The article below is by Shapur Suren-Pahlav, the director of the London-based CAIS (Circel of Anceint Iranian Studies) [click here for original posting of this article].


Among the Papyri Collection at the Austrian National Library (Die Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), a previously unknown archive has recently discovered a series of letters which could shed light on the history of the Arab conquest of the Middle-East in the 7th Century CE.

The Arab conquest of a large part of the Middle-East including the Iranian world and North Africa took place within a very short period of time which changed the course of history.

A key question has remained as to how the Arab armies had been able to defeat two mighty Eastern Roman-Byzantine and the Sasanian Persian Empires in such a short period of time and so successfully. The lack of information is mainly due to poor source historical materials. In addition no historical documents on the “daily business” of the Arab army were previously at hand. However, the new information reveals the processes and background leading to the conquest.

The Austrian National Library states that the Papyrus Letter Collection Archive is the source that could shed light on one of the most important events in the history of mankind, although it has not yet been scientifically confirmed.

So far over 250 letters written in Greek and Coptic on Papyrus have been identified. The letters were written in Egypt around 643/4 CE, immediately after the Arab conquest of Egypt which is documented in a unique way that tells the history of the transition of power to the Arabs.

A special feature of the letters is that how the Arabs were able to invade such a massive territory as Egypt with such a small army of 4,000 soldiers. According to the letters Amr, the commander of Arab forces was ordered to avoid killing the civilians in Egypt, contrary to the invasion of Iran two years earlier which was taken place in a most brutal fashion.

A portion of the Egyptian Papyri which provide clues to the militayr collpase of the Sassanian Empire in the face of the Arabo-islamic conquests (Photo from CAIS).

Among the discovered Papyri there are also a number of documents written in Sasanian-Pahlavi, date to the period that Egypt was under the Sasanian rule (619-629). These documents are about the imperial Sasanian forces stationed in Egypt and their life-style during their stay, which are yet to be studied.

The Papyi Collection of the Austrian National Library with 180,000 objects is one of the largest in the world, which covers the history of Egypt from the Ptolemaic to the Arab period (3rd century BCE to 10th century CE).  The archive originated from the collection of Archduke Rainer, who began acquiring texts written on papyrus, parchment, ostraca and paper from Egypt in 1883. On August 18, 1889 the Archduke donated his collection as a birthday present to the Emperor Franz Josef I, who included it in the Royal and Imperial Court Library as a special collection.

 The archive is currently under the digitisation process and will be accessible to the public in early 2011.