be passed on to future generations, papyrus was a fairly cheap material that could be used for taking notes, writing letters etc. The survival of papyrus is unintentional and unsystematic, and collections of papyri in museums or libraries reflect this. Papyri were not archived on the basis of content but on the basis of material. So just as the term ‘manuscript’ only informs you that something is handwritten, the term ‘papyrus’ only informs you that the material used for this piece of (mostly) writing is papyrus; the term does not disclose any information on content.

In recent years the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD) has made it a little easier to find papyri that are catalogued, because in this database you can search using (key)words, topics etc. and as such find papyri on a specific topic that are housed in different collections. Many Arabic papyri, however, have not been properly catalogued at all, let alone been edited or translated. Working with Arabic papyri is still somewhat of a treasure hunt because even in the renowned collections ‘new’ treasures are found regularly and especially in Egypt, but also elsewhere, large collections still exist that have not been catalogued on the level of individual items at all. Some papyri are more or less complete and in clear handwriting, but in most cases the texts are difficult to read, the handwriting is usually not as neat as in manuscripts and the documents are often torn or contain holes.

However, in the time that these papyri were drafted, people would have set structures or formulae for writing certain documents. So for example a letter would always open with certain greetings and close using standard clauses for bidding farewell. An amulet would take a very different shape from a letter etc. To work with papyri, a researcher has to become acquainted with such structures in order to place the incomplete pieces of text that are left to us, in a context that would make sense. For a first very short introduction, see the mouse & manuscript tutorial.

A good starting point to get acquainted with formulae in Arabic Papyri would be the following article:  Khan, Geoffrey. “The historical development of early Arabic documentary formulae” In Scribes as Agents of Language Change edited by Esther-Miriam Wagner, Ben Outhwaite and Bettina Beinhoff, 199-216. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Mouton, 2013.


The Arabic Papyrology Database : An interdisciplinary portal of papyrological and epigraphical resources, formerly Egypt and the Nile valley (800 BC-AD 800), now expanding to the Ancient World in general. Note: the full database is only accessible for institutions and individuals paying an annual subscription fee. 

Papyrological Navigator : Search within the text of published papyri, complete for Greek, expanding for Coptic, beginning with Arabic.

Brussel’s Coptic Database : published Coptic documents, search a.o. keywords.



Toolkit for Genizah Scholars: A Practical Guide for Neophytes, Compiled by Gregor Schwarb

Bibliographie Papyrologique: searchable and actively updated bibliography comprehensive annotated bibliography of open-access resources related to the study of Syriac. Bibliography on e.g. papyri can be found through the search function.

The formation of Islam bibliographies and list of Arabic terms

Checklists of papyrus editions

What’s new in Arabic Papyri


Site editor

Eline Scheerlinck