The sign at the excavation site said, “Aramean Quarter” but we hadn’t flown our cameras and gear hundreds of miles up the Nile to Elephantine Island in search of wandering Arameans.
There had, indeed, been Arameans – the ancient people who became Syrians – working in the stone quarries on the Aswan side of the river in the fifth century BC when Egypt was a Persian province. But the sign was an official, nervous, euphemism for what is a much more surprising truth about those who peopled the green, egret-flown island: they were Judaeans. Not cultured intellectuals or chanting priests either but hard men, mercenary soldiers, patrolling the dangerous frontier between Egypt and Nubia. The Judaean troop manned a garrison on Elephantine Island, along with their families, slaves and servants, and they are the first Jewish emigrants we know anything about from sources other than the Bible.
Those documents are among the papyri and clay fragments acquired in 1893 by Charles Wilbour, a former newspaperman from New York who had remade himself as an amateur Egyptologist in the last decades of the 19th century. Written in startlingly sharp Aramaic square form (now commonly used in printed Hebrew), the Elephantine papyri meant little to Wilbour, who was after older, bigger things. But carefully scrutinised – first by German and French scholars in the early years of the 20th century and then, from the late 1960s onwards, in a great work of decoding by the Israeli scholar Bezalel Porten – they revealed a complete Jewish frontier world a long way from Jerusalem.
Most of the documents are legal but – in these pre-nups, property-line disputes, dowries, wills and the elegantly worded manumissions from slavery that sent its beneficiaries “from the shade into the light” – all manner of people, high and low, along with their loves and hates, grudges and obsessions, dress and food, came back to life.
Their identity, as distinct from that of the Egyptians and Arameans also living on the island, is apparent in their names, nearly all of which preserve in their ending the suffix -iah, the name of their protecting God. So we know all about “Lady Mibtahiah”, the richly-endowed daughter of a priestly establishment, who carved her way swiftly through three husbands including an Egyptian masterbuilder whom she koshered up and renamed Nathan; Ananiah, who married Tamut the slave-girl, the property of a friend Meshullam, produced children and set them up in their own houses. Through a letter from a father called Osea (like my own), fretting over his son Shelomam’s dangerous posting south, we know the Jewish guilt trip was already being played like a harp. “Since you left,” the father writes (defensively, having failed to pick up his son’s wages and kit), “my heart has not been well,” and then, the inevitable clincher, ringing down through the ages in just three inexorable, unanswerable words: “Likewise your mother.”
In the Brooklyn Museum, the transcribed and translated papyri were as close as I could get to the Elephantine Judaeans. Now, in the broiling heat, standing on Elephantine Island together with a camera crew and a guard packing (much to the delight of our cameraman who likes pointing things at bystanders) a mighty Glock big-boy semi-automatic, there we were, on the site of the town, excavated since the 1990s. All of a sudden Lady Mibtahiah was into her pot of unguents, just around the corner. The lanes of grey-brown mud bricks peopled themselves in my mind with back-alley moochers and scroungers, and the non-Jewish “pilots of the rough waters” who lived nearby. There were animals in the courtyards; cooking on the hearths, smoke through the chimneys, gossip in the market. It was often the tiny things that brought the lost Jewish world back most vividly: glinting specks of golden straw still embedded in the bricks, granite steps flecked with rose pink that announced the houses of Big Shots, even the impression of furled capitals decorating their doorways.
In flagrant violation of the laws restricting sacrifice to the Jerusalem Temple, the Elephantine Jews built their own place of assembly, probably some time in the interval between the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians and the rebuilding of its successor courtesy of the Persians. Its offerings of slaughtered sheep would also not have gone down well with the priests of the Temple of Khnum over the way, whose deity, presiding over the life-giving inundation of the Nile, was the ram-god. The rams’ heads, and their ritual sarcophagi, are still there, while nothing remains of the Judaean temple sanctuary except rubble that tells its own sad story. In 410, grumbling Egyptian resentment against the Persians was mobilised against the people who must have been stigmatised as their frontier soldiers. An attack on the Temple razed it to the ground. Letters sent to Jerusalem, asking permission to rebuild, bewail what had been lost: bronze doors, the cedar roof and the gold and silver ritual vessels. Permission was granted for a diminished form of the temple: no more animal sacrifice, instead, just the dishes of cereals and fruit.
In effect, the Elephantine sanctuary became more like a synagogue, a place of assembly, prayer and reading. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a modest, austerely undecorated building, sealed off from the culture surrounding it. In fact, because of the prohibition on imitating the Jerusalem Temple in form and rituals, there was never a prescribed template for synagogue architecture, other than a niche or cupboard to keep the scrolls of the law, the Torah, a reading area, usually raised, and a place of ritual purification. In Spain, in Cordoba, even after falling to the Christians, the synagogue is covered in the intricate lacery of mudéjar stucco, Hebrew replacing the Arabic calligraphy of the mosques. There is gothic vaulting in the medieval Altneuschul in Prague; airy pastel-brilliant rococo in the 18th-century synagogue at Cavaillon in Provence; mosque-like colonnaded aisles in the Tránsito synagogue in Toledo, Spain; Maghreb painted tiles in the oldest synagogue of Marrakech; and, on Fifth Avenue in New York, an immense nave-like space, in imitation of the Manhattan cathedrals, along with an enormous rose window of stained glass at the entry end of the building.
Well before I got started on the BBC series, I had become a compulsive synagogue-hound, the more far-flung the better. There was no holiday I wouldn’t interrupt by dashing off in search of another ancient gathering place. Children would offer a resigned, “Right, Dad” to a sighting of a menorah, the seven-branched candlestick that is the most enduring emblem of the religion, cut into steps at Ephesus; mosaic patterns surviving on the floor of a synagogue in Ostia, the port of ancient Rome. I played truant from a literary festival in Kerala with a pal to drive four hours up the coast to find the 16th-century Paradesi synagogue in the candidly named “Jew Town” of Kochi (the Indian port city formerly known as Cochin), where Jews had traded in Malabar peppercorns, cardamom, gem-encrusted gewgaws and jangling heavy silver jewellery. The floor is covered with Ming tiles (or their Portuguese and Dutch approximations) testifying to the links with Jewish traders even farther east in China; the reading dais with its balustrade is gilded sandalwood and teak, and from the ceiling hang low chandeliers of brilliantly coloured glass lamps.
One of the very last Jews in Kochi, Sara Cohen, now in her nineties, unfolded herself from her seat like one of the delicate cotton and linen lawn cloths she sells to express sadness, her head doing the sideways bob, that the minyan – the 10 Jewish males needed for a service – depended now on rounding up the occasional visitor. The place, like Cohen herself, had become a tourist attraction, an obligatory stopping-off site for schoolchildren bused in to be lectured on Indian multiculti. But come Friday nights, she said, with that simultaneous rueful smile, sigh and shrug that Jewish women have down pat, she would go up the lane, sit on one of the benches and have a good cry. What a performer! Head-bob aside, she could be my Auntie Esther in a coral print.
But Jewish walls don’t invariably wail. The establishment of synagogues in the Mediterranean predated the destruction of Herod’s Temple in 70AD. And even when the synagogues multiplied to fill the void left by the Temple’s disappearance, localising worship, they used brilliant imagery – above all, floor mosaics – to perpetuate the memory of Temple ritual. There was enough contention in the interpretation of the Second Commandment’s ban on “graven images”, between those who took a strict view that it precluded all representation and those who assumed it meant idolatrous statuary and sculpture in particular, to allow for pictorial dazzlement to enter the synagogue precincts.
So where we could find colour and animation, we went to film it. The most startling of all are the wall paintings of a 3rd-century synagogue at Dura-Europos, covering its entire length with Bible scenes – Moses in the bullrushes; Samuel (in toga) anointing David, Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus. Sadly, the murderous Syrian civil war put that off limits to us. But in a fifth-century synagogue at Sepphoris, a few miles outside Nazereth in Galilee, a place devout enough for the Sanhedrin religious court to reside there for a while, the brilliant mosaics go beyond memories of lost Temple rites and objects – the trumpets, menorah and incense shovels – and incorporate imagery shared with pagan neighbours. Around the great wheel of the sun deity Helios revolve the signs of the Zodiac, including the figures of Virgo, Gemini, Aquarius and the rest, and even more beguilingly, feminine personifications of the seasons and months. Summer sports a nifty hat and earrings; Winter a mantling headdress and sorrowing expression, Spring, as you might expect, big cow eyes, a brocaded gown and a piled-up hairdo of thick blonde tresses.
Heroic exuberance may not be what you might expect of the sites of Jewish memory but it’s not as if communities were organised assuming the worst, following the Jewish mother who signalled her son, “Start worrying. Telegram follows.” Deep in the heartland of Hasidic Ukraine, we spent a night in a sanatorium-cum-health resort where couples danced marionettishly as strung by a higher power. The landings were furnished with vitrines displaying second world war hand grenades, and the morning shower issued not water, not even of the tawny kind common to these places, but the unmistakable hiss and pong of gas. The welcome mat was evidently out for the Jews. But we rallied to find ourselves in a Hasidic cemetery with gravestones dating from the 17th century. And there was nothing dead about them. On the stone, the long-eared hares of spring bounded about the wheeling circle of the cosmos, paunchy bears reached for bunches of grapes, lions did their rampant thing and the long departed seem to dance impishly over the Podolian hillside.
On the opposite bank of the river, Boris, Ukrainian and now in his seventies, spoke of the 17th-century stone synagogue that he pretty much single-handedly saved from the bulldozer as if it were his home or even “my friend”. When he leaves town, he says, his handsomely pink face creasing, “I miss it.” During his wife’s last months of life, he would go to stand in the ruined interior, stand on the “magic stone” of the Hasidim and came to an illumination that he would somehow survive her passing. When Boris says this, he gives me a flash of teeth as golden as a Jerusalem sunrise.
Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor. His BBC television series ‘The Story of the Jews’ will be shown later this year. As part of Jewish Book Week, he will give a talk about the series at Kings Place, London, on Monday, www.kingsplace.co.uk