A belated note from Aswan

A belated note from Aswan November 10, 2022


The Nile at Aswan
A view of the River Nile at Aswan  (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


WiFi on the Nile cruise boats has always been frustratingly bad.  This time, it was altogether nonexistent.  Here, though, is something that I put together in Aswan on Monday, 7 November and then was unable to post.


I love the scenery around Aswan.  As we always do when we’re here with a group, we took our people on a small boat from where our cruise ship is docked to a small Nubian village several miles to the south.  Located on the western bank of the Nile, it’s a literally colorful place, authentic but clearly oriented to tourists.  Our folks visit a Nubian home, have their pictures taken holding a baby crocodile (with his jaws bound firmly shut), and bargain with the locals for spices and small figurines and scarves and the like.


But my favorite part of the Nubian visit has always been the boat ride itself, to and from the village.  The Nile is clean and blue here, and the contrast between the river and its green banks, on the one hand, and, on the other, the sand dunes on the west and on the east, is clear and, to my mind, strikingly beautiful.  I don’t often think of Egypt as beautiful but, here in Aswan, it is very much so.


Aswan is also deeply interesting.  There are the two historic dams, of course – the older Aswan Dam and the famous twentieth-century High Dam.  They’re well worth a visit.  But between them is the gorgeous Temple of Isis on the island of Philae (to which the Ptolemaic temple was moved when it was threatened by the building of the High Dam and where it was meticulously reconstructed).  And then there is Elephantine Island, which I can see right now from the deck of our cruise ship.


Philae, the temple of Isis
There are more beautiful photographs of the Temple of Isis at Philae, near Aswan, but this one was available.

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


Many years ago, I was accompanying a a different group of Latter-day Saint tourists in Egypt.  It was my first time to accompany a group to Aswan.  At one point, our local guide took us to a restaurant on an island in the Nile River.  Suddenly, I realized where we were.  I pointed excitedly to some ruins at the southern end of an adjacent island, exclaiming to my puzzled companions that it was one of the most important of all Book of Mormon archaeological sites.  Then I explained why:


According to the Book of Mormon (see, for example, 1 Nephi 2:5), around the beginning of the sixth century before Christ there lived a woman in or near Jerusalem by the name of “Sariah.”  However, no woman appears in the Bible bearing that name.  “Sarai,” Abraham’s wife, comes the closest.  Her name probably means “my princess” or “my lady.”  Later, she’s called “Sarah” (“princess.”)  But “Sariah” is quite distinct.


So did Joseph Smith simply invent the name?  Definitely not.


In unvowelled Hebrew, “Sariahwould almost certainly be spelled “sryh,” and it would be pronounced something like “Saryah.”  Although “sryh” is not found in the Bible as a female name, it is well documented as an ancient Israelite masculine name.  In fact, it’s attached to eleven different men in the Hebrew Bible, appearing a total of nineteen times.  In the King James Bible, it’s spelled “Seraiah,” which is presumably a shortened form of “sryhw” or “Saryahu,” where the element “Yahu” derives from the divine name “Yahuweh” or “Jehovah.”  (That longer form actually does appear in the Hebrew of Jeremiah 36:26, as well as in several Iron Age seals and clay bullae.)


So perhaps Joseph Smith took the name “Seraiah” from the Old Testament but misspelled it and misapplied it to a woman?  Again, apparently not.


As Jeffrey Chadwick pointed out in a 1993 article, the Hebrew name “Sariah,” spelled “sryh,” has been reconstructed by non-Latter-day Saint scholars and identified as the Hebrew name of a Jewish woman who lived at Elephantine in Upper Egypt during the fifth century B.C.   To be precise, she lived on that small island that so excited me.  It was known to the ancient Egyptians as “3bw” (“Elephant” or “Ivory”) and to the Greeks as “Elephantine,” which reflects the importance of Aswan, in the far south of Egypt, to the ivory trade with inner Africa.


Elephantine Island, south tip
At the south end of Elephantine Island in the Nile River, near Aswan, Egypt

(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)


The reference to Sariah of Elephantine is found in line 4 of Aramaic Papyrus #22 (also called Cowley #22 or C-22), where she is described as “Seraiah, daughter of Hoshea son of Harman.”  Her name may mean either “Yah (or Yahuweh) has struggled” or “Yah (or Yahuweh) is prince.”  And “Sariah” may be the better spelling.


In other words, “Sariah” seems to be an authentically ancient Hebrew feminine name.  Yet the Elephantine Papyri were discovered around the beginning of the twentieth century, far too late for Joseph Smith to have studied them.


But there’s more.


Why is this Sariah mentioned in Papyrus C-22?  Because she had donated two shekels of silver to “Yahu Elaha,” “the Lord God.”  Arthur Cowley, after whom the papyrus was named, believed that her donation, which he dates to the year 419 BC, went to the expenses of the Jewish temple that we know to have been constructed on Elephantine Island.


An Israelite temple outside of Jerusalem?  Yes, indeed.  Directly parallel to the temple “like unto the temple of Solomon” that Nephi had constructed in the Americas somewhat more than a century before (2 Nephi 5:16), it was built by a colony of Jewish soldiers that had probably been established there sometime in the seventh century—i.e., during Lehi’s early years—when Judah was subservient to Egypt.


“For Latter-day Saint students today,” summarizes Chadwick, “the historical parallels between Sariah of Elephantine and Sariah the wife of Lehi are interesting, even if coincidental. Aside from sharing the same Hebrew name and the same Judahite-Israelite background, both women lived a great distance from Jerusalem. One’s location would indicate that she probably used Egyptian as a language in addition to Aramaic, whereas the other’s husband and at least one son were schooled in ‘the language of the Egyptians’ as well as their native Hebrew tongue (1 Nephi 1:2). Both women reverenced ‘the Lord God’ (Aramaic ‘Yahu Elaha’; compare 2 Nephi 5:30). Both women lived among Judahite-Israelite colonies that built their own temples outside the sphere of the temple at Jerusalem.”


See Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Notes and Communications: Sariah in the Elephantine Papyri,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/2 (1993) (https://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1379&index=13).


Aswan, Egypt

Posted from Cairo, Egypt



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