Alexandria in Egypt is the only major city of the Graeco-Roman world for which original documents survive. None of these papyri were actually found in Alexandria itself – the Mediterranean climate does not favor the preservation of such perishable material. But up country, in the Nile Valley, many archaeological sites have yielded a mass of reasonably well-preserved papyri from the ancient world. For the Graeco-Roman period we have recovered over a million such papyri – with only a fraction published to date.
A sizeable portion of the published texts from Alexandria consists of letters or administrative documents written from Alexandria to someone or other in the Nile Valley. They document in a unique way how a big city such as Alexandria was linked to the country that sustained it – the documents are the “life-lines” thrown out to the rest of Egypt to ensure a steady supply of food and taxes to sustain the capital and even the wider world beyond. Under Greek and Roman rule Egypt’s grain surplus supported a large urban population elsewhere in the Mediterranean.
The most intriguing stack of texts, however, does not document the links between Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, but addresses directly what was going on in Alexandria itself. These texts were recovered from mummy cartonnage, a kind of papier maché made from papyrus with which the ancient Egyptians covered part of their mummies. Occasionally they recycled used office paper for this, and in one unique instance in the early Roman period they mixed in waste paper from a government office in Alexandria. This office was located in the Ptolemaic court – yes, Cleopatra's palace, then run by the Romans under the emperor Augustus. The documents retrieved from the recycled waste paper are mostly drafts of contracts between two parties. These texts are formatted as if they were the settlement of a dispute, but were in fact drawn up by the clerks in the office to which they were addressed. There are also some petitions and letters, all drafts and all Greek.