The Tura / Toura Discovery of Manuscripts (1941)

Around the start of August 1941 the British military authorities in Cairo sent a gang of native Egyptian workmen to clear some galleries in the stone-quarries of Tura, 10 miles from Cairo, in order to store munitions there.  These discovered a pile of papyrus codices among the loose debris in one of the three galleries in quarry 35, around 20-25m from the entrance in the central rotunda.  The books were not hidden, but simply buried under the rubble and dust of ages which reached almost a metre high at the sides of the tunnels.  As such people do, they stole them all.  The police and members of the Antiquities Service learned of the find on 10th August, but were too late to seize more than a small portion.  Later still, portions of these books, quire by quire, began to be sold to the Cairo antiquities dealers and sold on at exorbitant prices.  Much was purchased by the Egyptian museum; others remain in private hands.  Rumours circulate that the ignorant workmen burned others for fuel, which Puech dismisses as a common folk-story in such cases; wilder rumours speak of thousands of pages.  

The manuscripts contained lost works by some of the church fathers.  Doutreleau drew up a list of the physical codices and their contents:

Since the books are not as they were found, some estimate of original size is important.  Each codex is comprised of quaternions/quires/'cahiers' -- groups of 16 pages -- made by taking 4 sheets of paper and folding them once.  The maximum practical size of such a codex seems to be 30 quaternions (480 pp), which makes a book around 10 cm thick.  By comparison, none of the Nag Hammadi codices, which were found complete, has more than 175p -- some are only 88pp.  

The Tura books have reached us, quire by quire, through the dealers.  It is possible that the books were unbound when found, and placed in the corridor as piles of quaternions in antiquity.  The differing page sizes allow us to assign each quire to a codex, if there is no better guide.

All the texts are in Greek.



Page size, in cm.

No of quires known

I Dialogue of Origen with Heraclides
Discourse on Easter (in two books).

These are a bundle of quires joined by a fastener, and seem to be the complete codex.  The manuscript is dated to the end of the 6th century.  The Dialogue with Heraclides was unknown from any source before this find.  It seems to be a stenographic record of a real disputation, in which Origen comes vividly alive.  It is 28 pages long.  The title is given at the end.  Patristic references exist to a discourse on Easter, hitherto unknown.  This is 11 pages long, and in two books.

29.5 x 16 6
II Origen, Commentary on Romans (Extracts from books 5 and 6)
Origen, Against Celsus (Extracts from book 1 and book 2)
Origen, Sermon on the witch of Endor

This codex seems, like the others but more so, to have been thrown away in antiquity.  Each quire has been cut in half with some sort of mechanical cutter, leaving top and bottom bits.  Date of the Ms. is the same as codex I.  The extracts from Contra Celsum begin on quire 2 page 13, and have a note that they were 'transcribed and collated against an exemplar (or a copy) of the books of Origen himself.'  The sermon was already known, but the new version was published by Gueraud in RHR 131 (1946), 99-108.

27 x 18 6
III Didymus (?), Commentary on Ecclesiastes

Doutreleau has evidence of the existence of 15 quires.  Only some of the quires are in the Egyptian museum.  The pages are difficult to read.  One of the quires has been reduced to small fragments.  Quires 3, 6, 11, 15, 20, 21 can be recognised.  8 others are incomplete or damaged, and the quire number is unreadable.  Quire 13 contains notes on Eccl. 6:12.  As Ecclesiastes has 12 chapters, it may be inferred that the complete codex had around 25 quires.

27.5 x 24 15  (of 25?)
IV Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Genesis

The quires are numbered 1-16, and run up to Gen. 16:16.  Quire 1 is only fragments.  The others are almost complete.  Since Genesis has 50 chapters, presumably a complete text would be two codices of 30 quires.  It is possible that the original find contained 14 more quires, and perhaps another codex; however, there are blank pages among the current quires, and the work of the copyist may never have been completed.

27 x 23 16 
V Didymus the Blind, Commentary on the Psalms

14 quires are known, scattered among more owners than any other text.  The Cairo museum owns only 19, 20 and 21.  Quire 1 comments on Paslm 20:1-6.  Quire 2 is missing.  Quire 3 covers Ps. 21:15-25. Quire 4 covers Ps.21:25-Ps.22:5.  Quires 5-11, 16 are lost.  The remainder of the text is present, to the first page of quire 22 which covers Ps. 44:3-4.  The verso of this is blank.  The bookhand is the same as for codex III, but rather finer: the two codices clearly originate from the same scriptorium.  The commentary on Ps.1-20 must have been another volume.  This volume is more or less a commentary on Ps. 21-50.  So another 4 such books would cover the whole Psalms.

The text consists of artificial 'questions,' and responses, written to an inconceivable level of commenting on individual words and phrases.

27 x 24.5 14 (of 28?)
VI Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Zachariah

This codex seems to be complete.  There are 4 blank leaves at the end.  The whole work is included.

27 x 22 26 
VII Didymus the Blind, Commentary on Job

The first 24 quires are in the Cairo museum.  They're complete, but badly damaged by insects in the middle of the pages.  8 pages are in a private collection, from quire 26, and cover up to Job 16:3.  Since Job contains 42 chapters, if Didymus commented on the lot then there would need to be 60 quires, doubtless in 2 codices.

31.5 x 15.5 25
VIII Unknown, Commentary on the Psalms 125, 129, 131-3 and John 6:3-28.

Laid out differently from the Didymus codices.  The first page is blank, as is the second apart from a doxology at the top.  Commentary by someone of the Alexandrian school.

28.5 x 22 1 quire of 12 pages

 For codices IV, V, VI, the quires are either rolled or folded in two, in antiquity.  This suggests that the books were already just piles of quires when dumped in the corridor, as does the presence of some of the cord originally used in the binding inside some of the folded quires, again so placed in antiquity.

Did the find contain two codices of Genesis, 6 of Psalms, 2 of Job?  Doutreleau thinks not.  Although he mentions an 'official version' of the find story, given by M. Gueraud in his Note preliminaire, the fact is that the find rapidly became dispersed into many hands.  Some hid what they had, and that was the last seen of them.  Others ended up in the museum, via the activity of an agent who obtained some 1050 pages.  Others still ended up in private hands -- some 850 pages.  But he considers that the idea that whole codices vanished improbable, in view of the efforts official and otherwise to locate holders.  Some portion of those additional codices, given that they were all split into quires, would have come to light.  We have no reason to suppose the person dumping them in antiquity gave us the whole work  in any case.  But there are probably some 650 pages hidden here and there which should appear one day, containing the remaining portions of the works of Didymus the Blind listed above.


L. DOUTRELEAU, Que Savons-nous aujourd'hui des papyrus de Toura.  Recherches des Sciences Religieuses 43 (1955), pp.161-193, including plates.  Full inventory of codices.  Checked.
H.C.PUECH, Les nouveaux ecrits d'Origine et de Didyme decouverts a Toura, Revue d'Histoire et de philosophie religieuses 31 (1951), pp.293-329.  Checked.
Octave GUERAUD, Note preliminaire sur les papyrus d'Origène decouverts à Toura, Revue d'Histoire des Religions 131 (1946), pp. 85-108, with 5 plates.  Ref. from Doutreleau and Puech.  First detailed announcement of the find.

Constructive feedback is welcomed to Roger Pearse. Corrections and additions are very welcome.

This page has been online since 31st July 2003

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