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Karanis, Egypt. Source: Einsamer Schütze/CC BY-SA 4.0

New Revelation Ancient Greco-Roman Karanis Endured to 7th Century


New research has revolutionized our understanding of Karanis, an ancient Greco-Roman agricultural settlement nestled in the Fayum oasis of Egypt. Contrary to prior assumptions of abandonment in the mid-fifth century, these new findings propose a continued habitation of the agricultural town until the mid-seventh century AD. At its peak, the settlement had a robust population of several thousand people, a fact gleaned from the huge number of papyri retrieved from the site in the 19th century.

The new study and its finds imply a sustained activity amidst significant regional and global changes, both political and environmental. These finds have been published in the latest edition of Antiquity.

Karanis: A Flourishing Agrarian Settlement

Established around 250 BC in Egypt's Fayum region, Karanis flourished as a farming community, boasting a diverse populace and a rich material culture that endured for centuries. Despite eventual desert encroachment leading to partial burial, Karanis emerged as an archaeological treasure trove, offering insights into daily life in a Roman Egyptian town through tens of thousands of artifacts and papyrus texts.

"Karanis offers one of the most extensive datasets available for the study of everyday Roman life and is often presented as a case study alongside Pompeii," the authors of the study write.

Location of Karanis and nearby settlements. (Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity)

Location of Karanis and nearby settlements. (Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity)

The initial chronological framework for Karanis relied on papyri and coins unearthed during the first excavations conducted between 1924 and 1935. These artifacts, coupled with a scarcity of materials post-460 AD, led scholars to conclude that Karanis met its end around that time. This interpretation suggested a link between events like the Antonine Plague and subsequent economic downturns and the abandonment of the settlement.

The Antonine Plague was a pandemic that ravaged the Roman Empire from around AD 165 to 180 during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after whom it is named. It likely originated in the Near East or China and was possibly brought to Rome by soldiers returning from campaigns. the Antonine Plague had devastating effects, causing high mortality rates and widespread disruption to society.

The angel of death striking a door during the plague. (Wellcome images/ CC BY 4.0)

The angel of death striking a door during the plague. (Wellcome images/ CC BY 4.0)

Historical accounts describe symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, and lesions on the skin, which were characteristic of various infectious diseases. The plague significantly weakened the Roman military and economy, contributing to social and political instability during the latter part of the 2nd century AD.

Utilizing radiocarbon dating on thirteen plant samples extracted from Karanis' structures, researchers, aided by the 14CHRONO Centre at Queen’s University Belfast, meticulously reassessed the settlement's timeline. These results indicate a prolonged occupation period, surpassing previous estimations, reports Arkeonews.

Abandoning the Settlement: A Nuanced Approach

However, recent research unveils a more nuanced narrative. While certain parts of Karanis may have experienced depopulation by the mid-5th century, evidence now suggests habitation persisted until the 7th century, aligning with the Islamic conquest of Egypt. This challenges prior assumptions of an early decline based on papyri and coins.

The evolution of Karanis appears gradual, marked by the renovation and repurposing of buildings. Fluctuations in climate and Nile levels, alongside Byzantine and Arab conquests, contributed to this transformation. It's plausible that these factors enabled certain areas of Karanis to remain active while others were abandoned, shaping the survival and adaptation of the region over time.

“…despite the volume of research and publications, and the site's key role in historical reconstructions, the chronological framework for the development of the town remains poorly defined. The earliest settlement has barely been explored and its ultimate abandonment is widely debated, with some indication that the current mid-5th century AD date for this event is too early,” write the authors of the study.

(Top row) House C51, Room B before (left) and after (right) excavation of its abandonment fill; the sand layer is visible under the second-floor collapse; bottom left) plans and sections of the house in its original configuration; bottom right) section showing the second floor as House B227 and the sand layer in Room C51B. (Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity)

(Top row) House C51, Room B before (left) and after (right) excavation of its abandonment fill; the sand layer is visible under the second-floor collapse; bottom left) plans and sections of the house in its original configuration; bottom right) section showing the second floor as House B227 and the sand layer in Room C51B. (Laura Motta et al. / Antiquity)

The researchers assert that Karanis remained continuously inhabited from the sixth century onwards, enduring in some form until the Islamic conquest of the 7th century AD. Despite this persistence, the extent of its prosperity during this period remains uncertain due to limited data on its evolving urban structure.

They simultaneously acknowledge the difficulty in pinpointing the exact circumstances of Karanis' abandonment. The absence of coins and papyri doesn't definitively indicate a lack of population presence. While the available evidence sheds light on Karanis' extended lifespan, gaps in understanding remain regarding its eventual fate and the factors influencing its decline.

“Our dating places the abandonment of the settlement within the Late Antique Little Ice Age (mid-6th to mid-7th century AD) and during a period of political transitions, such as the Sasanian conquest of Egypt, the Byzantine reconquest, and the subsequent Arab conquest. The causes of the abandonment of Karanis and the decline of the region resonate with broader debates about the fall of the Roman Empire and the socio-economic transformations at the start of the Middle Ages, whose absolute chronology gains a new perspective thanks to the dates presented here,” conclude the archaeologists.

Top image: Karanis, Egypt. Source: Einsamer Schütze/CC BY-SA 4.0

By Sahir Pandey


Altuntas, L. 2024.  Radiocarbon dating shows that the Roman settlement of Karanis survived in Egypt until the Arab Conquest in the 7th century AD. Available at:

Carvajal, G. 2024.  Roman Settlement of Karanis Found to have Survived in Egypt Until the Arab Conquest in the 7th Century AD. Available at:

Georgiou, A. 2024.  'Key' Ancient Roman Town Survived Longer Than Thought, Say Archaeologists. Available at:,was%20conquered%20by%20the%20Romans.

Motta, L., et al. 2024.  Re-dating Roman Karanis, Egypt: radiocarbon evidence for prolonged occupation until the seventh century AD. Antiquity. Available at:

Sahir's picture


I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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