The Abu Simbel Graffito: Carian Puzzle or Risky Pun?

Armand D’Angour

The temple of Ramesses II, Egypt, with the inscription’s location encircled.

In 591 BC a Greek mercenary soldier in Egypt inscribed a large graffito on a monumental statue of the venerated pharaoh Ramesses II (r. 1279–1213 BC). He hacked out a series of letters with an axe on the left shin of one of four giant figures of Ramesses sculpted in sandstone at the entrance to a temple complex in Abu Simbel, Nubia (Upper Egypt). Among a host of graffiti in both Greek and Phoenician, this is by far the longest, running to five lines:

A drawing of the inscription, from P.W. Pestman’s New Papyrological Primer (Brill, Leiden, 1994, 7).






Transliterated into more recognisable Greek with spaces between words, lowercase letters, accents, and familiar spellings, the text reads:

Βασιλέος ἐλθόντος ἐς Ἐλεφαντίναν Ψαματίχου,

ταῦτα ἔγραψαν τοὶ σὺν Ψαμματίχῳ τῷ Θεοκλοῦς

ἔπλεον, ἦλθον δὲ Κέρκιος κατύπερθε, υἷς ὁ πόταμος

ἀνίη. ἀλλογλώσσους δ᾽ ἦρχε Ποτάσιμτο, Αἴγυπτίους δὲ Ἄμασις.

ἔγραφε δ᾽ ἀμὲ Ἄρχων Ἁμοιβίχου καὶ Πέλεϙος Οὑδάμου.

When King Psamatikhos came to Elephantine,
those who sailed with Psammatikhos the son of Theokles wrote this,
and they came upstream above Kerkis as far as the river
permits. Potasimto commanded the non-native speakers, Amasis the Egyptians.
Arkhon son of Amoibikhos inscribed us, and Peleqos son of Oudamos.

The inscription adorning the pharaoh’s shin.

The Site of Abu Simbel

The temple complex was rediscovered in 1813, mostly buried in the sand, by the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (1784–1817). He recorded:

The entire head, and part of the breast and arms of one of the statues are yet above the surface; of the one next to it scarcely any part is visible, the head being broken off, and the body covered with sand to above the shoulders; of the other two, the bonnets only appear.

The earliest photograph of the Temple of Ramesses II, taken by John Beasley Greene in 1853/4.

As Ramesses II was known to the Greeks as Ozymandias, Shelley (1792–1822) was inspired to write his famous sonnet under that title in 1817:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…

Shelley writing Prometheus Unbound in the Baths of Caracalla, Joseph Severn, 1845 (Keats-Shelley Memorial House, Rome, Italy).

After the Egyptian government decided to build the Aswan dam in 1954, it was agreed to rescue the temple rather than allow it to be inundated by the new reservoir. In an extraordinary feat of civil engineering, carried out over four years, the temple was carefully sawn into over 1,000 huge blocks which were eventually reassembled in their new home high above the water-level, allowing the statues with their historic graffiti to be seen by visitors today.  

Reconstruction of the statues in 1954.

Carians in Egypt

The graffito records the expedition made in 592–591 BC by the pharaoh Psammetikhos II (r. 594–589 BC) into Nubia, as mentioned by Herodotus (2.161), who gives the pharaoh’s Egyptian name Psamtik as “Psammis”. The leader of the expedition was also called Psammetikhos; but his father’s Greek name Theokles suggests that he was either a part-Egyptian mercenary or a resident Greek who had been given the name in honour of the pharaoh.

The general Potasimto (the Greek version of Egyptian “Padisematawy”) is known from other Egyptian inscriptions as having commanded Greek and Carian troops; while Amasis (Egyptian Ahmose) was a military officer who himself later became pharaoh (570–526 BC) after Apries, Psammetikhos’ son and successor, was killed in battle.

Head of Amasis II, from the Saite period, 26th Dynasty, c. 550 BC (Neues Museum, Berlin, Germany).

The presence of Carian mercenaries – natives of Caria in western Asia Minor, who spoke an Anatolian language distinct from Greek – is attested by Herodotus, whose own father was Carian: the historian records (2.163) that Apries had a bodyguard numbering 30,000 men from Ionia and Caria. The incidence of Ionian and Carian names in Egyptian graffiti confirms Herodotus’ testimony, and suggests a thriving culture of military and familial interchange between Egypt and cities of archaic Greece and Anatolia.

The name Arkhōn is not uncommon, and Amoibikhos, though rare (and almost exclusively Athenian) is given on another local inscription as the patronym of one Puthōn, who has been surmised to be Arkhōn’s brother. The Carian name Pe(l)lekōs (a transliteration of plqo in Carian, which had its own alphabet) has been found on other inscriptions, and is confidently related by experts to the “Peleqos” of the inscription. OUDAMO may be a form of the commonly found Doric name Eudāmos combined (technically in “crasis”) with the unwritten definite article ho, so that ho Eudāmou, “the son of Eudamos”, becomes (h)Oudāmou. If this interpretation is correct, it raises questions that have spurred ethnological speculations about the intermixture of Carian and Dorian communities.

The location of Caria, in the south west of modern Turkey.

A Homeric Pun?

Anyone who knows Greek, however, will immediately be struck that the name Peleqos looks and sounds strikingly similar to the word for “axe” or “pick”, pelekus (πέλεκυς), and that oudamos (οὐδαμός), of which oudamou is the genitive case (later spelt oudamou but in the 6th century BC pronounced ōdamō) is Greek for “nobody”. As early as 1926, the British classicist Ernest Harrison suggested that the last name was intended as a pun, indicating “Arkhōn son of Amoibikhos wrote (egraphe is a singular verb, by contrast to the plural egrapsan in the second line) this along with Axe son of Nobody”. In other words, Arkhōn carved the letters with the aid of his axe – and made an amusing joke about it. It would be as if a modern graffito were to read “John Smith wrote this, and A Sharpie.”

For a long time, then, some scholars have supposed that the name was intended to be a punning reference, possibly even one that reflects some knowledge of the famous wordplay in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus calls himself Outis, “Nobody” (thus fooling the Cyclops into claiming “Nobody has harmed me” when his fellow Cyclopes hear him bellowing in fury). Others, however, having carefully investigated the ethnological, linguistic, and historical contexts, doubt that there is a pun to be found in the name. They are inclined to take the inscription simply as evidence for the activity of Carian mercenaries, links between Carian and Dorian communities, and intermarriage between Greeks and Egyptians. 

Odysseus and Polyphemus, Arnold Böcklin, 1896 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA).

Writers and Readers

How is one to choose between these different styles of interpretation? Some may find puns on names more agreeable than others, and the Odyssey certainly suggests that the Greeks of the archaic age took delight in such wordplay. The author of the inscription was linguistically aware, as his reference to alloglōssoi (“non-native speakers”, i.e. Greeks and Carians) indicates. John Ma, the historian at Columbia University, has also observed that the axe was known to be an Egyptian weapon of war, not a Greek one: it would surely be hard for a Greek or Carian mercenary serving in Egypt not to associate a name written Peleqos with that weapon, just as we might associate the name “Sharpie” with that of a marker pen even if it were found as a genuine surname as well. The objection that the Greek for axe, pelekus, has a different ending -us is of little consequence, since for the purpose of humour it would be bound to be nominalised with the ending –os.

Et in Arcadia ego, Nicolas Poussin, 1637/8 (Musée du Louvre, Paris, France).

It might be supposed that Greek readers of the inscription, on seeing OUDAMO, could hardly have understood the word at first sight as meaning anything but “Nobody”, even if on reflection they might have recognised that the writer was likely to have spelled οὐδαμοῦ as ΟΔΑΜΟ. The reading “(h)Eudāmou” could certainly have been more clearly indicated by EUDAMO, whereas hOUDAMOU looks unmistakeably as if it connotes “son of Nobody” (the crasis of ho ODAMO could account for hOU-).

However, “Arkhōn son of Amoibikhos” is also not without its own potentially punning connotations. As mentioned above, Arkhōn means “commander”, and the stem amoib- of the unusual “Amoibikhos” may suggest a military “change of guard”. In Homer’s Iliad (13.793) we read of a group of warriors οἵ ῥ᾽ ἐξ Ἀσκανίης ἐριβώλακος ἦλθον ἀμοιβοὶ / ἠοῖ τῇ προτέρῃ “who had come from fertile Askania the previous morning as relief troops (amoiboi)”.

A punning interpretation might, then, read “Arkhōn (h)Amoibikhou” here as a pseudonym, with the writer cautiously presenting himself as “Commander, son of Relief-troops” rather than giving his real name. That would make sense if there were some danger in being identified as the author of such a graffito; but there is no evidence that such acts were viewed by Greeks or Egyptians as cultural or religious vandalism, as they would be today. On the contrary, the existence of other Greek names with military connotations such as Thorax (!Breast­plate”), and the fact that “Amoibikhos” is found in another inscription as the name of Pūthon’s father, point to its being a real name, even if it might indeed have derived from, or relate to, the military notion of a “relief force”.

One “Rimbaud” left his not-so-subtle mark at Luxor Temple, Egypt, around 1831. Perhaps he was an ancestor of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who was born in 1854 and visited Egypt in the 1870s and 1880s?

To Pun or Not to Pun?

To try to come to a determination of the question, it might help to ask what the aim of carving the graffito might have been, and how the author(s) expected it to be read. The writers of most such graffiti, here and around the world, tend simply to want to leave their mark – “X was here” – in a particular location, often one of special importance. The Ancient Greeks also commissioned and used inscriptions in a more formal manner, to glorify or commemorate individuals and cities. The scale and content of this graffito suggests something of the latter ambition, even though it is far from a polished or professional piece of carving: the letter forms are not regular, the lines are not straight, and the spelling is inconsistent. However, the mention of the King’s expedition, the series of commanders’ names, and the detail of their travels down the Nile, all evince pride in the squadron’s status and achievements.

On balance, then, I am inclined to a compromise of sorts. I would suppose that Arkhōn son of Amoibikhos was indeed the sole inscriber; and that he wanted not only his name to be preserved for posterity, but his wit as well. Later Greeks employed the cruel maxim “Risk it on the Carian” (en tōi Kariōi kinduneuein) to suggest that Carians were disposable (the Latin equivalent is fiat experimentum in corpore vili, “let the experiment be done on a cheap body”).

Arkhōn will not have been so dismissive; but while the name Peleqos was no doubt familiar to him as a real name used by Carian mercenaries with whom he served, here it appears to be added almost as an afterthought ­– “Arkhōn wrote this – and Peleqos.” In inscribing the name in Greek letters, Arkhōn cannot have been unaware that he was doing so with his pelekus. That is what might have spurred him to make a final, punning, gesture: adding to the quasi-Carian name a Greek-style patronym (it is not clear that Carians used patronyms rather than demonyms – Herodotus calls himself “of Halicarnassus” or “of Thurioi”) that would be read immediately as “Nobody” but might also appear to encode a common enough Greek name. In doing so, he ensured that scholars would not cease puzzling over whether the name should be taken to refer to a real individual of mixed Carian-Dorian parentage called Peleqos son of Eudamos, even while they continued to smile, groan, or curse at the obvious pun “Mr Axe, son of Nobody”.

Armand D’Angour is Professor of Classics at the University of Oxford. He has written previously for Antigone on the music of Sophocles’ Ode to Man here, on the Song of Seikilos inscription here, and on Sappho and Catullus here.

Further Reading:

I.J. Adiego, The Carian Language (Brill, Leiden, 2007).

J. Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980).

M.P.J. Dillon, “A Homeric pun from Abu Simbel (Meiggs and Lewis 7a),” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 118 (1997) 128–30.

A. Bernard and O. Masson, “Les inscriptions grecques d’Abou-Simbel,” Revue des études grecques 70 (1957) 1–46.

E. Harrison, “Discussion,” CR 40 (1926) 140.

O. Masson, “La grande inscription grecque d’Abou Simbel,” Studi Micenei ed Egeo-Anatolici 34 (1994) 137–40.