Friday, August 27, 2010

The Pharaoh of the Exodus

By Anthony Holmes

The Biblical story of the trials and tribulations of the children of Israel that eventually led to their departure from Egypt is documented in Jewish history, but singularly uncorroborated in Egyptian records. This situation is not entirely surprising because the Egyptians seldom made any reference to their defeats or misfortunes. Some students of ancient history accept that a migration did take place basically as described in the Bible despite the absence of Egyptian reports, while some commentators suggest that the Exodus never took place. They suggest the story is merely an allegory for the escape from physical torment through religious practice. Other writers have proposed that the story of the Exodus was subsequently contaminated by accounts of the Jewish experience of bondage in Babylon many centuries later and that it should not be considered to be a realistic account of events in the Nile delta.

The reference in the Bible to the interaction between Moses and the Pharaoh does not specify which Pharaoh was on the throne at the time of the Exodus and this has led to considerable speculation. In this article we will do a little chronological sleuthing, and using the Biblical report as a baseline, we will try to place the events described in the Book of Exodus against a possible time frame that takes account of events in Egypt.

We have very few clues to guide us, but we are told the following:

Exodus 12.40

Now the sojourning of the children of Israel who dwelt in Egypt was 430 years.

In order to make use of this statement we need to deduce when the period of 430 years began. We know that the title “children of Israel” can only have started after Jacob had received the name “Israel”, and that the sojourn may have commenced when Jacob came to Egypt with his family of 76 persons or sometime later (but not before). The saga of the Exodus of the Israelites therefore has to begin with Jacob (called Israel) and his favourite son Joseph, he of the coat of many colours. Joseph was 17 when he was sold to the Midianites by his jealous brothers and taken to Egypt. He was sold on to Potiphar an Egyptian officer of the pharaoh. Joseph did well and was made overseer of the house of Potiphar. When Potiphar’s wife’s advances were spurned by Joseph, she framed him for rape and he was imprisoned.

Joseph was a model prisoner and developed a reputation as an interpreter of dreams. When the pharaoh wanted his own dream interpreted he was advised of Joseph’s talent. The pharaoh called for Joseph.

Joseph gave the seven years of plenty/seven years of famine interpretation and advised the pharaoh to place a wise man over the land to ensure the collection and storage of the surplus grain during the good years. The pharaoh appointed Joseph, the 30 year old Hebrew ex-convict to the highest position in the land other than the king.

Seven years of plenty came as predicted. Joseph arranged for the accumulation of the surplus grain. Seven years of famine began and Joseph was in charge of selling the accumulated grain reserve. Joseph was about 40 years of age.

Joseph’s brothers came from drought-stricken Canaan to buy grain. Joseph made himself known to his brothers and it was sometime later that Jacob came to Egypt with his family. The pharaoh told Joseph to give his father and brethren the best land in the country in the land of Goshen.

Genesis 47.11

And Joseph placed his father and his brethren, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Ram’-e-ses as Pharaoh had commanded.

This verse indicates that the land of Ram-e-ses existed at the time of Joseph, centuries before the accession of Rameses I (the first pharaoh to carry that name). Jacob lived for 17 years in Egypt before he died, at which time Joseph would have been +/- 60 years of age. Joseph lived on to 110 years of age.


1.8 Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

1.9 And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:

1.10 Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

1.11 Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for the Pharaoh treasure cities, Pi-thom and Ra-am-ses.

It is this reference to Ra-am-ses that many commentators use to state that the exodus cannot have taken place before the reign of Pharaoh Rameses, ignoring the previous, much earlier references to the ‘land of Rameses’.

To limit the population growth of the Israelites, the pharaoh gave instructions to the Hebrew midwives to kill all new born sons, but to let the daughters live. The midwives ignored his instruction, using the excuse that by the time they came to deliver, the babies had already been born and smuggled away. The Pharaoh then gave the order that all new born sons should be cast into the river.

It was into these circumstances that Moses was born. His story of being placed in a basket on the river and being found and raised as the son of the pharaoh’s daughter is well known. Moses grew up as an Egyptian and probably only spoke Egyptian. (Later, when instructed by God to speak to the Israelites, Moses tells God in Exodus 4.10 of his lack of eloquence – presumably in the Hebrew language). After slaying an Egyptian and being in fear of his life he hid from the pharaoh in Midian. He fathered a son with Jethro’s daughter Zipporah. He then heard that the pharaoh had died.

Exodus 2.23

And it came to pass in process of time that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage,…

Moses returned to Egypt with Aaron by his side and after the ten plagues had been visited on Egypt he eventually persuaded the newly enthroned pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Moses died at the age of 120 years after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. By subtraction he had been a man of about 80 when he led the Exodus out of Egypt.

Another piece of information that might help us in our quest relates to the number of people involved.

Exodus 12.37

And the children of Israel journeyed from Ram-e-ses to Suc-coth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, besides children.

Check the arithmetic:

Start with 76 persons at a birth rate of 2% after 430 years there would be 380,000. It would take 455 years for the population to reach approx. 600,000. With all the assumptions I think we might as well accept this number (455 years from the time Jacob came to Egypt).

We know of a single reference to the Israelites in ancient Egyptian records, dating to the fifth year of the ten year reign of Pharaoh Merenptah, the successor to Rameses the Great. On a stone stele Merenptah records the victories of his campaigns against Libya to the west and Canaan and other countries to the east. This would have been about 1210BC. Merenptah claims

“Israel is laid waste, its seed is no more”.

Two interesting notions arise from the hieroglyphic inscription.

The first is that, unlike the Bible, the Egyptians did not use the term ‘seed’ to refer to the seed or progeny of man. The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is often used of defeated nations. It implies that the store of grain of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.

The second interesting point is the way in which the Israelites are described in the hieroglyphs. While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed beside the Israelites in this stele such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam were given the determinative for a city-state—the hieroglyphs that refer to the Israelites employ the determinative sign used for a foreign people (not a foreign land). It appears that the Israelites at this stage were a semi-nomadic people still seeking their home land. This most likely took place in the time of Joshua.

Joshua battled with the many nations that resented the arrival of the Israelites and it was only after his leadership that the Israelites became a landed nation. Joshua’s activities as the leader of the tribe may have lasted at least 40 years. (He was 110 years old when he died). Add this 40 years of fighting to the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness and deduct the total of 80 years from 1210BC (the date of Merenptah’s stele) one comes to a date for the Exodus of 1290BC.

Who was on the throne at that time? Let us assume the margin for error is plus or minus 10 years (i.e 1300 to 1280BC). On that basis we can not get any closer than one of the following:-

Horemheb 1319 to 1292BC

Rameses I 1292 to 1290BC

Seti I 1290 to 1279BC

A further consideration might help our search. It is clear from the Biblical account that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was a vacillator. On several occasions he agreed to the departure of the Israelites, only to renege on the deal when “his heart was hardened”. Looking at the three candidates above we know from records that Horemheb was a hard pharaoh who brought Egypt back from the disasters of the Amarna Period. We also know that Seti 1 fought and won many battles and must have been a decisive ruler. What do we know of Rameses I? He was an old man of 60 when he ascended the throne. He may have been of poor health because he only reigned for 17 months. He was named as Horemheb’s successor because Horemheb had no children, but Rameses I (called Paramessu before his coronation) had several sons and grandsons. If anyone is a candidate for being described as a vacillator it is more likely to be Rameses I than the other two.

We have another reference to the date of the Exodus in the Bible:

1 Kings 6.1

And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the Lord.

According to secular historians, Solomon’s Temple would have been started 971BC. Traditional rabbinic sources however state that construction started in 843BC. The two dates differ by 128 years. One places the Exodus in 1451BC, while the rabbinic source places the Exodus in 1323BC, close to our deduced date of 1290BC. The date of 1290BC would put Joseph’s intervention (in the 7 plenty and 7 famine years) in the time of the 12th Dynasty.

Is there any indication of this?

It has been established [refer Bell, Barbara (1975) - "Climate and the History of Egypt: The Middle Kingdom"] that the mid-12th Dynasty suffered erratic (high and low) Nile River levels which caused crop failure and the resultant social disruption. It is understandable that low floods would be detrimental to crops, but one might ask why an unusually high flood would hurt crops; Bell's answer is that under such conditions it would take longer for the water to drain off the fields, and would thus impede the year's planting.

In conclusion I suggest the following:

Joseph came to Egypt in 1745BC in the 12th Dynasty

Jacob (Israel) arrived in Egypt in 1715BC (Second Intermediate Period)

Moses was born about 1370BC in the reign of Amunhotep III

The Exodus took place in 1290BC in the reign of Rameses I

who is therefore The Pharaoh of the Exodus

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Observations on the topic of mummification

in ancient Egypt

By Anthony Holmes

Mummification, the art of preserving a body, is a defining element of ancient Egyptian civilization. Mummification differs from the science of embalming. The latter is defined as delaying decomposition to keep the corpse looking natural. The traditional Egyptian mummy, swathed in bandages, is a far cry from an embalmed lifelike body such as that of Vladimir Lenin. However the two terms have become intertwined and are used interchangeably, even by experts.

We have learnt that the word ‘mummy’ is derived from ‘mummia’, a bituminous resin found in ancient Persia; however ‘mummy’ is a relatively modern term. Apparently “mummia” was not used in mummification, but when mummies were discovered covered with dark plant resin it was assumed “mummia” played a role and the term mummification was coined.

There are two elements to mummification, the physical process and the religious symbolism. The physical process was a secretive art. Our knowledge is derived from ‘reverse engineering’ of the mummies that survived. Information has been derived from the experiment in modern mummification conducted by Robert Brier. The recent discovery by Otto Schaden of KV63, the “embalmers’ cache”, has also helped to shed light on the subject. It is thought that shortly after death the body was taken to a place of purification (ibw), probably a tent on hill where the wind would blow the smell away. The brain was ‘liquefied’ by using a hook inserted through the nostrils and rotated like a whisk. The body was turned upside down and the brain matter drained out and discarded. The cranium was cleaned by inserting strips of linen through the nasal cavity and swabbing the inside of the cranium. The body was washed in a natron solution. Natron is a naturally occurring salt of sodium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. A 10cm incision was made in the side of the corpse using an obsidian knife (sharper than modern day steel scalpels!). The internal organs were removed through the incision. The organs were cleaned, dried, wrapped and placed in four canopic jars. Four deities were assigned for the protection of the organs: Qebehsenuf (intestines); Hapy (lungs); Duamutef (stomach) and Imseti (liver). The clean cranial space was filled with resin. The eviscerated body cavity was cleaned with palm wine and packed with small bags of natron crystals and of wheat chaff. The body was covered in natron salt crystals above and below until it was desiccated. About 250 kilograms of natron were used for a single body.

After 35 days the body was dry, but still slightly flexible. The natron was removed and the body was moved to the house of beauty (pr nfr) where it was placed on blocks and carefully bandaged with linen strips and coated with resin. Particular care was taken with the fingers and toes. Amulets and spells were bound into the wrapping to give the body magical protection. The mummy was placed in its coffin, sometimes with a mask and garlands of flowers and herbs. The entire process of mummification took seventy days.

The religious symbolism may have stemmed from the mythological story of Osiris who was murdered by his brother Seth. In a depraved act Seth cut his brother’s body into several parts and distributed them over Egypt. Osiris’s sister/wife Isis searched until she found the pieces of her husband’s body and had the body reassembled and bound together using strips of linen. Using an act of powerful magic, Osiris was resurrected and granted the power to impregnate his wife Isis. She bore a son named Horus and Osiris returned to the state of death. He entered the afterlife and became Lord of the Dead. The myth describing Osiris’s re-assembly and resurrection is believed to be the foundation for the practice of mummification. Osiris was allocated the star constellation of Orion and his wife Isis was identified with the bright star Sirius. Sirius is absent from the night sky for precisely seventy days every year as it dips below the Egyptian horizon. The bright star’s reappearance coincided with the start of the Nile flood and the period of the rebirth of the seasons. Perhaps Isis’s seventy day absence was the basis for the time allocated to mummification.

Mummification was initially reserved for royalty, but over the centuries nobles and common folk who could afford it were also mummified. Some of the mummies that survived are incredibly well preserved and are providing a source of DNA for scientists engaged in unravelling the complex relationships of the royal families.

Let us now ask the obvious questions: Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? Was it because they believed in the resurrection of the dead? Regrettably we only have theory and supposition to guide us. There is as yet no documentation that satisfactorily answers the questions. The most quoted answer is:

“Bodies buried in the hot dry sand of the Egyptian desert were naturally desiccated but when burials began to take place in tombs, the bodies decomposed. Mummification was introduced to replace what had occurred naturally in the past.”

In a recent article in the excellent journal ‘Ancient Egypt’ (Jan 2010), the editor Bob Partridge, makes a compelling case for the theory that mummification was essentially used to gain sufficient time for the deceased’s tomb to be completed. Mummification was instituted in order to preserve the body in an acceptable state for interment once the tomb was complete. One has to ask why the process was so complex if it was merely used for keeping the corpse from decomposing too soon. Partridge also questions the traditional view of the cause/effect relationship between the necessary practice of delaying decomposition in order to complete the tomb and the religious associations with mummification that may only have come about subsequently.

I have researched mummification from the religious perspective and conventional wisdom states the following as the religious reason for mummification:

Preservation of the body was essential. Without the body, the "Ka" could not return to find sustenance, and if the body decayed and was unrecognisable the “Ka” would go hungry and the afterlife of the deceased would be jeopardised. Mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay.”

There is a second theory containing a similar explanation:

“The Ka, Ba and Akh, elements of the soul, were believed to be perishable and at great risk. The tomb, the whole process of mummification, the rituals and magic spells ensured the preservation of the dead body and its Ka, Ba and Akh. The purpose of mummification was implemented to keep the soul alive and ensure a clear path to the afterlife.”

These answers have become accepted without much debate, but they deserve further scrutiny. It appears (with certain variations) the ancient Egyptians believed humans comprised seven elements:

Kha The mortal body that eventually died.

Ka The Immortal Spiritual Double, born at the same time and spiritually associated with the placenta. The Ka was separated from the Kha at death.

Ib The Heart, portrayed as a vessel that held the deeds of a lifetime.

Sah The Spirit-body of the deceased destined to become the glorified spirit (the Akh).

Ba The Immortal Spirit of Intelligence, portrayed as a bird with a human head. At death it moved to a new-born infant and thereby accumulated the wisdom of several lifetimes.

Ren The Name of the deceased. The Ka was invigorated when the name was spoken favourably by a living person.

Khaibit The Shadow. Once the mummy was entombed the Khaibit ceased to exist.

The mystical element called the Akh, closely allied to the concept of a soul, appeared after the successful trial of the deceased.

Akh The immortal spirit (soul) created when the deceased received favourable judgement. The Sah was transformed into the Akh and took the heart (Ib) to eternity. In the reign of Pharaoh Djoser (approx 2600BC) the Akh was believed to join the stars around the North Celestial Pole, (the imperishable ones). In the New Kingdom about 1200 years later, the Akh was destined to ride with Ra in the solar barque. 1400 years later with the advent of Christianity came the belief that a pure soul entered Heaven. The introduction of Islam about 600AD brought with it the concept of an afterlife spent in Paradise.

So what were the ancient Egyptians trying to achieve with mummification? Of the seven elements of the body, three remained after death; the name (Ren), the body (Kha) and the immortal double (Ka). The physical heart was often left in the dead body, but the mystical heart vessel, the Ib, was taken to judgement. The name (Ren) of the deceased was protected by being inscribed in a mortuary temple. Providing its name was spoken, the Ka could use spells to transform any painting, model or sculpture into the “real” thing and to enjoy the pleasures of it forever. The Ka could pass through the false door in the tomb to enjoy the afterlife, an existence much like normal life but free from its imperfections. This description does not however, explain the reason for the elaborate process of mummification of the body (Kha).

I have read treatises and listened to lectures on this subject by Egyptologists and read papers, articles and blogs by well-qualified individuals, but I have not come across a well-founded archaeological or Egyptological substantiation for the notion that the Ka needed the mummy in order to survive. The conventional wisdom may well be correct, but it lacks the incontrovertible authority of proof. I have come to the conclusion that the actual reasons for the practice of mummification in ancient Egypt have yet to be revealed.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


By Anthony Holmes

Tourists to Egypt are generally taken to the major attractions; the pyramids and museums in the Cairo area; the tombs of royalty and nobility on the western bank of the Nile at Luxor; the great stone temples from Luxor to Aswan and a short flight to Abu Simbel if they are fortunate. They may also visit the beautiful temples at Abydos and Dendera. There are however many other wonders of ancient Egypt that have survived and it takes many visits to the country to see them. Three small temples south of Aswan barely get a mention in the travel books, but each has its own intriguing story to tell. The three temples are those of Rameses II at Wadi el Sebua dedicated to Amun; the Greco Roman temple at Dakka dedicated to Thoth and the Serapis Isis Temple of Maharraka.

The Temple of Wadi el Sebua

During the New Kingdom's 18th and 19th Dynasties two temples were built about 140 kms south of Aswan in ancient Nubia on the west bank of the Nile. In the 1960s, when the Aswan High Dam was being built, one of these temples was rescued and moved to a new, elevated site several kms to the northwest. The temple was built by Rameses II, and is now known as the Temple of Wadi el-Sebua. The earlier temple of Amenhotep III was left to be submerged beneath the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Both of these temples were part free standing and part spéos, meaning that sections of the temples were hewn from the surrounding rock.

The temple of Rameses beloved of Amun in the field of Amun to give it its full title, was used as a quay or resting place for boats during their descent of the Nile River. The local people were inspired by the stone sculptures of sphinxes that lined the entrance to the temple and called the place 'Wadi es-Sebua' or the Valley of the Lions. It is wonderful to visit this temple in the cool of the early hours of the morning just as the sun is rising. The early golden rays shine on the large third pylon and illuminate the avenue of sphinxes. Regrettably the first and second pylons which were built from inferior Nile mud-bricks are no more and only the stone gate passageway through them has survived. The six sphinxes in the first court have human heads, but the four in the second court closest to the temple have falcon heads, the only example of this type of sphinx in Egypt.

The statue of Rameses at the entrance to the third court features his daughter Bint-Anath (possibly the daughter of one of Rameses’ Hittite wives). The Temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra and Ra-Harakhte and to the deified Rameses himself. The third court has ten Osiride (engaged) pillars in two colonnades. A ramp leads to the innermost part of the temple, which is cut from the rock. It features a hypostyle hall with 12 pillars. Offering rooms are on either side of the sanctuary. Rameses is shown making offerings to Amun, Ra-Harakhte, Ptah, Horus, Atum, Thoth, Maat, Hathor and Mut.

In the 5th century AD, the temple was converted into a Christian church. Some temple reliefs were covered with a layer of plaster on which religious scenes were painted. The plaster layer helped to preserve the original reliefs; the best examples being scenes depicting Rameses adoring the sacred boats of Amun-Ra and Ra-Harakhte. There is also an interesting scene in the central niche of the temple where two statues of Amun and Ra-Harakhte were hacked away by later Christian worshippers and replaced by an image of St. Peter. When the plaster coating was removed from the carved reliefs, it revealed an image of Rameses II offering flowers to St Peter instead of Amun-Ra.

The Temple of Dakka

The tourist walks along a well-constructed causeway to the Temple of Dakka. It is an easy walk, but with a bit of a rock climb at the end. The temple was originally sited about 100kms south of Aswan High Dam, but was relocated to el-Sebua to save it from the rising waters of Lake Nasser. Today, the temple sits dramatically on a small bluff overlooking Lake Nasser. This is the only Nubian temple with a façade that faces to the north and is oriented north-south to parallel the course of the Nile. The pylon of the temple is now separated from the remainder of the temple due to the missing enclosure walls of the open court. Above the entrance in the pylon, a solar disk with a uraeus extends its wings. On the southern side of the temple, a small entrance leads into the interior of the huge pylon and to a stairway that communicates with several internal rooms.

The Temple of Dakka was dedicated to the god “Thoth of the Sycamore Tree”, the god of wisdom and of scribes. Thoth was held to have two aspects and was depicted either as a Sacred Ibis or as a Baboon; both were considered to be very wise animals. The temple is a relatively recent structure dated to 200 AD or thereabouts. It was not finished because of the onset of Christianity. The capitals of the columns were not carved to completion. A niche that originally held a statue (possibly of Thoth) is over-painted with a picture of St. Peter.

Dakka is intimately connected with the ancient Egyptian myth of the destruction of mankind. As the sun god Ra grew old and feeble he began to fear the power of the Nubians. He sent his daughter Sekhmet the lion-headed goddess to deal with the problem. Sekhmet indulged in an orgy of death and destruction, devouring flesh and drinking blood. This horrified Ra. He sent his trusted god Thoth in his aspect of a baboon to entice Sekhmet back from Nubia. Thoth arranged for copious quantities of red coloured wheat beer to pacify her. (Some versions of the myth say red wine). He promised Sekhmet that she would be worshipped along the way back to her home in Heliopolis and he built temples along her return route. Dakka was one of the temples.

Dakka is unique among temples in that it has an entrance facing south to receive Sekhmet and an exit facing north to make sure she proceeds on her way home. The story of Sekhmet is supported by the carvings in the temple that show the baboon, sent to entice Sekhmet home and later show him lying exhausted and resting under a tree!

The Temple of Maharakka

This is the third temple in the Wadi es-Sebua area and the tourist walks downhill from Dakka to the temple. It is a modest building and is unremarkable from the outside. Inside it is decorated with bas-relief carvings.

A shoulder high wall is built between the columns on one side. The temple is dedicated to the god Serapis, a hybrid of Osiris, Apis and Zeus. This Roman-built Egyptian temple cannot be securely attributed to any Roman emperor's reign since it was never fully completed nor inscribed. However, since it is known that temple building declined in Nubia after the rule of Augustus, the temple of Maharraka might be datable to his reign. The only part of the structure that was finished is a court surrounded on three sides by columns. The temple sanctuary was never actually built and in addition the temple lacks a formal pylon.

The Temple of Maharraka however features an architectural curiosity at a corner of the court where a winding spiral stone staircase leads to its roof. This is the only Egyptian temple in Nubia with a spiral staircase.

Since its former location was threatened by flooding from the Nile due to the construction of the Aswan High Dam, this small temple was dismantled in 1961 by the Egyptian Antiquities Service. It was subsequently rebuilt along with the Temple of Dakka in 1966 at the New Wadi es-Sebua site.