KARANIS, an ancient Egyptian farming village that was a lively center of Christianity in the third, fourth, and fifth centuries. It was
north of the Fayyum some 20 miles (30 km) from Arsinoë, the metropolis of Arsinoë Nome. Excavations have supplied only mute
evidence of village life, in the form of Coptic textiles and Roman coins. But a large number of papyri, about 5,000 documents, from
the third century B.C. to the fifth century A.D. give a good picture of daily concerns: they include Egyptian texts found at Karanis and Greek Christian texts from the nearby village of Soknopaiou Nesos, which disappeared at the end of the third century. Ten of the papyri from Soknopaiou Nesos, written later than the third century, could have been found in the neighborhood of Karanis.
Situated not far from the ancient Egyptian religious center of Nilopolis in the Fayyum and Soknopaiou Nesos, Karanis itself had a
temple of the crocodile god Peisouchos attended by numerous clergy—fifty-four priests and fifty pastophori (priests of a lower class). Demotic Egyptian was still written and spoken there in the second and third centuries.
Christianity, however, took root there early. In the middle of the third century, according to The Archive of Aurelius Isidorus (hereafter referred to as P. Cair. Isid.), some inhabitants gave their sons Christian names. Petros, born about 250 or earlier, father of Polion, did not know how to write in Greek (Boak and Youte, 1960, 81. 3. 31; also Preisigke et al., 1915-1983, 7676). Johannes, born about the same time, was a gymnasiarch and could write in Greek (P. Cair. Isid. 114. 1. 15; 115. 2. 8). Paulos was born about 290-300 (P. Cair Isid. 77. 30). These men were among those tenants who held an average of about 25 acres (10 hectares), which put them into the best-endowed part of the population.
We have no archaeological evidence of a church or monastery, but repeated mention by the papyri of the presence of deacons in the fourth century proves the existence of a church community. These deacons shared the life of the region. One of them, Amaeis, fulfilled his obligation for work on the embankments (Browne, 1970, 595. 5. 10). Another, Aion, paid a land tax that placed him a little below the average in the list of taxpayers in which he appears (Brower, 1975, 12. 651. 4). Still another, Antoniaos, was in the company of a monk, Isak, in the fields around the village. This is the first use of the word "monk" in the papyri (Bagnall, 1979, 12. 171. 15). Isak came to the help of Isidoros, son of Ptolemaios and father of the Paulos previously mentioned.
This Isidorus, a descendant of a Roman soldier and himself a Christian, had been exasperated at seeing a cow owned by two villagers lay waste his harvest. In conformity with Roman law (Oxyrynchus Papyrus 2704), he seized the offending animal for
confiscation and sale at auction for the benefit of the treasury (P. Cair. Isid. 78; Rees, 1959, p. 92). The cow's owners attacked and
beat him. Through the intervention of the deacon and the monk, the wounded man was rescued and the cow restored to its owners.
In the fourth century, the gradual drying of the periphery of the Fayyum made agricultural life precarious. Karanis, whose cultivated
land extended down from the little cliff on which the village was built, was close to the canal leading the flood waters from the Nile
as far as Soknopaiou Nesos. The safeguarding of the water supply was a collective matter for the men of Karanis representing the state authorities.
In the fifth century the clergy of Karanis had responsibility for the water supply. A Greek document dated 20 May 439 (Preisigke et
al., 1915-1983, 14. 11357), the last of those that have come down to us from Soknopaiou Nesos, is an official writing that shows twelve priests and five deacons playing the role formerly played by the elders of the village. They undertook to watch over the use of the water under the control of the prefect through the agency of a numerarius ("accountant"). In this arrangement the village scribe writes for those priests and deacons "who do not know how to write" (that is, write Greek); in fact, they no doubt knew Coptic, as the use of a fourth- or fifth-century Coptic biblical text found at Karanis tends to prove. In the early sixth century, well before the Arab conquest in 641, Karanis became extinct. (Browne, 1979, p. 2).
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