New Exhibition Chronicles Meeting of Ancient Israel and Egypt

The best known part of the Pharaoh in Canaan story — the Exodus from Egypt — is not supported by any archaeological evidence whatsoever.

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A view of the exhibition at the Israel Museum.
A view of the exhibition at the Israel Museum. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The most provocative items in the huge archaeological exhibition opening March 4 at the Israel Museum are the ones that aren’t there. The exhibition, “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story,” is about the long relationship between the land of Israel and ancient Egypt. The hall devoted to the best known part of the story — the Exodus from Egypt — is an empty room with exactly one exhibit on display: a movie featuring co-curator and Israel Museum Egyptologist Dr. Daphna Ben-Tor, who explains that the hall is empty because there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever to support the biblical tale.

Every child knows the details of the story of the Exodus but few people outside the academic world know that ancient Egypt ruled over the land of Israel for hundreds of years before the period of the Israelite settlement and kingdom in the second millenium B.C.E. The exhibits, from Israeli and Egyptian archaeology, tell a complex story of the meeting of cultures and the exchange of ideas, gods, technologies and products between the Canaanite provinces and the Egyptian empire.

The climax of the exhibition describes the most dramatic outcome of this encounter — the invention of hieroglyphs, which many think was the first true writing system, together with pre-cuneiform Sumerian writing (both of which are believed to have emerged from ancestral proto-literate symbol systems used over 5,000 years ago).

A view of the exhibition at the Israel Museum.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Among the hundreds of objects on exhibit are gold jewelry, scarabs, pottery, glass and stone vessels, weapons, mirrors, game boards, tombstones, inscriptions, statues of gods and kings and more. Many of the objects were discovered in excavations in Israel and were collected by the Antiquities Authority and other museums in Israel. Some have been loaned by museums abroad for the exhibition, among them the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

One of the most interesting finds in the exhibition is a fragment of a sphinx statue that was found at Tel Hatzor: the paws of the lion. According to the inscription between them, the statue was produced in Egypt during the Early Kingdom period — that is, about 1,000 years before Egypt conquered Canaan. Researchers believe that the granite statue was sent from Egypt as a gift to the governor of Hatzor. At the time it was sent, 3,500 years ago, it was already an antiquity, about 1,000 years old.

Another find from Hatzor is an image of the goddess Hathor on a jewelry box made of bone and wood. The goddess on the box is of mixed attributes — Egyptian and Canaanite.

Also on display in the exhibition is the curved sickle sword. The Egyptians adopted the rounded sword, which features a sharp outer edge, as an important weapon following the conquest of Canaan. A similar sword was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt after the 1979 peace agreement, he gave a copy of the ancient curved sword to President Anwar Sadat as a symbol of peace.

From Tutankhamun himself only one object is displayed in the exhibition: a gold signet ring with the king’s name on it, found at Tel Ajul in the Gaza Strip.

A relief of King Akhenaten presenting an offering of bread.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Meeting the gods

The turning point in this encounter between cultures — the rich and mighty empire from the Nile Delta and the provincial Canaanite states — occurred around 1,500 B.C.E. At that time Pharaoh Thutmose III won a battle at Megiddo against a coalition of Canaanite armies and adjoined the land to the territories of the Egyptian empire. A number of items in the exhibition have inscriptions in Egyptian hieroglyphics that show the Canaanite as a man kneeling with his hands tied behind his back. In other words, in the Egyptian language, Canaanite meant a captive or an enemy who has surrendered, and the symbols for Canaan meant “the foreign country.”

However, it would be a mistake to describe this historical relationship as merely a sequence of battles and humiliations. The exhibition includes many objects that testify to reciprocal influences between the cultures. A striking influence was the adoption of Egyptian styles and technologies by the elites of Canaan, but the Egyptians were influenced by the Canaanites as well. The most interesting crossover was that of gods. Ba’al, Ashtoreth, Anath and Reshef, all of them local gods from Canaan, found their way into the Egyptian pantheon.

A tombstone lent to the exhibition by the museum in Turin depicts two Egyptians worshipping the goddess Qetesh, who stands on a lion’s back — a typical attribute of Canaanite gods. It is interesting to note that the flow of gods in the opposite direction — from Egypt to Canaan — was far smaller. Only one goddess, Hathor, was absorbed. There are many representations of her in the exhibition — she can be identified easily by her cow’s horns.

A view of the exhibition at the Israel Museum.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

A lot of effort has been invested in reconstructing large finds. In the central hall, two capitals that were found at Beit She’an are positioned on reconstructed columns; the gate to the Egyptian governor’s house from the same site has been replicated and reconstructed, and there are two huge tombstones cut from basalt with images and long inscriptions of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The pieces of the gate and the tombstones were found decades ago in excavations from Beit She’an but were overshadowed by the important findings from the Roman period. “The most exciting thing from my perspective as the success in bringing out architectural items that had been forgotten and redeeming them,” says co-curator Eran Arie. “The scientific community is not familiar with these objects — some of them are described in the literature as lost. This is the first time they are being shown to the general public and also to scientists, and I think this will open archaeological discussions.”

No archaeological finding

Sphinx of Thutmose III, ca. 1,500 BCE. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The basalt tombstones are well known to Egyptologists and archaeologists but this is the first time they have been placed on their original bases, which were brought from Beit She’an. One of them shows King Merneptah meeting the god Horus, the incarnation of the sun. Beneath the image there is a description of the battle in which the king defeated the Canaanite kingdoms. The second tombstone was repurposed about 1,500 years ago as the threshold of a Byzantine church that was built about 2,000 years after the tombstone and the inscription on it has been nearly erased. However, from what has survived it is possible to learn that it describes a victory by the Egyptian king over the “Hafiru.”

These were groups of lawbreakers who are mentioned in documentation from Canaan during the period of the Egyptian empire. For many years there was a theory stating that after the Egyptians retreated from Canaan, the law-breaking Hafiru became an ethnic group we know today as the “Hebrews.” If the theory is correct, then it was the Egyptians who left Canaan and made possible the establishment of ancient Israel — and not the Israelites who left Egypt and were transformed from groups of slaves into a nation on their way through the desert.

“There is no archaeological finding that corroborates the story of the Exodus from Egypt, but it wasn’t written in a vacuum and there is a high probability that it contains historical seeds,” says curator Ben-Tor. “For example, it is known that in a time of crisis Canaanites would go down to the Delta, to the Land of Goshen. We know that there are people of Canaanite origin who attained high positions in the Egyptian administration, like Joseph. Even the names — Moses, Zaphnath-Paaneah — are names known from Egyptian texts.”

One of the names known to both cultures is Yaakov (Jacob). In the exhibition there is a scarab with the name Yaqub-har, a king who ruled Egypt before the conquest of Canaan. Research has identified the dynasty known as the Hyksos as a dynasty of Canaanite origin that gained control of Egypt.

Another hall contains a display of Egyptian-style sarcophagi that were found in Israel. The largest collection was found at Dir al Balah by Moshe Dayan. The sarcophagi reflect an Egyptian burial fashion but a look at their faces makes it clear that the Canaanites were not death artists of the high Egyptian standard. The faces are distorted, sometimes grotesque. The most beautiful sarcophagus was found by chance four years ago at a rescue dig in the Jezreel Valley, and has refined facial features.

The god Amun, 13th or 14th century BCE. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

On display in another part of the hall are dozens of Egyptian-style pottery vessels discovered in Israel. Tel Aviv University archaeologist Mario Martin, who has studied Egyptian ceramics, found that the kinds of vessels identified more with women — mainly cooking pots — are absent from the excavation. The explanation is that the Egyptian elite in Canaan was male and it was local Canaanite women who did the cooking in the kitchens.

In the last part of the exhibition is a film about the most dramatic outcome of this intercultural encounter: the invention of the alphabet. A theory developed by Orly Goldwasser, an Egyptologist from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, posits that writing was invented not by an elite or educated people but rather by Canaanite miners in Sinai, who wanted to write but knew very little about Egyptian hieroglyphics. Instead of using hundreds of hieroglyphics, each of which represents a word, they chose 30 simple symbols, each of which represents the first consonant of the name of an object — a parallel from the Latin alphabet would be “s” for snake. This is how the proto-Canaanite writing that became the first alphabet was invented. The high point of the exhibition, at least from the perspective of visiting children, is the application that translates names from Hebrew into proto-Canaanite.

“This exhibition explores a crucial, yet forgotten chapter in the history of ancient civilizations. 'Pharaoh in Canaan' tells the revelatory story of the cross-cultural dynamics between Canaan and Egypt and the resulting and often astonishing aesthetic, ritual and cultural affinities that developed between these two distinct peoples,” said James S. Snyder, the Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. “It is especially appropriate that the Israel Museum tell this remarkable archaeological story from its setting in Jerusalem and with its rich collections that trace the ancient roots of the region around us.”