This article was first published in the Spring 2006 issue of Bible and Spade.
If the Reed Sea can be located somewhere along the marshy lake district of the Isthmus of Suez (Byers 2006), which separates the cultivated delta from the barren desert, then the place names in the Exodus account can be centralized to a specific area. Everything prior to the sea crossing would have taken place in the area from the easternmost branch of Nile delta (Goshen) to the marshy lakes. Everything after the crossing was in the desert immediately to the east.
While archaeological research in the delta is severely hampered by the region’s high water table, during the last two decades it has received significant attention. These results have helped clarify a number of place names in the Exodus itinerary.
Rameses (Ex 12:37; Nm 33:3) was the starting point of the Exodus. There is no reason to doubt that Biblical Rameses is the same as Pi-Rameses in Egyptian texts (Kitchen 2003: 255; Wood 2004; Hoffmeier 2005: 53, 55). The city, whose full hieroglyphic name was “House of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, Great of Victories,” was originally built on the eastern bank of the Pelusiac, the easternmost of the Nile’s five ancient branches. As the final waterway in the eastern delta before the border, there was no other significant body of water for the Israelites to cross before the sea. Because of the shifting of the delta streams over the centuries, the Pelusiac branch is dry today, but its former presence is clear from geologic probes at the site.
At this location, ancient cities were built and rebuilt over many centuries. Spread over eight square miles beneath the modern villages of Tell el-Dab‘a, Qantir and Ezbet Helmi today are the consecutive ancient Egyptian cities of Rowaty, Avaris, Peru-nefer and Rameses.
Following the Bible’s own chronology, the site was probably called Rowaty when Jacob moved there (Gn 47:11), and later Peru-nefer when they rebuilt it (Ex 1:11) and departed it in the Exodus (Ex 12:37). It was only named Rameses after Pharaoh Rameses II rebuilt it again some 200 years after the Israelites exited Egypt. This is the name that stuck (Wood 2004; Byers 2005: 4–7; Kitchen 2003: 255).
The author reviewing excavation plans at Ezbet Helmi, site of the royal palaces at Rameses in the time of Moses. It was discovered in the eastern Nile Delta beneath the sites of modern villages and their agricultural fields. Ongoing excavations by Manfred Bietak at the modern villages of Tell el-Dab’a and Ezbet Helmi, and Edger Pusch at Qantir have uncovered a succession of ancient cities. The earliest city here, inhabited by Semites (Asiatics), was called Rowaty. The following city, called Avaris, was also settled by Semites during the period of the Hyksos rule. The next city, at the time of the Exodus, was probably known as Peru-nefer. The final city in this area was built by Rameses the Great (1279–1212 BC) and he named it after himself. Its full name was “House of Ramesses Beloved of Amun Great of Victories.” Sometime before 1069 BC, the course of the Nile migrated away from the city and the site was abandoned.
Succoth (Ex 12:37; Nm 33:5–6) was the first stop (the second place mentioned in the Exodus itinerary). The Hebrew name (meaning “temporary shelters,” “tents” or “booths”) probably corresponds to the Egyptian name tkw (Tjeku), a site known in Egyptian texts and preserved in the modern Arabic name of the village located at the ancient site, Tell el-Maskhuta. Linguistically, the hieroglyphic name is probably borrowed from Hebrew (Hoffmeier 2005: 65). Both names probably reflect a site where, from early times, Semitic-speaking people, desert clans and merchant traders camped along the Wadi Tumilat. It may not have been a permanent city, but a site of camp-style dwellings—probably structures constructed from bundles of plant stalks and branches as can still be seen in the delta region today. Such a meaning makes sense, as the Israelites would not have wanted to have to deal with an occupied Egyptian town as they were departing the country (Shea 1990: 105–106; Kitchen 2003: 257–58; Hoffmeier 1997: 179).
The fact that Tjeku was regularly written with the hieroglyphic determinatives of a throw stick (meaning “foreign”) and the foreign land sign, suggests that while still in the delta and Egypt proper, it was near the border and maybe an area where foreigners lived (Hoffmeier 1997: 179; 2005: 65). While Tjeku may well have referred to a region—that is, the Wadi Tumilat area—there was probably a specific site in the region known as Succoth/Tjeku (Hoffmeier 2005: 65–68). Such a site fits with the archaeology of modern Tell el-Maskhuta, found in the Wadi Tumilat about 15 mi (24 km) southeast of Rameses (Hoffmeier 2005: 65). Fittingly, excavations at the site have not identified a city here during the time of the Exodus (18th Dynasty; mid-15th century BC).
Thus the Israelites did not leave Rameses after the final plague and head east to Canaan by the most direct and fortified route—the Horus Road. Instead, they took a route southeast to Succoth in the Wadi Tumilat, a road that led toward the Sinai (Hoffmeier 1997: 187–88; 2005: 65–68).
Tell el-Maskhuta, ancient Succoth. The first stop in the Exodus itinerary was Succoth. This Hebrew name probably corresponded to the name of the ancient Egyptian site called Tjeku. Both ancient names are still reflected in the name of the modern Arabic village Tell el-Maskhuta. Maskhuta is located at the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat of the Nile’s eastern delta, the very area the Biblical text places Succoth. At the time of the Exodus, Succoth (“booths” in Hebrew) was probably not an actual Egyptian city, but a temporary campground for Semites (Asiatics) coming into the delta from the Levant.
Etham (Ex 13:20; Nm 33:6) was the next stop after Succoth. While the origin of the Hebrew term is obscure (Hoffmeier 2005: 69–70), there is good reason to suggest that the Hebrew name originated in the name of the Egyptian god Atum (Kitchen 2003: 259). The Exodus itinerary places Etham at the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat, and the modern Arabic name “Tumilat” also preserves the name of the same deity (Hoffmeier 2005: 62, 64, 69).
Whether a fort or another type of settlement, its specific situation “on the edge of the wilderness” suggests a location so close to the border lakes that it could be identified with the desert on the other side. Hoffmeier proposes a site just outside (east) of the Wadi Tumilat proper (2005: 70), while Kitchen suggests a location near modern Ismailiya, at the northern end of Lake Timsah (2003: 259). Either way, at this point in the Exodus, Israel appears to be at or near Egypt’s eastern border.
The next stop is the critical one for placing the actual location of the Reed Sea crossing. This third stop after leaving Rameses was identified by a major shift of direction for the Israelites. The Hebrew term clearly means they “turned,” but does not indicate in which direction (Ex 14:2; Nm 33:7). Their next stop was a camp site identified by four named places: Pi Hahiroth, Migdol, the sea, and Baal Zephon (Ex 14:2; Nm 33: 7). All four Hebrew toponyms (place names) have a counterpart in New Kingdom Egyptian hieroglyphics, and they are all located in the same region. In fact, three of the four place names of Exodus 14:2 are mentioned in the same New Kingdom text.
Hoffmeier (2005: 73) points out that turning north, and traveling 31 mi (50 km) from the Lake Timsah region to the northern end of Ballah Lake, would put the Israelites in the region of modern Qantara. That is where recent northern Sinai archaeological research suggests the toponyms of Exodus 14:2 were located.
The Biblical statements are extremely precise, providing a very specific set of reference points. Scolnic notes that there is nothing close to these types of reference points to identify Mount Sinai (2004: 98). It may also be indicating that these sites should be understood to be located in a precise narrow area, each even within sight of the Israelite encampment (Scolnic 2004: 98–99).
A booth in middle Egypt. While the “booths” of Succoth (Ex 12:37, Nm 33:5–6) might generally be considered tents of animal skins, it is very likely that such temporary shelters in the ancient Nile Delta were made of vegetable material—stalks, branches and leaves. Such shelters still dot the landscape around agricultural fields in rural Egypt.
Pi Hahiroth (Hebrew, “the mouth of the canals”) may actually come as a popular Semitic etymology from an Egyptian term (Hoffmeier 2005: 105–107). Noting a toponym from Papyrus Anastasi III 2.9, Hoffmeier suggests that the Hebrew came from the hieroglyph p3 hrw, meaning “the canal” (2005: 106–107). This Egyptian name was used for a canal in the northeastern edge of the delta and it is quite reasonable that the Exodus itinerary is referring to the very same location. In addition, this is the region of Egypt where ancient canal traces have been most widely identified (Byers 2006: 18). Their presence here would have facilitated trade and provided security on Egypt’s eastern border.
Migdol, literally “tower” in Hebrew, was regularly used for a fortification structure. But migdol is a known loanword into Egyptian (mktr), meaning “fort,” “fortification” or “stronghold” (Hoffmeier 1997:189; Scolnic 2004: 101). Its mention in the Exodus itinerary immediately before the sea crossing indicates it was nearby.
As far back as Gardiner, scholars have associated the Migdol of the Exodus itinerary with the Egyptian frontier town Migdol in Jeremiah (44:1; 46:14) and Ezekiel (29:10; 30:6), as well as Magdolo of Greco-Roman times. Recent research, however, has suggested that these migdols were located at different sites in different periods (Hoffmeier 2005: 95–96).
It is reasonable to suggest, on the other hand, that the Migdol associated with the third stop on the Exodus itinerary is identified with the Migdol of Men-maat-re (Seti I), the third fort named along the ancient Horus Way (Kitchen 2003: 261; Hoffmeier 2004: 65; 2005: 103–105; Scolnic 2004: 104). As a Semitic loanword, “migdol” becomes a significant term. Not widely found in Egyptian texts in different periods (Hoffmeier 2004: 61; 2005: 102–103; Scolnic 2004: 102–108), the few references that we do have point to a location in Egypt’s northeastern frontier
along the road to Canaan.
On the ground in the northeastern delta region, our present knowledge of the region suggests the best candidate for the Migdol of the Horus Way is found at a site known as T-78 (Hoffmeier 2005: 102). While this identification is not yet fixed, the route of the Horus Way is certain and Migdol’s precise location has been narrowed to within just a few kilometers at the southern tip of an ancient lagoon on the Mediterranean coastline (Hoffmeier 2004: 65–66; 2005: 102–104; Scolnic 2004: 119–120).
Reference to a Migdol in the Exodus account in the same region and at the same time period suggests a correlation between the two sites. That would make it possible to fix the location of the Migdol of the Exodus in a precise area just to the northeast of the Ballah Lakes.
Migdol of Men-maat-re (Seti I), most likely the Migdol of Exodus 14:2. It was the third fortress along Egypt’s Horus Way, depicted between the hind legs and tails of Seti I’s chariot horses (E) in the Karnak relief of his campaign to Canaan (see Bible and Spade, winter 2006, page 21). The fort is shown with crenelated walls and an adjacent pool of water. Locating this fortress is critical to determining the Exodus sea crossing locale. Since the border fortress of Tjaru, the first fortress on the Seti I relief (B-C), has been identified as Hebua I by means of an inscription, the second fortress, “Dwelling of the Lion” (D), is most likely Tell el-Borg, and the third fortress, Migdol, is probably Site T-78, a New Kingdom site ca. 5 mi (8 km) northeast of Ballah Lake. If this location is correct, it would place the Exodus sea crossing at the northern end of the Ballah Lake.
Baal Zephon (Hebrew, “Baal of the North”) is the deity from the pantheon of Ugarit and famous as one of the gods of Canaan in the Old Testament. Worship of this Semitic god was allowed in pantheistic Egypt, but never included in the pantheon of native Egyptian gods. Baal worship was known in the northeast delta where Egypt is nearest to Canaan and where a large percentage of the population was probably Semite soldiers, sailors, merchants and travelers (Hoffmeier 1997: 190).
Although “north” could refer to the northeastern delta area, it may relate to the region where Baal worship originated—the mountainous region of the Levant. While Baal Zephon may conjure up an image of worship in conjunction with a mountain, such an identification is not necessary.
While a sixth-fifth century BC Phoenician papyrus presented Baal Zephon as the principal deity of Tahpanhes, Hoffmeier notes that Jeremiah (2:16; 43:7–9; 44:1; 46:14) and Ezekiel (30:18) do not call the city Baal Zephon, but Tahpanhes (2005: 107). The Arabic-named archaeological site Tell Defeneh (probably a corruption of Tahpanhes), in the Ballah Lake area today, has had very little excavation. To date, however, the archaeological evidence from the site does not support an identification with Baal Zephon.
Instead, Hoffmeier again points to the Papyrus Anastasi III 2.8, where a broken part of the text speaks of “the waters of Baal” (2005: 102–103). Like Pi-Hahiroth/p3 hrw, it is associated with water and located in the northeastern delta area. While the specific location and exact nature of Baal Zephon is unclear in both Exodus 14:2 and the Papyrus Anastasi III, they both put a “Baal” site in the same area at the same time.
Map of the northeast delta. Based on the most recent research from Egypt, place names of the Exodus narrative prior to the sea crossing can now be placed on the map. Departing Rameses, the Israelites did not take the northern international highway (the Horus Way = “the road through the Philistine country,” Ex 13:17) toward Canaan. Instead they traveled south to the Wadi Tumilat and then east past Succoth to Etham. At God’s direction, from here they “turned back” to the north and went up the west side of the ancient Ballah Lake. Somewhere at the northern end of the lake, not far from the ancient Mediterranean coastline, were the sites of Pi Hahiroth, Migdol and Baal Zephon. Taking the Exodus narrative at face value, and utilizing the most recent archaeological research from Egypt along with place names from Egyptian texts during the same period, evidence suggests the Reed Sea crossing was in the area of Abu Sefeh, modern Qantara, at the northern end of the Ballah Lake.
The Exodus itinerary indicates the Israelites departed Rameses but did not take the Horus Road that began at Rameses and was the direct route to Canaan. Instead, they headed southeast through the delta to Succoth in the Wadi Tumilat. Following the route eastward toward the desert, they stopped again at Etham facing Egypt’s border and the desert on the other side. At this point, the Bible says the Israelites turned, and the simplest understanding of the text suggests the direction was “back” (Hoffmeier (2005: 71–72). The specifi c direction is not indicated, but it is clarified by the place names at their next stop. While a turn to the south would put the Israelites at the Gulf of Suez, recent research from excavation and surveys in the region indicate they turned north (Shea 1990: 108; Scolnic 2004: 97–99; Hoffmeier 2005: 72–73). It was a choice made at God’s direction and which, apparently, pleased Pharaoh (Ex 14:3).
After the critical “turn back” to the north of Exodus 14:2, the Israelites’ next stop is identified by four toponyms: Pi Hahiroth, Migdol, the sea and Baal Zephon. All four Hebrew names have hieroglyphic counterparts for locations in the delta’s northeast corner. Three (Pi Hahiroth, the sea and Baal Zephon) are found in the same text (Papyrus Anastasis III), and each relates to a body of water. As Hoffmeier notes, the convergence of all three terms, each relating to a body of water in the northeast delta region, is quite remarkable (2005: 106–108). Migdol is mentioned in several New Kingdom texts. The fact that these texts are from the same general period (New Kingdom Egypt) only heightens the connection. All the names point to the area between Ballah Lake and the ancient Mediterranean coastline for the location of events in the Exodus narrative.
At this point Pharaoh’s army overtook the Israelites. Unable to go forward because of the sea and feeling trapped, the Israelites confronted Moses (Ex 14:11–12). There, in an area along Egypt’s border in the delta’s northeastern corner and facing the “Reed Sea” God performed a miracle and led them supernaturally across Egypt’s border into the desert of Shur. Taking the Exodus account as historical, and utilizing all the recent research from excavations and hieroglyphic textual studies, it appears that the miracle took place in the northeastern corner of the Suez Isthmus. The Reed Sea that was crossed would most likely have been the ancient Ballah Lake, a large body of water that is no longer there, since it was drained during construction of the Suez Canal (Byers 2006: 15).
Many of the sites named in the Exodus itinerary have been connected to their counterpart Egyptian names as a result of recent textual and archaeological research. With the help of geological and topographical surveys we are now able locate them in the eastern delta region. For the fi rst time, scholars are able to locate these sites on the map and trace out the Exodus route in the Nile’s eastern delta.
Admittedly, our present archaeological, geological and textual knowledge is not sufficient to understand each name or pinpoint its location precisely on the ground. But research in that region is expanding rapidly. Literally every year we are getting new insights into that region’s rich Egyptian history and its connection to the Bible. This research is consistently demonstrating a correlation with our understanding of the Old Testament in general, and with the Exodus narrative in particular.
If the Exodus itinerary is to be taken seriously as a historical document, then the location of these place names in the Wadi Tumilat and the northern Suez Isthmus makes it the most likely location for the yam suph crossing. At a critical juncture in the Exodus, apparently very near Egypt’s eastern border, the Israelites turned north. Consequently, the “Reed Sea” would have been one of the large lakes sitting on Egypt’s eastern border. With the presently available evidence, the ancient equivalent to the modern Ballah Lake seems most reasonable to this writer.
Naming of the sea crossed in the Exodus as the “Red Sea” was an unfortunate choice. Not a translation, but an historical interpretation, it has kept serious Bible students from looking in the correct location for solid evidence of the Exodus. But today, the most recent research from Egypt is providing a historical basis for one of the most important events in the Old Testament.
Editorial Note: Further information on the Tjaru fort was published in 2008. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/06/Archaeologists-find-ancient-army-HQ-in-Sinai.aspx
Recommended Resources for Further Study
Byers, Gary A.
2005 Israel in Egypt. Bible and Spade 18: 1–9.
2006 New Evidence From Egypt on the Location of the Exodus Sea Crossing, Part 1. Bible and Spade 19: 14–22.
1920 The Ancient Military Road Between Egypt and Palestine. Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 6: 99–116.
Hoffmeier, James K.
1997 Israel in Egypt. New York: Oxford University.
2004 The North Sinai Archaeological Project’s Excavations at Tell el-Borg (Sinai): An Example of the “New” Biblical Archaeology? Pp. 53–66 in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.
2005 Ancient Israel in Sinai. New York: Oxford University.
Kitchen, Kenneth A.
2003 On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.
Scolnic, Benjamin E.
2004 A New Working Hypothesis for the Identifi cation of Migdol. Pp. 91–120 in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Alan Millard. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans.
Shea, William H.
1990 Leaving Egypt. Archaeology and Biblical Research 3: 98–111.
Wood, Bryant G.
2004 The Royal Precinct at Rameses. Bible and Spade 17: 45–51.
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