Scholar ‘re-discovers’ the oldest and longest Ancient Egyptian leather manuscript

From near oblivion into the modern spotlight of archaeology – a (more than) 4,000 years old Egyptian leather manuscript has made a deserving comeback, with the help of an assessment done by an independent scholar named Wael Sherbiny. In essence, it is the oldest Egyptian leather manuscript ever discovered; but this identification was only made recently, as the manuscript was seemingly forgotten for 70 years after its storage in the shelves of the Egyptian museum in Cairo. And beyond just its age, the document (dating from around 2300 – 2000 BC) also flaunts its sheer size, with its 2.5 m (8.2 ft) length. Moreover, the object is filled with a flurry of texts and vibrant drawings on both of its sides, thus accounting for ancient graphical depictions on a leather roll that covers an enormous 5 m (16.4 ft) of length, while being only 2 inches in width.

As is often the case, not much is known about the recent history of this ancient manuscript, except for the fact that it was initially bought by representatives of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology from a local antiquities dealer during First World War. After some years, the artifact was donated to the Cairo Museum – where it was analysed for a short time, and then stored for over 70 years due to the commencement of the Second World War.

Coming to the actual content of this extensive tome, the Cairo leather manuscript is as interesting as it gets. To that end, the 4,000-year-old roll boasts wondrous depictions of fantastical and supernatural beings. These colorful drawings are complemented by religious texts that were composed in the first person singular. From such extant evidences, Sherbiny has put forth his credible hypothesis that the roll was probably used as a portable religious manuscript by priests for reciting during particular rituals. And interestingly, the drawings in the Cairo leather manuscript predate the famed depictions made in the Book of the Dead manuscripts by around 500 years.

In fact, leather as a writing material was held in high esteem in Ancient Egypt, given its better durability when compared to readily available papyrus. That is why the ‘master copies’ of the important historical events and crucial holy texts were mostly written on leather parchments, and cheaper versions of such rolls (guarded in temple archives and libraries) were then re-composed on papyrus. Unfortunately, the native climate weaved its own sense of irony, with the dry conditions in Egypt deprecating the leather rolls over time, while preserving the cheap papyri objects.

The Cairo leather manuscript was one among such dilapidated specimens that had fragmented into many pieces due to the effect of time. However, Sherbiny did successfully achieve the impressive feat of arranging these disparate pieces together. And, on closer inspection, he found out that the aligned fragments pertained to a segment (containing both drawings and texts) from the so-called Book of Two Ways. This composition was generally used for funerary rituals, and as such has been found on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins that were excavated at the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt (dating from the period of 2055-1650 BC).

Now according to the scholar, quite intriguingly, the Cairo leather manuscript in question here has more detailed illustrations than the Hermopolitan coffins. Furthermore, it also drives home the point that such texts and pictorial representations were already known before their depictions on the coffins. As Sherbiny made it clear

It suggests that several segments of the composition were probably not the creation of Hermopolitan theologians, but had rather longer history of transmission before they were chosen to be used as coffin decorations. It shows that there was a large body of both religious iconography and texts, but unfortunately they did not reach us.

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