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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.
“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 / jewishjournal.com
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.
Ancient trade routes between the Nile valley and the levant, and south to Aswan and Elephantine. Source – hebrewhistory.com
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.
Source – Cowley-Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C. 1923.