Richard T. Nowitz

Sightseers and sailors enjoy sunny Elephantine Island, just north of the Nile River’s First Cataract, near Aswan. In the distance lies the western shore of the Nile, with the domed mausoleum of the Aga Khan at upper right. According to a hoard of Aramaic papyri discovered here at the turn of the century, a Jewish temple stood on the southern tip of the island during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., although no archaeological remains have been uncovered. Oriented towards Jerusalem, the temple measured 60 cubits long and 20 cubits wide (1 Kings 6:2, 15). Purportedly based on information culled from the papyri, Graham Hancock recently suggested that the temple was built for the Ark of the Covenant, which stopped at Elephantine on its way to Axum, Ethiopia, where he claims it remains today.

But author Bezalel Porten argues that Hancock misrepresents what the documents say. The temple to YHWH, Porten suggests, was built by priests, fleeing the Israelite king Manasseh’s bloody reign (687–642 B.C.E.), who were inspired by Isaiah’s prophesy that on the day the Lord smites Egypt, “there shall be an altar the Lord inside the land of Egypt and a pillar [that is, a cultic site] to the Lord at its border” (Isaiah 19:19).