Yeb, cradle of feminism?
By Jill Kamil
Little is known of the vibrant Judaic community which already existed on the island of Elephantine when Cambyses invaded Egypt in 525 BC. What we do know, however, is that they had a Jewish temple to serve their religious needs.
The liturgical protocol detailed on some of the documents discovered on the island by archaeologists during the first decade of the 20th century dates back to a time before the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It is clear from this that the Judaic presence on Yeb (the Biblical name for Elephantine) stretches far back into antiquity.
Interest in the island on Egypt's southern border was first aroused by German archaeologists who chanced upon some Aramaic papyri in the possession of the farmers of Aswan Garb (West Aswan). This caught the attention of scholars then looking for evidence that might shed light on a community of Jews who had settled on the island during and after the Persian period, from the sixth century BC onwards. German archaeologists excavated on the island from 1906 to 1908 (in the south-west portion of the Temple of Khnum), while French archaeologists excavated in the temple's vast courtyard between 1907 and 1910. Both missions found what they were looking for -- hundreds of fragments and papyri, along with scores of ostraca written in Aramaic that related to personal and civil matters. Having made these finds, the missions then departed.
Little further archaeological activity took place on the island until 1935, when the Borchardt Institute, the forerunner of the Swiss Institute, decided to carry out a survey of the surviving architecture. But their work was interrupted by the outbreak of World War II, and as a result the hundreds of documents relating to the Jewish community which they had retrieved did not immediately pass into the public record. Even when the German Institute of Archaeology carried out a comprehensive study of the island starting in 1969, eventually publishing an official guidebook in 1988, they made only cursory reference -- a mere 37 words to be exact -- to the temple of Yahweh and the community that worshipped there: "The rebuilding of the Khnum Temple in Dynasty XXX left hardly any remains of the Jahweh temple that served the (Aramaic-Jewish) colony, but a series of important papyri documenting the community was recovered from nearby houses".
To say these papyri are important is an understatement. Among these documents, knowledge of which was long confined to scholarly circles, are commercial and real estate contracts, marriage agreements, and personal letters that describe the daily secular and religious life of the community in considerable detail. They also have much to tell us about the status of women in the community. It is particularly interesting to note that the prevailing attitude to women's rights on Yeb was significantly more progressive than in many contemporary orthodox Judaic circles.
One noteworthy document makes interesting reading:
"On the 21st of Chisleu... Masheiah B Yedoniah, a Jew of Yeb... said to Jezaniah B Uriah... there is the site of one house belonging to me... which I have given to your Mitbahiah, my daughter, your wife... Now I say to you, build and equip that site and dwell on it with your wife. But you may not sell that house or give it as a present to others; only your children by my daughter Mitbahiah shall have power over it after you. If... you build upon this land and then my daughter divorces you and leaves you, she shall have no power over it, in return for the work you have done..."
This document attests that a woman could readily divorce her husband, with or without his consent. From other documents, we know that a woman could exercise this right by "standing up in congregation and merely declaring 'I divorce my husband'." Thus we learn that, at least in sixth century BC Yeb, Jewish women were not separated from their men in congregations, had property rights, and could take the initiative in and consummate a divorce simply by declaring publicly their intention. Mitbahiah must have done well in her investments, for other documents refer to the considerable fortune she lent to her father over the course of the next 13 years. In partial payment of his debt to his daughter, Masheiah deeded her a house he had acquired: "I give it to Mitbahiah, my daughter, in return for the goods which she gave me while I was an inspector of the fortress."
The extraordinarily progressive social mores of this ancient Judaic society are confirmed by subsequent documents concerning Mitbahiah. She in fact did divorce Jeremiah, and subsequently married Pi', an Egyptian official in Aswan, even temporarily adopting his religion. The Judaic community evidently disdained to recognise such a marriage, for none of the witnesses to the marriage contract had Hebrew (or Aramaic) names. The marriage lasted for what must have been little more than a honeymoon, and certainly less than 12 months, for Mitbahiah's next marriage was celebrated in the same year. Pi' paid quite a price for marrying a Jewish "princess". All of Pi's property was divided between them, but the property that was in Mitbahiah's name remained with her!
Mitbahiah thereupon reverted to her own people and promptly went on to a prospective third husband, Ashor B Seho. Ashor, like her father, was a Jew of some note; they were both listed as "builders to King Artexerxes". By now, Mitbahiah's father was evidently not averse to cashing in on his daughter's market value, and made certain that her property would not revert to Ashor in the event of a divorce. Ashor's guarantee states: "... I have given you as the bride-price of your daughter Mitbahiah five shekels, royal weight. It has been received by you and your heart is content. Should Ashor die... having no child, male or female [!], by his wife Mitbahiah, Mitbahiah shall be entitled to the house, chattels and all other worldly goods of Ashor... Should Mitbahiah... stand up in a congregation and declare, I divorce my husband, the price of divorce shall be on her head; she shall... weigh out to Ashor seven shekels, 2 R, but all she brought with her she shall take out, shred and thread, and go wither she will without suit or process." This time the marriage contract was signed by members of the Judaic community.