Ranging in date from 1800 BC to AD 800, the Chester Beatty Library's collection of papyrus includes rolls, codices and individual documents from Ancient, Roman and Coptic Egypt. It includes many works of outstanding importance, with unique documents and, in some cases, the earliest known copies of particular texts.
Many of the papyri in the collection (both religious and documentary) are written in Greek, the official language of Egypt for over 1000 years from the conquest of Alexander the Great until the Arab conquest. In addition, there are texts written in hieroglyphic, hieratic, Demotic and Coptic.
The Papyrus Collection was, for the most part, established in the 1920s under the guidance of senior curators in the British Museum's Department of Egyptian Antiquities and Department of Manuscripts; allied Oxford and Cambridge academics also contributed to its formation and development. Harold Idris Bell, Frederick Kenyon, Alan Gardiner and Edward Edwards, as well as Herbert Thompson, Charles Alberry and W.E. Crum, were retained by Beatty as advisors.
The principal papyri were purchased through dealers based in Cairo, where Beatty wintered between the wars. Beatty's acquisition of papyrus manuscripts began to turn the emphasis of his collection away from illuminated manuscripts towards rare texts, and in several contemporary newspapers he was referred to as ‘a British Egyptologist’.
Beatty's papyrus collection would eventually develop into one of the most important private collections in the world, which few other private collectors, and only the largest public institutions, could match.
Beatty donated a number of Ancient Egyptian papyri to the British Museum: Papyrus Chester Beatty II-XIX (London, BM 10682-10699), but kept some of the more unique texts. He also gifted smaller collections of documentary papyri to his friend and fellow collector Wilfred Merton, but in 1958, the Merton Collection of Papyri was bequeathed to Chester Beatty and now forms part of the Library.