Elephantine Papyri


The Elephantine Papyri is the collective name commonly given to several archives of documents belonging to members of a Jewish garrison community which inhabited the island of Elephantine (ancient Yeb), near Aswan in Egypt, between 495 and 399 BCE.

This unique Jewish community possessed its own temple to Yahweh on the island, apparently functioning alongside the long-established cult shrine of the local ram-headed deity Khnum.

The first modern indications as to the existence of this community were revealed in papyri bought by Giovanni Belzoni. An assortment of other texts (including ostraka) were therafter acquired by Greville Chester in the 1870s, and by Charles Edwin Wilbour, W. Spiegelberg, A.H. Sayce, Lady William Cecil and Robert Mond in the 1890s and early 1900s.

The papyri are written in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the 5th – 4th centuries BCE Persian (Achaemenid) Empire, of which Egypt and Palestine were both a part.

Official excavation of the island commenced in 1904, providing an archaeological context for the fascinating details of daily life revealed in the archives.

The Principal Jewish Archives

Mibtahian, 11 legal documents, 471-410 BCE, family archive, purchased

Ananiah, 13 legal documents, 456-402 BCE, family archive, purchased

Yedaniah, 11 letters + 1 list, 419-407 BCE, communal archive, excavated


“The Passover Papyrus”

A very defective strip of papyrus with writing on both sides. Text: Sachau, 6; Ungnad, 6; Cowley, 21. Date: 419 BCE

[To] my [brethren Yedo]niah and his colleagues the [J]ewish gar[rison], your brother Hanan[iah]. The welfare of my brothers may God [seek at all times]. Now, this year, the fifth year of King Darius, word was sent from the king to Arsa[mes saying, “Authorise a festival of unleavened bread for the Jew]ish [garrison]”. So do you count fou[rteen days of the month of Nisan and] obs[erve the passover], and from the 15th to the 21st day of [Nisan observe the festival of unleavened bread]. Be (ritually) clean and take heed. [Do n]o work [on the 15th or the 21st day, no]r drink [beer, nor eat] anything [in] which the[re is] leaven [from the 14th at] sundown until the 21st of Nis[an. For seven days it shall not be seen among you. Do not br]ing it into your dwellings but seal (it) up between these date[s. By order of King Darius. To] my brethren Yedoniah and the Jewish garrison, your brother Hanani[ah].


Alexander, Philip S.

“Remarks on Aramaic Epistolography in the Persian Period”, Journal of Semitic Studies 23 (1978), pp.155-70.

Cowley, A. (editor and translator)

Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.

Ginsberg , H. L.

“Aramaic Letters”, translations in J. B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3d edition, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969, pp.491-92.

Porten, Bezalel

“The Structure and Orientation of the Jewish Temple at Elephantine—A Revised Plan of the Jewish District”, JAOS 81 (1961), pp.8-42.

The Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Colony, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

“The Archive of Jedaniah son of Gemariah of Elephantine: The Structure and Style of the Letters”,Eretz Israel 14 (1978), pp.165-77.

“The Archive of Yedaniah b. Gemariah of Elephantine”, in Shaked, S. (ed.) Irano-Judaica: Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture Throughout the Ages, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Institute for the Study of Jewish Communities in the East, 1982, pp.11-24.

Porten, Bezalel (with J. J. Farber, C. J. Martin, G. Vittmann, Leslie S. B. MacCoull, Sarah Clackson, and contributions by Simon Hopkins & Ranon Katzoff)

The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change, Leiden: Brill, 1996.

Sachau , Eduard

Aramäische Papyrus und Ostraka aus einer jüdischen Militär-Kolonie zu Elephantine: Altorientalische Sprachdenkmäler des 5. Jahrhunderts vor Chr., Leipzig: Hinrichs, 1911.

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