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There was a town on the eastern branch of the Nile, a town with a temple in which not one but a pair of lions were worshipped. The lions symbolized the deities Shu and Tefnet, a brother-and-sister pair, who were also a husban-and-wife. They were the children of Atum, the great lord of nearby Heliopolis. As a couple, they were commonly referred to as ruti and piloted the Heavenly Barge of Morning and Evening—that barge with which the souls of the dead had to merge by the use of special prayers in order to soar freely above the mortal earth.

This is how things had stood in ancient times, under the old Egyptian pharaohs. In time, the temple fell into disuse and around 160 BC, the Macedonian King of Egypt, Ptolemy VI, gifted its grounds to a foreigner named Onias.

That Onias was a Jew, a descendant of an illustrious family of high priests. He fled from Judea when the Syrian king Antiochus, then the ruler of the whole of Palestine, gave custody of the Temple of Jerusalem to another family, one more submissive to his will. Long enemy of Antiochus, Ptolemy gave a warm welcome to the Judean exile. And the exile, in turn, wishing to repay the king for his hospitality, proposed an extraordinary plan:

Since Antiochus had desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem, it seemed right and proper to erect a new Jewish temple elsewhere, outside of that king’s reach. And if so, then why not do this on Egyptian soil? Thereby, Ptolemy would win over all the Jewish opponents of Antiochus: why, many would probably leave Palestine and settle on the Nile precisely because they here would be allowed to serve their Lord God in peace and in accordance with the Law.

Ptolemy decided that the plan made political sense and granted to Onias that unused plot of land in Leontopolis. Construction work began immediately, with the support of at least some members of the Jewish diaspora—a diaspora so numerous in Egypt. The temple itself was built in the shape of a tower, 60 cubits high. An altar was set up for the offering of animals, modeled on the altar of Jerusalem. Superb liturgical robes were prepared. Only the seven-branched candlestick that had stood in the Temple of Jerusalem was absent. In its place, a giant lamp, forged of pure gold, was suspended from the ceiling on a chain of wrought gold.

The temple grounds were surrounded by a wall of fired brick, and the gate was framed with stone pylons, modeled on those of Egyptian temples. The cost of the maintenance of the temple and of the daily offerings was covered by the income of a plot of arable land graciously granted by the king.

The very existence of the temple in Leontopolis went against the ancient Judean tradition which held that legitimate sacrifices to the God of the Jews could only be made in one place—in the Temple of Jerusalem on Temple Mount—and that only huses of prayer (synagogues) could exist outside the holy city. The political claim of Judea aside, many Jews of Judea were afraid that the new center of worship might cause religious division, dilute the sense of Jewish unity, and reduce the revenues of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem—which both earned from the Jews of the diaspora.

As it happened, the hopes and ambitions of Onias and his king were not fulfilled and no mass migration from Judea took place: Judea soon gained full independence, the Temple of Jerusalem was reconsecrated and functioned successfully for several decades, well into the Roman times. And yet, the colony of Leontopolis lived on for many generations, and its memory has survived to this day in the Arabic name of the place: Tel-el-Yehudiyeh—Jews' Hill.

Numerous remains of the settlement persist in the form of inscribed tombstones. Today, they are chiefly housed in the museums of Cairo, Alexandria, Louvre, and Saint Petersburg.

The inscriptions are in Greek, and the names of the deceased are sometimes Greek (Aristobulus, Alexander, Onesimus, Glaukias, Theodora, Arsinoe, Demas, Nicanor, Hilarion, Philip, Dositheus, Nicomedes, Elpis); sometimes Hebrew (James, Joseph, Judas, Samuel, Jesus, Nathan, Onias, Barchias, Rachelis, Joannes, Eleazar (that is to say, Lazarus), Sabbataeus, Sambaios; and sometimes formally Greek, but really Judean: Salamis (Salome), Marin (Mary), Irene (a translation of Salome, meaning Peace).

Here are typical epitaphs from Leontopolis:

“Eleazar, noble and popular, aged thirty. (Died) year Two of Caesar, 20th Mehir”.

By our reckoning, then, Lazarus died on 14 February 28 BC. (The “Caesar” of the inscription, is Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus).

Another inscription, missing its top, is more eloquent:

“You who loved your brothers, who loved your children, who was kind to all, goodbye! May the earth cradle you gently. She died aged about 45. Year 19, which some people reckon as Year 3, the 5th of Pachon.”

This double dating allows us to establish, that the woman whose name we do not know, died in 35 BC, on April 30, during the reign of the infamous Queen Cleopatra VII, the last ruler of independent Egypt, the beloved of Antony.

Several longer inscriptions remain:

“O passerby, cry for me, a mature girl. I lived a blissful life in luxurious chambers. I had my whole trousseau ready for my wedding, but I died prematurely. Instead of a marriage bed, this gloomy grave awaited me. When the clatter of wedding knockers rang out, it announced my death. Like a rose in a garden full of dew, Hades suddenly snatched me away. Passerby, I was only twenty.”

The opening and closing lines of the inscription are verisified. Other inscriptions are all in verse:

“Passenger, I am Jesus, son of Phameios. I descended to Hades at the age of 60. Mourn for me all of you, me, who has suddenly departed into the abyss of ages to dwell hereafter in the dark. Cry also you, o Dositheus! You, of all, should shed the most painful tears for you are now my successor since I have died without issue. All of you who gather here, weep for unfortunate Jesus!”

From Aleksander Krawczuk's "Rome and Jerusalem", the concluding volume of the Jewish Trilogy

Illustration by Jean-Claude Golvin, a French archaeologist and architect. He specializes in the history of Roman amphitheaters and has published hundreds of reconstruction drawings of ancient monuments. Golvin is a researcher with the CNRS at the Bordeaux Montaigne University.

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