Having read that elephants in the Ramat Gan Safari were especially protective of their young during the recent red alerts of rockets from Gaza (Jerusalem Post July 18, 2014) one is reminded of the part that elephants played during the battle of Rafiah in southern Gaza in 218 BCE, some 2,200 years ago. It was one of the last battles between the Egyptian Ptolemies and the Greek Seleucids during their struggle for possession of the Land of Israel. In that struggle they had fought five wars in the 100 years after the death of Alexander the Great, four of them won by the Ptolemies, but the battle of Rafiah was going to put an end to that and give final victory to the Seleucids.
Or at least so it was generally believed. The Jerusalem High Priest Onias (Honia) III, who was responsible for paying the Israeli taxes to the Ptolemies, was so convinced he refused to do so that year as he expected the Seleucids to win the battle and take over the country’s finances. So he kept the money in store ready to give to the Greeks when they had won control of the Land of Israel. But he was wrong and later suffered personally for his mistake.
The Seleucids were poised to finally vanquish the Ptolemies, and the battle lines were drawn at Rafiah, at the south end of the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian emperor Ptolemy IV Philopator was in his tent opposite Rafiah the night before the battle, when he was warned by Tiberius Alexander, his chief adviser and a former Jew, to leave his bed as there was a plot to assassinate him in his sleep before the fight. Accordingly, an unfortunate substitute was put in his place in the bed and suffered the fate intended for the emperor. Ptolemy IV survived and readied his army, armed with elephants, for the battle.
The Seleucids were the better trained and disciplined army but had not expected to fight such beasts. African elephants were the Egyptian secret weapon and on the field of battle, the Seleucids were forced to give way to the charging beasts and thus, contrary to expectations, the Egyptian Ptolemies won the day.
It was an extraordinary result and High Priest Onias was only just saved from his blunder in not rendering the taxes to the Ptolemies, as it was quickly done at short notice by one of his nephews, Hyrcanus the Tobiad, who later gained many kudos by this act of obedience to the Egyptians. Nevertheless Onias was deposed and the Ptolemies celebrated their victory in grand style. So much so that the Emperor Ptolemy IV Philopator himself marched into Jerusalem and requested to enter the Holy of Holies of the Temple to give thanks for his victory.
But the new high priest, Shimon, could not allow that. Ptolemy insisted, as it was at the time standard practice for the victor to celebrate in the local temple, but the priests were adamant. They summoned up a godly apparition that struck Ptolemy and he collapsed in paralysis and had to be dragged away by his guards.
He had failed to enter the Temple, let alone the Holy of Holies, whereupon he vowed vengeance.
He went back to Alexandria and rounded up the numerous Jews of the city. They were given the choice of either adopting the drunken cult of Dionysis before entering their synagogues or to face the death penalty.
The Jews in their thousands refused to convert and they were rounded up into the Hippodrome of Schedia, a suburb of Alexandria, where they were forced to remain chained up until Ptolemy decided their fate, how exactly they were to die. Eventually the order came that it was to be death by trampling of elephants and Ptolemy ordered his army to prepare 500 of the beasts for the slaughter.
The soldiers massed the animals and gave them spiced wine to madden them and make them ready to charge the Jews. But there was further delay before Ptolemy was ready to give the order, and the troops continued to goad on the elephants to ready them for the onslaught. When after several days the Emperor’s order came through, the frantic elephants were released and all of them, in one great mass, turned on their tormentors. The Jews were saved and much of the Egyptian army was destroyed by the trampling of their own drunken elephants.
Ptolemy was forced to accept the situation, claimed he had never wanted to annihilate the Jews, and said it had been done on the wicked and thoughtless advice of his courtiers. He threw a great seven-day banquet for the starving Jews, restored them to their properties and ordered the elephants back to their cages, all as described in the Third Book of Maccabees in the Pseudepigrapha (an addendum to the Apocrypha).
And thus ended the role of elephants in the ancient battles relating to Gaza.
The author is a Senior Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.