Does the Ipuwer Papyrus Provide Evidence for the Events of the Exodus?
The Ipuwer papyrus, also known as the ‘Admonitions of Ipuwer’, is a controversial text that describes starvation, drought, death, and violent upheavals in ancient Egypt, with some maintaining that it is an eyewitness account of the Exodus plagues. Neither the beginning nor end of this work was preserved, leaving historians with difficulty in interpreting the material and reaching a final conclusion about the events it describes.
Written in a single papyrus, the Admonitions of Ipuwer, (catalogue name Papyrus Leiden 344) is a poetic composition believed to have been written during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom era, a period corresponding to 2050 BC - 1652 BC. The origin of acquisition regarding this document is obscure. It was in possession of the Greek diplomat and merchant Yianni Anastasiou who claimed that the papyrus was discovered at Memphis, in the Saqqara region. It is currently housed at the National Archaeological Museum in Leiden, Netherlands.
The papyrus is fully inscribed from beginning to end on both sides. It consists of 17 complete and incomplete columns of writing. The back of the papyrus contains hymns to the god Amun but it suffered substantially more damage, causing a larger detrimental effect on its preservation and, therefore, loosing much of its written content.
Depiction of Amun in a relief at Karnak (Public Domain)
The Ipuwer papyrus is famous among Egyptologists, who have known about its existence for a long time, but many were discouraged to engage in further studies of this document due to its complicated language, damaged conditions, and many missing pieces which were crucial to its complete comprehension. Although this papyrus was brought out of its hidden place in 1828, it was not until 1909 that Alan Gardiner challenged the document and began studying its content.
The nature of the message in the Ipuwer papyrus depicts violence and chaos in Egypt. According to Dr. Lange, evidence does validate the idea that the Ipuwer papyrus was written during the Middle Kingdom, as the language style and vocabulary corresponds to those used during that era. Dr. Lange says that there are indications that the manuscript was copied from an older version, perhaps dating from the beginning of the 18th Dynasty (circa 1550 BC to 1292 BC). There are unfilled spaces which probably illustrates that it was missing or illegible in the original copied document.
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Many scholars support the theory proposed by Dr. Lange, who believes the Ipuwer papyrus contains prophetic utterances of an Egyptian seer, as Alan Gardiner relates:
“It must have explained the circumstances under which the chief personage named, one ‘Ipw’ or ‘Opw-wr’, came forward to hold a long and impassioned harangue in the presence of the king and his people. These speeches, in the opinion of Dr. Lange, are prophetic in character; an era of disasters is predicted for Egypt, and is even now, as one passage declares, at hand; and it is the king himself who is responsible for the calamities the bitterness of which he is soon to taste in full measure.[…] I conclusion, it is suggested that the book may have had an historical background, and that the writer had possibly in his mind some such political situation as that of the troublous times which preceded the rise of the twelfth dynasty”.
According to Gardiner’s opinion, “if we may venture to extract the essence of Ipuwer’s discourse, we shall find that the things which he thought to conduce to the happily-constituted state are three: a patriotic attitude in resisting foes from within and from without; piety towards the gods; and the guiding hand of a wise and energetic ruler”. Gardiner’s interpretation of the message in the papyrus differs from that of Dr. Lange, who maintains that it lacks prophetic evidence in its text.
The Exodus Events
On the other hand, a controversial, yet intriguing, interpretation of this text was proposed by Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky who brought up a theory that the Ipuwer papyrus is a source of evidence for the events of the Exodus, from the Old Testament. Scholars usually agree that the Exodus events would have taken place at some point around the New Kingdom of Egypt (circa 1573 BCE). “The contents of this papyrus have an oddly familiar ring to those who know their Old Testament. ‘Plague is throughout the land. Blood is everywhere…The river is blood…Gates, columns and walls are consumed by fire…. Cattle moan…The land is not light’”. Literary analyses would put the original, of which the Leiden papyrus is a copy, at some time during the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the very beginning of the turbulent Hyksos period.
The First Plague: Water Is Changed into Blood, James Tissot (Public Domain)
Agreements on Events
Gardiner agrees with Velikovsky’s chronology in the sense that the Ipuwer papyrus text tells us about both a civil war and of an Asiatic occupation of the Delta. The two periods in which this might be possible are the dark age that separated the sixth from the eleventh dynasty, and the other is the Hyksos period. Gardiner inclines towards the theory of the invasion of Hyksos to explain the events in which this papyrus alludes.
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Gardiner has no doubt that Ipuwer’s pessimism was intended to be understood as the response to a real national calamity and the references to Asiatic aggression on the Delta and devastation of the land through civil war leaves no room for questions on this point.
An earlier group of Asiatic peoples depicted entering Egypt (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Although the Ipuwer papyrus has unquestionable historical background, it could be a mistake to assume that its composition was contemporary with the events to which they suggest. Whether this document relates to prophetic messages, describes the events of the Exodus, or it is simply a text containing mixtures of historical and fictional elements it remains a mystery that historians might never be able to answer.
Top image: Ipuwer Papyrus. Photo Source: (Public Domain)
By Marina Sohma
Alan Gardiner, “The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage”
Dean Smith, ‘Does an ancient papyrus speak of the Exodus plague from an Egyptian perspective”.
https://opentheword.org/2014/08/22/does-an-ancient-papyrus-speak-of-the-exodus-from-an-egyptian-perspective/ (accessed on Oct 28, 2016)
Hugo Meynell , ‘Ancient History of Chaos- Velikovsky’s Chronological Reconstruction’
www.jstor.org/stable/43247679(accessed on Oct 28, 2016)
Stephen Quirke, Review of ‘A World Upturned: Commentary on and Analysis of The Dialogue of Ipuwer and the Lord of All by Roland Enmarch’
www.jstor.org/stable/43077338 (accessed on Oct 27, 2016)