How to Escape from Pharaoh

Fun fact: No camels were used during the Exodus. The “ships of the desert” only came into wide use centuries later. But what was it really like for Israelites to live as slaves in ancient Egypt, and what skills did they need to survive once they’d escaped? The modern nomads of the Levant, the Bedouin, provide some clues.

Climate Plagues

A toxic algae bloom in a primary water source causes a mass die-off of amphibians, attracting insects that become vectors of disease. Changes in weather patterns bring on freak storms and an explosion of vermin, wiping out crops and livestock. The government responds to criticism with crackdowns, worsening the overall disaster. And finally, a deadly food-borne illness turns a joyful holiday into a national calamity.

All of this could be in our future. But could it also be what happened almost five thousand years ago, when the Book of Exodus tells us the plagues came to Egypt?


In 2015 thousands of graves of children and teens from biblical-era Egypt were found at the archaeological site of Tell el-Amarna, once the capital city of the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenaten. The skeletons showed signs of heavy labor, and had been wrapped only in rough matting before being dumped into the ground. Their families were unknown.

A Times of Israel reporter, Amanda Borschel-Dan, asked Amarna Project director Barry Kemp whether these skeletons could be the remains of Israelite slaves under Pharaoh.

His answer was a quick no.

Pithom and Ra’amses

What is a “store city,” anyway? The ancient Egyptian equivalent of a gigantic 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 very recently – there’s never been so much stuff around that you needed a metropolis to store it where people had no room to live.

So, assuming 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.” But that still begs the question of where Pithom and Rameses were located.

After more than a century of searching, now we know.