Pithom and Ra’amses

A giant statue of Rameses II, who may have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus, in an open-air museum in Memphis, Egypt.
Image credit: Wknight94 talk, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

“So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh.” (Ex. 1:11, NIV translation)

What is a “store city,” anyway? The ancient Egyptian equivalent of an Amazon fulfillment center? Archaeologists have never found anything matching that description, in Egypt or anywhere else. Every village and town in the world has depots and repositories of various types, but – at least until modern times – there’s never been so much stuff around that you needed a metropolis to store it where people had no room to live. (There’s been some recent thought that the Hebrew, translated as “treasure cities” in the King James version of the Bible quote above, originally derives from another Semitic language altogether. But even if “store-cities” or “treasure cities” is actually a mistranslation, the concept remains.)

Whatever the biblical authors might have meant, if we assume that at least part of the Exodus story contains elements of truth, the products of Israelite labor mentioned in the Hebrew Bible were more likely to be city-sized storage facilities within much larger municipalities than actual “store cities.” So we still don’t know exactly what Pithom and Rameses were.

But after more than a century of searching, now we know where they were.

In the past few decades, using ground-penetrating radar along with more traditional tools like picks and trowels, Egyptologists have identified the biblical-era city of Ra’amses beneath the modern Egyptian city of Qantir. In fact, they are so certain they’ve found Ra’amses, Google Earth has labeled a section of Qantir Pi-Ramesses.

If anything can be said to have been “stored” in Pi-Ramesses, it was horses. The site is home to the largest ancient stable complex ever found, housing up to 460 mounts in luxurious quarters. The immense equestrian complex, which included a chariot repair shop, befitted pharaoh Ra’amses II who was known for his military adventures as well as his massive construction works. A computer-generated flyover of Pi-Ramesses was created for a museum exhibit  in Germany and is available on Vimeo, showing details of the stables, the neighborhoods, an entire avenue lined with six-foot tall sphinxes, and the small proportion of excavated land compared with the expansive underground radar map.

Screenshot of Pi-Ramesses computer-animated reconstruction. Image credit: en.artefacts-berlin.de

In my novel Goshen, two characters work in the stables. Every horse barn needs low-status people to muck out the stalls, and I figured that might be the job of a few select Israelite slaves. Biblical archaeologists also know that the Kingdom of Israel, which flourished centuries after Ra’amses II, was highly dependent on skilled horse handlers – skills that might have been learned much earlier in Egypt and passed down from generation to generation.

While Pi-Ramesses is now pretty definitively located, there is disagreement about which city the biblical author is referring to when it comes to Pithom. Majority opinion centers on a dig in the present-day town of Tall AZ Zahirah, which Egyptologists know as Tell el-Maskhuta, because they’ve found centuries’ worth of layers of monumental buildings there. There’s also a reference in a scroll to a place in the area called Per-Atum (“City of Atum,”  an Egyptian sun-god), which early Hebrew-speaking people might have shortened to pi-tohm. There are other candidates for Per-Atum, though, so I avoided the whole controversy in my novel Goshen and decided to make the male members of my protagonists’ family work in a place very close to Pi-Ramesses that they called the “Old Capital”: Avaris

Avaris, which is generally accepted as “one of the most important [ancient cities] in the Nile Delta,” was the capital of the Hyksos, a Semitic people who ruled Egypt shortly before the time of Rameses II. In fact, Rameses II probably built Pi-Ramesses close to Avaris in order to be very clear to everyone who entered Egypt that his city was much, much better. Since it seems to me that a colossal self-promoter like Rameses II would literally take Avaris apart and use it as a storage depot for the city he had named after himself, that’s what I have my characters working on: turning the magnificently frescoed palace grounds of Avaris into . . . the ancient Egyptian equivalent of an Amazon fulfillment center.

Rameses II would have been proud.

Moses, Aaron and Pharaoh in a scene from animator Nina Paley‘s feature-length film, Seder Masochism.

4 thoughts on “Pithom and Ra’amses”

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