Rubensohn Collection

History of the Rubensohn Collection

During the 5th century BCE, while Egypt stood under Persian sovereignty, an Aramaeo-Jewish community settled on an island in the Nile River called Elephantine, opposite the city Syene, today’s Aswan. The Hebrew Bible sources in Jeremiah 41 and 2 Kings 25 refer to the existence of this Jewish diaspora in Egypt; this description has been confirmed by a sensational discovery of Aramaic papyri on Elephantine Island itself, whose extra-biblical texts provide contemporaneous attestation to the community. By means of commercial trade, Aramaic papyri from Elephantine Island emerged early in the European antiquities market; in this way, Richard Lepsius would obtain an Aramaic papyrus for his Egyptian and Nubian collection. This papyrus was an Aramaic text from the Athanasi Collection, which Lepsius had purchased on behalf of the Museum in Berlin in 1842. In Syene, the city opposite Elephantine, a larger find of very well preserved papyri was acquired by Robert Mond, and equally as many by Lady William Cecil. These were published in 1906 by Sayce and Cowley. Subsequently, the desire arose to complete the new holdings through systematic archaeological excavation, and thereby recover additional papyri prior to their deterioration. Under orders from the Königliche Museen zu Berlin, three archaelogical campaigns on Elephantine Island were ultimately conducted by the German archaeologist Otto Rubensohn and the German papyrologist Friedrich Zucker between 1906 and 1908. Adolf Erman, the Director of the Egyptian Museum at the time, wrote concerning these events in his memoirs:

„Smaller excavations, which we had attempted at various Egyptian sites with city ruins in order to obtain papyri, caused us far fewer efforts and costs than these large excavations. Nevertheless, at least one of them produced outcomes that are of the greatest scholarly significance. It was known that the Fellahin had found papyrus in the old city of Elelphantine Island, and in 1904 a large find came to light there, which included Aramaic documents concerning Jewish soldiers; in the Persian era a garrison of all manner of foreigners had been situated in this border fortification. In order to follow this lead further, Otto Rubensohn went to Elephantine in 1906, and at the same time French scholars also went there with the same purposes. The general director Maspero divided the excavation site between both parties, but we were the ones who drew the better lot this time, because in our area, close to the boundary of the French area, Rubensohn came upon a simple house, and it turned out to contain the records of the Jewish community.“

Rubensohn also began his excavation report summary with a reference to the Aramaic document, stating:

„The Elephantine excavations are a result of the discovery of a few Aramaic papyri, which have been published by Sayce and Cowley as „Aramaic Papyri discovered at Assuan.“ Another visit to Aswan in the year of the discovery, 1904, allowed me to gain the acquaintance and the trust of those considered dealers and Sebakh diggers. At my request they led me to discovery site of the papyri. The site which they showed me did not lie in Aswan, but rather on the western edge of the koms of Elephantine. It was a spot about 1 meter north of the location at which we would later make the larger find of Aramaic papyri. At my proposal the general administration of the royal museums in Berlin shut down the work that had begun, and with customary courteousness Mr. Maspero in the name of the Service des Antiquités issued the requested permission to operate papyrus excavation on the western half of the Koms of Elephantine.“

On December 5, 1904 the excavation license was issued to „Monsineur le Docteur Rubensohn, in the name of the direction of the Royal Museums of Berlin“ for the duration of one year; on November 8, 1905 and again on December 10, 1906 additional one-year extensions were granted, and at last the license was transferred to Friedrich Zucker. […]

Today, the largest portion of the papyri, ostraca, and seal stamps that were granted via partage to the Berlin Museums on December 24, 1907 is found in the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung Berlin.

(see Verena M. Lepper. 2012. Die ägyptische und orientalische „Rubensohn-Bibliothek“ von Elephantine. 4000 Jahre Kulturgeschichte einer altägyptischen Insel, in: Verena M. Lepper (Hrsg.), Forschung in der Papyrussammlung. Eine Festgabe für das Neue Museum, Ägyptische und Orientalische Papyri und Handschriften des Ägyptischen Museums und Papyrussammlung Berlin 1, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, pp. 497–508; quotations from pp. 497–498, 501.)