Lecture on the First Hellenistic Gymnasium Found in Egypt

Within the framework of the 7th International Fayum Symposium, organised by the Cairo Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), COSIMENA hosted an event on 31st October 2018 about the archaeological discovery of a Hellenistic gymnasium in Egypt.

Papyrologist Prof. Dr. Cornelia Römer, who headed the German-Egyptian archaeological mission on site, gave a lecture on the unique excavations at the Watfa village in the north-western Fayum where the gymnasium was unearthed just recently in 2017.

The Fayum Symposium took place for the first time in Egypt this year at the premises of the DAI Cairo Department. The mission of the DAI is to conduct and facilitate research worldwide in the archaeological sciences and classical studies. In cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and further international partners, the DAI Cairo Department works on archaeological projects concerning the Egyptian history of all eras, from prehistory to modernity. Beside the symposium participants and DAI researchers, the lecture was attended by further experts in archaeology and papyrology from German and Egyptian universities as well as students of Prof. Römer who partially had taken part in the archaeological mission in the Fayum.

Ms. Isabell Mering opened the event in her role as Director of the DAAD Regional Office Cairo with a welcoming address, in which she underlined the fruitful collaboration between the DAAD and the DAI. For instance, the DAI was the main partner of COSIMENA’s big German Science Night, that took place earlier in the year during Ramadan on the 24th of May. This partnership allowed COSIMENA to expand its science campus to their premises.

Prof. Dr. Stephan Seidlmayer, Director of the DAI Cairo Department, then took the floor and gave a brief introduction into the research of Prof. Römer and her accomplishments in her field of expertise – papyrology. Archaeology and papyrology are usually rather viewed as opposing disciplines in the classic DAI research field. Whereas archaeology focusses on all kinds of manmade material remains of the past, papyrologists deal mainly with texts written on papyrus and decipher, reconstruct and translate them. But Römer managed to combine both and introduced papyrology to the DAI in Egypt. Her overall idea is to link the content of the text to the reality of old ancient Egypt that is found right here, so to speak. She looks at the bigger picture and embeds the papyri in their economic, social and cultural context. In order to contextualise the papyri on site, archaeology and its research results are crucial. The new interdisciplinary approach that combines papyrology and archaeology allows researchers to reconstruct a livelier image of the past. Römer also integrates her research approach in teaching: besides her work at the DAI, she is a long-term lecturer of the DAAD at Ain Shams University since January 2013. She teaches post-graduate students in papyrology and ancient Greek and includes them in excavations where they acquire basic knowledge in archaeological work.

The last welcoming address was given by the cultural attaché of the German Embassy in Cairo, Ms. Ilke Kiral. She referred to a meeting between the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and German chancellor Angela Merkel the day before where both emphasised the academic cooperation between Egypt and Germany. Merkel especially acknowledged the work of the DAAD in the field of university cooperation. Kiral strongly agreed and thanked the DAAD Regional Office Cairo and the DAI Cairo Department for their work and their engagement.

Römer then began her lecture by displaying a photo of an ordinary day during the excavations at the site of the Watfa village in the Fayum. Watfa in the north-western Fayum is the location of the ancient village Philoteris that was founded under Ptolemy II at around 260 BC and named after his second sister Philotera. After introducing the location, Römer guided the audience step by step through the excavation process and explained in detail how she and her team found out that the discovered site belongs to an ancient gymnasium. Gymnasia were common institutions of education in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds where young boys were trained for military service. However, following the classical concept of the coherence of body and mind, the training also included teaching in reading and writing, literature, or even philosophy. Gymnasia were found in all big cities throughout the Hellenistic world like Athens, Pergamum or Pompei. Concerning ancient Egypt, for a long period of time only papyri indicated the existence of such gymnasia. The findings in the Fayum are the first to actually proof their existence archaeologically in Egypt, where they were built by the Greek-speaking upper-class, Römer explained. She pointed out that the newly discovered gymnasium is much smaller than its archetypes but still reveals all the typical facilities, as a dining hall, meeting rooms, a lecture hall, and a race track. Since it is located in the Egyptian countryside, it clearly shows the profound impact of Hellenistic culture in Egypt. The educational institution was in operation till the Roman period.

After the lecture, the audience had the chance to ask questions. Experts as well as students made use of it and actively engaged in the discussion with Prof. Römer. The event was rounded off with a dinner reception providing further opportunities for networking and exchange.

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