Aramaic graffiti on coins of Demanhur

Torrey, Charles Cutler, 1863-1956
Numismatic Notes and Monographs
American Numismatic Society
New York
Worldcat Works




Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Humanities Open Book Program.


Table of Contents




By Charles C. Torrey

In Edward T. Newell's exhaustive study of this great Egyptian hoard, published in 1923 as No. 19 of Numismatic Notes and Monographs, he referred on pages 148 f. to the Semitic graffiti which are to be seen on some of the coins, and mentioned my promise to deal with them at some future time. It is this promise that I am now attempting to fulfil.

The inscriptions on these Alexander tetradrachms are interesting for more than one reason. The palaeographic evidence which they afford, though little in amount, is excellent in quality. The characters, typically Aramaic, are all carefully and firmly incised, not merely scrawled, and the time to which they belong is very definitely fixed. The hoard was buried in 318 B.C., and its coins had been minted within the preceding decade.

Incidentally, there is importance in the scrap of evidence given by these graffiti as to the use of the Aramaic language by the Jews of Egypt. This is a subject on which light has been needed; and before the inscriptions themselves are presented, the relation of their testimony to the other existing evidence may be briefly indicated.

The presence in Egypt of large and increasing colonies of Jews, from the time of the Persian rule onward, is of course well known; but it is too often taken for granted that these colonists gave up the use of their native language when they migrated from Palestine. As a matter of history, the Jews in all parts of the earth and even to the present day have not only held fast to their Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures, but also have found it important to use their own special form of speech, with accompanying use of the Semitic alphabet, in their intercourse with one another. There is no a priori reason for supposing that the Jews of Egypt at any time would have done otherwise. Certainly they preserved their religion, and their solidarity as a people; nevertheless, for reasons which are less weighty than they appear to be—chief among them the fact of the "Septuagint" translation of the Hebrew scriptures—the view has prevailed that they permitted themselves to be separated in this very effective way from their brethren in the home land, and indeed, in all western Asia.

To illustrate the view which now is well-nigh universally held: Cowley 1 considers it certain that the use of the Aramaic language in Egypt had ceased by the year 300 B.C., if not still earlier. Lidzbarski 2 expressed the same opinion. We read in Margolis and Marx,3 where conditions under Ptolemy II are described: "The younger generation spoke Greek, casting behind them the Hebrew speech, or the Aramaic which then had begun to displace Hebrew at home, at least in the rural districts."

It is needless to say, that the Jews in Egypt in the Greek period made very extensive use of the Greek language; they could not have done otherwise, and no one could doubt the fact; but it is quite another thing to say that they abandoned the language of their own people. Why should they have done so? The Egyptian "Golah" was very large, and its several main communities were held together by the strongest ties of race and religion. They could and did maintain a certain effective isolation, as the extant literature plainly shows. Nothing could contribute more to their feeling of unity and to their consciousness of a great inheritance than the preservation of their Semitic speech, and this the circumstances rendered very easy.

The question is far too great and too complex to be discussed here; but there exist several important bits of evidence clearly indicating that the Aramaic speech was not abandoned, and among these, as will be shown, our graffiti of the Demanhur hoard find a place.

Until the present century very little was known about the use of Aramaic in Egypt. Documents of any sort in this language would naturally have perished; it is not easy to see why or in what way any considerable number of them should have been preserved. By rare good fortune, excavators have recently unearthed in upper Egypt, chiefly at Elephan- tine, a store of Aramaic papyri, mainly Jewish, dating from the fifth century B.C. It is the purpose of the present investigation, however, to deal only with the evidence coming from the Hellenistic time. The documents in Aramaic belonging to the Persian period, whether papyri, ostraca, or inscriptions on stone, may therefore be left out of account here, merely for convenience.

The first specimen of clearly Jewish Aramaic writing on papyrus dating from the Greek period, came to the notice of scholars in 1907.4 This is a Jewish business document of the Ptolemaic time, not dated (third century? see below), and preserved only in part. Another papyrus fragment,5 the remnant of a Jewish legal document, appeared a few years later. The few Aramaic papyri previously known, published in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum, Part II, Vol. I, Nos. 144–153, might or might not be of Jewish origin, and plainly date from the Persian period (see above).

We happen to have also from Egypt of the Greek period three ostraca inscribed in Aramaic by Egyptian Jews. The first of these, from the Berlin Museum, was published in Lidzbarski's Ephemeris. 6 It is a memorandum consisting of a long list of names, each accompanied by abbreviations indicating quantity or value. The reason why the dealer, treasurer, or steward chose this writing material for his account was presumably, as in the many similar cases, the relative permanence of the record. Papyrus is easily injured or destroyed. The names in this case are mostly Hebrew or Aramaic, but Greek and Egyptian are also represented. It is natural to suppose that the language of the memorandum was that of the community where it was written. The date is uncertain; Lidzbarski preferred the second century B.C., but the third century is equally possible, and to me seems even more probable, for several reasons.

The other two ostraca, preserved in the Library at Strasbourg, are evidently of the same date as the preceding. They were published in Ephemeris,7 with plates II and III. One of the two is a private letter, almost perfectly preserved. It is chiefly a record of the sending of merchandise, hence the employment of the ostracon. Aramaic was evidently the ordinary language of communication. The other specimen is a memorandum like the one in the Berlin Museum (see above), a list of names and amounts. Finally, Lidzbarski calls attention to the obvious points of resemblance between these ostraca and the papyrus first mentioned above, Cowley's No. 81. All these documents seem to belong to about the same time, and perhaps came from the same place.

There is evidence of another sort, more comprehensive in character, definitely dated, and at present generally unrecognized. Prefixed to 2 Maccabees, one of the books of the Apocrypha, are two letters purporting to have been sent from the Jews of Jerusalem and Judea to their brethren in Egypt. The dates of the letters correspond to 143 and 124 B.C., and the Greek in which they have come down to us has in each case been proved to be the result of translation from Aramaic.8 However these letters may be estimated or interpreted, they testify to the common use of Aramaic by the Jews of Egypt in the 2nd century B.C., and imply that this was, or was believed to be, the ordinary language of communication with the Jews of Palestine.

There is also very pertinent testimony from the 1st century A.D., namely in a passage from the New Testament, Acts 21, 37 f. The Roman tribune laid hold of Paul, whom he supposed to be instigating a riot, and asked, in surprise, "Do you know Greek? Aren't you that Egyptian Jew who recently stirred up the people of Judea to sedition?" The incident to which the Roman officer referred is mentioned by Josephus both in the Antiquities,9 and in the War 10; and the trouble-maker in question did come from Egypt. The tribune took it for granted that the ordinary language of the Jews of Egypt was Aramaic, and that a fanatic of this man's type would have little to do with Greek, and would have had no need to learn it well.

The facts set forth in the preceding pages provide the background necessary for appreciating the evidence now obtained from the Demanhur hoard. The graffiti found here take their place as one more link in the chain of witnesses, and give welcome testimony of a new and interesting sort. Nine of the Alexander tetradrachms bear Aramaic inscriptions, evidently intended as marks of identification. Their Jewish origin, which might indeed have been taken for granted, is fortunately made very clear. Aside from personal names, initials, and one monogram, there occurs the legend, "He will establish"; and on one coin the word 'ammi, "my people," is a countermark regularly incised with a punch. The importance of this latter fact is evident, for the punch cannot have been cut for use only in this one place. Beyond question, the native speech, the ordinary written language, of those who made these graffiti was Aramaic. This is evidence for the latter part of the fourth century B.C., and at least for the early part of the third century, for there is no reason for supposing a change at just this time. Moreover, as has been shown, there is good evidence that there was no change in the following centuries. The Jews of Egypt continued, among themselves, to use their own language.

One of the coins which were given to me for examination bears an inscription which properly falls outside the scope of the present investigation, for the incised characters are not Aramaic, but Demotic Egyptian. I have thought it well, nevertheless, to include this specimen, both as a real member of the group and also because of its own interest.

The accompanying plates show the coins, ten in number, which bear the inscriptions, while the graffiti are shown in a table. In the original photographs the inscribed letters can all be seen distinctly, especially with the aid of a magnifying glass.

The Inscriptions

No. 1. This graffito, unlike the others, is on the obverse of its coin, filling the space in front of the face of Alexander. It is the only instance in which the characters are not Aramaic. Professor Nathaniel J. Reich, of Dropsie College and the University of Pennsylvania, to whom I submitted the photograph and my own facsimile drawing (the coin itself being now in New York City City), very kindly sent me his transliteration and a tentative translation. He reads: ḥp-ḥp p nf (?), that is, "Ḥpḥp the sailor (?)." The inscription on the coin is indistinct at the left hand; the only instance of uncertainty, as all the other graffiti are sharply incised throughout.

No. 2. The inscription is above the arm of Zeus, in characters very well made, uniform in size, and evenly spaced. This obviously is a proper name, נבז, Zabnai, an abbreviated Aramaic form, apparently equivalent to the name אנבז, Zabnā, with the other common hypochoristic ending, which is given in CIS II, No. 55. The latter might indeed be read Zebīnā, as in Ezra 10, 43.

No. 3. In this case it is not quite certain that the three characters which appear in the drawing were intended to make a word, for they do not form a line, but are irregularly placed. At the top, filling the space above the arm, is the מ; below the arm, resting on the thigh, is ח; a little below this, on the left, is ב. The letters are large and distinct; and if they are taken in the order described (the only natural order, if they are supposed to form a word), the resulting בחמ would be the passive participle, maḥḥab, "beloved." This suggests a proper name, and such it probably is; compare the common Aramaic name Ḥabibi, as well as other names formed on this root, with the same meaning.

No. 4. The inscription is in the usual place, above the arm; the letters are clear, and arranged as in the facsimile. This can only be the familiar word ךוי, "Javan," designating the Grecian power, and at this time used for either the Seleucid or the Ptolemaic Kingdom. The reason for its choice as a mark of identification may lie simply in the fact that its few letters are very easily made.

No. 5. A single character, ח, above the arm. The marks crossing the letter, though very distinct, have no obvious signification; see however below, the note on No. 6. The obverse of this coin bears the incised countermark, mentioned above and to be noticed again presently.

No. 6. Three characters, in the usual place. Apparently יפח indeed, this is the only natural reading. As the name of the Egyptian deity Apis, it appears as an element in several Egyptian-Aramaic personal names of about the fourth century B.C.11 If this graffito represents a Jewish personal name, as seems probable, it is then perhaps more likely that we have here the abbreviation of a theophoric compound, rather than the simple name "Apis." It is quite possible that the letter in No. 5, above, is the initial of a similar name; and it may not be mere accident that in both cases the letter ח is crossed by distinct scratches. Might the defacement of the character be a conventional protest against the heathen god? (cf. Abednego, for Abed-Nebo, and similar cases). It is perhaps unnecessary to remark, that the presence of this pagan element implies no abandonment of the worship of Yahweh.

No. 7. The single letter מ, presumably an initial, occupying the space above the arm.

No. 8. A curious monogram, well made, filling the space above the arm and in front of the face. It may be useless to attempt to analyze it; but the easiest conjecture, reading from right to left and including every stroke, yields יחמם; and it is perhaps not a mere coincidence that וחמם is found, clearly written as an Egyptian-Aramaic personal name, in CIS II, No. 148, where the Greek equivalent is given as Σήμτ.

No. 9. The four characters which appear on this coin are arranged, not as in the drawing, but in a perpendicular line. They are small and very well made; typical Egyptian Aramaic letters. The reading which they give is רנדר. The first of the letters, the daleth, is above Zeus' forehead; the second, in front of his chin; the third, just above the arm; the fourth, just below it. It is natural at first sight to think of this as containing the relative pronoun and the preposition, followed by nēr or nūr, yielding such a reading as image dīl-Nēr, "property of Nēr," a Hebrew name familiar as that of Abner's father, in the story of David's time. This seems improbable, however, for the two letters of the name would have sufficed for identification, the dīl is quite useless. No other interpretation of the four consonants suggests itself, and it may be that the inscription is not Semitic at all. If it is Persian, I have at least found nothing to compare with it; Professor Reich sees in it nothing Egyptian.

On the same face of the coin, at the edge on the right, appears the character ר, נ, a rather large letter, the shank running down between N and Δ of the name Alexander.

No. 5. bis. 12 This very interesting inscription, mentioned by Newell, p. 148, is unlike any of the others in the group. It is not a graffito, but an incuse made with a punch, and thus a countermark which must have been frequently used. It is the word image, "my people," in Aramaic characters, stamped in the cheek of Alexander.13


This seems to give clear evidence (to be put beside the evidence afforded by the two letters prefixed to 2 Maccabees) that the "official" language of the great Jewish colony in Egypt, in the last centuries B.C., was the Aramaic.

No. 10. This specimen, also, is of more than ordinary interest. Instead of a name, or initial, or symbol, it bears the words (Aramaic): םיקי זח, hu yeqim, "He will establish." The pronoun, doubtless referring to the God of Israel, is in the space between the eagle and the cornucopia. Below this, in the usual space above the arm, is the verb, with the letters arranged as in the drawing.

Behind the head of Zeus is the single character ק, in a form which is unusual, though not unexampled elsewhere.

End Notes

1. Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., pp. xiv, xv, 191, 200.
2. Ephemeris für semitische Epigraphik, II, 243 f.
3. History of the Jewish People, p. 129.
4. See Cowley, Aramaic Papyri of the Fifth Century B.C., No. 81.
5. Ibid., No. 82.
6. II, pp. 243–248.
7. III, pp. 22–26.
8. See the Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, Vol. 20 (1900), pp. 225 ff.
9. XX, 8, 6.
10. II, 13, 5.
11. See the vocabulary in Lidzbarski's Handbuch der nordsemitischen Epigraphik, p. 279. Cf. also our No. 1, above.
12. Shown on Plate II.
13. See Newell's monograph, N. N. & M. 19, Plate VIII, No. 6, as well as the reproduction here in Plate II.




PLATE I - 1.



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PLATE II - 10.