Jews of Elephantine Island

Jews of Elephantine Island
The River Nile has played an important role in Christianity and in the Jewish religion for centuries. Most importantly the baby Moses was found in the bulrushes on the Nile. Although he grew up as a prince in an Egyptian palace, he became the liberator of the Israelites. To convince the Egyptian pharaohs to let his people go, the water in the River Nile was turned to blood, and this began the Exodus.

In the eighth century BC, when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, many Jews felt abandoned. They fled to join Judean mercenaries who lived with their families on the Island of Yeb, today called the Elephantine Island, in the River Nile. Some Jewish elders saw this move as an act of undoing their history – the Exodus in reverse. They were not happy, but this did not deter the fleeing Jews.

The island is situated in Aswan, in the upper Nile and was a frontier, fortress town that guarded Egypt from Nubia in the south. In this gentile world, the Jews were in exile. Their community lived in narrow streets in mud bricked houses amongst other races and religions. Papyrus records discovered at the end of the nineteenth century gave an insight into their daily lives and their culture on the island. These are believed to be the earliest documentation detailing the ordinary lives of ordinary Jews. Most of the find included legal documents which recorded marriages, divorces, property disputes and wills. The documents also showed that many of the Jews took Egyptian wives who converted to the Judaism and changed their names. Although they immersed themselves in Egyptian life, they continued to honor their Jewish faith.

The Jews on the island decided to build a temple. According to Jewish law in the Bible, the High Temple in Jerusalem was the only place where Jews were allowed to make sacrifices to God, which is an important part of ancient Jewish practise, especially on Jewish days of celebration such as Passover. They either did not know this rule of sacrifice, or they felt that being so far from Jerusalem, it would be acceptable for them to have a temple for sacrifice of their own. The temple was built with care and consideration and would’ve been older than the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem. It had five monumental gateways, a Holy of Holies inside, bronze was used for handles, it had a cedar roof and gold and silver vessels. Most importantly animals and food sacrifices were made in this temple. These were very proud Jews.

But, the Jewish temple stood next to the Egyptian temple of Khnum. Here the Egyptians worshipped the ram-headed deity, Khnum, but in the Jewish temple next door, the ram was sacrificed to their ‘one and only’ God. The Egyptian priests were outraged and paid the commanders of the local Persian garrison to destroy the Jewish temple. But the Jews were not going to be put off. They submitted a request to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple. This was an opportunity for the Jewish leaders in Israel to pull in their reins and they gave permission to build the temple, but were given strict instructions to only sacrifice fruit and cereals. There was not to be any more blood in their temple. The temple thus became more of a sanctuary for the Elephanitine Jews.

In the fourth century BC the Greek warrior king Alexander brought a new threat to the area – the threat of assimilation into the Hellenic culture. Philosophers arrived soon after the Greek soldiers invaded and contributed to their own cultural conquests. The soft Hellenic rule did not aim to destroy Jewish identity although it was not possible to be Jewish and Greek – Greek philosophy versus God's Word. It became increasingly difficult for individual Jews to continue under the Hellenistic rule and some Jews even went through the painful process of reversing their circumcision using weights and pullies. This was merely to save them from embarrassment when they appeared naked in front of other Greeks in the gymnasium.

There is no more mention of the temple on the island after the Greek invasion, but it is believed that the Egyptian temple was expanded, possibly including the buildings of the Jewish temple. Even though the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and the community on Elephantine lost their place of sanctuary, Jewish identity did not fade. Loyalty and faith led the Jews back to their roots and to their Promised Land.

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