Ptolemaic and Roman (400 BC to 641 AD)

See also: Leontopolis, Alabarch, Philo, and Elephantine

Further waves of Jewish immigrants settled in Egypt during the Ptolemaic era, especially around Alexandria. Thus, their history in this period centers almost completely on Alexandria, though daughter communities rose up in places like the present Kafr ed-Dawar, and Jews served in the administration as custodians of the river. As early as the third century B.C. one can speak of a widespread diaspora of Jews in many Egyptian towns and cities. In Josephus's history, it is claimed that, after the first Ptolemy took Judea, he led some 120,000 Jewish captives to Egypt from the areas of Judea, Jerusalem, Samaria, and Mount Gerizim. With them, many other Jews, attracted by the fertile soil and Ptolemy's liberality, emigrated there of their own accord. An inscription recording a Jewish dedication of a synagogue to Ptolemy and Berenice was discovered in the 19th century near Alexandria. Josephus also claims that, soon after, these 120,000 captives were freed of their bondage by Philadelphus.

The history of the Alexandrian Jews dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great, 332 B.C., at which they were present. They were numerous from the very outset, forming a notable portion of the city's population under Alexander's successors. The Ptolemies assigned them a separate section, two of the five districts of the city, to enable them to keep their laws pure of indigenous cultic influences. The Alexandrian Jews enjoyed a greater degree of political independence than elsewhere. While the Jews elsewhere throughout the later Roman Empire formed private societies for religious purposes, or else became a corporation of foreigners like the Egyptian and Phoenician merchants in the large commercial centers, those of Alexandria constituted an independent political community, side by side with that of the indigenous population.

For the Roman period there is evidence that at Oxyrynchus (modern Behneseh), on the east side of the Nile, there was a Jewish community of some importance. It even had a Jews' street. Many of the Jews there must have become Christians, though they retained their Biblical names (e.g., "David" and "Elisabeth," occurring in a litigation concerning an inheritance). There is even found a certain Jacob, son of Achilles (c. 300 AD), as beadle of an Egyptian temple.
The Jewish community of Alexandria was virtually wiped out by Trajan's army during the Jewish revolt of 115-117 CE (which destroyed pagan temples), and Josephus puts the figure for those slaughtered in the vast pogrom at 50,000.


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