The store cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1)

During their Egyptian sojourn the enslaved Israelites were forced by the pharaoh to build the store cities of Pithom and Rameses (Exodus 1:11). Scholars have long disagreed as to their locations, and this dispute is important. This knowledge would help to date the exodus, but uncertainty about the issue has led some historians to go so far as to suggest that this pivotal event never happened!

Possible sites of the city Pithom

Modern Tell er-Retaba, the most likely location, faces Sinai. It sits on the eastern fringe of the Nile delta on the Wadi Tumilat, about 97 km east-northeast of Cairo. The only major, fortified city in the area, Tell er-Retaba was occupied for a long time – generally thought to be the time of Israel’s oppression and exodus.

Modern Tell el-Maskhuta, a few miles further east, is considered by some scholars to be the site of ancient Pithom. But this is unlikely given the fact that this city was occupied only later, during the eighteenth to sixteenth centuries B.C., during the latter part of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and the early Second Intermediate periods. Pottery unearthed at this site leaves little doubt that Semitic people did indeed occupy this city, but they were probably related to the Hyksos, who dominated part of Egypt for a time.

Tell el-Maskhuta evidently lay abandoned from the sixteenth century B.C. until approximately 610 B.C., when rebuilding took place under Pharaoh Neco II.

Modern Heliopolis, another proposed site, this one in Egypt’s southern delta region, also is an unlikely location for Pithom. Heliopolis is referred to as On in the Old Testament (Genesis 41:50, Ezekiel 30:17; it is called Beth Shemesh elsewhere), but we have no reason to suspect that it would have been called Pithom in Exodus 1:11.

Possible sites of the city Rameses

This city is named for Rameses II, who lived from 1279-1213 B.C., long after the generally accepted date for the exodus. It is highly probable that mention of this name in the Bible is anachronistic (the city may not have been known by this name when the Israelites lived there). Later Biblical writers may have referred to it as Rameses because their readers knew it as such.

Qantir is the most likely location for ancient Rameses. Egyptian texts record that this later city was located on the “waters of the Ra” – the Pelusaic or eastermost brach of the Nile River. Tanis (see discussion to follow) was on the Tanitic branch just west of the Pelusaic.

Qantir, which boasts a long history, was in the vicinity of modern Tell ed-Dab’a. It is also the likely site of an earlier Hyksos capital, Avaris. Many Semites, called Asiatics by the Egyptians, lived in this area. So it may have been a centre of occupation for the Israelites, who comprised part of the Semite population. If this were the case, Israelite slave labour would have been readily available when the pharaoh of the oppression chose to build his store cities.

Tanis was once considered the best candidate for the location of Rameses, based largely on the fact that a number of statues dating from the time og Rameses II have been discovered here. For a long time scholars believed that Rameses II had taken a massive rebuilding program in Tanis. If this were true, and the Israelites had been involved in the reconstruction of the city then named Rameses, they would have laboured under Rameses II around 1250 B.C., necessitating a much later date for the exodus.

Recent archaeological findings, however, overturn the suggestion that Tanis might have been the site of Rameses. Tanis has been found to be the principal residence of pharaohs living during the Twenty-first and Twenty-second Dynasties, after the time of Rameses II and much too late for the exodus. Ramesside statuary found in Tanis is now understood to have been moved there from Qantir long after the lifetime of Rameses II.

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