Saturday, September 6, 2008

Jewish Temples of Onias & Elephantine in Egypt

t is not well known that there were two Jewish temples in ancient Egypt. They do not form part of our traditional history, which concentrates on the going down into Egypt and the coming out of it, as based on the Torah accounts, for which there is little or no contemporary corroboration. But the two temples, though well attested by contemporary sources, have received little attention from our tradition.

One of these temples has been known about for nearly 2,000 years from Josephus Flavius and the Talmud, and its site was claimed to have been found just 100 years ago, but it has now been lost again. The other was never known of till just a hundred years ago and its site has only recently been discovered. The first is the Temple of Onias at Leontopolis dating to about 200 BCE, and the second is the Temple of Elephantine dating to 300 years earlier, to about 500 BCE.

Josephus describes the Temple of Onias as being both like and unlike that of Jerusalem. In his Antiquities, he says it is like Jerusalem, but in his Wars of the Jews he says that Onias built it like a fortress with a tower 60 cubits (30 meters) high. Who was this Onias? In Hebrew his name is Honiah and this name was carried by several high priests descended from the famous Shimon Hatzaddik. Our Onias was probably Honiah IV, who was prevented from following in the footsteps of his father, who had been supplanted by Jason, the high priest who started the process of Hellenizing Jerusalem that led eventually to the Maccabean revolt.

Honiah IV went off to Egypt and started the Temple at Leontopolis, with the agreement of Pharaoh Ptolemy IV and his queen Cleopatra I (not the famous Cleopatra VII), in an area somewhat north of today's Cairo. That would have been in about the year 170 BCE. Ptolemy IV was keen to have the support of Honiah, who brought with him a military force to reinforce Egyptian rule in southern Palestine, and was happy to allow him to erect a Jewish temple.

This temple had legitimacy in the eyes of the Talmud, as it was set up by the son of a traditional high priest and it fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: "In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt..." (19:19). The Mishna tells us that a sacrifice vowed in Egypt could be redeemed at Leontopolis, but a kohen (priest) who had served in Egypt could not officiate in Jerusalem, though he was allowed to eat the truma (priestly food) there (Menahot 13:10). This temple stood for more than 200 years and was destroyed by the Romans in 73 CE, shortly after their destruction of Jerusalem.

In early 1906 the famous Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie spent six weeks at a site called Tel el-Yehudiyeh (Hill of the Jewess) and claimed he had found the Temple of Onias, on a sandy mound attached to the city of Rameses III. Because of the great Jewish interest, he gave a lecture on it at King's College in London, which was reported in the Jewish Chronicle of May 18, 1906. He had made a model of the temple, which was like the towered fortress described by Josephus, and he invited all present to view it at University College. The British chief rabbi of the time, Hermann Adler, thanked Petrie for his great discovery and service to the Jewish community.

Unfortunately Petrie's model has disappeared and so has the original site. On a recent visit, I was unable to confirm Petrie's discovery and it has to be admitted that all traces of the temple have disappeared, though an identifiable ancient Jewish cemetery does lie nearby. Or perhaps Petrie had never found the real location, as he had claimed.

BUT NOT SO Elephantine, 700 km. further south. It is on the island that guards the southern boundary of ancient Egypt and lies opposite the town of Aswan, mentioned by the prophet Ezekiel as Syene (29:10). Aramaic papyri discovered there from 1893 onward have revealed the existence of a military colony of Jews that acted as mercenaries for the Egyptians and after them to the Persians by guarding their southern border. These soldiers established a township and built their own shrine or temple before the coming of the Persians in 525 BCE, when Cambyses, son of Cyrus II, conquered Egypt.

As more papyri were found at Elephantine and at Aswan, they were soon deciphered by British and German scholars, and before World War I it was known that the Jewish military colony had lived there with its little temple for well over 100 years. They had good relations on the island and had married some of the local women. But the search for the temple by German, French and Italian expeditions failed to find any trace of it. It was only 10 years ago that its existence was confirmed.

In 1969 a German archeological team started work on the island to classify and restore the many Egyptian temples, mainly to the god Khnum, that lay there in ruins. Khnum, the ram-headed god, was worshiped here as he was considered to have control of the Nile, and this island was the site of the first cataract, which was thought to influence the rise and fall of this river, the lifeline of Egypt.

Over the next 40 years, the German team, later joined by a Swiss one, started to uncover the remains of many temples and what they called the Aramaic village of the 27th Dynasty, the Persian period of the fifth century BCE. In fact they were excavating the ruins of the Jewish houses that had been identified by Bezalel Porten, of the Hebrew University, based on the Aramaic papyri and, some 10 years ago, in the location suggested by the documents, they found the remains of the Jewish temple.

The temple had been described in the contemporary papyri, as at one stage the Egyptian priests of Khnum had had it partly destroyed and the documents contained an appeal to the Persian governor, then in Jerusalem, to have it restored. It was rebuilt three years later, though the courtyard had to be reduced to allow the temple of Khnum to expand, and the Jews had to agree to offer no more animal sacrifices.

It was clear therefore that they had offered such sacrifices in the past, but that must have been anathema to the priests of the ram-headed Khnum, especially the Passover sacrifice of sheep. We know that the Jewish troops kept Pessah as they were specifically commanded by the Persian emperor, in one papyrus dated to 419 BCE, to keep it for seven days from 14 Nisan and to eat no leaven and drink no beer, Egypt's favorite tipple.

Though the temple was rebuilt, it would not have been for long, as that would have been shortly before 400 BCE and it was soon afterward that the Persians were driven out of Egypt and the Jews, who had served them, would have had to follow shortly thereafter.

Two major questions remain. Where had the Jews come from in the sixth century and where did they go after 400 BCE? The simple answer to the first question is that they would have come after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and gone down to Egypt with Jeremiah after the murder of the governor Gedaliah. But Porten thinks they must have come much earlier, at the time when King Manasseh defiled the Jerusalem temple, to be able to find the resources to settle and build a temple well before 525 BCE. We know the shrine existed before the invasion by Cambyses, as the papyri claim that he destroyed many Egyptian temples but not the Jewish one.

I think the Jews came from the Northern Kingdom after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE. They were first deported to Assyria and then to Babylon, where they were used as mercenaries and later deployed to Egypt. This is supported by the fact that the shrine at Elephantine has strong similarities in layout and dimensions to the Tabernacle that may have stood at Shiloh, and which would have been retained in the folk memory of the Northern Israelites more than the image of the Temple of Jerusalem.

And to where did they go? It would have been impossible for them to return to Israel, trekking 700 km. and more to the north through what was now enemy territory. It is more likely they went south and here a romantic idea presents itself. They journeyed south through the Sudan to Ethiopia and formed the nucleus of a Jewish community there, perhaps even starting to convert their neighbors to Judaism.

The evidence was only a few sections of wall and a fine paved floor, but it was exactly in the position suggested by the papyri, and it was of a quality higher than that of the adjoining houses. It had a chamber of two rooms surrounded by a courtyard of fine plaster paving, its dimensions quite unlike the Temple of Jerusalem but much smaller and similar to the size and proportions of the mishkan or Tabernacle of the Bible.

That would be a nice idea, but an unlikely one. It is more probable that the Jewish military community, which came to an end 2,400 years ago, was either eliminated by the Egyptians or, more likely, abandoned its separate faith and customs and became absorbed by its Egyptian neighbors, which would not have been so strange, as many had already married local girls in earlier times.

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