Even while in Egypt, the Jewish diaspora community at Elephantine recognized the authority of the Jewish governor of Yehud at Jerusalem and wrote to him for guidance. One letter to Jerusalem relates that the Jews had built a temple at Elephantine even before the arrival of Cambyses, Cyrus’ successor, who conquered Egypt in 525. The temple stood for more than a century before disaster struck when Arsames, the Persian governor of Egypt, traveled to the Persian court. Arsames was evidently an ardent supporter of Jewish religious autonomy at Elephantine, but his departure left the community vulnerable. The Egyptian priests of Khnum, who also inhabited the island of Elephantine, bribed the local military governor to destroy the ancient temple. Following this, the community donned sackcloths and fasted in lamentation rites reminiscent of practices described in the Hebrew Bible. Two drafts survive of a letter sent to Bagohi, the governor of Yehud. The letter states that previous letters to Yehohanan the High Priest and other priests in Jerusalem had gone unanswered. The authors request Bagohi’s permission to rebuild the destroyed temple in an effort to reclaim their religious independence. This is a fascinating document not only because it reveals the existence of a legitimate temple outside of Jerusalem, but also because we learn that the secular leader of Jerusalem possessed the power to regulate religious practice of Jews outside of Yehud.
“Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine,” BAR May-June 1995.