Monday, November 16, 2015

The Jews of Elephantine

Follow the Nile River southward and one comes upon an island upon which are the unique ruins of an ancient Jewish military installation. The Jews of Elephantine Island, which is located near the modern city of Aswan, once served as a military garrison of the Persian Empire guarding the southern border of Egypt around the 5th century B.C.E.

Knowledge of the community of Elephantine Island first came to light around the beginning of the 20th century with the discovery of several Aramaic papyri and ostraka (pottery shards). The majority of the papyri that were deciphered were legal documents: business contracts, marriage agreements, etc.

The life recorded in these documents might not have attracted attention outside of scholarly circles were it not for the fact that, according to the papyri, the Jews of Elephantine Island had built themselves a temple where they brought offerings just as was done in the Temple in Jerusalem. According to the papyri, the Elephantine Temple had five stone gateways and a cedar roof. A decade or so before Persian rule in Egypt came to an end, the local priest of the Egyptian god Khnum led a riot in which the Jewish temple on Elephantine Island was destroyed. The community beseeched the Persian government to assist them in rebuilding the structure, but it appears that they received no response.

Information about the temple piqued the interest of archeologists, and several excavations were launched to find its ruins. The ruins of what is believed to have been the temple have been unearthed, as has remnants of the colony of Jews who once lived there.

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