How (Not) to Find Persians in Egypt

Recorded: April 14, 2023
Event: Achaemenid Workshop 1
Citation: Colburn, Henry P. "How (Not) to Find Persians in Egypt." Pourdavoud Center: Achaemenid Workshop 1 (April 14, 2023).

by Henry P. Colburn (New York University)

It is rather difficult to find Persians in Egypt. Surely there were some; for instance, six or seven satraps are known by name. But the longest serving of these, Arshama, although doubtless a Persian by any definition, may also have been related to the former Egyptian royal family. Thus, even at the highest level, distinguishing Persians from Egyptians in Achaemenid Egypt is no simple matter. And this difficulty persists across all classes of people; for example, the Persian names attested in documentary sources often appear in families with Egyptian or Aramaic names as well, illustrating the well-known principle that names do not always denote ethnic or national origin. The archaeological evidence for Persians in Egypt, though no less equivocal, offers better possibilities. One notable pattern discernible in this admittedly sparse material is that publicly facing markers of Persian identity, such as the garment and bracelet worn by Udjahorresnet on his well-known naophorous statue, tend to be embedded within Egyptian material culture traditions. Private markers, by contrast, such as seals, drinking vessels, or other minor arts, tend to be more overt in their references to Achaemenid iconography and material culture. As with names, these markers cannot prove ethnic or geographical origin, but the pattern noted above does suggest that Persians in Egypt felt no need to put their “Persianness” on public display; instead, they focused such displays inwards towards family and close acquaintances. This in turn accounts for their near invisibility in the textual and archaeological records.

About the Speaker

Henry Colburn is adjunct faculty at New York University, Hofstra University, and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He also serves as a research associate of the Kelsey Museum of ArchaeologyattheUniversityofMichigan.HeistheauthorofArchaeology of Empire in Achaemenid Egypt (Edinburgh University Press 2020) and co-editor of In Search of Cultural Identities in Western and Central Asia: A Festschrift in Honor of Prudence Oliver Harper (Brepols 2023).