Ethnic diversity in Egypt: Inscriptional and papyrological evidence

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Ethnic diversity in Egypt: Inscriptional and papyrological evidence,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified November 28, 2022,

Comments: Due to its very long history of settlement and its economic life and military needs, Egypt brought together peoples from a variety of places. The inscriptions listed at the bottom of this post gives you some taste of the variety, particularly in connection with peoples with some present or past connection to Egyptian armies.

The Fayum or Lake district (also known as the Arsinoites after 267 BCE) provides a good case study of ethnic diversity as well. Most of our information about the ethnic makeup of this population pertains to settlements of soldiers from the Ptolemaic army as plot-holders (klerouchoi, or cleruchs) beginning under Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy I Soter (305-282 BCE), Ptolemy II Philadelphos (282-246 BCE), and Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221 BCE) were instrumental in further managing the waters to reclaim or maintain significant plots of land in the Lake district, and this is where many of the soldiers were settled. The plot-holder and taxation papyri reveal that Greeks and Greco-Macedonians of various origins were a significant though not dominant portion of the population. As you can read in Harland’s article linked further below, almost a quarter of the total population in this district is now considered to be Greek or Macedonian, but Greco-Macedonians did constitute about seventy percent of settled military plot-holders identified by ethnicity.

Peoples grouped under the category of “Thracians” (from the southeastern Balkans) are the second most numerous contingent of foreign soldiers (identified by ethnicity) settled as plot-holders in this district. Although evidence from outside of Egypt shows that Thracians made up a significant portion of the slave population in certain Greek city-states, including Athens and Rhodes (on Thracian diasporas go to this link), these Thracian soldiers in the Arsinoites were not likely to have been as low on the regional socio-economic or ethnic ladder.

Numerous other ethnic groups are found as plot-holders in the Lake district, particularly peoples from Asia Minor including Mysians, Paphlagonians, Galatians, Carians, Pisidians, and Lycians, but also others from Arabia and Syria.  Judean (Jewish) settlers are the most attested from the Levant or Syria, but there were also Idumean and Sidonian plot-holders in the Arsinoites.

As you will see in the inscriptions linked below, the presence of foreigners at particular locales could be significant enough to warrant the formation of ongoing associations (politeuma is the favourite corporate term) based on ethnicity, as was the case with Cilician soldiers in Krokodilopolis (IFayum I 15; third-second century BCE), with Cretan soldiers at Tebtynis (PTebt I 32; 145 BCE), and with Boiotians, Idumeans, and Judeans in other districts of Egypt (see Harland’s article).

The presence of Judeans (Jews) is confirmed by inscriptions from the Lake district, including the dedication of a prayer-house (ca. 245-222 BCE) by Judeans on behalf of king Ptolemy at Krokodilopolis (GRA III 186). The names of villages in Arsinoites also indicate a significant presence of certain settlers, as in the case of a “village of Syrians,” a village called “Samareia,” and a “village of Arabs,” also known as “Ptolemais of Arabs.”

You can read much more about ethnic diversity in Egypt including much of the evidence above in Harland’s article:  “‘Syrians call you Astarte . . . Lycian peoples call you Leto’: Ethnic Relations and Circulating Legends in the Villages of Egypt” (link).


Delta region

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