About the Department of Papyri

The Papyrus Collection of the Austrian National Library with 180,000 objects is one of the largest in the world. It 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.

Foundation of the Department

Josef von Karabacek

The foundation of the collection was above all the work of Josef von Karabacek (1845 - 1918), Professor of the History of the Orient and related fields at the University of Vienna. He recognized the importance of the first major finds of papyri that had been made in the years 1877 to 1880 in the Fayum oasis (about 80 kilometres south-west of Cairo). Karabacek found ways and means to bring a large number of them as coherent groups to Vienna.

Theodor Graf

In doing this, he was helped by his connection with Theodor Graf (1840 - 1903), the owner of a carpet business in Vienna with a branch in Cairo, who also dealt in objects of oriental art and manuscripts. Karabacek, who studied medieval textiles, particularly those of oriental origin, from 1870 till 1880, had come into contact with Graf through this shared interest. In a letter dated 7 March 1881, Karabacek commissioned Graf to look for antique textiles and papyri.

Erzherzog Rainer

Graf was very successful in his search, and in 1881 and 1882 he was able to send about 10,000 papyri from Medinet el-Fayum (the ancient "City of the Arsinoites") and from Ehnas (the ancient "Heracleopolis") to Vienna. Archduke Rainer was persuaded to buy the finds made by Graf. Consequently, the collection "Papyrus Archduke Rainer" was founded in 1883. In the early years, the papyri were kept in the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry (now called Museum for Applied Art - MAK).

Egyptian room in the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry

After the first purchase in 1883 Graf brought back more papyri to Vienna; these came from el-Ashmunein (the ancient Hermupolis) in Middle Egypt and from Dimê (the ancient Socnopaiu Nesos) in the Fayum. These were also acquired by the Archduke, so that after a few years the collection had grown to almost its present size. In 1899 Josef von Karabacek was appointed head of the Court Library, and in the same year Archduke Rainer presented his papyrus collection as a birthday present to the Emperor Franz Josef I, with the request that it be incorporated into the Court Library as a special collection.

last update 2/3/2016