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Egypt Exodus

Egypt Remembers: Ancient accounts of the Great Exodus


The biblical story of the Israelites’ Descent and Exodus speaks about important events that took place in Egypt, so we should expect to find records of these events in Egyptian sources – the seven years of famine predicted by Joseph, the arrival of his father Jacob with his Hebrew family from Canaan, the great plagues of Moses, the death of Egypt’s first born, including the Pharaoh’s first son, and the drowning of the Pharaoh himself in the Red Sea; all these events should have been recorded by the scribes who kept detailed records of daily life. But we do not find even one contemporary inscription from the relevant period that records any of these events.

Egyptian Scribe

Egyptian scribes were tasked with recording important events, yet there are no records of the biblical story of the Israelites’ Descent and Exodus. ‘The Scribe’, Louvre Museum. Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / flickr.

In spite of this silence, the name of Israel has been found inscribed on one of the pharaonic stele, although with no connection either to Moses or the Exodus. However, although the Merenptah stele locates the Israelites in Canaan around 1219 BC, it makes no mention of them previously living in Egypt or departing from it in an Exodus under Moses.    

Merneptah Stele

Merneptah Stele known as the Israel stele (JE 31408) from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Credit: Wikipedia

This complete silence of official Egyptian records was later broken by Egyptian historians, who appear to have known many details about Moses and his Exodus. While contemporary pharaonic authorities seem to have deliberately suppressed the mention of Moses and his followers in their records, popular traditions retained the story of the man whom Egyptians regarded as a divine being, for more than 10 centuries, before it was recorded by Egyptian priests. Under the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, Egyptian historians made sure to include the story of Moses and his exodus in their historical accounts.

Manetho, the 3 rd century BC Egyptian priest and historian who recorded the history of Egypt into Greek to be placed in the Library of Alexandria, included the story of Moses in his Aegyptiaca. According to Manetho, Moses was an Egyptian and not a Hebrew, who lived at the time of Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten (1405-1367 BC). Manetho also indicated that the Israelites’ Exodus took place in the reign of a succeeding king whose name was Ramses.

Papyrus - Manetho

Papyrus from the fifth century AD, suspected partial copy of the Epitome, based on Manetho’s Aegyptiaca. Credit: Wikipedia

Although Manetho’s original text was lost, some quotations from it have been preserved mainly by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in 1 st century AD. Commenting on Manetho’s account of Moses, Josephus tells us that:

Under the pretext of recording fables and current reports about the Jews, he (Manetho) took the liberty of introducing some incredible tales, wishing to represent us (the Jews) as mixed up with a crowd of Egyptian lepers and others, who for various maladies were condemned, as he asserts, to banishment from the country. Inventing a king named Amenophis, an imaginary person, the date of whose reign he consequently did not venture to fix … This king, he states, wishing to be granted … a vision of the gods, communicated his desire to his namesake, Amenophis, son of Paapis (Habu), whose wisdom and knowledge of the future were regarded as marks of divinity. This namesake replied that he would be able to see the gods if he purged the entire country of lepers and other polluted persons.
Delighted at hearing this, the king collected all the maimed people in Egypt, numbering 80,000, and sent them to work in the stone-quarries on the east of the Nile, segregated from the rest of the Egyptians. They included, he adds, some of the learned priests, who were afflicted with leprosy. Then this wise seer Amenophis was seized with a fear that he would draw down the wrath of the gods on himself and the king if the violence done to these men were detected; and he added a prediction that the polluted people would find certain allies who would become masters of Egypt for thirteen years. He did not venture to tell this himself to the king, but left a complete statement in writing, and then put an end to himself. The king greatly disheartened.”
[Against Apion, Flavius Josephus, Harvard University Press, 1926, p. 258-259].  

Josephus was wrong in saying that Manetho invented a king named Amenophis who communicated his desire to his namesake, Amenophis, son of Paapis. This king has been identified as Amenhotep III, 9 th king of the 18 th Dynasty, while his namesake, Amenhotep son of Habu, is known to have started his career under Amenhotep III as an Inferior Royal Scribe. He was promoted to be a Superior Royal Scribe, and finally reached the position of Minister of all Public Works. On the other hand, Manetho’s description of the rebels as being “lepers and polluted people” should not be taken literary to mean that they were suffering from some form of physical maladies - the sense was that they were seen as impure because of their denial of Egyptian religious beliefs.

Flavius Josephus

Ancient Roman bust thought to be of Flavius Josephus. Credit: Wikipedia

Josephus goes on to say that for the rebel leader’s first law, he ordained that his followers should not worship the Egyptian gods nor abstain from the flesh of any of the animals held in special reverence in Egypt, but should kill and consume them all. They also should have no connection with any, save members of their own confederacy. After laying down these and a multitude of other laws, which were absolutely opposed to Egyptian customs, he ordered all hands to repair the walls of Avaris and make ready for war with King Amenophis.  

As we can see, although contemporary Egyptian official records kept their silence about the account of Moses and the Israelite Exodus, popular memory of Egypt preserved these events, and they were transmitted orally for many centuries before being put down in writing.  These traditions told about Moses and Joseph, and also told about the shepherds who lived at the borders, who were not allowed to enter the Nile valley.

Manetho could not have invented this information, as he could only rely on the records he found in the temple scrolls. Neither could he have been influenced by the stories of the Bible, as the Torah was only translated from Hebrew to Greek some time after he had composed his Aegyptiaca. As Donald B. Redford, the Canadian Egyptologist, has remarked: “What he (Manetho) found in the temple library in the form of a duly authorized text he incorporated in his history; and, conversely, we may with confidence postulate for the material in his history a written source found in the temple library, and nothing more.’  [Donald B. Redford, Pharaonic King Lists, Annals and Day Books, Benben Publications, 1986]

On the other hand, Monatho’s dating of the religious rebellion in the time of Amenhotep III, assures us that he was giving a real historical account. For it was during this reign that Amenhotep’s son and co-regent, Akhenaten, abandoned traditional Egyptian polytheism and introduced a monotheistic worship centered on the Aten. Akhenaten, like the rebel leader, also erected his new temples open to the air facing eastwards; in the same way as the orientation of Heliopolis. This similarity between Akhenaten and the rebel leader persuaded Donald Redford to recognize Manetho’s Osarseph story as the events of the Amarna religious revolution, first remembered orally and later set down in writing: “… a number of later independent historians, including Manetho, date Moses and the bondage to the Amarna period? Surely it is self-evident that the monotheistic preaching at Mount Sinai is to be traced back ultimately to the teachings of Akhenaten.” [Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, Donald B. Redford, Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 377]

Redford also confirms that: “The figure of Osarseph/Moses is clearly modelled on the historic memory of Akhenaten. He is credited with interdicting the worship of all the gods, and in Apion, of championing a form of worship which used open-air temples oriented east, exactly like the Aten temples of Amarna.” [Redford, Pharaonic King-Lists, p. 293]

As for the starting point of the Exodus, while the biblical account gives the city’s name as Rameses, Manetho gives the name of another location: Avaris. Avaris was a fortified city at the borders of the Nile Delta and Sinai. It was the starting point of the road to Canaan, which had been occupied by the Asiatic kings, known as Hyksos, who ruled Egypt from about 1783 to 1550 BC, when they were driven out by Ahmosis I.   

As the period when Moses lived in Egypt was identified under Amenhotep III, the starting point of the Exodus located at Avaris, and the Pharaoh of the Exodus identified as Ramses I, it seemed like the road opened to start looking for historical and archaeological evidence to confirm this account. Scholars, however, did not follow this route of investigation, and went on looking for evidence in other times and different locations. Thanks to Flavius Josephus, who wrongly identified the Hebrew tribe - not with the shepherds who were already living in Egypt, but with the Hyksos rulers who had left the country more than a century earlier - modern scholars dismissed Manetho’s account as unhistorical.

Featured image: John Martin’s painting of the Old Testament bible story, “plague of hail and fire”. 1823 Credit: Public Domain


Pharaonic King Lists, Annals and Day Books, Donald B. Redford, Benben Publications, 1986

Against Apion, Flavius Josephus, Harvard University Press, 1926

By Ahmed Osman



I watched tv documentary “Planet Egypt” about the Israelits ghetto in Egypt. The director of Cairo museum showing to the commentator in front of camera 2 tablets of God of Israel’s punishment on Egypt: locusts & Egyptian chariot swallowed by sea. They both silent 100%!!! I’ve tried to find the images on internet but not successful. Could you help me maybe. Thank you.

As a Christian, I prefer to believe what the Bible says. God doesn't lie, and he used divinely-inspired prophets throughout the ages to write down history and his message. Some he spoke to in order to convey what happened, and others actually lived through it and could write from their own experiences. Many of the prophecies of the Bible have already come true. I have always had a great interest in history. I believe the more research is done, the more it will come out that the Hebrew scriptures are true.

You seem to be pre-disposed to accept the orthodox, Biblical version of history. Yet, while you note Egyptians had a tendency to record historical events in a way flattering to themselves, you fail to consider that the Hebrews did the same throughout the Bible. The books of Moses were written several hundred years after his time, when the Hebrew people were held in captivity in Babylon.

During that time, the Chief Rabbis faced a great challenge of keeping up the moral of their people. They wrote the mythic books of Moses then to give their people a strong sense of cohesive nationalism. The mythos of their formerly persecuted history was developed. Actually, Abraham and the Hebrew tribe was part of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, where they oppressed the Egyptians for over 150 years. Ultimately the Egyptians paid an enormous ransom to the Hebrews and the rest of the Hyksos to leave their land. All this is recorded by Josephus and Mantheo. History now refers to this as the Hyksos expulsion.

The Hebrew Rabbis in Babylon were epic story-tellers who knew that tales of their history as former oppressors would not be compelling to their flock. However, if they related heroic stories of an oppressed people who were so favored by God that he created plaques to free them would develop pathos and a strong identity, reinforced by a Torah from God and endlessly repeated readings, songs and rituals.

I've found the books by Ralph Ellis he wrote about Egypt to be very illuminating. And I recommend them to you. The rest of his books are excellent as well. I like his unorthodox revelations that seemed very well researched and referenced. And they make a lot of sense to me.

All great information - great article as well as well thought-out comments. There are certainly some very educated readers on this website!

I just want to point out the famous maxim: History is written by the victors. It does not surprise me that there is very little Egyptian evidence for the Exodus.

#1 - the Egyptians were notorious editors of history. All one has to do is look at the vast amount of effort expended over the centuries to wipe out the memories of past pharaohs whose reigns were somehow offensive to the current House in power. Statues destroyed, inscriptions wiped out, complete temples destroyed.

#2 - the Exodus was an embarrassment to the Egyptians. According to Biblical records, the Exodus was a blatant indictment of the false Egyptian religious system, that the Hebrew YHWH was, in fact, the One True God. So, of course, the Egyptians didn't record that. It would be like England putting up huge memorials to the Colonies' victory and subsequent creation of the US of A, or the South erecting statues of Union Generals from the war that is still referred, to this day, as the War of Northern Aggression.

This non-record of the Exodus is not evidence that it didn't exist, no more than the non-record of the use of electricity 500 years ago indicates that electricity didn't exist 500 years ago. In my opinion, it was not politically correct, in dynastic times, to memorialize what was certainly an embarrassing era in Egyptian history.

The Egyptians did write an account of the Exodus.

Firstly, there is a complete Egyptian record of the Exodus, inscribed on the Tempest Stele of Ahmose I. This records the giving of tribute, in the form of gold, silver, cloth and oil, to the Hyksos leaders to induce them to leave Egypt - exactly as the Book of Exodus says. And since this stele was buried for 3000 years, we know it is original and independent from the biblical account.

Secondly, Manetho via Josephus, gives TWO exodus accounts, not one. And Josephus is adamant that the first exodus out if Egypt was the Hyksos exodus, and that the Hyksos were the Israelites (our people, as he calls them). So the Israelites are the Hyksos Egyptians.

The quote in this article is from the second exodus, which was indeed the Akhenaton exodus. Which is why the Israelite god was called Adon - the god of Akhenaton.

The biblical account has conflated these two events into a single exodus. See 'Jesus, Last of the Pharaohs', and 'Tempest & Exodus'.



Ahmed Osman's picture

Ahmed Osman

Ahmed Osman is an Egyptian-born author who has been trying to find the link between the stories of the Bible and ancient Egyptian history. Born in Cairo in 1934, he studied law in the university before working as a journalist.... Read More

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