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Pi-Ramesses (also known as Per-Ramesses, Piramese, Pr-Rameses, Pir-Ramaseu) was the city built as the new capital in the Delta region of ancient Egypt by Ramesses II (known as The Great, 1279-1213 BCE). It was located at the site of the modern town of Qantir in the Eastern Delta and, in its time, was considered the greatest city in Egypt, rivaling even Thebes to the south. The name means 'House of Ramesses' (also given as 'City of Ramesses') and was constructed close by the older city of Avaris.

The association of the new city with Avaris gave it instant prestige in that Avaris was already legendary by the time of Ramesses II as the capital of the Hyksos who had been defeated and driven from Egypt by Ahmose I (c. 1570-1544 BCE), initiating the period of Egypt's empire now referred to as the New Kingdom (c. 1570 - c. 1069 BCE). The victory of Ahmose at Avaris, ending Hyksos control of the Delta, was greatly respected by the people of the New Kingdom, but even before that Avaris had been an important center for trade.

Associating his city with Avaris, therefore, was a clever choice of Ramesses II but hardly surprising in that he was well known for his skill in promoting himself and his grand projects. The size and grandeur of Pi-Ramesses, capital of Egypt, would make it far more famous than Avaris ever was, and its association with the long and glorious reign of Ramesses II ensured the memory of the city would live on long after it was abandoned toward the end of the New Kingdom of Egypt.

Pi-Ramesses in the Bible

The city is best known as the 'Rameses' from the biblical Book of Exodus 1:11: "So they put slave masters over [the Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh," but there is no evidence that the city was built by slave labor of any kind nor was it a 'store city' which held surplus grain or supplies. There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever of a large Israelite community of slaves in Egypt at any time in its history, and the great cities and monuments were built by Egyptian laborers.

The association of Pi-Ramesses with the biblical Pharaoh of Exodus has also naturally suggested Ramesses II as that king. Ramesses II, however, left the most extensive and exacting records of any Egyptian monarch – there is literally no ancient site in Egypt which does not mention his name – and nowhere does he make any mention of Israelite slaves nor any of the events given in Exodus.

Exodus 12:37 claims that the Israelites left Egypt from the city of Rameses and that they numbered "about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children." Numbers 33:3-5 also mentions Pi-Ramesses as the city the Israelites left Egypt from and mentions how the Egyptians were busy at the time burying the dead of their first-born whom God had killed in order to effect the release of his chosen people.

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Although some scholars claim that Ramesses II would have omitted the story of the Exodus from his official records, because it cast Egypt in a poor light, it is far more probable that the Exodus story is a cultural myth which had nothing to do with Egypt's actual history and Pi-Ramesses was chosen for mention by the Hebrew scribe who wrote Exodus because its name would have been instantly recognizable. The link between Ramesses II and the heartless Pharaoh of the biblical narrative, as well as his city, is unfortunate in that it obscures the great achievements of the historical king and the Egyptian citizens who labored on his monuments and temples. Pi-Ramesses was built to exemplify the grandeur of Egypt under Ramesses II and its location chosen not only for ease of access to neighboring lands but because the locale of Avaris resonated with the people and the region had special meaning for the king.

Pi-Ramesses & the Battle of Kadesh

The area near Avaris was the childhood home of Ramesses II. His father, Seti I (1290-1279 BCE) built a summer palace there, and Ramesses II would have grown up exploring the region when he was not in school or following his father on military campaigns. Ramesses II was already named co-ruler with his father by the age of 22 and was leading his own successful campaigns into Nubia before coming to the throne in 1279 BCE. At some point, prior to 1275 BCE, he had his new city built, although some scholars suggest that construction actually began under Seti I who expanded on his palace. Whenever it was founded, it served as the launching point for the military expedition which Ramesses II himself always considered his greatest victory: The Battle of Kadesh.

Kadesh, in Syria, was an important trade center which had changed hands between the Hittites and Egyptians a number of times. Seti I had taken it from the Hittites, but they had seized it again under their king Muwatalli II (1295-1272 BCE). Ramesses II had already taken Hittite territory and scattered their defense in Canaan and so now turned his attention to Kadesh.

Preparations for the campaign began in Pi-Ramesses at least by early 1275 BCE. While Ramesses II consulted his oracles and advisors for auspicious omens, he had the entire industrial military complex of his city at work making arms, training horses, equipping soldiers, and building chariots. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson describes how, although ancient descriptions of Pi-Ramesses emphasize the beauty of its palaces and parks, the city also served in the war effort:

One of the largest buildings was a vast bronze-smelting factory whose hundreds of workers spent their days making armaments. State-of-the-art high-temperature furnaces were heated by blast pipes worked by bellows. As the molten metal came out, sweating laborers poured it into molds for shields and swords. In dirty, hot, and dangerous conditions, the pharaoh's people made the weapons for the pharaoh's army. Another large area of the city was given over to stables, exercise grounds, and repair works for the king's chariot corps...In short, Pi-Ramesses was less pleasure dome and more military-industrial complex. (314)

Ramesses II's battle with Muwatalli II at Kadesh was his most famous victory, which he celebrated through an account known as the Poem of Pentaur and another called the Bulletin. In these versions of the event, Ramesses II is every inch a warrior-king who leads his army to victory against overwhelming odds. The account of Muwatalli II, however, claims the same for the Hittite forces.

The Hittite account was unknown until the middle of the 19th century CE when European archaeologists were excavating Mesopotamian and Anatolian sites on a larger scale than ever before. Cuneiform tablets began to turn up in these digs which contradicted the version of history – in many areas – held up to that time. Prior to these excavations, the story of the Great Flood, Noah's Ark, and many other biblical narratives were thought to be original works and the Bible itself considered the oldest book in the world. After the Mesopotamian finds, scholars realized they had been missing some extremely important pieces of information in constructing the history of the world and Muwatalli II's account was among them.

Recent scholarship is fairly unanimous in agreeing that The Battle of Kadesh was more of a draw than a victory for either side. Muwatalli II still held the city but had failed to crush Ramesses II's army as he had wanted, and Ramesses II had driven Muwatalli II's army from the field and inflicted heavy casualties but had not taken the city. In Ramesses II's account, however, the victory for the Egyptians was complete and he was the king who had made it happen.

Grand City of Canals & Temples

Following Kadesh, Ramesses II would never lead another great military campaign; but that does not mean he did not commission them, and his reign is marked by decades of successful diplomatic and military victories, economic prosperity, and social stability. The reign of Ramesses II was so prosperous and so long, in fact, that when he died his people felt it was the end of the world; they had never known an Egypt without Ramesses II as pharaoh.

Ramesses II made Pi-Ramesses the most beautiful and opulent city in Egypt, rivaling the majesty of Thebes. An inscription regarding it reads:

His Majesty has built for himself a Residence whose name is 'Great of Victories'.

It lies between Syria and Egypt and is full of food and provisions.

It follows the model of Upper Egyptian Thebes and its duration is like that of Memphis. (Snape, 203)

The city was built on a series of earthen mounds known as geziras close to the Nile River. During the season of inundation, the Nile would overflow its banks and flood the area and Pi-Ramesses would be transformed into a city of islands amidst a swirling lake. During these times, the different geziras could only be reached by boat and ancient inscriptions (and archaeological evidence) indicate that the people moved easily around the city through an elaborate canal system.

Spread across six square miles (15 square km), and housing over 300,000 people, Pi-Ramesses became the most prosperous city of its day. It would have been the first city, other than Pelusium, any visitors from the east would have seen upon entering Egypt and was intended to impress. Every project Ramesses II commissioned was larger than life and created to glorify his name but his city seems to have been his crowning achievement.

Pi-Ramesses would have been the first city any visitors from the east would have seen upon entering Egypt & was intended to impress.

Four large temples at each of the cardinal directions defined the city. To the north was the Temple of Wadjet, in the south the Temple of Set, east was the Temple of Astarte, and west the Temple of Amun. The choice of two of these particular deities is interesting in that Set and Astarte were both worshiped by the Hyksos at Avaris. It seems peculiar, at first, that Ramesses II would continue any tradition associated with the Hyksos since they had been cast as the supreme villains of Egyptian history by the scribes of the New Kingdom. Astarte, a Phoenician goddess, was long associated with Set as one of his consorts, however, and Set himself – although acknowledged as a god of chaos and darkness – was popular during the New Kingdom as a champion of the military. Ramesses II's father, Seti I, honored the god with his throne name.

Wadjet and Amun are logical choices in that Wadjet was one of the oldest goddesses of Egypt and the pre-eminent deity of Lower Egypt from the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150 - c. 2613 BCE) onwards and Amun, by the time of the New Kingdom, was considered the most powerful of the gods. These four temples served as the 'anchors' of the city with the roads, canals, and other buildings constructed to reference each.

The western part of the city, near the Temple of Amun, was the royal district. The temple was actually dedicated to a composite god Amun-Ra-Harakhty-Atum who encompassed the power and characteristics of the creator-god Atum, the sun god Ra (also a creator-god), Ra-Harakhty (an amalgam of Ra and Horus, signifying the sun at the two horizons of sunrise and sunset), and Amun (the supreme king of the gods at the time). The grand palace of the king was also located here in proximity to the temple as were the administrative offices. Ramesses II's commemorative hall, built to commemorate his Heb-Sed Festivals (he celebrated two; one every 30 years) was said to be impressively adorned with statues, columns, and monumental statues of the king.

To the south, near Set's temple, were the military barracks, factories, a training ground, stables, the commercial district, and the two harbors which served the city. The stable complex was enormous, housing over 450 horses, and built with slightly slanting floors which allowed for waste to drop down into troughs. The training ground was a huge courtyard near the temple in which both soldiers and horses pulling chariots were put through maneuvers. In keeping with the grandeur and scope of the city, the bronze smelting factory was also the largest of its kind.

The eastern section, surrounding Astarte's temple, was the residential district as was the north, near Wadjet's temple. The houses were closely packed and, in keeping with traditional Egyptian custom, had the kitchen toward the back and open to the air, protected by a thatched roof. Each house probably also followed the traditional floor plan of a front parlor for receiving guests with the other rooms opening off of that one in a rectangular shape running toward the back. The homes of the more affluent had walled gardens at the back of their homes with brightly painted walls and a reflecting pool.

The main temple in the city was that of Amun, Ramesses II's patron god, which was said to be massive and included enormous statues of Ramesses II in his divine aspect. Ancient writers from the time and afterwards comment on the awe-inspiring grandeur of the city, the towering scope, and beauty of the canals and monuments. It would continue as the capital of Egypt under Ramesses II's successors but seems to have lost its luster further and further with each new king who came to the throne.

Decline & Fall

Although the inscription concerning it claims that Pi-Ramesses lasted as long as Memphis, this is not so. In its time, as noted, it rivaled Thebes in grandeur and power, but Thebes would continue long after Pi-Ramesses was a memory. The end of the city was signaled by the shifting of the Nile which silted the harbors so thoroughly that they became unusable. The eastern branch of the Nile changed its course, as it had done in the past, and the city could not adapt to this. As Steven Snape notes, this situation was common enough and Memphis had long ago grown used to it and made allowances in order to survive, but Pi-Ramesses was simply abandoned, largely dismantled, and moved south to the new city of Tanis with some monuments taken to Bubastis.

When Pi-Ramesses was abandoned, the monumental statues, sections of temples, and other buildings were moved downstream in such quantity that, centuries later, archaeologists were sure that Tanis was Pi-Ramesses or, at least, was a city built during Ramesses II's reign. What remained at the site of the abandoned city was left to decay and, eventually, be reclaimed by the earth; the city center today is beneath the village of Qantir and, above ground, only the meager ruins of the Temple of Set, some foundations, and two stone feet from a statue of Ramesses II remain.

Per Ramessu

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Per Ramessu, also called Pi Ramesse, biblical Raamses, modern Qantīr, including the site of Tall al-Dabʿa, ancient Egyptian capital in the 15th (c. 1630–c. 1523 bce ), 19th (1292–1190 bce ), and 20th (1190–1075 bce ) dynasties. Situated in the northeastern delta about 62 miles (100 km) northeast of Cairo, the city lay in ancient times on the Bubastite branch of the Nile River.

In the early Middle Kingdom (1938–c. 1630 bce ) the city witnessed the gradual influx of Palestinian peoples and became the Hyksos capital about 1530 bce . Sacked by the victorious pharaoh Ahmose I about 1521 bce , it remained obscure until the advent of the 19th dynasty, whose home was nearby. Sometime during this period the Hebrews settled in this area.

Seti I (1290–79 bce ) built a palace on the site and started a faience-manufacturing industry. His successor, Ramses II, decided to move his capital there to utilize the military potential of the site. Early in his reign large temples, residences, storehouses, docks, and military facilities were built (whence the biblical name “treasure cities” stemmed, Exodus 1:11). The city was divided into four quarters, each dedicated to a deity Amon and Wadjet were the Egyptian gods, Seth and Astarte the Asiatic, as Ramses strove to bind the religions of Syria and Egypt. In the centre of the city, the cult of the king himself was dominant. The city was not only the royal residence but also the administrative capital, as various government bureaucracies were moved there. A rich agricultural and riverine hinterland provided food and recreation for the populace. Oriented toward Egypt’s empire in Syria-Palestine, the city began to decline after the loss of the Asiatic territory in the mid-20th dynasty. Toward the end of that dynasty, the town of Tanis, 15 miles (24 km) to the north, superseded Per Ramessu. The final blow was the transfer of the royal residence to Tanis in the 21st dynasty (1075–c. 950 bce ). It was the large-scale plunder and reuse of the stone of Per Ramessu that led to great confusion over the location of the Ramesside capital. Excavations started in the 1940s by Egyptian archaeologists and carried forward by an Austrian expedition since 1975 have firmly located Ramses II’s capital at Per Ramessu and also have elucidated the Hyksos period of the city.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Laura Etheredge, Associate Editor.

Piramesses and Avaris

The first Egyptian toponyms in the exodus story are the &ldquosupply cities&rdquo (or &ldquosupply depots&rdquo)[1] that Pharaoh forces the Israelites to build in Pithom and Ramesses:

Only one city in antiquity had the name Ramesses: Piramesses, which was identified by the Egyptian Egyptologist Labib Habachi (1906-1994) at the archaeological site of Qantir and was conclusively proven to be Piramesses by the wealth of inscriptional material found there. [3]

&ldquoPi/Pr&rdquo &ndash Linguistic Conversions between Languages

The Bible calls this site Ramesses rather than Piramesses this is not unusual, given the minor differences that occurred when Egyptian was reflected in Hebrew. In particular, Hebrew sometimes dropped the pi/pr, &ldquohouse/estate of&rdquo opening that was very common in Egyptian toponymy, e.g., Pi-Amun, Pi-Wadjet, Pi-Thoth, Pi-King-of-Upper-and-Lower-Egypt-Neferirkare, etc. [4] It should be noted that even in Egyptian the pi/pr was also omitted on occasion. [5]

The Founding of Piramesses

Piramesses was originally founded by the 19th dynasty Pharaoh Seti I (ca. 1304-1289 BCE) as a royal residence, though it was named Piramesses when it was expanded by Pharaoh Ramesses II (ca. 1289-1223 BCE), Seti I&rsquos son. [6] (If it had a name during the reign of Seti I, we don&rsquot know what it was.)As demonstrated by the ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and Caesium-Magnetometry surveys (performed in 1996, 2003, and 2008), Seti I built the residence on virgin ground, where no city had been built before. [7] He likely chose the spot for two reasons:

&zwjA Northern Dynasty &ndash In contrast to the Pharaohs of the 18th dynasty who were natives of the southern capital, Thebes, the 19th dynasty Ramessides hailed from the north. [8] Seti I wished to vest power where the Ramessides had their tribal power base and to avoid the southern capital, Thebes, where he would have been less welcome.

&zwjProximity to the Levantine Population &ndash Qantir, the site of Piramesses, is located 2 km (1.25 mi) east of Avaris/Tell el-Dabˁa in the eastern Delta region. [9] Although founded during the Middle Kingdom by the kings of the native Egyptian 11th dynasty, Avaris later served as the capital city for the foreign Semitic-Asiatic Hyksos (15th dynasty), during what is known as the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 1646-1538 BCE). [10]

Even after the fall of the Hyksos dynasty, Avaris had one of the largest populations of Semitic-Asiatics in Egypt. Thus, Piramesses may have been constructed to keep an eye on the large Semitic-Asiaitic population in the vicinity. Avaris was abandoned sometime during the 19th dynasty. [11] While no one knows exactly when or why the area was abandoned by its Semitic population or where they went, the overall timing coincides with the movement of the river away from Avaris.

Israelites in Goshen

&zwjThe fact that the delta region was filled with Levantine Asiatics until the mid-19th dynasty fits well with the biblical account of conditions in Egypt up to the exodus since the area around Avaris and Piramesses, what the Bible refers to as Goshen (or &ldquothe land of Ramesses,&rdquo Gen 47:11), is where the Israelites are said to have dwelt (e.g., Gen 47:6, 27 Exod 8:18, 9:26). But as the term Goshen only appears in the Bible, we do not know if the term has an Egyptian origin or if it is only an Israelite term. [12]

On the Border with Sinai

In addition to the construction of Piramesses near the Eastern frontier, the Ramessides built up considerable defenses along the Eastern frontier to mitigate against possible incursion. Under Ramesses II, the expanded city became the capital of Egypt. It was abandoned in favor of Tanis by the 21st dynasty (mid-11th cent.) when the Pelusiac branch of the Nile moved away from the city in the process of silt deposition and erosion.

Identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus

There are three different Pharaohs noted in the book of Exodus: that of 1:8, that of 2:15, and that of 5:1 et al. None of these Pharaohs is named, making their identification disputed. Some suggest that Moses intentionally decided not to name Pharaohs in order to snub these mighty kings who claimed to be gods on earth—although “Pharaoh” almost seems to function as a proper name in the Pentateuchal narratives.

Identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus necessitates following four paths of investigation, and seeing where all the data points line up. These paths of evidence include: (1) the date of the exodus according to the Bible (2) the historical circumstances of the exodus according to the Bible (3) the dates of reigning Pharaohs according to the chronology of ancient Egypt and (4) the historical circumstances of ancient Egypt. Other evidence could also be added, such as for the date of the conquest of Canaan, but this additional evidence will be related to the four points just noted. To find the correct date, one must prioritize the biblical evidence, and allow this to inform one’s understanding of Egyptian history and chronology. Unfortunately, the most common evangelical identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus make fundamental errors in their methodology, and ultimately place greater confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the claims of Scripture.

The first common error is to suggest the Bible does not give a clear or reliable date for the exodus. A date and a Pharaoh of the exodus is then proposed by forming theories based on certain historical indicators in the biblical text in combination with the narrative of ancient Near Eastern history that is propounded by archaeologists who have an anti-biblical worldview and agenda. Scholars who commit this error hold that the exodus occurred sometime in the thirteenth century BC (ca. 1275 BC), within the conventional dates for the reign of Ramesses II (1290–1224 BC). This is based in part on the mention of the word “Rameses” (with two different spellings) twice in Exodus, which is likely associated with a city where Ramesses II conducted extensive construction work.[1] Perhaps just as important to these scholars are theories about the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan, and archaeological dates of occupational levels at sites in Canaan/Israel. However, these theories must dismiss in some way the clear statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that there were 480 years between the exodus and the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (cf. Judg 11:26). There is wide agreement among scholars that biblical and extrabiblical data can be combined to yield a date of 966 or 965 BC for the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Counting backwards 480 years from this date places the exodus in 1446 or 1445 BC, and the thirteenth century BC date can be dismissed as incompatible with Scripture. It is important to note that scholars of this persuasion typically only accept certain historical indicators in the Bible—in this instance, the name “Rameses/Raamses,” while dismissing as “metaphorical” or inaccurate the many other indicators that don’t fit the theory. In essence, the identification of Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus is rooted in a low view of scriptural authority.[2]

Many evangelical scholars accept the 1446/1445 BC date for the exodus, but commit a second error which again results in a misidentification of the Pharaoh of the exodus. This is the error of accepting the secular (conventional) chronology of ancient Egypt, which either ignores or intentionally contradicts biblical chronological data and is instead based on an assumed evolutionary history of man. Simply matching a Pharaoh from this timeline with the biblical calendar date for the exodus results in the identification of Thutmose III (reigned ca. 1479–1426 BC in the conventional chronology) as the Pharaoh of the exodus. The problem is, the historical circumstances of Thutmose III’s reign in no way fit the biblical data for what happened at the time of the exodus. There is no evidence for a large population of Semitic slaves in Egypt at that time, nor is there any evidence for a collapse of Egyptian civilization due to the plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (cf. Deut 11:4). In fact, if Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, he and his army survived the Red Sea event quite nicely, for Thutmose III undertook vast campaigns of conquest and is considered by many scholars to have been the most powerful of all the Pharaohs (along with his powerful son and successor, Amenhotep II). Because of this incompatibility between the history of Thutmose III and the biblical history of the exodus, it is clear that the view that Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, like the view that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the exodus, is another capitulation to the authority of secular archaeology over Scripture.

Although proponents of the Thutmose III view often claim faithful adherence to the biblical chronology, this is only the case for the statement in 1 Kings 6:1. These scholars actually argue strenuously against the chronology from the Deluge to Abraham that is presented in Genesis 11. Either major problems with the Hebrew text of that chapter are hypothesized, or else the historicity of its genealogy is dismissed altogether. This is because if Genesis 11 is accepted as literal, accurate history, adding up the numbers results in 2417 BC as the date when the Deluge ended, and approximately 2317 BC for the dispersion of the nations from Babylon (Babel), which means there was less than 900 years of history from the beginning of Egyptian civilization until the exodus from Egypt in 1446 BC. However, the common date given for the first king of the first dynasty of united Egypt is 3100 BC, with rulers of upper and lower Egypt preceding him as part of a prehistory which spans more than 2,000 years. Most Bible scholars assume that it is impossible to compress the events and rulers in the conventional chronology of Egypt into the far shorter biblical chronology, and as a result they assume that the genealogy of Genesis 11 is wrong in some way. Ultimately, they have more confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the reliability of Scripture. Their firm belief in the accuracy of the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt is the reason why they stand by the identification of Thutmose III as the Pharaoh of the exodus in spite of the way in which the history of Egypt during his reign does not seem to allow for the events described in the book of Exodus. This view also runs into problems with finding archaeological evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan under Joshua, since archaeological sites in Canaan/Israel are dated in early periods by connecting them with contemporaneous periods of Egyptian history (Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, etc.).

Thus, in order to identify the Pharaoh of the exodus correctly, it is necessary to calculate the date of the exodus from the Bible (contra the Ramesses II theory), but this is not enough. It is also necessary to calculate Egyptian chronology according to the biblical timescale, and in accordance with biblical history (contra the Thutmose III theory). Specifically, it is necessary to look for evidence of a period in ancient Egypt that matches the biblical description of a large population of Semitic slaves living in the land of Goshen, followed by cataclysmic plagues and the abrupt departure of the Semitic population, followed by a collapse of Egyptian power. If this period is correctly identified, then the date of this period of Egyptian history can be established according to the biblical chronology, and earlier and subsequent Egyptian history can be filled in naturally according to the biblical timescale. The Pharaoh of the exodus will be one who is not succeeded by his firstborn son, and whose death marks a sudden collapse of Egyptian civilization.

The reality is that while dates in Egyptian chronology may be presented very dogmatically by modern scholars, the extrabiblical evidence for these dates is not at all clear-cut, and has been interpreted in many different ways. The proper way to construct a chronology of ancient Egypt is to use the Bible as one’s starting point, rather than Darwinian evolution. Guided by the Bible, scholars can place the rulers and events of Egyptian history into a chronological framework that fits both the biblical data and the extrabiblical archaeological and literary evidence. In fact, an agnostic scholar who views the Bible as largely historical, David Rohl, has done extensive work on a “new chronology” which shows that the most natural way to interpret the archaeology of ancient Egypt is in a way that fits biblical chronology and history. Rohl and others have shown that the picture of consecutive Egyptian dynasties that is often presented is much too oversimplified. Dynasties often overlapped at times Egypt was divided into multiple parts, with four or even up to twelve kings reigning at the same time. There are also issues with interpreting Egyptian astronomical records in view of Egyptian calendar reforms. The result is a far shorter Egyptian chronology—one which comports with the biblical timescale. Further, since ancient Greek, Cypriot, Hittite, and Canaanite dates are dependent on Egyptian chronology, a compression of the conventional Egyptian chronology also results in a downward revision of the other chronologies. Rohl identifies the Pharaoh of the exodus with Dudimose, who reigned near the end of the 13th dynasty. In support of this, Rohl cites Manetho (quoted by Josephus), who calls the Pharaoh of the exodus “Tutimaeus” (= Dudimose?). In Rohl’s reconstruction, the 13th dynasty ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, whom he identifies with the biblical Amalekites (cf. Num 24:20). Rohl identifies the pre-Hyksos Asiatics who lived at Avaris in the land of Goshen as the Israelites. Rohl’s theory has much to commend itself, although he advocates the “short” Egyptian sojourn (215 years), in contradiction of Exodus 12:40-41.

As for Ramesses II, Rohl identifies him with the biblical “Shishak” who was king of Egypt near the end of Solomon’s reign (1 Kgs 11:40), and who successfully invaded Judah in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:25 2 Chr 12:2-9). According to Rohl’s chronology, the reign of Ramesses II began around 979 BC, late in the period of David’s reign. Based on a Hittite cuneiform tablet which records a treaty made with Ramesses II, Rohl suggests that Ramesses II was known as “Shysha” in the ancient Near East, which becomes “Shishak” in the Bible. According to Rohl, a relief at Karnak temple depicts a battle which Ramesses II fought with Israelites/Judeans, in which the Israelites are depicted in chariots. Since the Israelites did not acquire chariots until the reign of David or Solomon, Rohl argues that this battle cannot predate the united monarchy period.

Building largely on the work of David Rohl and John Bimson, evangelical filmmaker Tim Mahoney has done an excellent job of presenting the archaeological evidence for the Israelites in Egypt in the documentary film Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. In this film, Mahony embarks on a personal search for archaeological evidence of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in response to challenges from archaeologists who deny that the exodus event ever happened. Mahoney finds that there is abundant archaeological evidence for the biblical account of the Israelites journeying to Egypt, becoming a great nation there, being enslaved, leaving in a dramatic exodus, and conquering Canaan some 40-45 years later. However, this evidence is not recognized by scholars who are committed to interpreting archaeological data within the conventional chronological framework, since the evidence is not from the right time period. Mahoney shows that it is entirely reasonable to compress the conventional chronology, resulting in the evidence for the Israelites living in Egypt lining up with the biblical chronology.

While there is still considerable work to be done to bring the conventional Egyptian chronology and history fully into conformity with biblical chronology and history, believers can rest assured that when the evidence is correctly understood, the Bible stands as written and does not need to be allegorized or modified to fit with archaeology. The common identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus with Ramesses II or Thutmose III are not possible from a biblical standpoint, and also do not ultimately fit the archaeological data. It does seem that the Hyksos are the biblical Amalekites, and that they invaded the largely-defenseless Egypt and ruled the Egyptians for 400 years (until the time of Saul) in an act of divine judgment following the departure of the Israelites. As for Rohl’s identification of the last major pre-Hyksos Pharaoh as Dudimose, this seems less certain, and provides a subject for further investigation by Bible-believing Egyptologists.

[1] There are actually five references to Rameses/Raamses in the Pentateuch: “the land of Rameses” (Gen 47:11), the store-city of “Raamses” (different spelling – Exod 1:11), and the site of “Rameses” (Exod 12:37 Num 33:3, 5). Some scholars point to this as evidence that the Pentateuch was written during or after the reign of Ramesses II (a.k.a. “Ramses,” “Rameses”). However, such a supposition is unnecessary, as there are numerous other instances throughout the Pentateuch of original place names being substituted for later names by a later inspired “updater” (possibly Ezra—see the Introduction to the Pentateuch). These updates were made so that later readers could understand the referents of the original place names. While various explanations have been offered, most likely the references to “Rameses” or “Raamses” in the Pentateuch are to the great city of Pi-Ramesses, which was located next to and encompassed Tell el-Dab‘a (Avaris), the center of Israelite civilization in the land of Goshen. Pi-Ramesses was one of the largest cities in the ancient Near East, and therefore is most likely the site named in the biblical text. Since Pi-Ramesses (Pi = “house [of]”) was built or greatly expanded by Ramesses II and his father Seti I, the references to a land of Ramesses or a city of Ramesses in the biblical text can be considered an inspired update to the original text of the Pentateuch, which likely read “Avaris.”

[2] Evangelical scholars who identify Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus also typically follow many other naturalistic explanations of Old Testament history, such as for the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the appearance of God on Mount Sinai, and the crossing of the Jordan River. Dates, census figures, and historical details are routinely explained away as some sort of metaphor or literary device. Although such scholars claim to believe the Bible, their real confidence usually rests in naturalistic theories of science and archaeology.

Pi-Ramesses - History

Ramesses II (c. 1303 BC - July or August 1213 BC), referred to as Ramesses the Great, was the third Egyptian pharaoh (reigned 1279 BC - 1213 BC) of the Nineteenth Dynasty. He is often regarded as the greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. His successors and later Egyptians called him the "Great Ancestor".

Ramesses II led several military expeditions into the Levant, re-asserting Egyptian control over Canaan. He also led expeditions to the south, into Nubia, commemorated in inscriptions at Beit el-Wali and Gerf Hussein.

At age fourteen, Ramesses was appointed Prince Regent by his father Seti I. He is believed to have taken the throne in his late teens and is known to have ruled Egypt from 1279 BC to 1213 BC for 66 years and 2 months, according to both Manetho and Egypt's contemporary historical records.

He was once said to have lived to age 99, but it is more likely that he died in his 90th or 91st year. If he became Pharaoh in 1279 BC, as most Egyptologists today believe, he would have assumed the throne on May 31, 1279 BC, based on his known accession date of III Shemu day 27.

Ramesses II celebrated an unprecedented 14 sed festivals (the first held after thirty years of a pharaoh's reign, and then every three years) during his reign - more than any other pharaoh. On his death, he was buried in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings - his body was later moved to a royal cache where it was discovered in 1881, and is now on display in the Cairo Museum.

The early part of his reign was focused on building cities, temples and monuments. He established the city of Pi-Ramesses in the Nile Delta as his new capital and main base for his campaigns in Syria. This city was built on the remains of the city of Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos when they took over, and was the location of the main Temple of Set. He is also known as Ozymandias in the Greek sources, from a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses's throne name, Usermaatre Setepenre, "Ra's mighty truth, chosen of Ra".

Ramesses II had 200 wives and concubines, 96 sons and 60 daughters.

Buildings and Monuments

Ramesses built extensively throughout Egypt and Nubia, and his cartouches are prominently displayed even in buildings that he did not actually construct. There are accounts of his honor hewn on stone, statues, remains of palaces and temples, most notably the Ramesseum in the western Thebes and the rock temples of Abu Simbel. He covered the land from the Delta to Nubia with buildings in a way no king before him had done. He also founded a new capital city in the Delta during his reign called Pi-Ramesses it had previously served as a summer palace during Seti I's reign.

His memorial temple Ramesseum, was just the beginning of the pharaoh's obsession with building. When he built, he built on a scale unlike almost anything before. In the third year of his reign Ramesses started the most ambitious building project after the pyramids, that were built 1,500 years earlier. The population was put to work on changing the face of Egypt.

In Thebes, the ancient temples were transformed, so that each one of them reflected honor to Ramesses as a symbol of this divine nature and power. Ramesses decided to eternalize himself in stone, and so he ordered changes to the methods used by his masons. The elegant but shallow reliefs of previous pharaohs were easily transformed, and so their images and words could easily be obliterated by their successors. Ramesses insisted that his carvings be deeply engraved in the stone, which made them not only less susceptible to later alteration, but also made them more prominent in the Egyptian sun, reflecting his relationship with the sun god, Ra.

Ramesses constructed many large monuments, including the archeological complex of Abu Simbel, and the Mortuary temple known as the Ramesseum. He built on a monumental scale to ensure that his legacy would survive the ravages of time. Ramesses used art as a means of propaganda for his victories over foreigners and are depicted on numerous temple reliefs. Ramesses II also erected more colossal statues of himself than any other pharaoh. He also usurped many existing statues by inscribing his own cartouche on them.

Abu Simbel

The Abu Simbel temples are two massive rock temples in Abu Simbel in Nubia, southern Egypt. They are situated on the western bank of Lake Nasser, about 230 km southwest of Aswan (about 300 km by road). The complex is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the "Nubian Monuments," which run from Abu Simbel downriver to Philae (near Aswan).

The complex consists of two temples. The larger one is dedicated to Ra-Harakhty, Ptah and Amun, Egypt's three state deities of the time, and features four large statues of Ramesse II in the facade. The smaller temple is dedicated to the goddess Hathor, personified by Nefertari, Ramesses's most beloved of his many wives.

The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside during the reign of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the 13th century BC, as a lasting monument to himself and his queen Nefertari, to commemorate his alleged victory at the Battle of Kadesh, and to intimidate his Nubian neighbors. However, the complex was relocated in its entirety in 1968, on an artificial hill made from a domed structure, high above the Aswan High Dam reservoir.

The relocation of the temples was necessary to avoid their being submerged during the creation of Lake Nasser, the massive artificial water reservoir formed after the building of the Aswan High Dam on the Nile River. Abu Simbel remains one of Egypt's top tourist attractions.

Construction of the temple complex started in approximately 1264 B.C. and lasted for about 20 years, until 1244 B.C. Known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun," it was one of six rock temples erected in Nubia during the long reign of Ramesses II. Their purpose was to impress Egypt's southern neighbors, and also to reinforce the status of Egyptian religion in the region. Historians say that the design of Abu Simbel expresses a measure of ego and pride in Ramesses II.

In 1959 an international donations campaign to save the monuments of Nubia began: the southernmost relics of this ancient human civilization were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile that were about to result from the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

One scheme to save the temples was based on an idea by William MacQuitty to build a clear fresh water dam around the temples, with the water inside kept at the same height as the Nile. There were to be underwater viewing chambers.

In 1962 the idea was made into a proposal by architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry and civil engineer Ove Arup. They considered that raising the temples ignored the effect of erosion of the sandstone by desert winds. However the proposal, though acknowledged to be extremely elegant, was rejected.

The salvage of the Abu Simbel temples began in 1964 by a multinational team of archeologists, engineers and skilled heavy equipment operators working together under the UNESCO banner it cost some $40 million at the time. Between 1964 and 1968, the entire site was carefully cut into large blocks (up to 30 tons, averaging 20 tons), dismantled, lifted and reassembled in a new location 65 meters higher and 200 meters back from the river, in one of the greatest challenges of archaeological engineering in history Some structures were even saved from under the waters of Lake Nasser.

Today, thousands of tourists visit the temples daily. Guarded convoys of buses and cars depart twice a day from Aswan, the nearest city. Many visitors also arrive by plane, at an airfield that was specially constructed for the temple complex.

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel, which took about twenty years to build, was completed around year 24 of the reign of Ramesses the Great (which corresponds to 1265 BCE). It was dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, as well as to the deified Rameses himself. It is generally considered the grandest and most beautiful of the temples commissioned during the reign of Rameses II, and one of the most beautiful in Egypt.

Four colossal 20 meter statues of the pharaoh with the double Atef crown of Upper and Lower Egypt decorate the facade of the temple, which is 35 meters wide and is topped by a frieze with 22 baboons, worshippers of the sun and flank the entrance. The colossal statues were sculptured directly from the rock in which the temple was located before it was moved. All statues represent Ramesses II, seated on a throne and wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue to the left of the entrance was damaged in an earthquake, leaving only the lower part of the statue still intact. The head and torso can still be seen at the statue's feet.

Next to the legs of the colossi, there are other statues no higher than the knees of the pharaoh. These depict Nefertari, Ramesses's chief wife, and queen mother Mut-Tuy, his first two sons Amun-her-khepeshef, Ramesses, and his first six daughters Bintanath, Baketmut, Nefertari, Meritamen, Nebettawy and Isetnofret.

The entrance itself is crowned by a bas-relief representing two images of the king worshiping the falcon-headed Ra Harakhti, whose statue stands in a large niche. This god is holding the hieroglyph 'user' and a feather in his right hand, with Ma'at, (the goddess of truth and justice) in his left this is nothing less than a gigantic cryptogram for Ramesses II's throne name, User-Maat-Re. The facade is topped by a row of 22 baboons, their arms raised in the air, supposedly worshipping the rising sun. Another notable feature of the facade is a stele which records the marriage of Ramesses with a daughter of king Hattusili III, which sealed the peace between Egypt and the Hittites.

The inner part of the temple has the same triangular layout that most ancient Egyptian temples follow, with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary. The temple is complex in structure and quite unusual because of its many side chambers. The hypostyle hall (sometimes also called a pronaos) is 18 meters long and 16.7 meters wide and is supported by eight huge Osirid pillars depicting the deified Ramses linked to the god Osiris, the god of the Underworld, to indicate the everlasting nature of the pharaoh.

The colossal statues along the left-hand wall bear the white crown of Upper Egypt, while those on the opposite side are wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt (pschent). The bas-reliefs on the walls of the pronaos depict battle scenes in the military campaigns the ruler waged. Much of the sculpture is given to the Battle of Kadesh, on the Orontes river in present-day Syria, in which the Egyptian king fought against the Hittites. The most famous relief shows the king on his chariot shooting arrows against his fleeing enemies, who are being taken prisoner. Other scenes show Egyptian victories in Libya and Nubia.

From the hypostyle hall, one enters the second pillared hall, which has four pillars decorated with beautiful scenes of offerings to the gods. There are depictions of Ramesses and Nefertari with the sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Harakhti. This hall gives access to a transverse vestibule in the middle of which is the entrance to the sanctuary. Here, on a black wall, are rock cut sculptures of four seated figures: Ra-Horakhty, the deified king Ramesses, and the gods Amun Ra and Ptah. Ra-Horakhty, Amun Ra and Ptah were the main divinities in that period and their cult centers were at Heliopolis, Thebes and Memphis respectively.

It is believed that the axis of the temple was positioned by the ancient Egyptian architects in such a way that on October 21 and February 21 (61 days before and 61 days after the Winter Solstice), the rays of the sun would penetrate the sanctuary and illuminate the sculptures on the back wall, except for the statue of Ptah, the god connected with the Underworld, who always remained in the dark.

These dates are allegedly the king's birthday and coronation day respectively, but there is no evidence to support this, though it is quite logical to assume that these dates had some relation to a great event, such as the jubilee celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the pharaoh's rule.

In fact, according to calculations made on the basis of the heliacal rising of the star Sirius (Sothis) and inscriptions found by archaeologists, this date must have been October 22. This image of the king was enhanced and revitalized by the energy of the solar star, and the deified Ramesses the Great could take his place next to Amun Ra and Ra-Horakhty.

Due to the displacement of the temple and/or the accumulated drift of the Tropic of Cancer during the past 3,280 years, it is widely believed that each of these two events has moved one day closer to the Solstice, so they would be occurring on October 22 and February 20 (60 days before and 60 days after the Solstice, respectively).

The NOAA Solar Position Calculator may be used to verify the declination of the Sun for any location on Earth, at any particular date and time.

The temple of Hathor and Nefertari, also known as the Small Temple, was built about one hundred meters northeast of the temple of pharaoh Ramesses II and was dedicated to the goddess Hathor and Ramesses II's chief consort, Nefertari. This was in fact the second time in ancient Egyptian history that a temple was dedicated to a queen.

The first time, Akhenaten dedicated a temple to his great royal wife, Nefertiti. The rock-cut facade is decorated with two groups of colossi that are separated by the large gateway. The statues, slightly more than ten meters high, are of the king and his queen. On either side of the portal are two statues of the king, wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt (south colossus) and the double crown (north colossus) these are flanked by statues of the queen and the king. What is truly surprising is that for the only time in Egyptian art, the statues of the king and his consort are equal in size.

Traditionally, the statues of the queens stood next to those of the pharaoh, but were never taller than his knees. This exception to such a long standing rule bears witness to the special importance attached to Nefertari by Ramesses, who went to Abu Simbel with his beloved wife in the 24th year of his reign. As the Great Temple of the king, there are small statues of princes and princesses next to their parents. In this case they are positioned symmetrically: on the south side (at left as you face the gateway) are, from left to right, princes Meryatum and Meryre, princesses Meritamen and Henuttawy, and princes Rahirwenemef and Amun-her-khepeshef, while on the north side the same figures are in reverse order. The plan of the Small Temple is a simplified version of that of the Great Temple.

As the larger temple dedicated to the king, the hypostyle hall or pronaos is supported by six pillars in this case, however, they are not Osirid pillars depicting the king, but are decorated with scenes with the queen playing the sinistrum (an instrument sacred to the goddess Hathor), together with the gods Horus, Khnum, Khonsu, and Thoth, and the goddesses Hathor, Isis, Maat, Mut of Asher, Satis and Taweret in one scene Ramesses is presenting flowers or burning incense.

The capitals of the pillars bear the face of the goddess Hathor this type of column is known as Hathoric. The bas-reliefs in the pillared hall illustrate the deification of the king, the destruction of his enemies in the north and south (in this scenes the king is accompanied by his wife), and the queen making offerings to the goddess Hathor and Mut.

The hypostyle hall is followed by a vestibule, access to which is given by three large doors. On the south and the north walls of this chamber there are two graceful and poetic bas-reliefs of the king and his consort presenting papyrus plants to Hathor, who is depicted as a cow on a boat sailing in a thicket of papyri. On the west wall, Ramesses II and Nefertari are depicted making offerings to god Horus and the divinities of the Cataracts - Satis, Anubis and Khnum.

The rock cut sanctuary and the two side chambers are connected to the transverse vestibule and are aligned with the axis of the temple. The bas-reliefs on the side walls of the small sanctuary represent scenes of offerings to various gods made either by the pharaoh or the queen. On the back wall, which lies to the west along the axis of the temple, there is a niche in which Hathor, as a divine cow, seems to be coming out of the mountain: the goddess is depicted as the Mistress of the temple dedicated to her and to queen Nefertari, who is intimately linked to the goddess.

Each temple has its own priest that represents the king in daily religious ceremonies. In theory, the Pharaoh should be the only celebrant in daily religious ceremonies performed in different temples throughout Egypt. In reality, the high priest also played that role. To reach that position, an extensive education in art and science was necessary, like the one pharaoh had. Reading, writing, engineering, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, space measurement, time calculations, were all part of this learning. The priests of Heliopolis, for example, became guardians of sacred knowledge and earned the reputation of wise men.


The Ramesseum is the memorial temple (or mortuary temple) of Pharaoh Ramesses II ("Ramesses the Great", also spelled "Ramses" and "Rameses"). It is located in the Theban necropolis in Upper Egypt, across the River Nile from the modern city of Luxor. The name was coined by Jean-Francois Champollion, who visited the ruins of the site in 1829 and first identified the hieroglyphs making up Ramesses's names and titles on the walls. It was originally called the House of millions of years of Usermaatra-setepenra that unites with Thebes-the-city in the domain of Amon.

Ramesses II modified, usurped, or constructed many buildings from the ground up, and the most splendid of these, in accordance with New Kingdom Royal burial practices, would have been his memorial temple: a place of worship dedicated to pharaoh, god on earth, where his memory would have been kept alive after his death. Surviving records indicate that work on the project began shortly after the start of his reign and continued for 20 years.

The design of Ramesses's mortuary temple adheres to the standard canons of New Kingdom temple architecture. Oriented northwest and southeast, the temple itself comprised two stone pylons (gateways, some 60 m wide), one after the other, each leading into a courtyard. Beyond the second courtyard, at the centre of the complex, was a covered 48-column hypostyle hall, surrounding the inner sanctuary.

An enormous pylon (gateways, some 60 m wide) stood before the first court, with the royal palace at the left and the gigantic statue of the king looming up at the back.

As was customary, the pylons and outer walls were decorated with scenes commemorating pharaoh's military victories and leaving due record of his dedication to, and kinship with, the gods. In Ramesses's case, much importance is placed on the Battle of Kadesh (ca. 1285 BC) more intriguingly, however, one block atop the first pylon records his pillaging, in the eighth year of his reign, a city called "Shalem", which may or may not have been Jerusalem. The scenes of the great pharaoh and his army triumphing over the Hittite forces fleeing before Kadesh, as portrayed in the canons of the "epic poem of Pentaur", can still be seen on the pylon.

Only fragments of the base and torso remain of the syenite statue of the enthroned pharaoh, 62 feet (19 metres) high and weighing more than 1000 tons. This was alleged to have been transported 170 miles over land. This is the largest remaining colossal statue (except statues done in situ) in the world. However fragments of 4 granite Colossi of Ramses were found in Tanis (northern Egypt). Estimated height is 69 to 92 feet (21 to 28 meters). Like four of the six colossi of Amenhotep III (Colossi of Memnon) there are no longer complete remains so it is based partly on unconfirmed estimates.

Remains of the second court include part of the internal facade of the pylon and a portion of the Osiride portico on the right. Scenes of war and the rout of the Hittites at Kadesh are repeated on the walls. In the upper registers, feast and honor of the phallic god Min, god of fertility. On the opposite side of the court the few Osiride pillars and columns still left can furnish an idea of the original grandeur. Scattered remains of the two statues of the seated king can also be seen, one in pink granite and the other in black granite, which once flanked the entrance to the temple. The head of one of these has been removed to the British Museum.

Thirty-nine out of the forty-eight columns in the great hypostyle hall (m 41x 31) still stand in the central rows. They are decorated with the usual scenes of the king before various gods. Part of the ceiling decorated with gold stars on a blue ground has also been preserved.

The sons and daughters of Ramesses appear in the procession on the few walls left. The sanctuary was composed of three consecutive rooms, with eight columns and the tetrastyle cell. Part of the first room, with the ceiling decorated with astral scenes, and few remains of the second room are all that is left.

Adjacent to the north of the hypostyle hall was a smaller temple this was dedicated to Ramesses's mother, Tuya, and his beloved chief wife, Nefertari. To the south of the first courtyard stood the temple palace. The complex was surrounded by various storerooms, granaries, workshops, and other ancillary buildings, some built as late as Roman times.

A temple of Seti I, of which nothing is now left but the foundations, once stood to the right of the hypostyle hall. It consisted of a peristyle court with two chapel shrines. The entire complex was enclosed in mud brick walls which started at the gigantic southeast pylon.

A cache of papyri and ostraca dating back to the third intermediate period (11th to 8th centuries BC) indicates that the temple was also the site of an important scribal school.

The site was in use before Ramesses had the first stone put in place: beneath the hypostyle hall, modern archaeologists have found a shaft tomb from the Middle Kingdom, yielding a rich hoard of religious and funerary artifacts.

Unlike the massive stone temples that Ramesses ordered carved from the face of the Nubian mountains at Abu Simbel, the inexorable passage of three millennia was not kind to his "temple of a million years" at Thebes. This was mostly due to its location on the very edge of the Nile floodplain, with the annual inundation gradually undermining the foundations of this temple, and its neighbours. Neglect and the arrival of new faiths also took their toll: for example, in the early years of the Common Era, the temple was put into service as a Christian church.

This is all standard fare for a temple of its kind built at that time. Leaving aside the escalation of scale - whereby each successive New Kingdom pharaoh strove to outdo his predecessors in volume and scope - the Ramesseum is largely cast in the same mould as Ramesses III's Medinet Habu or the ruined temple of Amenhotep III that stood behind the "Colossi of Memnon" a kilometre or so away. Instead, the significance that the Ramesseum enjoys today owes more to the time and manner of its rediscovery by Europeans.


Pi-Ramesses (Pi-Ramesses Aa-nakhtu, meaning "House of Ramesses, Great in Victory") was the new capital built by the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt Pharaoh Ramesses II (Ramesses the Great, reigned 1279-1213 BC) at Qantir near the old site of Avaris. The city had previously served as a summer palace under Seti I (c. 1290 BC - 1279 BC) and may have been originally founded by Ramesses I (c. 1292-1290 BC) while he served under Horemheb.

When the ruins at Tanis were discovered in the 1930s by Pierre Montet their masses of broken Ramesside stonework led archaeologists to identify this as Pi-Ramesses, but it eventually came to be recognised that none of these monuments and inscriptions originated at the site.

In the 1960s Manfred Bietak, recognising that Pi-Ramesses was known to have been located on the then-easternmost branch of the Nile, painstakingly mapped all the branches of the ancient Delta and established that the Pelusiac branch was the easternmost during Ramesses' reign while the Tanitic branch (i.e. the branch on which Tanis was located) did not exist at all.

Excavations were therefore begun at the site of the highest Ramesside pottery location, Tell el-Dab'a and Qantir, and although there were no traces of any previous habitation visible on the surface, discoveries soon identified this as both the Hyksos capital Avaris and the Ramesside capital Pi-Ramesses. (Qantir, the site of Pi-Ramesses, lies some 30 kilometers to the south of Tanis Tell el-Dab'a, the site of Avaris, is situated a little further south of Qantir).

Ramesses II was born and raised in the area, and family connections may have played a part in his decision to move his capital so far northward from the existing capital at Thebes but geopolitical reasons may have been of greater importance, as Pi-Ramesses was much closer to the Egyptian vassal states in Asia and to the border with the hostile Hittite empire. Intelligence and diplomats would reach the Pharaoh much more quickly, and the main corps of the army were also encamped in the city and could quickly be mobilized to deal with incursions of Hittites or Shasu nomads from across the Jordan. Built on the banks of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile and with a population of over 300,000, making it one of the largest cities of ancient Egypt, Pi-Ramesses flourished for more than a century after Ramesses death and poems were written over its splendour. According to the latest estimates the city was spread over about 18 km2 (6.9 sq mi) or around 6 km (3.7 mi) long by 3 km (1.9 mi) wide. Its layout, as shown by ground-penetrating radar, consisted of a huge central temple, a large precinct of mansions bordering the river in the west set in a rigid grid pattern of streets, and a disorderly collection of houses and workshops in the east.

The palace of Ramesses is believed to lie beneath the modern village of Qantir. An Austrian team of archaeologists headed by Manfred Bietak, who discovered the site, found evidence of many canals and lakes and have described the city as the Venice of Egypt. A surprising discovery in the excavated stables were small cisterns located adjacent to each of the estimated 460 horse tether points. Using mules, which are the same size as the horses of Ramesses day, it was found a double tethered horse would naturally use the cistern as a toilet leaving the stable floor clean and dry.

It was originally thought the demise of Egyptian authority abroad during the Twentieth Dynasty of Egypt made the city less significant leading to it being abandoned as a royal residence. It is now known that the Pelusiac branch of the Nile began silting up c. 1060 BC, leaving the city without water when the river eventually established a new course to the west now called the Tanitic branch.

The Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt moved the city to the new branch establishing Djanet (Tanis) on its banks, 100 km (62 mi) to the north-west of Pi-Ramesses as the new capital of Lower Egypt. The Pharaohs of the Twenty-first Dynasty transported all the old Ramesside temples, obelisks, stelas, statues and sphinxes from Pi-Ramesses to the new site. The obelisks and statues, the largest weighing over 200 tons, were transported in one piece while major buildings were dismantled into sections and reassembled at Tanis. Stone from the less important buildings was reused and recycled for the creation of new temples and buildings.

The biblical Book of Exodus mentions "Ramesses" as one of the cities on whose construction the Israelites were forced to labour. Understandably, this Ramesses was identified by an early generation of biblical archaeolgists with the Pi-Ramesses of Ramesses II.

When the 21st Dynasty moved the capital to Tanis Pi-Ramesses was largely abandoned and the old capital became a quarry for ready-made monuments, but it was not forgotten: its name appears in a list of 21st Dynasty cities, and it had a revival under Sheshonq I (the biblical Shishak) of the 22nd Dynasty (10th century BC), who tried to emulate the achievements of Ramesses. The existence of the city as Egypt's capital as late as the 10th century makes problematic the reference to Ramesses in the Exodus story as a memory of the era of Ramesses II and indeed, the shortened form "Ramesses", in place of the original Pi-Ramesses, is first found in 1st millennium texts.

The Bible describes Ramesses as a "store-city". The exact meaning of the Hebrew phrase is not certain, but some have suggested that it refers to supply depots on or near the frontier. This would be an appropriate description for Pithom (Tel al-Maskhuta) in the 6th century BC, but not for the royal capital in the time of Ramesses, when the nearest frontier was far off in the north of Syria. Only after the original royal function of Pi-Ramesses had been forgotten could the ruins have been re-interpreted as a fortress on Egypt's frontier.

On the other hand, Pi-Ramesses itself, during its construction in the 13th century BC under Ramesses II, absorbed the smaller palace-city of Avaris which indeed contained or had contained massive storage facilities--not for frontier storage but for trade. Therefore, while a store-city called Ramesses was not constructed anew, it remains that workers were employed in the monumental construction and re-construction that embraced Avaris, the store city, in the expansion of Pi-Ramesses.

As well as the famous temples of Abu Simbel, Ramesses left other monuments to himself in Nubia. His early campaigns are illustrated on the walls of Beit el-Wali (now relocated to New Kalabsha). Other temples dedicated to Ramesses are Derr and Gerf Hussein (also relocated to New Kalabsha).

Nefertari also known as Nefertari Merytmut was one of the Great Royal Wives (or principal wives) of Ramesses the Great. Nefertari means 'Beautiful Companion' and Meritmut means 'Beloved of the Goddess Mut'. She is one of the best known Egyptian queens, next to Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut. Her lavishly decorated tomb, QV66, is the largest and most spectacular in the Valley of the Queens. Ramesses also constructed a temple for her at Abu Simbel next to his colossal monument here.

Although Nefertari's origins are unknown, the discovery from her tomb of a knob inscribed with the cartouche of Pharaoh Ay has led people to speculate she was related to him. The time between the reign of Ay and Ramesses II means that Nefertari could not be a daughter of Ay and if any relation exists at all, she would be a great-granddaughter.

It is possible that Nefertari is either the daughter or granddaughter of Mutnodjemet, sister of Queen Nefertiti.There is no conclusive evidence linking Nefertari to the royal family of the 18th dynasty however. Nefertari married Ramesses II before he ascended the throne.

Nefertari had at least four sons and two daughters. Amun-her-khepeshef, the eldest was Crown Prince and Commander of the Troops, and Pareherwenemef would later serve in Ramesses II's army. Prince Meryatum was elevated to the position of High Priest of Re in Heliopolis. Inscriptions mention he was a son of Nefertari. Prince Meryre is a fourth son mentioned on the facade of the small temple at Abu Simbel and is thought to be another son of Nefertari. Meritamen and Henuttawy are two royal daughters depicted on the facade of the small temple at Abu Simbel and are thought to be daughters of Nefertari.

Princesses named Bak(et)mut, Nefertari, and Nebettawy are sometimes suggested as further daughters of Nefertari based on their presence in Abu Simbel, but there is no concrete evidence for this supposed family relation.

QV66 is the tomb of Nefertari, the Great Wife of Ramesses II, in Egypt's Valley of the Queens. It was discovered by Ernesto Schiaparelli (the director of the Egyptian Museum in Turin) in 1904. It is called the Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt.

The most important and famous of Ramesses's consorts was discovered by Ernesto Schiaparelli in 1904. Although it had been looted in ancient times, the tomb of Nefertari is extremely important, because its magnificent wall painting decoration is regarded as one of the greatest achievements of ancient Egyptian art. A flight of steps cut out of the rock gives access to the antechamber, which is decorated with paintings based on chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead.

This astronomical ceiling represents the heavens and is painted in dark blue, with a myriad of golden five-pointed stars. The east wall of the antechamber is interrupted by a large opening flanked by representation of Osiris at left and Anubis at right this in turn leads to the side chamber, decorated with offering scenes, preceded by a vestibule in which the paintings portray Nefertari being presented to the gods who welcome her.

On the north wall of the antechamber is the stairway that goes down to the burial chamber. This latter is a vast quadrangular room covering a surface area of about 90 square metres (970 sq ft), the astronomical ceiling of which is supported by four pillars entirely covered with decoration. Originally, the queen's red granite sarcophagus lay in the middle of this chamber.

According to religious doctrines of the time, it was in this chamber, which the ancient Egyptians called the golden hall that the regeneration of the deceased took place. This decorative pictogram of the walls in the burial chamber drew inspirations from chapters 144 and 146 of the Book of the Dead: in the left half of the chamber, there are passages from chapter 144 concerning the gates and doors of the kingdom of Osiris, their guardians, and the magic formulas that had to be uttered by the deceased in order to go past the doors.

A flight of steps cut out of the rock gives access to the antechamber, which is decorated with paintings based on Chapter 17 of the Book of the Dead. This astronomical ceiling represents the heavens and is painted in dark blue, with a myriad of golden five-pointed stars.

The east wall of the antechamber is interrupted by a large opening flanked by representation of Osiris at left and Anubis at right this in turn leads to the side chamber, decorated with offering scenes, preceded by a vestibule in which the paintings portray Nefertari being presented to the gods who welcome her.

On the north wall of the antechamber is the stairway that goes down to the burial chamber. This latter is a vast quadrengular room covering a surface area about 90 square meters, the astronomical ceiling of which is supported by four pillars entirely covered with decoration. Originally, the queen's red granite sarcophagus lay in the middle of this chamber.

According to religious doctrines of the time, it was in this chamber, which the ancient Egyptians called the "golden hall" that the regeneration of the deceased took place. This decorative pictogram of the walls in the burial chamber drew inspirations from chapters 144 and 146 of the Book of the Dead: in the left half of the chamber, there are passages from chapter 144 concerning the gates and doors of the kingdom of Osiris, their guardians, and the magic formulas that had to be uttered by the deceased in order to go past the doors.

The tomb itself is primarily focused on two things, the first being the Queen's life and the second being her death.

Ramesses' obvious affection for his wife, as written on her tomb's walls, shows clearly that Egyptian queens were not simply marriages of convenience or marriages designed to accumulate greater power and alliances, but, in some cases at least, were actually based around some kind of emotional attachment.

Also poetry written by Ramesses about his dead wife is featured on some of the walls of her burial chamber.

    "My love is unique - no one can rival her, for she is the most beautiful woman alive. Just by passing, she has stolen away my heart."

Nefertari's origins are unknown except that is thought that she was a member of the nobility, although while she was queen her brother Amenmose held the position of Mayor of Thebes.

The real value of the paintings found within the tomb is that they are the best preserved and most detailed source of the ancient Egyptian's journey towards the afterlife. The tomb features several extracts from the Book of the Dead from chapters 148, 94, 146, 17 and 144 and tells of all the ceremonies and tests taking place from the death of Nefertari up until the end of her journey, depicted on the door of her burial chamber, in which Nefertari is reborn and emerges from the eastern horizon as a sun disc, forever immortalized in victory over the world of darkness.

The details of the ceremonies concerning the afterlife also tell us much about the duties and roles of many major and minor gods during the reign of the 19th Dynasty in the New Kingdom. Gods mentioned on the tomb walls include Isis, Osiris, Anubis, Hathor, Neith, Serket, Ma'at, Wadjet, Nekhbet, Amunet, Ra and Nephthys.

Unfortunately by the time that Schiaparelli rediscovered Nefertari's tomb it had already been found by tomb raiders, who had stolen all the treasure buried with the Queen, including her sarcophagus and mummy. Some pieces of the mummy were found in the burial chamber, and were taken to the Egyptian Museum in Turin by Schiaparelli, where they still reside today.

The tomb was closed to the public in 1950 because of various problems that threatened the spectacular paintings, which are considered to be the best preserved and most eloquent decorations of any Egyptian burial site, found on almost every available surface in the tomb, including stars painted thousands of times on the ceiling of the burial chamber on a blue background to represent the sky.

In 1986 an operation to restore all the paintings within the tomb was embarked upon by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and the Getty Conservation Institute however, work did not begin on the actual restoration until 1988 which was completed in April 1992. Upon completion of the restoration work, Egyptian authorities decided to severely restrict public access to the tomb in order to preserve the delicate paintings found within.

Campaigns and Battles

Early in his life, Ramesses II embarked on numerous campaigns to return previously held territories back from Nubian and Hittite hands and to secure Egypt's borders. He was also responsible for suppressing some Nubian revolts and carrying out a campaign in Libya. Although the famous Battle of Kadesh often dominates the scholarly view of Ramesses II's military prowess and power, he nevertheless enjoyed more than a few outright victories over the enemies of Egypt. During Ramesses II's reign, the Egyptian army is estimated to have totaled about 100,000 men a formidable force that he used to strengthen Egyptian influence.

Battle against Sherden Sea Pirates

In his second year, Ramesses II decisively defeated the Shardana or Sherden sea pirates who were wreaking havoc along Egypt's Mediterranean coast by attacking cargo-laden vessels travelling the sea routes to Egypt. The Sherden people probably came from the coast of Ionia or possibly south-west Turkey.

Ramesses posted troops and ships at strategic points along the coast and patiently allowed the pirates to attack their prey before skillfully catching them by surprise in a sea battle and capturing them all in a single action. A stele from Tanis speaks of their having come "in their war-ships from the midst of the sea, and none were able to stand before them".

There must have been a naval battle somewhere near the mouth of the Nile, as shortly afterwards many Sherden are seen in the Pharaoh's body-guard where they are conspicuous by their horned helmets with a ball projecting from the middle, their round shields and the great Naue II swords with which they are depicted in inscriptions of the Battle of Kadesh. In that sea battle, together with the Shardana, the pharaoh also defeated the Lukka possibly the later Lycians), and the Shekelesh peoples.

The immediate antecedents to the Battle of Kadesh were the early campaigns of Ramesses II into Canaan and Palestine. His first campaign seems to have taken place in the fourth year of his reign and was commemorated by the erection of a stele near modern Beirut. The inscription is almost totally illegible due to weathering.

His records tell us that he was forced to fight a Palestinian prince who was mortally wounded by an Egyptian archer, and whose army was subsequently routed. Ramesses carried off the princes of Palestine as live prisoners to Egypt. Ramesses then plundered the chiefs of the Asiatics in their own lands, returning every year to his headquarters at Riblah to exact tribute. In the fourth year of his reign, he captured the Hittite vassal state of Amurru during his campaign in Syria.

The Battle of Kadesh in his fifth regnal year was the climactic engagement in a campaign that Ramesses fought in Syria, against the resurgent Hittite forces of Muwatallis. The pharaoh wanted a victory at Kadesh both to expand Egypt's frontiers into Syria and to emulate his father Seti I's triumphal entry into the city just a decade or so earlier. He also constructed his new capital, Pi-Ramesses where he built factories to manufacture weapons, chariots, and shields. Of course, they followed his wishes and manufactured some 1,000 weapons in a week, about 250 chariots in 2 weeks, and 1,000 shields in a week and a half. After these preparations, Ramesses moved to attack territory in the Levant which belonged to a more substantial enemy than any he had ever faced before: the Hittite Empire.

Although Ramesses's forces were caught in a Hittite ambush and outnumbered at Kadesh, the pharaoh fought the battle to a stalemate and returned home a hero. Ramesses II's forces suffered major losses particularly among the 'Ra' division which was routed by the initial charge of the Hittite chariots during the battle.

Once back in Egypt, Ramesses proclaimed that he had won a great victory. He had amazed everybody by almost winning a lost battle. The Battle of Kadesh was a personal triumph for Ramesses, as after blundering into a devastating Hittite ambush, the young king courageously rallied his scattered troops to fight on the battlefield while escaping death or capture. Still, many historians regard the battle as a strategic defeat for the Egyptians as they were unable to occupy the city or territory around Kadesh.

Ramesses decorated his monuments with reliefs and inscriptions describing the campaign as a whole, and the battle in particular as a major victory. Inscriptions of his victory decorate the Ramesseum, Abydos, Karnak, Luxor and Abu Simbel. For example, on the temple walls of Luxor the near catastrophe was turned into an act of heroism

Egypt's sphere of influence was now restricted to Canaan while Syria fell into Hittite hands. Canaanite princes, seemingly influenced by the Egyptian incapacity to impose their will, and goaded on by the Hittites, began revolts against Egypt. In the seventh year of his reign, Ramesses II returned to Syria once again. This time he proved more successful against his Hittite foes. During this campaign he split his army into two forces. One was led by his son, Amun-her-khepeshef, and it chased warriors of the Shasu tribes across the Negev as far as the Dead Sea, and captured Edom-Seir. It then marched on to capture Moab. The other force, led by Ramesses, attacked Jerusalem and Jericho. He, too, then entered Moab, where he rejoined his son. The reunited army then marched on Hesbon, Damascus, on to Kumidi, and finally recaptured Upi, reestablishing Egypt's former sphere of influence.

Later Campaigns in Syria

Ramesses extended his military successes in his eighth and ninth years. He crossed the Dog River (Nahr el-Kelb) and pushed north into Amurru. His armies managed to march as far north as Dapur,[ where he erected a statue of himself. The Egyptian pharaoh thus found himself in northern Amurru, well past Kadesh, in Tunip, where no Egyptian soldier had been seen since the time of Thutmose III almost 120 years earlier.

He laid siege to the city before capturing it. His victory proved to be ephemeral. In year nine, Ramesses erected a stele at Beth Shean. After having reasserted his power over Canaan, Ramesses led his army north. A mostly illegible stele near Beirut, which appears to be dated to the king's second year, was probably set up there in his tenth.

The thin strip of territory pinched between Amurru and Kadesh did not make for a stable possession. Within a year, they had returned to the Hittite fold, so that Ramesses had to march against Dapur once more in his tenth year. This time he claimed to have fought the battle without even bothering to put on his corslet until two hours after the fighting began. Six of Ramesses's sons, still wearing their side locks, took part in this conquest. He took towns in Retenu, and Tunip in Naharin, later recorded on the walls of the Ramesseum. This second success here was equally as meaningless as his first, as neither power could decisively defeat the other in battle.

Peace treaty with the Hittites

The deposed Hittite king, Mursili III fled to Egypt, the land of his country's enemy, after the failure of his plots to oust his uncle from the throne. Hattusili III responded by demanding that Ramesses II extradite his nephew back to Hatti.

This demand precipitated a crisis in relations between Egypt and Hatti when Ramesses denied any knowledge of Mursili's whereabouts in his country, and the two Empires came dangerously close to war. Eventually, in the twenty-first year of his reign (1258 BC), Ramesses decided to conclude an agreement with the new Hittite king at Kadesh, Hattusili III, to end the conflict. The ensuing document is the earliest known peace treaty in world history.

The peace treaty was recorded in two versions, one in Egyptian hieroglyphs, the other in Akkadian, using cuneiform script both versions survive. Such dual-language recording is common to many subsequent treaties. This treaty differs from others however, in that the two language versions are differently worded. Although the majority of the text is identical, the Hittite version claims that the Egyptians came suing for peace, while the Egyptian version claims the reverse. The treaty was given to the Egyptians in the form of a silver plaque, and this "pocket-book" version was taken back to Egypt and carved into the Temple of Karnak.

The treaty was concluded between Ramesses II and Hattusili III in Year 21 of Ramesses's reign. (c. 1258 BC) Its 18 articles call for peace between Egypt and Hatti and then proceeds to maintain that their respective gods also demand peace. The frontiers are not laid down in this treaty but can be inferred from other documents. The Anastasy A papyrus describes Canaan during the latter part of the reign of Ramesses II and enumerates and names the Phoenician coastal towns under Egyptian control. The harbour town of Sumur north of Byblos is mentioned as being the northern-most town belonging to Egypt, which points to it having contained an Egyptian garrison.

No further Egyptian campaigns in Canaan are mentioned after the conclusion of the peace treaty. The northern border seems to have been safe and quiet, so the rule of the pharaoh was strong until Ramesses II's death, and the waning of the dynasty.

When the King of Mira attempted to involve Ramesses in a hostile act against the Hittites, the Egyptian responded that the times of intrigue in support of Mursili III, had passed. Hattusili III wrote to Kadashman-Enlil II, King of Karduniash (Babylon) in the same spirit, reminding him of the time when his father, Kadashman-Turgu, had offered to fight Ramesses II, the king of Egypt.

The Hittite king encouraged the Babylonian to oppose another enemy, which must have been the king of Assyria whose allies had killed the messenger of the Egyptian king. Hattusili encouraged Kadashman-Enlil to come to his aid and prevent the Assyrians from cutting the link between the Canaanite province of Egypt and Mursili III, the ally of Ramesses.

Ramesses II also campaigned south of the first cataract into Nubia. When Ramesses was about 22, two of his own sons, including Amun-her-khepeshef, accompanied him in at least one of those campaigns. By the time of Ramesses, Nubia had been a colony for two hundred years, but its conquest was recalled in decoration from the temples Ramesses II built at Beit el-Wali (which was the subject of epigraphic work by the Oriental Institute during the Nubian salvage campaign of the 1960s), Gerf Hussein and Kalabsha in northern Nubia. On the south wall of the Beit el-Wali temple, Ramesses II is depicted charging into battle against the Nubians in a war chariot, while his two young sons Amun-her-khepsef and Khaemwaset are shown being present behind him, also in war chariots. On one of the walls of Ramesses's temples it says that in one of the battles with the Nubians he had to fight the whole battle alone without any help from his soldiers.

During the reign of Ramesses II, there is evidence that the Egyptians were active on a 300-kilometre (190 mi) stretch along the Mediterranean coast, at least as far as Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham. Although the exact events surrounding the foundation of the coastal forts and fortresses is not clear, some degree of political and military control must have been held over the region to allow their construction.

There are no detailed accounts of Ramesses II's undertaking large military actions against the Libyans, only generalized records of his conquering and crushing them, which may or may not refer to specific events that were otherwise unrecorded. It may be that some of the records, such as the Aswan Stele of his year 2, are harking back to Ramesses's presence on his father's Libyan campaigns. Perhaps it was Seti I who achieved this supposed control over the region, and who planned to establish the defensive system, in a manner similar to how he rebuilt those to the east, the Ways of Horus across Northern Sinai.

Religious Impact

Ramesses was the pharaoh most responsible for erasing the Amarna Period from history. He, more than any other pharaoh, sought deliberately to deface the Amarna monuments and change the nature of the religious structure and the structure of the priesthood, in order to try to bring it back to where it had been prior to the reign of Akhenaten.

After reigning for 30 years, Ramesses joined a selected group that included only a handful of Egypt's longest-lived kings. By tradition, in the 30th year of his reign Ramesses celebrated a jubilee called the Sed festival, during which the king was ritually transformed into a god. Only halfway through what would be a 66-year reign, Ramesses had already eclipsed all but a few greatest kings in his achievements. He had brought peace, maintained Egyptian borders and built great and numerous monuments across the empire. His country was more prosperous and powerful than it had been in nearly a century. By becoming a god, Ramesses dramatically changed not just his role as ruler of Egypt, but also the role of his firstborn son, Amun-her-khepsef. As the chosen heir and commander and chief of Egyptian armies, his son effectively became ruler in all but name.

Death and Legacy

By the time of his death, aged about 90 years, Ramesses was suffering from severe dental problems and was plagued by arthritis and hardening of the arteries. He had made Egypt rich from all the supplies and riches he had collected from other empires. He had outlived many of his wives and children and left great memorials all over Egypt, especially to his beloved first queen Nefertari.

Nine more pharaohs took the name Ramesses in his honor, but none equalled his greatness. Nearly all of his subjects had been born during his reign. Ramesses II did become the legendary figure he so desperately wanted to be, but this was not enough to protect Egypt. New enemies were attacking the empire, which also suffered internal problems and could not last indefinitely.

Less than 150 years after Ramesses died the Egyptian empire fell and the New Kingdom came to an end.

Massive Ancient Statue of Ramses II Discovered Submerged In Mud In Cairo NPR - March 10, 2017


Ramesses II was originally buried in the tomb KV7 in the Valley of the Kings but, because of looting, priests later transferred the body to a holding area, re-wrapped it, and placed it inside the tomb of queen Inhapy. 72 hours later it was again moved, to the tomb of the high priest Pinudjem II. All of this is recorded in hieroglyphics on the linen covering the body. His mummy is today in Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

The pharaoh's mummy reveals a hooked nose and strong jaw, and stands at some 1.7 metres (5 ft 7 in). His ultimate successor was his thirteenth son, Merneptah.

Was Ramesses II really that great?

Ramesses II is often counted among Ancient Egypt’s greatest pharaohs. He certainly saw himself that way: he spent most of his reign covering his kingdom in monuments dedicated to himself. The third ruler of the 19th Dynasty had an unusually long kingship, fathered hundreds of children and – if you believe his own press – was a mighty warrior who could hold his ground against an entire army. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in his 1818 poem Ozymandias, adopting the name the Ancient Greeks used for Ramesses II. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Though Shelley’s poem is written as a cautionary tale – his Ozymandias’s mighty empire is long gone, and where it once was, “the lone and level sands stretch far away” – the memory of the real Ozymandias lives on. Ramesses II, son of Pharaoh Seti I and grandson of 19th Dynasty founder Ramesses I, was the mastermind of such an extensive programme of building across Egypt that his presence is difficult to escape even now – from Abu Simbel to Karnak, you can still see colossal statues bearing his likeness.

But does that mean he deserves the epithet of ‘the Great’ that was later bestowed on him? Ramesses II was born in c1303 BC to Seti’s consort Tuya. His first taste of battle came as a boy, during one of his father’s campaigns, though how old he was is unclear. What is known is that he had been named Captain of the Army by the age of ten and, at 14, was appointed as prince regent and bestowed with a household.

Ramesses ascended the throne when Seti I died in 1279 BC, and almost immediately moved the royal court from Thebes to a new site on the eastern Nile Delta. The magnificent city that blossomed here – with the modest name of Pi-Ramesses – would become home to more than 300,000 people. He would go on to rule for 67 years, the longest documented reign for any pharaoh, at a time when Ancient Egypt was at the peak of its power. His lands stretched from the Mediterranean to Nubia in modern-day Sudan.

The virile builder

The early years of his reign saw a focus on foreign policy, during which Ramesses led campaigns to reclaim lost lands and built a series of forts along the Nile Delta. But his longest-lasting legacy is in the form of the buildings and monuments he left behind.

In Ancient Egypt, the pharaohs were seen as alink between the gods and the common people, and were considered to be divine themselves. Ramesses was no exception. To ensure that he was always in the thoughts of his subjects, he commissioned more statues of himself than any other pharaoh. Typically, they featured a cobra on his crown, a sacred animal believed to protect against one’s enemies.

He also made a point of ‘renovating’ statues and temples erected by pharaohs who had come before, with his cartouche – a hieroglyphic stamp bearing Ramesses’ name – found on buildings and statues that Ramesses definitely didn’t build. But it’s unclear if, by recycling colossal statues, he was trying to fill the land with his image in a cost-effective way, or if he intended to honour Ancient Egypt’s earlier rulers. Certainly, his influence is helped by the fact that his sculptors adopted the practice of carving ‘sunken’ reliefs that emerged in the 18th Dynasty the alternative was the raised relief, which was much easier to erase, either by accident or intention.

The pinnacle of these projects was Abu Simbel – representing both a masterwork of building as well as political propaganda. Built to mark the 30th anniversary of his reign, this pair of temples on the Nile’s second cataract were cut directly into the sandstone cliffs.

The first, the Great Temple, was Ramesses’ own: a 30-foot high edifice, the door to which is flanked by four seated, 20-metre-high colossi representing the pharaoh, though it is ostensibly dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah. The neighbouring Small Temple (a still-substantial 12 metres high) is dedicated to Hathor in honour of Ramesses’ favourite and first wife, Chief Queen Nefertari.

As was common amongst pharaohs,Ramesses was married to several women at the same time it’s estimated he had eight official wives and a number of concubines. But it was Nefertari who is thought to have been his favourite. They married while his father ruled and had ten children together. Indeed, Ramesses’ many children can be seen as more evidence of his great legacy – he is said to have sired more than 100 offspring throughout the course of his life.

Nefertari is assumed to have died by the time of Ramesses’ jubilee celebrations in the 30th year of his reign, and the completion of her temple at Abu Simbel. Her tomb in the Valley of the Queens is considered one of the most beautiful ever discovered. Images of Nefertari found across Egypt suggest she was famed for her beauty, and poetry written for her by Ramesses can be found within her tomb.

The great pharaoh’s greatest monuments

The two temples at Abu Simbel were carved into sandstone cliffs as a tribute to Ramesses II and his wife Nefertari. Four statues of the Pharaoh flank the entrance to the larger of the two, the Great Temple, so there can be no doubt asto who it belonged to. Twice a year, at sunrise, the inside of the Great Temple is illuminated, revealing the figures of Ptah of Memphis, Amen-Re of Thebes, Ra-Horakhty of Heliopolis and a deified Ramesses of Pi- Ramesses. In the 1960s, the temples were relocated 60 metres to protect them from the rising Nile.

The funerary temple of Ramesses II in Thebes was dedicated to the king of the gods. The walls are covered in reliefs documenting the Battle of Kadesh, as well the Pharaoh’s other achievements. A colossal granite head of Ramesses that once stood at the doorway of the temple, known as the Younger Memnon, is now in the British Museum.

The Ptah Colossus

Near the ancient city of Memphis, temples were constructed for the creator god Ptah. Next to one of these temples, Ramesses had a colossal red granite statue of himself built. The 11-metre statue was found in 1820, broken into pieces. It has since been reconstructed and moved to Giza, in anticipation of the planned Grand Egyptian Museum due to open in 2020.

The tomb of Nefertari

Situated in the Valley of the Queens, Luxor, the tomb of Ramesses II’s first wife is one of the most exquisite tombs in all of Egypt. Nefertari was buried in a red granite tomb and surrounded by colourful scenes of her amongst the gods, emphasising her beauty. Looting over the years means that only fragments of her tomb remain, and of her mummy only her knees have been recovered.

Seti I built a palace on the site of Pi-Ramesses – now thought to be the modern-day village of Qantir. When Ramesses II ascended the throne, he moved Egypt’s capital there, creating a magnificent city full of lakes and lush trees. It was later superseded by the city of Tanis when its branch of the Nile silted up.

The mighty warrior

Artwork on the interior of the Grand Temple commemorates the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC, which Ramesses seems to have considered his greatest triumph – he had it recorded in reliefs across many other temples, too, as well as in poetry.

The city of Kadesh once belonged to Egypt, but had fallen to the Anatolian Hittite Empire during Seti I’s reign. It was perched in a precarious position, on the frontier of these rival empires. After leaving a detachment of soldiers at nearby Amurru, Ramesses set his sights on recapturing Kadesh. His army numbered 20,000, divided into four divisions of infantry and chariotry. On the way, he managed to apprehend some Hittite deserters, who brought him the welcome news that the terrified Hittites were still more than 100 miles away. “is fuelled Ramesses’ self-belief in victory – he saw himself as the living incarnation of Montu, the Egyptian god of war.

With an unshakeable confidence in his might, he marched towards Kadesh only to come across more Hittite soldiers, who were this time more honest in their confessions. Ramesses had fallen for the oldest trick in the book: the Hittites, under the leadership of King Muwatalli II, had already reached Kadesh and were waiting just over the hill. Ramesses’ armies weren’t prepared, with two divisions still on the wrong side of the Orontes River. The royal family, which had come with the army to witness Ramesses’ triumph, were swiftly taken to safety as many of his men fled in terror.

How the rest of the battle played out is unclear as Ramesses created a fantastic tale of his godlike prowess as a warrior and swift victory – if we are to believe the Pharaoh, he defeated them single-handedly after praying to Amen-Re to make him stronger than any other man: “I found that my heart grew stout and my breast swelled with joy. Everything which I attempted I succeeded … I found the enemy chariots scattering before my horses. Not one of them could fight me. Their hearts quaked with fear when they saw me and their arms went limp so they could not shoot.”

What is likely is that the Egyptians had the superior technology that was better suited to the environment, in the form of lighter, more mobile chariots. What’s more, the forces that had been left in Amurru unexpectedly arrived, forcing the Hittites to retreat. With the armies on opposing sides of the river, a truce was negotiated – though both sides claim it was the other who pleaded for peace. Though victory was a close-run thing, you wouldn’t have thought it on Ramesses’ return. His near defeat was spun into a masterful retelling of victory accounts subsequently inscribed on temples across his kingdom all applaud the fearless warrior king.

“His Majesty was confident, an unstoppable fighting force,” reads one. “Everything near him was ablaze with fire – all the foreign lands were blasted by his scorching breath. He slaughtered all the troops of the doomed Hittite, his nobleman and his brothers, along with the chiefs of all the countries which had supported him. His infantry and chariotry fell on their faces, one on top of the other. His majesty struck them down and killed them where they stood.”

The first peace

Ramesses returned victorious, but he still hadn’t retaken Kadesh – the city remained in Hittite hands, and their accounts recall a humiliated Ramesses being forced to retreat. Several local rulers were inspired by the battle to try and take on the Pharaoh, forcing him to reassert his power in Syria, Amurru and Canaan, and over the next few years he regained several cities and regions that had previously been lost.

The unexpected death of the Hittite King Muwatalli in c1272 BC prompted a succession crisis that wasn’t fully resolved until c1267 BC, when Muwatalli’s brother, Hattusilis, staged a coup against his nephew, Urhi-Teshub. Urhi- Teshub sought refuge in Egypt, leading to a diplomatic crisis when Ramesses denied all knowledge of his whereabouts to Hattusilis.

War was nearly resumed, forestalled only when the two rulers realised that the Assyrians were becoming a greater threat than either were to each other. Sixteen years after the Battle of Kadesh, they negotiated a treaty to respect each other’s territory and defend each other against attack. This treaty is believed to be the earliest surviving peace treaty in the world and the only ancient Near East treaty where both sides of the agreement still exist.

As Ramesses’ reign went on, his building campaigns seemed to decline – economic uncertainty in Egypt is hinted at as a possible reason. In Ramesses’ later years, his eldest surviving son, Merenptah, began taking on royal duties and was pharaoh in all but name during the last decade of his father’s life. Ramesses II is believed to have died in the August of his 67th year of rule, at the age of 91.

Emma Slattery Williams is Staff Writer on BBC History Revealed.

We may now know which Egyptian pharaoh challenged Moses

Historians theorize the identity behind one of the Bible’s most vengeful villains.

The Egyptian king is the principal villain of the Exodus story. Unlike the pha­raoh who knew Joseph, the pharaoh of Moses is cruel and vindictive. When Moses asks him to release the Israelites, Pharaoh makes the slaves work harder, depriving them of straw to make sun-dried mud bricks, even though the daily quota of finished bricks must remain the same (Exodus 5:7-8).

The History of the Bible, Animated

The identity of Pharaoh in the Moses story has been much debated, but many scholars are inclined to accept that Exodus has King Ramses II in mind. The Bible confirms that the Israelites were to build “supply cities, Pithom and Ramses, for Pharaoh.” Egyptian records confirm that the kings of the 19th dynasty (ca 1293–1185 B.C.E.) launched a major mili­tary program in the Levant. As part of this effort, King Seti I (ca 1290–1279 B.C.E.) built a new garri­son city, which his successor, Ramses II (ca 1279– 1213 B.C.E.), later called Pi-Ramesses. Ramses II also built a second city dedicated to his personal patron, Atum, called Per Atum. These two cities are quite possibly the biblical Ramses and Pithom.

The Egyptian origin of the story is also empha­sized by the name of “Moses.” The Book of Exodus says that his name is derived from the Hebrew verb moshe, which means “to draw out.” However, mose or moses is also a very common Egyptian patronymic, as in Tutmoses, meaning “son of Tut.”

It seems to be generally taken for granted in pop discourse that Ramses II was the unnamed Pharaoh during Exodus, if it had happened. Where/when does this identification come from, and how did it become so normalized?

Went down this train of thought while participating in the sacred Passover ritual of watching Prince of Egypt, and thinking about how Moses's adoptive brother is named Ramses, as opposed to any of the other proposed Pharaohs. I do remember in sixth grade history class that it was mentioned that he was that Pharaoh—though I forget if it was taught as fact or hypothesis, nor do I remember if the implication was that the Exodus did in fact happen, or if this was presented as "If Exodus had happened, then he was the Pharaoh at the time." Of course, I am familiar with what the general consensus among historians is on the veracity of the Biblical story, so I suppose asking if any of those alternatives hold any water is a bit of a goose chase, but I am curious about the overall reasoning behind these theories and how compelling the cases are in pinpointing the real figure that aligns with the Biblical narrative.

Nevertheless, though, what's the reasoning for Ramses II to be the most popular name for Exodus Pharaoh, both in and out of academia?

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The identification seems to owe principally to two things:

The mention of the "store-city" Raamses in Exodus 1:11. There were no Pharaohs called Ramesses until the thirteenth century, and Ramesses I had only a very brief reign (ca. 1295-1294 B.C.E.) Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213), on the other hand, oversaw the establishment of multiple sites bearing his name. Scholars who believe that Exodus tradition reflects some genuine history have generally associated the Raamses of Exodus 1:11 with Pi-Ramesses in the Eastern Nile Delta, one of Ramesses II's royal residences. Note that the other "store-city" in 1:11, Pithom, may refer to Per-Atum (at Tell el-Retaba?), another Ramesside site.

The mention of Israel in the late-thirteenth century Merneptah Stele. A monument set up by Pharaoh Merneptah (r. 1213-1204), Ramesses II's successor, contains our earliest reference to a people/place called Israel, although Merneptah claims to have destroyed them in the course of his campaign against Canaan. As the traditional thinking goes, if Israel existed at the time of Merneptah, then the Hebrews must have left Egypt sometime prior---but this assumes the historicity of the Exodus tradition, of course.

Richard Elliott Friedman's recent book The Exodus (New York: HarperOne, 2017) summarizes the scholarship in a very accessible way, if you're interested in reading further. He also makes a case (fairly convincing, in my opinion) for a historical Exodus that was originally much smaller, involving only the Levites, with the details become more and more elaborate over the centuries.

Sources and further reading:

Bietak, Manfred. "On the Historicity of the Exodus: What Egyptology Today Can Contribute to Assessing the Biblical Account of the Sojourn in Egypt." In Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience, ed. Thomas E. Levy et al., 17-37. Cham: Springer, 2015. (summarizes some relevant archaeological and geographical data, some of which concerns Pi-Ramesses and Per-Atum, and argues that the Exodus tradition preserves some genuine if muddled memories of enslavement in Egypt)

Currid, John D. Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997. (see pp. 126-129 for some discussion of Raamses and Pithom)

Hoffmeier, James K. Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. (a defense of the historicity of the Exodus by an Egyptologist with a conservative Christian background)

Kitchen, K. A. Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1982. (an accessible overview of thirteenth-century Egypt Kitchen's an accomplished Egyptologist who also has a conservative Christian background)

Propp, William H. C. Exodus 19-40: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 2006. (see Appendix B, "The Historicity of the Exodus from Egypt," 735-756, viewing the Exodus tradition as essentially myth)

A history of the Bible: who wrote it and when?

The origins of the Bible are still cloaked in mystery. When was it written? Who wrote it? And how reliable is it as an historical record? BBC History Revealed magazine charts the evolution of arguably the most influential book of all time

This competition is now closed

Published: April 7, 2020 at 10:10 am

In 2007, Time magazine asserted that the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment and culture than any book ever written”.

It’s a bold claim, but one that’s hard to refute. What other book resides on bedside tables in countless hotel rooms across the globe? What other book has bequeathed the world such instantly recognisable catchphrases as “an eye for an eye”, “thou shalt not kill” and “eat, drink and be merry”?

Factor in the number of copies that have been sold down the centuries – somewhere in the region of five billion to date, swollen by a further 100 million every year given away for free – and there’s no denying that the Bible’s influence on Western civilisation has been monumental.

But if the Bible’s standing as a cultural behemoth is beyond doubt, its history is anything but. For centuries, some of the world’s greatest thinkers have puzzled over the origins and evolution of this remarkable document. Who wrote it? When? And why?

These are the thorniest of questions, made all the more tangled by the Bible’s great age, and the fact that some, or all of it, has become a sacred text for members of two of the world’s great religions – Judaism and Christianity – numbering more than two billion people.

Where does the Bible originate?

Archaeology and the study of written sources have shed light on the history of both halves of the Bible: the Old Testament, the story of the Jews’ highs and lows in the millennium or so before the birth of Jesus and the New Testament, which documents the life and teachings of Jesus. These findings may be incomplete and they may be highly contested, but they have helped historians paint a picture of how the Bible came to life.

Perhaps the best place to start the story is in Sun-baked northern Egypt, for it was here that the Bible and archaeology may, just may, first collide.

For centuries, the Old Testament has been widely interpreted as a story of disaster and rescue – of the Israelites falling from grace before picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and finding redemption. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in Exodus, the dramatic second book of the Old Testament, which chronicles the Israelites’ escape from captivity in Egypt to the promised land.

But has archaeology unearthed one of the sites of the Israelites’ captivity?

That’s the question that some historians have been asking themselves since the 1960s, when the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak identified the location of the ancient city of Pi-Ramesses at the site of the modern town of Qantir in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Pi-Ramesses was the great capital built by Ramesses II, one of Egypt’s most formidable pharaohs and the biblical tormentor of the Israelites. It’s been argued that Pi-Ramesses was the biblical city of Ramesses, and that the city was built, as Exodus claims, by Jewish slaves.

In this podcast, biblical scholar John Barton considers the historical background to the most influential book in western culture, exploring its creation and how it fits into the histories of Judaism and Christianity:

It’s an intriguing theory, and one that certainly has its doubters. But if it were true, it would place the enslaved Israelites in the Nile Delta in the decades after 1279 BC, when Ramesses II became king. So what happened next?

The Bible is in little doubt. It tells us that Moses led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt (whose population had been laid low by ten plagues inflicted on them by God) before Joshua spearheaded a brilliant invasion of Canaan, the promised land. The historical sources, however, are far less forthcoming. As John Barton, former professor of the interpretation of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford, puts it: “There is no evidence of a great invasion by the Israelites under Joshua the population doesn’t seem to have changed much in that period as far as we can tell by archaeological surveys.”

In fact, the best corroborating evidence for the Bible’s claim that the Israelites surged into Canaan is Merneptah’s Stele.

Like all good autocrats, Merneptah, pharaoh of Egypt, loved to brag about his achievements. And when he led his armies on a successful war of conquest at the end of the 13th century BC, he wanted the world, and successive generations, to know all about it.

The medium on which the pharaoh chose to trumpet his martial prowess was a three-metre-high lump of carved granite, now known as the Merneptah Stele. The stele, which was discovered at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 1896, contains 28 lines of text, mostly detailing the Egyptians’ victory over the Libyans and their allies. But it is the final three lines of the inscription that has arguably excited most interest among historians.

“Israel has been shorn,” it declares. “Its seed no longer exists.” These few words constitute the first known written reference to the Israelites. It’s an inauspicious start, one that boasts of this people’s near destruction at the hands of one of the ancient world’s superpowers in their homeland of Canaan. But the Israelites would survive.

And the story they would go on to tell about themselves and their relationship with their God would arguably eclipse any of Merneptah’s achievements. It would spawn what is surely the most influential book of all time: the Bible.

Merneptah’s Stele may describe more Jewish pain at the hands of their perennial Egyptian persecutors, but it at least suggests that they may have been in Canaan during Merneptah’s reign (1213–1203 BC).

If the early history of the Israelites is uncertain, so is the evolution of the book that would tell their story.

Catherine Nixey and Edith Hall discuss a pivotal moment in religious history, when Christianity became the dominant faith of the Roman empire:

Who wrote the Bible?

Until the 17th century, received opinion had it that the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – were the work of one author: Moses. That theory has since been seriously challenged.

Scholars now believe that the stories that would become the Bible were disseminated by word of mouth across the centuries, in the form of oral tales and poetry – perhaps as a means of forging a collective identity among the tribes of Israel. Eventually, these stories were collated and written down. The question is by whom, and when?

A clue may lie in a limestone boulder discovered embedded in a stone wall in the town of Tel Zayit, 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem, in 2005. The boulder, now known as the Zayit Stone, contains what many historians believe to be the earliest full Hebrew alphabet ever discovered, dating to around 1000 BC. “What was found was not a random scratching of two or three letters, it was the full alphabet,” Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland has said of the stone. “Everything about it says this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.”

The Zayit Stone does not in itself tell us when the Bible was written and collated, but it gives us our first glimpse of the language that produced it. And, by tracking the stylistic development of that language down the centuries, and cross-referencing it with biblical text, historians have been able to rule out the single-author hypotheses, concluding instead that it was written by waves of scribes during the first millennium BC.

Ask the expert: John Barton

John Barton is a former professor of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford and the author of A History of the Bible: The Books and Its Faiths.

Q: Just how reliable is the Old Testament as an historical document?

A: Some parts, such as the early chapters of Genesis, are myth or legend, rather than history. But parts of Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah describe events broadly known also from Assyrian or Persian sources. For example, Jehu, king of Israel in the ninth century BC, appears on an Assyrian monument, the Black Obelisk, doing obeisance to the Assyrian king. From about the eighth century BC onwards, the Old Testament contains some real historiography, even though it may not all be accurate.

Q: Does it matter if it’s not historically accurate? Are we guilty of placing too much emphasis on this question?

A: I think we are. Much of the Old Testament is about seeing God at work in human history rather than in accurately recording the detail, and sometimes we exaggerate the importance of historical accuracy. The Old Testament is not a work of fiction, but nor is it a modern piece of history-writing.

Q: How much does archaeology support the historicity of the Old Testament?

A To a limited extent. It gives us a context within which the Old Testament makes sense, but it doesn’t confirm a lot of the details. It mustn’t be forgotten that archaeology has also yielded vast numbers of documents from the ancient near-east, such as Assyrian and Babylonian annals, which illuminate the Old Testament world.

Q: How much do we know about the scribes who wrote the Old Testament?

A: The scribes are never described in detail in the Old Testament itself, but analogies with Egypt and Mesopotamia make it clear that there must have been a scribal class, probably attached as civil servants to the temple in Jerusalem or the royal court. After the exile of the Jewish people in Bablylon in the sixth century BC, scribes gradually turned into religious teachers, as we find them in the New Testament.

Q: When was the Old Testament assembled into the book it is today?

A: Probably during the first century BC, though parts of it were certainly regarded as holy scripture much earlier than that. But the collection is a work of early Judaism. It should be remembered that for a long time it was a collection of individual scrolls, not a single book between two covers.

Q: Did the Old Testament anticipate the figure of Jesus Christ?

A: There are prophecies of a coming Messiah – which means ‘anointed one’ – occasionally in the Old Testament, and Christians claimed them as foretelling Jesus. But messianic hopes were not widespread or massively important in first-century Judaism and are even less central to the Old Testament itself. Christians discovered texts they saw as messianic prophecies – for example, in Isaiah 7 – though other Jews did not read them that way.

Q: Why did the New Testament gain so much traction in the first centuries AD?

A: The New Testament was accepted because it was part of the package of the Christian message, which was massively successful in the early centuries. The message, which was that all humankind was accepted through Jesus by the God worshipped by the Jews, proved a winner.

Who was King David?

The first wave of scribes may, it’s been suggested, have started work during the reign of King David (c1000 BC). Whether that’s true or not, David is a monumental figure in the biblical story – the slayer of Goliath, the conqueror of Jerusalem. David is also a hugely important figure in the quest to establish links between the Bible and historical fact, for he appears to be the earliest biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology.

“I killed [the] king of the house of David.” So boasts the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone dating from 870–750 BC and discovered in northern Israel in the 1990s. Like the Merneptah Stele before it, it documents a warlord’s victory over the Israelites (the man doing the gloating was probably the local ruler Hazael of Aram-Damascus). But it at least indicates that David was a historical figure.

The Tel Dan Stele also suggests that,no matter how capable their rulers, the people of Israel continued to be menaced by powerful, belligerent neighbours. And, in 586 BC, one of those neighbours, the Babylonians, would inflict on the Jews one of the most devastating defeats in their history: ransacking the sacred city of Jerusalem, butchering its residents, and dragging many more back to Babylonia.

For the people of Israel, the fall of Jerusalem was a searing experience. It created, in the words of Eric M Meyers, a biblical scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, “one of the most significant theological crises in the history of the Jewish people”. And, according to many scholars, that crisis may have had a transformative impact on the writing of the Bible.

The Old Testament is far more than a formulaic story of a nation’s evolution, it’s also a chronicle of that nation’s relationship with its God. Did the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC convince a new wave of Jewish thinkers that they hadn’t been keeping their side of the bargain? Did it spur them into revisiting all previous editions of the Jewish scriptures in order to sharpen the emphasis on the agreement or ‘covenant’ between the people and their one God?

Whether this theory holds or not, there’s little doubt that by the time they returned from their Babylonian exile, the Bible occupied a unique place in the consciousness of the Jewish people. However, it would be centuries before the book would be revered as a secret text for non-Jews. And the reason for that transformation from national to international significance was, of course, the figure of Jesus Christ. It’s the so-called New Testament, the account of Jesus’s life and teachings, that turned the Hebrew Bible into a civilisationshaping, global icon.

Who was Jesus? Did he really exist?

Most scholars agree that Jesus, a first-century religious leader and preacher, existed historically. He was born in c4 BC and died – reportedly crucified on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate – in cAD 30–33. Then, for around 40 years, news of his teachings was spread by word of mouth until, from around AD 70, four written accounts of his life emerged that changed everything.

The gospels, or ‘good news’, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are critically important to the Christian faith. It is their descriptions of the life of Jesus Christ that have made him arguably the most influential figure in human history.

“We can’t be sure when the gospels were written,” says Barton, “and we know little about the authors. But the guess is that Mark came first, in the 70s, followed by Matthew and Luke in the 80s and 90s, and John in the 90s or early in the second century.

“In general, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the same story with variations, and hence are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels, whereas John has a very different style, as well as telling a markedly different version of the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke seem to be attempts to improve on Mark, by adding more stories and sayings from sources now lost. John is a different conceptualisation of the story of Jesus, portraying a more obviously divine figure.”

Though the variations in the four gospels may have proved a source of frustration to those trying to paint a definitive picture of Jesus’s life and teachings, they offer a fascinating insight into the challenges facing the early Christian church as it spread around the Mediterranean world in the first and second centuries AD.

Mark, it’s been argued, wrote for a community deeply affected by the failure of a Jewish revolt against the Roman empire in the AD 60s, while Luke wrote for a predominately Gentile (non-Jewish) audience eager to demonstrate that Christian beliefs could flourish within the Roman empire. Both John and Matthew hint at the growing tensions between Jewish Christians and the Jewish religious authorities.

As a Jew, Jesus would have been well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and, according to the gospels, saw himself as the realisation of ancient Jewish prophecies. “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law, or the prophets,” Matthew reports him saying. “I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfil.” But for all that, by the time the gospels were written, schisms between Judaism and nascent Christianity were clearly emerging.

How did Christianity spread around the world?

The Epistles, or letters, written by Paul the Apostle to churches dotted across the Mediterranean world – which are our best source for the initial spread of Christianity – confirm that Christianity started in Jerusalem, but spread rapidly to Syria and then to the rest of the Mediterranean world, and was mostly accepted by non-Jews, says John Barton, former professor of the interpretation of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford.

“The epistles [which make up 13 books of the New Testament] are our earliest evidence for Christianity,” says Barton. “The first date from the AD 50s, just two decades after the death of Jesus.”

As Paul’s letters to churches such as the one in the Greek city of Thessalonica reveal, the first Christian communities were often persecuted for their beliefs.

And it’s such persecution, particularly at the hands of the Romans, that may have inspired the last book of the New Testament, Revelations. With its dark descriptions of a seven-headed beast and allusions to an imminent apocalypse, Revelations is now widely believed to be a foretelling of the grisly fate that the author believed awaited the Roman oppressors of Christianity.

Despite that oppression, by the fourth century Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Mediterranean world, with the New Testament widely revered as a sacred text inspired by God. “It was around this time,” says Barton, “that the 27 books of the New Testament were copied into single books as though they formed a single work.” One example is the Codex Sinaiticus, now in the British Library. “The first person to list exactly the books we now have as the New Testament is the fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, but it’s clear that he was only reporting what was already widely accepted.”

By the end of the early fifth century, a series of councils across the Christian world had effectively rubber-stamped the New Testament that we know today: the Bible’s journey to being the most influential book in human history was well and truly under way.

Versions of the Bible

Different editions of the Bible have appeared over the centuries, aiming to further popularise the stories and teachings within. Here are three of the most notable versions…

King James Bible

On 24 March 1603, King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King James I of England and Ireland. His reign would usher in a new royal dynasty (the Stuarts) and a new era of colonialism (most especially in North America). But arguably every bit as significant was his decision, in 1611, to introduce a new Bible.

The ‘King James Version’ (KJV) wasn’t the first to be printed in English – Henry VIII had authorised the ‘Great Bible’ in 1539 and the Bishops’ Bible had been printed during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1568 – but, in terms of impact, the KJV would dwarf its successors.

Shortly after his coronation, James was told that existing translations of the Bible were “corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original”. What his scholars produced was a book designed to be read out aloud in church – fast-paced, easy to understand, a masterclass in storytelling.

No other version would challenge its dominance in the English-speaking world until the mid-20th century. According tob historian Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible’s “particular combination of majesty and freedom, of clarity and richness, was for centuries held, particularly by the Victorians, to be the defining terms of our national identity”.

The Gutenberg Bible

In 1454, in the Rhineland town of Mainz, three friends – inventor Johannes Gutenberg, printer Peter Schöffer and financier Johann Furst – pooled resources and brainpower to come up with what the British Library describes as “probably the most famous Bible in the world”.

The Gutenberg Bible, as the three friends’ creation would come to be known, signalled a step-change in printing techniques. Whereas earlier Bibles were produced by printing presses that employed woodblock technology, the press that churned out the Gutenberg Bible used moveable metal type, allowing more flexible, efficient and cheap printing.

Gutenberg’s Bible also had massive cultural and theological ramifications. Faster, cheaper printing meant more books and more readers – and that brought with it greater criticism, interpretation, debate and, ultimately, revolution. In short, the Gutenberg Bible was a significant step on the road to the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment.

In the words of Professor Justin Champion of Royal Holloway, University of London: “The printed Bible in the hands of the public posed a fundamental challenge to papal dominion. Once released from Latin into the vernacular, the word of God became a weapon.”

Dead Sea Scrolls

Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave at Wadi Qumran, near the Dead Sea. When he heard something crack he headed inside to investigate. What he found has been described by the Smithsonian Institute as “the most important religious texts in the Western world”.

What the shepherd had chanced upon were the Dead Sea Scrolls, more than 800 documents of animal skin and papyrus, stored in clay jars for safe keeping. Among the texts are fragments of every book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esher, along with a collection of previously unknown hymns and a copy of the Ten Commandments.

But what really makes the scrolls special is their age. They were written between around 200 BC and the middle decades of the first century AD, which means they predate by at least eight centuries the oldest previously known Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

Were the scrolls left in the caves by a Jewish community living near the Dead Sea or, perhaps, by Jews fleeing Roman troops in the first century AD? We may never know for sure.

Spencer Day is a freelance journalist specialising in history

New Research in Ancient History

I am dedicating this new blog to telling the story of the Bible in light of its Egyptian context. Over the last 150 years, ancient Near Eastern studies have shown that nothing from the Old Testament was cut from whole cloth. The Pentateuch emerged from a culture stretching back thousands of years. Yet, few authors engage the wealth of Egyptian material culture in relation to the Bible.

The Bible having an Egyptian context might sound strange, but it should not be. If we are to believe the biblical text, the Israelites left Egypt after living there for hundreds of years. While living in the Nile delta, they would have adopted customs and ways of thinking distinct to Egypt.

Yet, few serious researchers explore this material. In the early 20th century, Egyptology as a discipline separated itself from biblical research. And the two fields more or less grew independently. Today, with the rigor required to be an Egyptologist, few scholars are trained to engage both Egyptology and the Bible.

Thus, the time is now right to publish the research that I have gathered. As I write books and articles, my research from peer reviewed journals is now finding its way into popular press. So as I engage Egypt and the Bible, I will be making new discoveries and publishing new works. And as I publish, I hope this blog will expose this fascinating world to a wider audience.

Watch the video: Is This the Lost Egyptian City of Pi-Ramesses?