Tuesday, April 05, 2011

From the Elephantine archives, the life of a Jewish woman

The Jerusalem Post (Renee Levine Melammed)

In the sixth century BCE, a large military camp was set up in Elephantine by the Persian rulers who had conquered Egypt. This “city of ivories” was located on a small island in the Nile opposite Syene (Aswan), the site of their civil administrative capital. Persian soldiers and mercenaries served in the army; we know that Jewish regiments comprised part of these mercenary troops needed to protect this southern exposure from foreign attacks and to supervise trade and taxation there. Jewish soldiers were permitted to raise families and to engage in business.

Life for the Jews of Elephantine was quite different from that of their brethren returning to settle in the Land of Israel: They had not been exposed to the ideas being propounded by Ezra and Nehemiah, and they had built their own temple in which two local goddesses were worshiped alongside Yahu, the God of Judah.

In the late 19th century, various archives from Elephantine were discovered, transcribed and translated from the original Aramaic. When property was passed on or decisions were made in court that concerned property, the papyri upon which these legal activities were recorded were retained by the owner. The Jewish woman Mibtahiah’s archive contains 10 documents found in superb condition; they reveal surprising details concerning her life and the options available to Jewish women in this settlement.

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