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ELEPHANTINE (see Syene) ELEPHANTINE PAPYRI el ə făn tī’ nī, Sé vĕ nĕ, ĕl ə făn tī’ nī pă pī’ rī (̓Ελεφαντίνη, Elephant place or town, tr. of the older Egyp. name, Iebew, which later Aram. papyri reproduced as Yeb; סְוֵנֵה, H6059, prob. סְוָנָה, for סְוֵן, mart, trading post, Egypt. Sun, Copt. Suan, modern Arab. Aswan. LXX Συήνη). Elephantine, a settlement on an island in the Nile River, opposite ancient Syene, with the modern name, Gezîret Aswan (the “Island of Aswan”) in Upper Egypt, whose name has been given to certain ancient papyri of the 5th cent. b.c. which were found there.

Geographical location.

Elephantine, known as “Yeb the fortress” (Brooklyn Aramaic Papyri, 2:2, etc.) was located at the southern frontier of ancient Upper Egypt on the narrow palm-studded island in the Nile River. It was just below the modern Aswan High Dam and opposite Syene (Aswan) which was on the E bank and from whose quarries came the sought after red granite (cf. the mineral name, Syenite). It served as a terminal port for deep water boat traffic because of the First Cataract just above it (cf. the phrase, “boatsman of the waters,” Br. AP 12:20, for the importance of such men in this territory in the Pers. period).

Biblical references.

Although Elephantine is not referred to in the Bible, it is prob. to be included in the reference to Syene (Ezek 29:10; 30:6), just as Herodotus in referring to stone from Elephantine (2, 175) must have included Aswan where the stones were quarried.

Sanballat and Johanan (Neh 2:10; 12:22; 13:28) are mentioned in Br. Aram. Papyrus 30:18, 29.

Archeological finds and excavations.

It was not until 1893 and after, that, outside of the OT, quantities of Aram. papyri and ostraca appeared, chiefly from Elephantine. Most of these are now published as the Br. AP, 1-17 (5th cent. b.c.), the papyri purchased by C. E. Wilbour at Aswan in 1893; and Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century b.c. (AP 1-83, etc.), being collections of J. Euting, H. Sayce, A. Cowley and E. Sachau.

Excavations at Elephantine have been conducted by the French (1902ff.); the Germans (1906-1908); the Fathers of the Pontifico Instituto Biblico in Rome after World War I; and the Egyp. government (1932 and 1946).

Among building structures excavated were the Temple of Khnum (of the 4th to the 2nd centuries b.c.) and an earlier mud brick temple, the latter excavated by the Egyptians in 1948.

The excavations have not produced conclusive evidence regarding the exact location of the 6th-5th cent. b.c. Jewish temple of Yahu which seems to have been located near an earlier temple of Khnum.

Early Egyptian history of the area.

Elephantine was established as a fortress possibly as early as the 3rd dynasty, but surely so in the 6th dynasty when powerful princes of Egypt resided there. During the periods of Egyp. history from the time when Nubia was subservient to Egypt (c. 1550 b.c. to 700 b.c.) down to the period of Pers. domination (the late 6th and the 5th centuries b.c.) Elephantine undoubtedly played an important part as a frontier military post against enemies and desert tribesmen and as a fortress for keeping open the trade routes to the S.

The space was cramped at Elephantine, so there being a supplementary fort at Syene and more adequate room there for social activity, it is no wonder that inhabitants owned houses in both places, considering themselves as being both of Yeb and Syene (Br. AP 11).

Background and history of the Jewish colony.

The colony and its temple evidently came to an end in the reign of Nepherites I (399-393 b.c.).

Aside from the Elephantine papyri, Aram. speaking Jews of Egypt have left only a little trace of their existence. There is a fragment of about 300 b.c. referring to Jewish persons (AP 82) and a long papyrus (AP 81) of approximately the same time which includes Jewish and Gr. names and mentions a Johanan the priest, suggesting the presence of a temple, a possible successor to the one at Elephantine. In the 1st cent. a.d. there may have been Jews in the Elephantine area (Philo, Flaccus 43).

Religious beliefs and practices of the Jewish colony.

Aramaic religious syncretism seems to have been at work in the religious life at Elephantine, exampled by the listing along with Yahu the names of other gods, such as Eshembethel and ’Anathbethel (AP 22). It has been noted that the Bethel (“house of God”) part of the names may be taken simply as a personification of El’s house (in heaven) and as a substitute expression for El.

The Jewish colony did accommodate itself to the gods of the area which is shown in the use of the polytheistic formula, “may the gods desire your welfare” (AP 21:2, etc.).

In spite of these compromises and tendencies to syncretism, the worship of Yahu, the God of Pal., is seen in the use of the phrases, “God in heaven” (AP 38:2, 3; 40:2; cf. Dan 2:19, 44 where the same phrase is used) and “Yahweh of Hosts,” yhh sb’t, on an ostracon (cf. Ps 24:10) found by Clermont-Ganneau, which shows relationship of the colony to Jerusalem and its worship.

It is quite possible that the colony observed the sabbath (C-G ostracon 204, 152, 186), and it seems certain that they observed the Feast of Unleavened Bread and possibly also the Passover (AP 21).

Aramaic Papyrus 30 sheds additional light on two persons in Nehemiah, Sanballat (2:10; 13:28) indicated as the governor of Samaria; and Johanan (Neh 12:22), the son of Joiada and likely the same one whom Nehemiah chased (13:28) is mentioned as high priest, Bagoas being governor of Judea.


A. Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century b.c. (1923); E. G. Kraeling, “New Light on the Elephantine Colony,” B.A. XV (1952, 1953), 50-67; G. R. Driver, Aramaic Documents of the Fifth Century B.C. (1954); W. F. Albright, Archaeology and The Religion of Israel, 3rd ed. (1956), 168-174; J. Bright, A History of Israel (1959), 327, etc.; B. Porten, “The Structure and Orientation of the Jewish Temple at Elephantine,” JAOS, LXXXI (1961), 38-42.

See also

  • Seveneh