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From Elephantine to Idumea: Contract and Commerce in the Persian Empire

Bezalel Porten, Hebrew University Jerusalem


4pm, 19th February 2015, BP Lecture Theatre, Clore Education Centre, British Museum. To book, contact the British Museum Box Office:  020 7323 8181 or



In Association with the British Museum Department of Middle East

Supported by the Wellcome Trust and Maney Publishing

Lecture Poster Feb 19th 2015.pdf


 Island of Elephantine Licensed under Creative Commons

(Image of Elephantine, 2004, Licensed under Creative Commons)


When Persia ruled the Middle East from India to Kush, there was stationed at the southern border of Elephantine, an island opposite Aswan, a Jewish military colony. Their daily life was richly documented, matters evanescent on ostraca and matters of substance on papyrus. It as all  written in Aramaic, the lingua franca going back to the days of the Assyrian Empire. A literary gem recorded the wisdom of Ahiqar, adviser to kings Sennacherib and Esarhaddon and an historical text told of the campaigns of the Persian ruler Darius against a slew of rebels in the beginning of his reign. The same professional scribes that recorded these matters inscribed in carefully formulated legal language matters between debtor and creditor, disputing nieghbours, father/brother/master of teh bride and groom, father and daughter, master and emancipated slave, father-in-law and son-in-law, in short, any matter requiring adjudication. The prize piece on display is the much-emended document of wifehood between the minor Temple official Anani and the Egyptian handmaiden Tamet, drawn up during the summer heat of 449 BCE.

just a century later on July 4, 351, the Idumean Qosyinqom of the clan of Gur had a professional scribe record on an ostracon a double payment of wheat, 9 seahs, 3.5 qabs to the storehouse of Makkedah and teh same amount "for the buyer." There are almost a thousand chits like this recording transactions of some twenty difference products. The Persian Empire gave way to the rule of the Macedonians and during the last two decades of the fourth century they fought among themselves for control of Idumea and the neighbouring countries. Through it all, commerce continued unabated and chits continued to be written. The only thing that changed was the name of the ruler at the beginning of the text. Today the child king Alexander (IV), tomorrow, the sexagenarian Antigonus. 



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