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Reading Ancient Egyptian poems
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The Ramesseum papyri contain some of the most famous of ancient Egyptian poems to survive, which pose the difficult question: can we read such ancient works of art in context?
The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant was composed around 1900 BC and is a passionate cry for justice that has often baffled modern scholars but has inspired modern Egyptian artists, such as the film maker Shadi Abd el-Salam. Drawing on experiences in teaching this text in Oxford, Göttingen and Köln, British Museum curator Richard Parkinson has re-published the main manuscripts to enable a deeper engagement in the material aspects of the poem, and simultaneously has been experimenting with performances to consider the possible visceral aspects of ancient poetry.
The aim has been to investigate ways in which we can reconstruct an integrated experience of reading ancient literary works, and this has resulted in a new commentary written for anyone who wants to read this poem in its original language, with integrated notes on relevant aspects of grammar, historical background, intertext and emotive responses.
Reading in context, in the shrine of Heqaib, Aswan. Photograph T. G. Reid.
In a joint collaboration with the Egyptian Museum and Papyrus Collection, Berlin, a new photographic record has been published of the main 12th Dynasty manuscripts of the poem and the 13th Dynasty manuscripts, complementing the online publication of P. BM EA 10274.
A ‘reader’s commentary’ on the poem has been published, attempting to integrate text, translation and notes on a single page and into a single experience; it was listed in The Guardian newspaper’s ‘Books of the Year 2012’ by Ahdaf Soueif.
The next phase of the project will examine the companion poem—and perhaps most famous of all surviving Ancient Egyptian literary works — The Tale of Sinuhe. This will include a new study of a major copy from the Ramessid Period, the giant ostracon in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
R. B. Parkinson and L. Baylis: Four 12th Dynasty Literary Papyri (Pap. Berlin P. 3022-5): A Photographic Record (Berlin: Akademie Verlag 2012).
R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant: A Reader’s Commentary (Lingua Aegyptia Studia Monographica 10; Hamburg: Widmaier Verlag 2012).
R. B. Parkinson, The Ramesseum Papyri. (Online Research Catalogue 2012)
R. B. Parkinson, Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry: Among Other Histories (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell 2009)
R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 bc. (Oxford Worlds classics; Oxford, Oxford University Press 1999 ) [Awarded the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Literary Award by the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies: 1998]
‘What “Makes The Gun Go Off”?: The Role of the Voice in Two Middle Kingdom Poems’. In E. Meyer-Dietrich (ed.), Laute und Leise: Der Gebrauch von Stimme und Klang in historischen Kulture, 13–35. Reihe Mainzer Historische Kulturwissenschaften 7; Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag.
Images (left-right): the opening sections of the poem in P. BM EA10274 rto; Ahmed Marei as the peasant in Shadi Abd el-Salam’s film. Courtesy of the World Cinema Foundation and the Egyptian Film Centre; Gary Pillai and Shobu Kapoor reciting the Tale of Sinuhe.