Jews have long since been persecuted for their beliefs. I set out to write a paper on whether or not a single event would have changed the course of the treatment of Jews in Alexandria. I had in mind that if the Serapium Temple had not been destroyed that the treatment of the Jewish citizens would have been better today. In my readings of the history of Alexandria and the destruction of Serapeum, I found myself realizing that had the destruction of the Temple of Serapeum not happened, nothing would have changed the outcome for Jews in Alexandria.
The destruction of the Temple of Serapeum (a place of Greco-Roman worship dedicated to the god Serapis) and took place in 391 AD was an attempt to prohibit pagan worship. Not only had pagans been killed during this destruction, but people of other religions as well. Christians chronicled most of the sources of the event. Yet, do not detail it directly. Most of what we know about the events has been pieced together to create a better understanding. Some of the disruptions occurred with Theophilus, a Christian patriarch who attempted to deem temples as Churches. This upset pagans as well as Jews. Many of their scholars had left the city. Earlier, in 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica, Christianity became the official church of the Roman Empire. Allowing for Jewish persecution and their rights restricted just as pagans were.
Soon after the founding and establishment of Alexandria, this city and its library became a well-known area for scholars and refugees to settle. Alexandria was said to be a city of tolerance towards all ethnicities and religions. It was not quite a city-state but not quite a polis since Alexandria did have a division of ethnic backgrounds in its housing districts and personal government. The Jews were able to abide by their government as well as the national government. Not including the fact, we have separation of church and state, this setup allowed for Jews to follow their religion while still being able to take part in other activities in Alexandria. However, this matter did cause an issue with other people and riffs in involvement.
To further emphasize how Alexandria took a tentative approach to the tolerance of others and their religions, it is best to describe the layout of the city. Alexandria was divided into three major sections. There was the Native Egyptian quarter, where the Serapeum is located, the Brucheion quarter where Greek Macedonian and other peoples of Europe resides, and the Jewish quarter. The break it down further, each area also was broken down by class and origin. Non-natives lived on Rhakotis.
The earliest documentation of Jews in Alexandria is said to date back to Alexander the Great. Those evidence of this is sparse. The proof of Jews residing in early Alexandria can be found on old tombstones outside of the city.
Not everyone was considered a citizen. In the Ptolemaic and early Roman times, Jews had a muddled definition of citizenship. Much like how our Indigenous peoples had been up until 1924. The difference is that Jews were seen as occupants of a foreign city. This would be more applied to early African American’s brought to America as slaves. Not quite citizens. In Alexandria, however, it was not required to be a citizen to be involved with the government. A few Jews were able to be both a citizen and be involved in the government without losing their ability to worship as they wished. Generally, becoming a citizen meant giving up some or all of what made one Jewish. In respect to the children of one Jewish and non-Jewish parent, they were not considered citizens and helped define sub-districts. The government of Alexandria discouraged ethnic mixing to prevent an issue with citizenship. Though, the rights of all Jews were said to be similar to Greeks. Their treatment, however, waxed and waned. They sometimes had their rights and allowances allowed or disallowed. Especially during times of war and collapses of empires in which many Jews died to minimize riots that occurred. During these times, their political and religious statuses was deprived. Allowing for minimal time to worship as they wanted or partake in politics, be treated as people and not as second-class people. During these times, information about them reduced in recording for long periods.
When it came to what some Jews did for the Alexandrian library, they had given the task to document in books, also known as scrolls, about their faith. Translating information from their language to Greek. Even though tolerance is to be a defining characteristic of the ancient city, it seemed the interpretation of Jewish texts placed higher priority despite the treatment of the people who followed it. The Letter of Aristeas (100 BC) describes this:
“When Demetrius of Phaleron was put in charge of the king’s library he was lavished with resources with a view of collecting, if possible, all the books in the world; and by making purchases and copies he carried out the king’s intention as far as he could. When he was asked, in my presence, how many thousands of books were there, he said: ‘more than 200,00 my king; I have been told that the laws of the Jews also deserve to be copied and to be part of your library.’ ‘What is there to prevent you from doing this?’, the King replied. ‘Everything necessary is at your disposal.’ Demetrius said: ‘A translation is required; in the country of the Jews they use their own arrangement of letters and have their own language. They are supposed to use Syrian, but that is not so, but rather a different mode of writing.’ When he learned these details the king ordered a letter to be written to the Hight Priest of the Jews, so that the aforementioned plans could be completed.” [i]
After the Temple of Serapeum was destroyed and violence occurred, many Jews remained while some left. Others were killed during the Israeli-Arab conflict from 1940 to the1970s when a peace treaty was signed. Sadly, it did not stop anti-Semitism.
Today, there are not many Jews in Alexandria. Most of who are left are elderly. There are also few remains of Alexandria’s Jewish past. Such as the ancient synagogue that is “still there but has no roof. And floods some with water where the Torah would be read.” A Muslim caretaker is in charge of overseeing the site. There is an effort to preserve Jewish buildings by many citizens are in favor of the task. “Jewish sites are an important part of our heritage, and we place as much importance on the maintenance and development of the Jewish temples as we do to the mosques and the churches in Egypt,” says Zahitauss, Egypt’s chief archaeologist. Most of the sites lie in the city’s capital than outside of it. For the few Jews left, this leaves them thoughts of more cosmopolitan cities where their buildings are not in disrepair and filled more at each Shabbat.
The fact that Alexander wanted a city of tolerance, it is evident that this was never the case. No matter which event did or did not take place.
Freeman, Joseph. 2009. The Civic Status of the Alexandrian Jewish Community in Ptolemaic and Early Roman Periods. 10 22. Accessed 10 10, 2020. https://www.academia.edu/13066615/_The_Civic_Status_of_the_Alexandria_Jewish_Community_in_Ptolemaic_and_Early_Roman_Periods_Anistoriton_Journal_13_2012_13_.
Macleod, Roy. 2004. “The Library of Alexandri: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World.” 63. New York City: I.B. Tauris.
Friedman, M. and Al-Shalchi, H., 2009. Egyptians Conflicted Over Preserving Jewish Past. [online] The Associated Press. Available at: <https://www.denverpost.com/2009/10/24/egyptians-conflicted-over-preserving-jewish-sites/> [Accessed 10 October 2020].
Parson, E., 1997. The Alexandrian Library. New York City: American Elseviar, pp.56-57.
Polyviou, E., 2012. The Civic Status of the Alexandrian Jew. The Anistoriton Journal, [online] 13, pp.1-4, 11-12. Available at: <http://www.anistor.gr/english/enback/2013_3e_Anistoriton.pdf> [Accessed 15 November 2020].