Mythical Metropolises: Pithom, Piramesses, and the Israelite Exodus of Egypt
The legendary Egyptian metropolises of Pithom and Piramesses were first noted in the Exodus story of the Old Testament. One of the foundations of the Jewish religion, it told of the plight of the Israelites against their wicked overlords, the pharaohs of Egypt. Scholars have placed massive importance on finding their locations for two main reasons: establishing the starting point of the Exodus route and identifying the capital of ancient Egypt under Ramesses II, who has long been ascribed as the villainous pharaoh.
The Departure of the Israelites by David Roberts. (Public domain)
The Tale of Exodus: Using Israelite Labor to Build Metropolises
The Exodus story relates how the Pharaoh subdued the Israelites in response to their increase in size, turning them into slaves and ordering that all Hebrew boys be killed at birth. As a result, the mother of Moses put her newborn baby in a basket, floating him down the river where he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter who raised the child as her own. When Moses grew up, aware of his Hebrew descent, he killed an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave and promptly fled the scene.
It was at this point that God communicated with the fugitive through a burning bush, ordering Moses to return his people, the Israelites, to the promised land of Canaan. Moses went on to organize the Israelites, becoming their leader, and demanded the Pharaoh put a stop to their forced labor. Despite turning his staff into a snake, the Pharaoh remains unconvinced, and prescribes even more work for the ill-fortuned Israelites.
As punishment, God sends a series of ten devastating plagues to wreak havoc on the ancient Egyptian kingdom. Among these plagues, the Nile is turned into blood, the dust of Egypt is transformed into gnats, swarms of locust appear and destroy crops, and festering boils riddle humans and animal alike with disease.
After the final plague, when all first-born males in Egypt are killed, the Pharaoh relents, releasing the Israelites. The wandering Hebrews head east to Mount Sinai, with Moses famously parting the Red Sea on the way. At Mount Sinai, God appears in a bluster of thunder and lightning, giving Moses two stone slabs with ten commandments that would define Jewish and Christian religious doctrine.
During the period of forced labor, Exodus 1:11 states how the Israelites “built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.” The cities, which were said to have been constructed on virgin ground, were both characterized by lavish temples, a large size, many storerooms for treasures and riches, tall mud walls built without straw, and were located near to each other and on the Exodus route.
The tenth plague described in the Exodus was the selective killing of all Egyptian firstborn sons and firstborn cattle. (Public domain)
Searching for the Ancient Metropolis of Pithom
The location of Pithom, or Per-Atum after the Egyptian sun god Atum, has been narrowed down to two sites. In 1884, Edouard Naville, a Swiss archaeologist and Egyptologist, identified Pithom at Tell-el-Mashkutah, a site about 10 miles (16 km) west of Ismailia in Egypt where Naville uncovered many artifacts containing inscriptions alluding to Per-Atum. For example, one statue bore the words “the good recorder of Atum,” a Ptolemaic inscription mentioned the city three times, and many devotional monuments to Atum were discovered on the premises.
The archaeological finds further matched certain features of the Exodus account. The great size of Pithom was confirmed by the 55,000-yard (50,292 m) area enclosed in the wall, and the walls, which were made out of mud brick without straw, reflected the materials disclosed in the biblical description. The temple was situated on the most likely route of Exodus, the road leading out of Egypt called the Wadi Tumulat, and its position on the Red Sea-Nile trade route justified the unusually high number of storerooms excavated at the site, and showed that it was an important trading hub of the region.
Yet, although the timeworn objects encountered at the site alluded to Per-Atum, there was no definitive evidence that this was the name of the settlement used in ancient Egypt. In fact, the town was known as Tcheku during the 19th dynasty of Ramesses II. Moreover, the evidence for it as a newly built stronghold in Ramesside times, in accordance with the Exodus account, was lacking, and nearby Tell-er-Retabah was shown to have been built many years before Ramesses II’s New Kingdom.
In addition, some scholars, such as Eric Uphill, were unimpressed by the settlement, which lacked the grandeur of a city allegedly known throughout the ages, and pointed to an alternative site called Iunu. Iunu was a massive religious center, notably larger than Tell-er-Mashkutah, and housed multiple temple buildings and shrines.
Excavations revealed that most remains mentioned Ramesses II, and several architectural structures, such as a Ramesside-period guardhouse and features, such as a stone carved doorway inscribed with the words “beloved of Atum, the great god lord of Iunu,” strongly insinuated Ramesses II. Moreover, an ancient plan found on an offering table at Iunu has been linked with the layout of a Temple of Atum, a defining characteristic of the mythical Pithom. Pithom, then, had to be either at Tell-el-Mashkutah or Iunu.
Image of the brick store-chambers of the biblical metropolis of Pithom, believed to have been located at the archaeological site Tell El Maskhuta in Egypt. (TIMEA / CC BY-SA 2.5)
The Hunt for the Biblical Metropolis of Raamses (Piramesses)
In marked contrast, the precise location of the biblical Raamses (also known as Piramesses), the second city presented in Exodus, was a lot more difficult to figure out. Initially, four sites were proposed: Tell-er-Retebah, Pelusium, Tanis, and Qantis.
The first, Tell-er-Retabah, about 62 miles (100 km) from Cairo, was conveniently located very close to Tell-er-Mashkutah, as Pithom and Raamses were said to be in the Exodus story, and featured a shrine to Ramesses II. A temple block depicting Ramesses II smiting a Syrian captive, as well as an inscription found on an official’s grave identifying him as “the Chief Archer, overseer of the granaries,” suggested the settlement had a strong Ramesses II affiliation and attested to the existence of storehouses.
Yet, this was probably the least convincing location of all the offered sites. The temple of Ramesses was far too small to be that of a royal residence, and there was no conclusive evidence linking the monuments with the city of Piramesses. The next area, Pelusium, was advanced by Gardner, after he combed the available Egyptian literature for references to Piramesses.
To Gardner, the city’s epithet “Great of Victories” strongly hinted that the city was located near the military road to Asia. Cross-referencing with Greco-Roman texts, he associated the description of Piramesses, “the Waters of Horus yield salt” and “the Waters of Horus yield rushes,” with an area of the Nile with running water in ancient Egypt’s 14th nome, also referred to as “The Waters of Horus” by the Romans and Greeks.
From two biblical references, Gardner maintained that the ancient citadel had to mark the boundary of Egypt, which was further supported by the descriptions in the Egyptian Anastasi texts which reported Piramesses as being “between Djahi and Egypt” and as “the forefront of every land, the land of Egypt.” This led Gardner to the sea-port of Pelesium, which he believed was big enough to be the Pharaoh’s capital through a reference to Greek geographer Strabo, who described it as being two and a quarter miles from the sea.
However, the major weakness of the argument was its reliance solely on the written record without any archaeological evidence to back its claims up. Adding to this, no finds relating to Ramesses II’s New Kingdom have ever been found in the area, and the location of Pelesium, 20 miles (32 km) from the official frontier town of Tchel, was wholly unsuitable for a capital city, being situated outside the frontiers of Egypt.
Archaeologists have been preoccupied with finding the ancient metropolises of Piramesses and Pithom. In the image an excavation at Tell el-Maskhuta in Egypt. (Tell el-Maskhuta)
The third site was Tanis, where such an overwhelming trove of 19th dynasty Ramesses II artifacts were found that it convinced scholar M. Montet to abandon Pelesium. Also noteworthy was the lack of 18th dynasty monuments at the site and the inscriptions referring to new temple foundations, which implied that the temple of Atum was a new construction ordered by Ramesses II, fitting neatly into the Exodus story’s insistence that the temple was built by the Israelites on virgin ground. In addition, a whole plethora of deities linked with Ramesses II, such as Atum, Wadjit and Sekhmet, appeared to have shrines.
On the other hand, similar to the problems at Tell-er-Retabah, there were no direct references to Piramesses on any of the archaeological finds, and other Egyptologists argued that the Ramesses II objects were brought to Tanis from Memphis or Heliopolis where Ramesses II was already firmly established. Perhaps the biggest counter-argument comes from the literary references, which situated Wadjit’s place of worship in the north where Amun’s temple was recognized to be at the Tanis excavation.
The final and most compelling location proposed was Qantis. Paralleling the majority of the sites, numerous Ramesses II references could be found, and large granite blocks vouched for the existence of a temple. But, unlike the others, blue-glazed tiles reportedly from one of Ramesses II’s royal palaces were found in large numbers, leading some to speculate that a tile glazing factory was attached to the royal quarters. Furthermore, an inscription reading Per-Ramesses-meri-Amun (the royal residence) was the first time a direct reference to Piramesses was discovered in Egypt’s Eastern Delta.
Evidence from the site also indicated an unbroken line of royal monuments built over a period of 200 years, demonstrating that Qantis was not merely the place of a single king and suggested it was a major palace city. The scale and complexity of the tile-work, which included multiple colors and shades, had no comparison to other ancient Egyptian cities, and exemplified the splendor of Piramesses recounted in the literature.
Moreover, ground surveys from 1996, 2003, and 2008, showed that the residence was built on virgin ground. Qantis was clearly an enormous urban center with an extensive palace complex, and has since been identified as the most likely site of the illustrious city of Raamses from the Exodus story.
Detail of The Exodus by J. Tissot. (Google Arts & Culture)
Is the Exodus Story True?
Although the existence of the ancient metropolises known as Pithom and Piramesses is undoubted, there still remains no historical evidence for the rest of the Exodus story. For a considerable length of time scholars based their thinking around the Exodus story, and its possible historical reality, on what is now viewed as the classical interpretation. Firstly, the Raamses in the biblical tale was identified as Pharaoh Ramesses II, who reigned between 1279 to 1213 BC, and his new capital Piramesses.
Secondly, a famous passage in the Papyrus Anastasi, about semi-nomadic tribes crossing into the Eastern Delta, was linked to the immigration of Israeli tribes into Egypt. Thirdly, it was assumed that with the end of the Ramesside period in 1069 BC and the fall of Piramesses as an esteemed capital city, that the name Ramesses disappeared with it. Finally, an inscription from the victory stela of Pharaoh Merneptah, from the year 1208 BC, which mentioned an ethnic group called “Israel” illustrated that the Exodus story had to have happened before this date, during the reign of Ramesses II.
- Egypt Remembers: Ancient Accounts of the Great Exodus
- Does the Negev’s Ancient Rock-Art Help Turn the Bible Exodus Story into Fact?
However, there is simply no proof of an Israelite diaspora during the late second millennium BC when the Ramesses ruled Egypt. Ramesses II is known to have left behind the most records of any Egyptian monarch, however there is not a single mention of the events of the Exodus story. Moreover, in contrast to the classical theory, the names of the biblical metropolises Pithom and Ramesses (Piramesses) continued to live on after Ramesside times, with many places adopting the same names, making it impossible to exclusively locate the cities of the Exodus story to the 13th century BC.
The historical origins of the Israelite slavery have instead been linked to the forced labor of Jews in the 7th century BC under Pharaoh Necho of the 26th Dynasty and his oppressive taxation system. It is most likely that the Hebrew scribe who penned Exodus used the names Pithom and Raamses because they were instantly recognizable, and that his story had nothing to do with Egyptian history.
Top image: Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. Will archaeologists ever find concrete evidence for the Exodus and the metropolises the Israelites built in Egypt? Source: Public domain
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Isbouts, J. 2018. “We may now know which Egyptian pharaoh challenged Moses” in National Geographic. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/pharaoh-king-punished-god
Mark, J. J. 2017. “Pi-Ramesses” in World History Encyclopedia. Available at: https://www.worldhistory.org/Pi-Ramesses/
Schipper, B. U. 2015. “Raamses, Pithom, and the Exodus: A Critical Evaluation of Ex 1:11” in Vetus Testamentum, 65:2
Uphill, E. P. 1968. “Pithom and Raamses: Their Location and Significance” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 27:4
Sparknotes. No date. “Exodus” in Sparknotes. Available at: https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/oldtestament/section4/