An Ancient Jewish Community on Elephantine Island, Aswan

One of the most interesting interludes in ancient Egyptian history concerns the Jewish community that inhabited a portion of Elephantine Island, located in southern Egypt adjacent to the town of Aswan, during the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.  There has been considerable debate about the community over the last century – but in this and a few other blogs I want to deal with several social and cultural aspects that are of interest.
elephantine-excavation templestudy-com

“Jewish Life” comes alive through the remarkable, Aramaic-language scrolls, which describe a Jewish community on lush Elephantine 800 years after the biblical exodus … These people were descendants of Jews who had voluntarily returned to Egypt after the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. While elite Jews were forced into exile in Babylonia, many soldiers and common folk relocated to Egypt, which proved to be a multicultural mecca,

Source /

Elephantine, the island on which the Jewish community and temple were located, is situated in the Nile River just next to the town of Aswan in southern Egypt.  It is the location of the First Cataract and the end of effective cultivation.  Source -

Elephantine, the island on which the Jewish community and temple were located, is situated in the Nile River just next to the town of Aswan in southern Egypt. It is the location of the First Cataract and the end of effective cultivation. Source –

Just how the community was founded continues to be debated – either the original population came into Egypt to help with Persian conquests in Nubia, and then stayed on as professional soldiers, and/or a group of disgruntled priests and others  emigrated to southern Egypt following the troubles with Manasseh of Judah, who introduced the worship of heavenly bodies, quite against Jewish laws.

We know about their life and affairs over several generations thanks to a series of manuscripts written in Aramaic (lingua franca of the time) that concerns their private lives as well as business concerns.   And even more interesting, the community founded and  maintained a temple in ancient Elephantine, and there are various of the documents that refer to it, which we will discuss in a future blog.

Elephantine_papyri pcchong-net

One of the papyri, still bound and sealed.

Ancient trade routes between the nile valley and the levant , and south to Aswan and Elephantine. Source -

Ancient trade routes between the Nile valley and the levant, and south to Aswan and Elephantine. Source –

This link to a Google satellite map shows the general layout of the island.

One of the interesting aspects of the legal documents has to do with the right of women to legally hold property, to both receive and sell it.  Below is one of the best preserved land deeds, in which a father provides his married daughter a grant of land and a house.  Note that even in the case of divorce, the husband is not allowed access to all of the house and property.

House contract 2nd.

Source - Cowley-Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C.  1923.

As a commemoration of this week of Passover, future blogs will take up several other aspects of this fascinating community.


Elephantine Island, with the ancient  ruins visible at the south end of the island, looking north along the Nile River.  The modern town of Aswan is to the right.

[Revised 15 April 2014]

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Easter Season in Egypt, 1834: ‘Smelling the Breeze’, Making Kishk, Eating Colored Eggs & Salted Fish

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened mi...

kishk, an Egyptian dish made with thickened milk or yogurt and topped with fried onions Cairo, Egypt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Manners and Customs of The Modern Egyptians, by E. Lane, is a two-volume set filled with lore about Egypt during the author’s time (1834). And although it makes for fascinating reading, the book is now largely ‘put down’ by post-colonial theorists who are troubled by the Orientalist mind-set of Lane and his colleagues.

Nevertheless, taken at descriptive value, it – as so much of the colonial literature of exploration – provides views both into lifestyles of local people at the time and their (presumed) thoughts – as well as mindsets of the authors themselves; of colonial mentality.

The following excerpt describes common practices during Orthodox Easter time in Egypt (1834), and includes a recipe for kishk, which was eaten as part of the celebrations for Good Friday. Kishk is still a very popular dish, eaten year-round, and I remember the delicious kishk that was made in the Izba (hamlet) in Upper Egypt where I lived while doing research.

Salted fish ( فسيخ), lettuce, and onion are also eaten as part of this spring celebration, which is commonly organized as a picnic.  It is said that these practices can be traced back to ancient Egypt, though I cannot find solid information about this.  Nevertheless, it is a celebration that encompasses both Muslims and Christians and transcends socio-economic strata.

Of particular interest in the following description, is the melding of Muslim, Coptic, and non-religious activities into one ceremony – called, as still today,  Shamm al-Nasim (شم النسيم – literally, ‘sniffing the breeze’).  Some of the activities described below are still found, while others, such as ritual washing with a particular plant, are no longer to be commonly found.

Until the presidency of Nasser (mid-20th century), there was a large Jewish community in Cairo and it is possible that the Jewish celebration of Passover, which takes place during the same time period in Egypt, also incorporated aspects of the Shamm al-Nasim celebration.

An izba in Upper Egypt, similar to the one in which I lived. Kishk was a great treat, as made by some of the older women.  It is a dish that transcends religious sects and socio-economic strata, as well as ethnicities.

IT is remarkable that the Moos’lims of Egypt observe certain customs of a religious or superstitious nature at particular periods of the religious almanac of the Copts [Orthodox Christians of Egypt]; and even, according to the same system, calculate the times of certain changes of the weather.

Thus they calculate the period of the Khum’a’see’n [khamsiin], when hot southerly winds are of frequent, occurrence, to commence on the day immediately following the Coptic festival of Easter Sunday, and to terminate on the Day of Pentecost (or Whitsunday); an interval of forty-nine days.

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo...

Coptic and Arabic inscriptions in an Old Cairo church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wednesday next before this period is called Ar’ba’a Eiyoo’b, or Job’s Wednesday. Many persons, on this day, wash themselves with cold water, and rub themselves with the creeping’ plant called raara’a Ei-yoo’b, or ghoobey’ra (inula Arabica, and inula undulata), on account of a tradition which relates that Job did so to obtain restoration to health. This and other customs about to be mentioned were peculiar to the Copts; but are now observed by many Moos’lims in the towns, and by more in the villages.

The other customs just alluded to are that of eating eggs, dyed externally red or yellow or blue, or some other colour, on the next day (Thursday); and, on the Friday (Good Friday), a dish of khul’tah, composed of kishk*, with foo’l na’bit**, lentils, rice, onions, &c.

Washing before a meal, a necessary task. Source: Lane, Manners and Customs…

* Kishk is prepared from wheat, first moistened, then dried, trodden in a vessel to separate the husks, and coarsely ground with a hand-mill: the meal is mixed with milk, and about six hours afterwards is spooned out upon a little straw or bran, and then left for two or three days to dry. When required for use, it is either soaked or pounded, and put into a sieve, over a vessel; and then boiling water is poured on it: what remains in the sieve is thrown away: what parses through is generally poured into a saucepan of boiled meat or fowl, over the fire: some leaves of white bete, fried in butter, are usually added to each plate of it.

** foo’l na’bit are Beans soaked in water until they begin to sprout, and then boiled.

On the Saturday, also, it is a common custom of men and women to adorn their eyes with kohhl. This day is called Sebt en-Noo’ r (Saturday of the Light); because a light, said to be miraculous, appears during the festival then celebrated in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

A custom termed Shemm en-Nesee’m* (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khum’a’see’n. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon, many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, generally northwards, to take the air, or, as they term it,smell the air, which, on that day, they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country.

This year (1834), they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the nesee’m: but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to smell it.

*شم النسيم

Source: Edward William LaneAn Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, Written in Egypt during the Years 1833, -34, and -35, partly from Notes made during a Former Visit to that Country in the Years 1825, -26, -27, and 28. In Two Volumes
Posted in Colonial, Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt, Egypt-Ancient, Egypt-Recent, Food, History-Recent, Nile Valley, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

World Donkey Day (May 8)


Donkeys are very important in parts of Africa as well as all over the Middle East, and I shall be blogging about them to celebrate International Donkey Day. This is a great post.

Originally posted on Camel, food security and climate change :

Donkey is very useful, important and precious animal genetic resource for food and agriculture. Donkey plays pivotal role in the livelihood earning of the million people of the world. Donkey is widely use for pastoral movement, carting, agricultural operations and recreation purposes. There is wide intra and in breed diversity. Such diversity is based on habitat, purpose, selection etc. Donkey is well adapted to all climatic conditions and ecosystem. It ranges from cold temperate region, cold deserts, dry and hot deserts, plain lands, high Alps and coastal ecosystems of the globe.

In some countries, the products, especially milk and meat of donkey is also use. Milk is use as medicine among the pastoral communities for the treatment of respiratory diseases since long time. The meat products are use in many countries of the world and Salami is the famous dish of donkey meat.

Donkey is now introduced in many EU countries as…

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Wheat rises to a symbol of equality and opportunity


Notes from a recent talk  at CIMMYT, by Rachel Laudan, on the history of wheat that will soon be Published.  Here are some notes from the talk and another link to the conference – interesting -

– As a greater range of foods began to be made from wheat, the grain became a status symbol for those who consumed it. The color of bread was a symbol of power and material wealth, with the rich consuming lighter breads and the poor eating darker breads made from grains besides wheat, Laudan said.

A recent article from the Global Development Professionals Network has this to say about the CIMMYT event -

Meeting the growing demand for wheat, as one of the world’s most important staple crops, would significantly boost food security in developing countries across the world.

Developing improved wheat breeds, species and technologies will also make wheat production easier and cheaper for farmers in the developing world – and so give them better access to markets…

See this link for more details.



Originally posted on MU Earth:

By Meghan Eldridge

CIUDAD OBREGON, Mexico — A grain commonly found on today’s grocery store shelves has risen throughout history as a sign of equality and opportunity for those who eat it.

Rachel Laudan, a food historian and author of the book “Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History” from the U.K., discussed the role of wheat across history at a presentation on March 27 during the Borlaug Summit on Wheat for Food Security.

Rachel Laudan, historian and author, discusses research findings about the role of wheat in civilizations during a presentation on March 27, 2014. Laudan's research assesses the past, present and future importance of grains.

Rachel Laudan, historian and author, discusses research findings about the role of wheat in civilizations during a presentation on March 27, 2014. Laudan’s research assesses the past, present and future importance of grains. Photo by Meghan Eldridge

Beginning 20,000 years ago, grains had a major influence on the development of ancient cities as a source of food for populations, Laudan noted.

Wheat touched every facet of life, from the work of grinding the grain to the worship…

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Darwin in Arabia – The Introduction of Evolution into the 19th Century Middle East

This is a book I cannot obtain here, but have found a detailed review, from which I quote below and provide references and other links.  The topic is indeed fascinating, in considering the multiple ways in which concepts move from one region to another – involving political, religious, and linguistic dimensions, among others – are treated.  As well, the concept of  *science* as being of European origin and implications of this fact in the Middle East.

READING DARWIN IN ARABIC, 1860–1950 by Marwa Elshakry
448pp. University of Chicago Press. $45.
978 0 226 00130 2
The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria, fourteenth century Irwin_Darwin in Arabia

In reviewing the above-referneced book, Robert Irwin points out some of the difficulties of translocating both concept and vocabulary of Darwinism from Victorian England into the Middle East as well as into Arabic >

For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”.“Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”.

When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language.

Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”.

The word al-tatawwur has further migrated from meaning evolution in the 19th century (above) into the language of development in modern standard arabic.  I learned this some years ago when asking a professor at a regional university in Egypt what he thought I should call an upcoming talk I was giving at the university.  He responded, al-tatawwur fil-aryaaf wal-alaqaatuhu bi-dawlah (Development in the countryside and connections (of the countryside) with the State).

Regarding Darwinism itself, Irwin goes on to say -

Reading Darwin in Arabic deals primarily with the works of popularization and polemic produced by a small elite of bookmen during the heyday of the Nahda (Awakening, Rennisance) …

Elshakry’s densely argued and fascinating book casts the net wider than that and gives extensive coverage to such matters as missionary ambitions and strategies in the Middle East, Muhammad Abduh’s attempts to reform al-Azhar as a teaching institution, the rise of Pharaonism as a cultural movement, the growing sense of an Islamic civilization with a history, the eleventh-century Sufi al-Ghazali’s overweening presence in philosophical debates, and Arab interest in Atatürk’s reforms.

As Elshakry notes, enthusiasm for Darwin and his followers fell away after the Second World War and that enthusiasm turned to outright hostility from around 1970 onwards. The reasons for this lie beyond the scope of Reading Darwin in Arabic. Perhaps the intellectual prestige of the British declined as their empire was dismembered. Perhaps Muslim scholars took their lead from American creationists. The rise of a militant political Islam may also have been a factor.

This appears to be a most worthwhile read and I plan to obtain a Kindle addition. Reference to the article in the Times Literary Supplement from which I quote is -

Darwin in Arabia, by ROBERT IRWIN

A couple of other links to presentations by  Dr Marwa Elshakry are given bleow -

Translating Knowledge

Historians have begun to explore the paradox of the identification of a would-be universal form of rational knowledge known as science with the particular historical experience of Europe.

This begs the question: how have new forms of scientific knowledge been translated, received, assimilated, and engaged outside of the cultural contexts within which they were produced?

In this episode, Marwa Elshakry examines the case of Arab engagement with and translation of Darwin’s theory of evolution, which is the subject of her recently published book entitled Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950.


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Two Sentenced to Death for Throwing Children off a Rooftop in Alexandria, Egypt


Given the months of unrest in Egypt, it is indeed hopeful to learn that the persons responsible for this act have been punished. I remember seeing the original video last year and being horrified. The video was taken by a person in a neighbouring building, as I remember. It is graphic.

Originally posted on Egyptian Streets:

The Alexandria Criminal Court has sentenced Mahmoud Hassan Ramadan and Mohamed Al-Ahmady to death for throwing three teenagers off the roof of an apartment block. The papers for the approval of the capital punishment have been sent to the Mufti.

The court has also ruled that 61 others arrested at the time of the incident will remain in detention until the next court hearing which will be held on May 19, 2014.

Two of the boys thrown off the roof in the incident that ocurred in July 2013 during pro-Morsi demonstrations suffered serious injuries. A third boy, who had just turned 19, was announced dead three hours later while in hospital.

The boys were attacked by the group of men, including a bearded man waving the black Al-Qaeda flag, for ‘celebrating the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.’ Dozens of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had gathered in Alexandria’s Sidi Gaber to call…

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The Roman Tower of Centum Cellas, Belmonte (Portugal)


This is an amazing Roman site in Portugal, built by a Roman tin trader. As the author of the blog says -

The IPPAR‘s excavations at the Centum Cellas Tower, undertaken between 1993 and 1998, revealed that it was not a single isolated building but part of a larger and more complex group of structures, including rooms, corridors, staircases, cellars and courtyards.

The tower appears to be the best-preserved part of what was the villa of Lucius Caecilius (according to a dedicatory altar found on the site), a wealthy Roman citizen and tin trader who built his villa here at the beginning of the first century AD, under the supervision of a qualified architect who knew Vitruvius‘ building techniques…

Originally posted on FOLLOWING HADRIAN:

The Tower of Centum Cellas (also known as the “Tower of St. Cornelius”), located in the municipality of Belmonte in Portugal, is one of the most enigmatic monuments from the Roman period to be found in the country. These majestic ruins were part of a large Roman villa from the first century AD, situated on the road that linked Augusta Emerita (Mérida) to  Bracara Augusta (Braga).
Roman tower of Centum Cellas, Belmonte, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Roman tower of Centum Cellas, Belmonte, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

This rectangular building, made of pink granite blocks, appears to have had three levels with openings of various dimensions. It was thought that it was once a temple, a prison with a hundred cells (hence the name), or possibly a praetorium (the headquarters of a Roman camp), and a building part of Roman villa.

Roman tower of Centum Cellas, Belmonte, Portugal © Carole Raddato

Roman tower of Centum Cellas, Belmonte, Portugal
© Carole Raddato

The IPPAR‘s excavations at the Centum Cellas Tower, undertaken between 1993…

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