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Elephantine papyri

A Jewish community at Elephantine, the island in the Nile at the border of Nubia, was probably founded as a military installation in about 650 BCE during Manasseh's reign to assist Pharaoh Psammetichus I in his Nubian campaign. The dry soil of Upper Egypt preserved documents from the Egyptian border fortresses of Elephantine and Syene (Aswan). Hundreds of these Elephantine papyri, written in hieratic and Demotic Egyptian, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Coptic, span a period of 2000 years.

The Elephantine documents include letters and legal contracts from family and other archives: divorce documents, the manumission of slaves, and other business, and are a valuable source of knowledge about law, society, religion, language and onomastics, the sometimes surprisingly revealing study of names.

Though some fragments on papyrus are much older, the largest number of papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Persian Empire, and document the Jewish community among soldiers stationed at Elephantine under Persian rule, 495-399 BCE. The Jews had their own temple to Jahweh which functioned alongside that to the local ram-headed deity, Khnum Legal documents and a cache of letters survived, turned up on the local 'gray market' of antiquities starting in the late 19th century, and were scattered into several Western collections.

The "Petition to Bagoas" (Sayce-Cowley collection) is a letter written in 407 BCE to Bagoas, the Persian governor of Judea, appealing for assistance in rebuilding the Jewish temple in Elephantine, which had recently been badly damaged by an anti-Semitic rampage on the part of a segment of the Elephantine community. In the course of this appeal, the Jewish inhabitants of Elephantine speak of the antiquity of the damaged temple:

'Now our forefathers built this temple in the fortress of Elephantine back in the days of the kingdom of Egypt, and when Cambyses came to Egypt he found it built. They (the Persians) knocked down all the temples of the gods of Egypt, but no one did any damage to this temple."

The 'Passover letter' of 419 BCE (discovered in 1907), which gives detailed instructions for properly keeping Passover is in the State Museums, Berlin. Further Elephantine papyri are at the Brooklyn Musem.

The discovery of the Brooklyn papyri is remarkable story itself. The documents were first acquired in 1893 by New York journalist Charles Edwin Wilbour. After lying in a warehouse for more than 50 years, the papyri were shipped to the Egyptian Department of the Brooklyn Museum. It was at this time that scholars finally realized that “Wilbour had acquired the first Elephantine papyri”


The Elephantine papyri have been translated into English, indexed and published as The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change, edited by Bezalel Porten, with J.J. Farber, C.J. Martin, G. Vittman, 1996.

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