Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt
- Dates: February 15, 2002 through May 12, 2002
- Collections: Egyptian, Classical, Ancient Near Eastern Art
A Family on Elephantine Island, Egypt Fifth Century B.C.E.
Eight hundred years after Moses led the Exodus, Jews had returned to Egypt.
Jewish Life in Ancient Egypt: A Family Archive from the Nile Valley tells the story of Ananiah, a Jewish temple official, and his wife, Tamut, an Egyptian slave. Ananiah and Tamut lived on Elephantine (pronounced Elephan-TEE-nee), an island in the Nile River, in the fifth century B.C.E. Evidence suggests that they lived in a cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multilingual society tolerant of religious and ethnic diversity; interfaith marriage was not uncommon. Ananiah and Tamut’s story may seem familiar—they married, bought a house, and raised two children—yet their world also included slavery and animal sacrifice to the gods.
The Egyptian and Persian antiquities in these galleries illustrate the historical and religious issues that shaped the lives of Ananiah and Tamut. Due to the Biblical prohibition against imagemaking, specifically Jewish objects from this period are virtually unknown. One possibly Jewish object, a sarcophagus lid, is included in this presentation. The culmination of this exhibition is Ananiah and Tamut’s family archive, a set of eight papyri created between 449 and 402 B.C.E. These papyri, written in Aramaic, allow a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of this couple, and include evidence for active Jewish involvement in Egyptian culture. Along with similar archives now housed in Berlin and Oxford, the Brooklyn papyri are the oldest extra-Biblical evidence for Jews in ancient Egypt.
Jews Return to Egypt
And Jehovah will send you back to Egypt…and you will have to sell yourselves there to your enemies as slaves, and there will be no buyer.
… all the chiefs of the military forces and all the people…came into the land of Egypt…
The Hebrew Bible describes the Jews’ return to Egypt in 586 B.C.E. as part of a divine punishment, but documents, including the archive of Ananiah and Tamut on view in this exhibition, reveal a prosperous community. By 586 B.C.E.., there may have been Jews already living in Egypt: More than a hundred years earlier, King Hezekiah of Judah (727–697 B.C.E.) had sent mercenaries to his Egyptian allies. Other worshipers of Jehovah might have settled in Egypt when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed in 722 B.C.E.
Although Ananiah was a temple official, most of the Jews in Elephantine were government soldiers. Jews lived peacefully among the Egyptians and the Persians, who conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E. The Persians, who commanded the building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, were famous for their religious and ethnic tolerance; and the period of Persian rule is remarkable for its lack of ethnic tensions.
The Wold of Ananiah and Tamult From War to Peace
And the entire people… and the officers of the soldiers, arose and came to Egypt, because they were afraid of the Babylonians.
—II Kings 25:26
By the rivers of Babylon/There we sat/Also we wept/When we remembered Zion.
The [Persian] King Cambyses came to Egypt….He gained mastery over this entire land….I made his royal titles as King of Upper and Lower Egypt.
—Inscription of Udjahorresnet, an Egyptian official
According to the Hebrew Bible, Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. The Babylonians invaded, in part, because of the earlier destabilization in Judah caused by Pharaoh Necho II (610–595 B.C.E.). When the Persians conquered Egypt in 525 B.C.E., they brought an official policy of religious and ethnic tolerance with them. Ananiah and Tamut, whose lives are documented in the Brooklyn Aramaic papyri, lived during this harmonious period.
As the inscription quoted above demonstrates, Egyptians acknowledged the Persian rulers as traditional pharaohs. Some officials who had served previous Egyptian kings continued in office under the Persians. Jews were loyal to the Persians because they restored the Temple in Jerusalem. The Persians established a policy permitting religious and ethnic diversity throughout their empire.
Two hundred years later, Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt (323 B.C.E.) and founded a new capital at Alexandria.
Jews and Judaism in the Ancient World
Originally, the term “Jew” referred to the residents of the territory of Judah, one of three areas that made up the United Monarchy ruled by Kings Saul, David, Solomon, and their successors. During the Persian Period in Egypt (Dynasty 27, 525–404 B.C.E.), the term was, as it is today, both a religious and ethnic designation. Just like modern-day Jews, the Jews of ancient Egypt worshiped Jehovah (YHWH in Hebrew), observed the Sabbath, and celebrated the Feast of Matzah (modern Passover). However, the Jews of Elephantine certainly did not have many of the standard interpretations of Jewish law followed today.
The Talmud and other official interpretations of Biblical law were written hundreds of years after Ananiah and Tamut lived so, rituals on Elephantine, including animal sacrifice, should not be judged by today’s standards. It is not clear whether Ananiah and Tamut were familiar with the Law, Prophets, and Writings in the form of the canonical Hebrew Bible. The text of these books was not set until 70 C.E., more than five hundred years after Ananiah and Tamut lived. The Jews of Elephantine did not take names from the Biblical patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but rather created names compounded with Jehovah. Ananiah’s name, for example, means, “Jehovah will answer” in Aramaic. This suggests that they may not have been familiar with the book of Genesis.
Jewish and Egyptian Ritual in Elephantine
And now, this is what Jehovah, Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, has said: “Why are you causing a great calamity to your souls…by making sacrificial smoke to other gods in the Land of Egypt?”
Ancient Judaism and Egyptian religion were similar in structure. Egyptians and Jews sacrificed animals and offered incense to a god in order to receive protection. Both groups worshiped male and female deities that were sometimes thought of as family units.
Although the Jews in Elephantine worshiped the same God Jews do today, they attracted the prophet Jeremiah’s condemnation for they also worshiping the Queen of the Heavens, probably as God’s spouse. This goddess had a separate temple across the river. In legal documents, the Elephantine Jews also swore oaths by a variety of other gods.
The Egyptians maintained the cult of Khnum, symbolized by the ram. Khnum was worshiped widely as a creator god but was especially important in Elephantine because he was seen as responsible for the annual Nile flood. Rams were also important to Jews in Elephantine, and both Jews and Egyptians sacrificed rams to their gods. This common sacrificial practice might have added to mutual understanding.
No other clear archaeological evidence documenting Jewish rituals and practices in Elephantine exists, but there is evidence that Jews in Egypt followed some Egyptian funerary practices, such as using anthropoid coffins. Some even decorated the coffin with images of Isis and Nephthys, the Egyptian goddesses of mourning. Some Jews used the same types of terracotta coffins that poor Egyptians used.
The Discovery of the Papyri
ASSOUN, January 26–February 13, 1893: All these papyri from Kôm, shown me by three separate women at different times.
— From the notebooks of Charles Edwin Wilbour (1833–1896)
In 1893, Egyptian farmers found the archive of Ananiah and Tamut on Elephantine Island, near Aswan. Charles Edwin Wilbour, the pioneering American Egyptologist, purchased eight papyrus rolls that same year and placed them in a tin biscuit box for storage. The box was placed in the bottom of a trunk with his other Egyptian papyri. After Wilbour’s death three years later, the papyri were forgotten.
In 1947, Theodora Wilbour, Charles’s daughter, found the trunk and donated the contents to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The papyri were in excellent condition, with seven of the eight rolls still sealed. They were opened, studied, and published in 1953.
Along with similar archives now in Berlin and Oxford, the Brooklyn papyri provide the earliest extra-Biblical documentation of Jews in ancient Egypt.
The Aramaic Language
[King Nebuchadnezzar] said to them: “There is a dream that I have dreamed and my spirit is agitated to know the dream.” At that the Chaldeans spoke to the king in the Aramaic language.
My father was an Aramean who was perishing, and he went down to Egypt to settle there…
The Aramaic language used in these papyri was known to the writers of the Bible both as the language of the Chaldeans, a Near Eastern people, and a language known to the Hebrew Patriarchs. Aramaic was also the international language used by Assyrians and Babylonians in the twelfth century B.C.E.
As these papyri demonstrate, the Jews living in Elephantine during the fifth century B.C.E. spoke Aramaic. It continued to be spoken and written as a diplomatic language during the Persian Empire as late as the fourth century b.c.e. By 300 B.C.E., Aramaic was commonly spoken by the Jews of Jerusalem and the Torah was translated from Hebrew to Aramaic for their benefit. Passages in the Biblical books Daniel and Ezra are in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.
Dialects of Aramaic are still spoken today in Iraq and Syria. The script used to write Aramaic in ancient times is related to the script used to write Hebrew.