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Merneptah Stele

Merneptah Stele

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The Merneptah Stele — also known as the Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah — is an inscription by the Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

ian king
Pharaoh
Pharaoh is a title used in many modern discussions of the ancient Egyptian rulers of all periods. The title originates in the term "pr-aa" which means "great house" and describes the royal palace...

 Merneptah
Merneptah
Merneptah was the fourth ruler of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Ancient Egypt. He ruled Egypt for almost ten years between late July or early August 1213 and May 2, 1203 BC, according to contemporary historical records...

 (reign:1213 to 1203 BC), which appears on the reverse side of a granite stele
Stele
A stele , also stela , is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief , or painted onto the slab...

 erected by the king
Pharaoh
Pharaoh is a title used in many modern discussions of the ancient Egyptian rulers of all periods. The title originates in the term "pr-aa" which means "great house" and describes the royal palace...

 Amenhotep III
Amenhotep III
Amenhotep III also known as Amenhotep the Magnificent was the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty. According to different authors, he ruled Egypt from June 1386 to 1349 BC or June 1388 BC to December 1351 BC/1350 BC after his father Thutmose IV died...

. It was discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes
Thebes, Egypt
Thebes is the Greek name for a city in Ancient Egypt located about 800 km south of the Mediterranean, on the east bank of the river Nile within the modern city of Luxor. The Theban Necropolis is situated nearby on the west bank of the Nile.-History:...

.

The stele has gained much fame and notoriety for being the only Ancient Egyptian document generally accepted as mentioning "Isrir" or "Israel". It is the earliest known attestation of the demonym
Demonym
A demonym , also referred to as a gentilic, is a name for a resident of a locality. A demonym is usually – though not always – derived from the name of the locality; thus, the demonym for the people of England is English, and the demonym for the people of Italy is Italian, yet, in english, the one...

 Israelite. For this reason, many scholars refer to it as the "Israel stele".

Content


The black granite stela primarily commemorates a victory in a campaign against the Libu
Libu
The Libu were an ancient Berber tribe, from which the name Libya derives....

 and Meshwesh
Meshwesh
The Meshwesh were an ancient Libyan tribe from beyond Cyrenaica where the Libu and Tehenu lived according to Egyptian references and who were probably of Central Berber ethnicity. Herodotus placed them in Tunisia and said of them to be sedentary farmers living in settled permanent houses as the...

 Libya
Libya
Libya is an African country in the Maghreb region of North Africa bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Egypt to the east, Sudan to the southeast, Chad and Niger to the south, and Algeria and Tunisia to the west....

ns and their Sea People allies, but its final two lines refer to a prior military campaign in Canaan
Canaan
Canaan is a historical region roughly corresponding to modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and the western parts of Jordan...

 in which Merneptah states that he defeated Ashkelon
Ashkelon
Ashkelon is a coastal city in the South District of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, south of Tel Aviv, and north of the border with the Gaza Strip. The ancient seaport of Ashkelon dates back to the Neolithic Age...

, Gezer
Gezer
Gezer was a Canaanite city-state and biblical town in ancient Israel. Tel Gezer , an archaeological site midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is now an Israeli national park....

, Yanoam and Israel among others.

Discovery


The stele was discovered in 1896 by Flinders Petrie who located it in the first court of Merneptah's mortuary temple
Mortuary temple
Mortuary temples were temples constructed adjacent to, or in the vicinity of, royal tombs in the Ancient Egypt. The temples were designed to commemorate the reign of the pharaoh by whom they were built, as well as for use by the pharaoh's cult after death.-History:Mortuary temples were built...

 at Thebes
Thebes, Egypt
Thebes is the Greek name for a city in Ancient Egypt located about 800 km south of the Mediterranean, on the east bank of the river Nile within the modern city of Luxor. The Theban Necropolis is situated nearby on the west bank of the Nile.-History:...

. It is now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum
Egyptian Museum
The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, known commonly as the Egyptian Museum, in Cairo, Egypt, is home to an extensive collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities. It has 120,000 items, with a representative amount on display, the remainder in storerooms....

 at Cairo
Cairo
Cairo , is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in the Arab world and Africa, and the 16th largest metropolitan area in the world. Nicknamed "The City of a Thousand Minarets" for its preponderance of Islamic architecture, Cairo has long been a centre of the region's political and cultural life...

, and a fragmentary copy of the stele was also found at Karnak
Karnak
The Karnak Temple Complex—usually called Karnak—comprises a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings, notably the Great Temple of Amun and a massive structure begun by Pharaoh Ramses II . Sacred Lake is part of the site as well. It is located near Luxor, some...

. Flinders Petrie called upon Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philologist in his archaeological team to translate the newly found massive granite stela. Towards the end of the text, Spiegelberg was puzzled by the mention of one symbol, that of a people or tribe whom Merenptah had victoriously smitten--"I.si.ri.ar?" Petrie quickly suggested that it read: "Israel!" Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct. "Won't the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie. At dinner that evening, Petrie who realized the importance of the find said:
It was the first mention of the word "Israel" in an Ancient Egyptian text and the news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English papers.'

The stela has a height of 3.18 m (10.4 ft) and a width of 1.63 m (5.3 ft). Its text is mainly composed of a prose report with a poetic finish, mirroring other Egyptian New Kingdom
New Kingdom
The New Kingdom of Egypt, also referred to as the Egyptian Empire is the period in ancient Egyptian history between the 16th century BC and the 11th century BC, covering the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties of Egypt....

 stelae of the time. The stela is dated to Year 5, 3rd month of Shemu (summer), day 3 (c.1209/1208 BC), and begins with a laudatory recital of Merneptah's achievements in battle.

Mention of Israel


This title "Israel Stele" is somewhat misleading because the stele only makes a brief mention of Israel and Canaan.
The next ascertained mention of "Israel" dates to the 9th century BC, found on the Mesha Stele
Mesha Stele
The Mesha Stele is a black basalt stone bearing an inscription by the 9th century BC ruler Mesha of Moab in Jordan....

.

The line mentioning Israel is grouped together with three other defeated states in Canaan (Gezer, Yanoam and Ashkelon) in a single stanza, beside multiple stanzas regarding his defeat of the Libyans
Ancient Libya
The Latin name Libya referred to the region west of the Nile Valley, generally corresponding to modern Northwest Africa. Climate changes affected the locations of the settlements....

.
The line referring to Merneptah's Canaanite campaign reads:
The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is formulaic, and often used of defeated nations. It implies that the store of grain of the nation in question has been destroyed, which would result in a famine the following year, incapacitating them as a military threat to Egypt.
"Israel is laid waste; its seed is no more."
i-i-z:Z1s*Z1s:r-i-A-r:Z1-T14-A1*B1:Z2s f:k:t-G36 b:n O1:r:t-N33B:Z2 f





ysrỉꜣr fk.t bn pr.t =f
Israel waste [negative] seed/grain his/its


The stela does make clear that "Israel" at this stage refers to a people or tribal confederation, the Ancient Israelites, and not a kingdom or city state, since the determinative used is that for "foreign people", not that for "country".

While the other defeated Egyptian enemies listed besides Israel in this document such as Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam were given the determinative for a city-state—"a throw stick
Throw stick (hieroglyph)
The Throw stick hieroglyph of Ancient Egypt is an old hieroglyph that dates from the Predynastic Period; it is from the assemblage of hieroglyphs used on the ornamental, or ceremonial cosmetic palettes...

 plus three mountains
Hill-country (hieroglyph)
The ancient Egyptian hill-country hieroglyph is a member of the sky, earth, and water hieroglyphs. A form of the hieroglyph in color, has a green line- at the base of the hieroglyph...

 designating a foreign country"—the hieroglyphs that refer to Israel instead employ the determinative sign used for foreign peoples: a throw stick plus a man and a woman over three vertical plural lines. This sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic tribes without a fixed city-state, thus implying that "Israel" was the demonym for a seminomadic or rural population at the time the stele was created.

Alternative Translations


The translation as "Israel" remains the view of the majority of historians, however a number of alternative readings for the text "I.si.ri.ar" have been suggested and debated. The most common alternative suggested is that of Jezreel (city)
Jezreel (city)
Jezreel was an ancient Israelite city and fortress originally within the boundaries of the Tribe of Issachar, and later within the northern Kingdom of Israel. According to the Book of Kings, the royal palace of King Ahab in Jezreel was adjacent to the vineyard of Naboth...

 or the Jezreel Valley
Jezreel Valley
-Etymology:The Jezreel Valley takes its name from the ancient city of Jezreel which was located on a low hill overlooking the southern edge of the valley, though some scholars think that the name of the city originates from the name of the clan which founded it, and whose existence is mentioned in...

,
which remains an area of academic debate despite having been considered as an alternative ever since the stele was discovered in 1896. Other scholars believe the reference is to not a place but a reference to the Libyans within Egypt with the symbols translating directly to 'the wearers of a sidelock'.

Historian Philip R. Davies noted in 2008:
"Assuming we have Merneptah’s dates correctly as 1213-1203, and that the reading “Israel” is correct, the reference places an Israel in Palestine in the thirteenth century. The word read (probably correctly) as “Israel” also has a sign indicating a people and not a place. That makes the alternative reading “Jezreel” less likely — though Hebrew “s” and “z” could both be represented by the same Egyptian letter; also, since “Jezreel” is partly made up of the word for “seed,” the inscription could be a pun by a Semitic speaking scribe. It might also be considered that Merneptah would find it easier to fight in the plain of Jezreel than in the highlands."


Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University
Southern Adventist University
Southern Adventist University is a college in Collegedale, Tennessee, owned and operated by the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. U.S. News & World Report categorizes it as a Southern Regional College, and the magazine has consistently ranked it as one of the top-tier schools in...

, noted in 2008:
"The view that the term ysry·r/l is a possible territory within Canaan but not associated with biblical Israel was proposed by Othniel Margalith (1990). His conclusions are based on the suggestion by G. R. Driver (1948: 135) that the Egyptians could also represent Hebrew zayin. Accordingly, the name ysry·r/l could be translated as Iezreel “which might be an inexperienced way of rendering Yezreel, the valley to the north of the country” (Margalith 1990: 229). As others have pointed out elsewhere, Margalith’s attempts to identify the entity ysry·r/l with Isarel or Jezreel through Ugaritic vocalizations and a Sumerian title of a king are not convincing for an Egyptian inscription with a clear context for this entity in Canaan (Hasel 1994: 46; 1998a: 196–97; compare Kitchen 1966a: 91)." and "The suggestion of equating the ysry·r/l of the stela with Jezreel has now been taken up anew by I. Hjelm and Thomas L. Thompson (2002: 14) without any reference to earlier discussions. The identification is rife with difficulties. First, the Egyptian signs for “bolt” (Gardiner 1957: 507, O34) and “folded cloth” (Gardiner 1957: 507, S29) in Old Egyptian represented the sound s. In the New Kingdom, Hebrew zayin is rendered q or t in Egyptian and not s (Kitchen 1966a: 91, 1966b 59; Helck 1971: 18, 554, 589). Second, ysry·r/l does not include the Egyptian equivalent of ayin needed for the reading yzrªl. Third, the reading “Jezreel” must assume that the determinative for people used with ysry·r/ l was a scribal error, because it does not fit the designation of a geographical location. The orthographic and philological reasons mitigate the reading of ysry·r/ l as Jezreel (see also Kitchen 2004)."

Merneptah's campaign


There is disagreement over whether or not Merneptah did actually campaign in Canaan and did not merely recount what was there, similar to later Assyria
Assyria
Assyria was a Semitic Akkadian kingdom, extant as a nation state from the mid–23rd century BC to 608 BC centred on the Upper Tigris river, in northern Mesopotamia , that came to rule regional empires a number of times through history. It was named for its original capital, the ancient city of Assur...

n documents that never admitted that Assyria had lost in battle. This argument holds some weight, as a stela by Merneptah's predecessor Ramesses II
Ramesses II
Ramesses II , referred to as Ramesses the Great, was the third Egyptian pharaoh of the Nineteenth dynasty. He is often regarded as the greatest, most celebrated, and most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire...

 about the Battle of Kadesh
Battle of Kadesh
The Battle of Kadesh took place between the forces of the Egyptian Empire under Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II at the city of Kadesh on the Orontes River, in what is now the Syrian Arab Republic....

 indicates firm control of the Levant
Levant
The Levant or ) is the geographic region and culture zone of the "eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt" . The Levant includes most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian territories, and sometimes parts of Turkey and Iraq, and corresponds roughly to the...

, making it strange that Merneptah had to reconquer it – unless Merneptah had faced a revolt in this region that he felt compelled to crush in order to exert's Egypt's authority over Canaan. In this case, Merneptah's control over Canaan was precarious at best.

Link to the Shasu


Donald Redford
Donald B. Redford
Donald B. Redford is a Canadian Egyptologist and archaeologist, currently Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is married to Susan Redford, who is also an Egyptologist currently teaching classes at the university...

 states that "Israel" was a band of Bedouin
Bedouin
The Bedouin are a part of a predominantly desert-dwelling Arab ethnic group traditionally divided into tribes or clans, known in Arabic as ..-Etymology:...

-like wanderers known to Egyptians as "Shasu
Shasu
Shasu is an Egyptian word for pastoral nomads who appeared in the Levant and Arabia from the fifteenth century BCE all the way to the Third Intermediate Period. The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word š3sw, meaning "those who move on foot", into the term for Bedouin-type...

" citing a link at the Soleb
Soleb
Soleb is an antique town in Nubia, today's Sudan. The place lies something to the south of the third Nile cataract on the western side.The place owns a big temple from sandstone which has been established by Amenhotep III. It is the known temple most southern up to now of this king. It was...

 temple of Amenhotep III
Amenhotep III
Amenhotep III also known as Amenhotep the Magnificent was the ninth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty. According to different authors, he ruled Egypt from June 1386 to 1349 BC or June 1388 BC to December 1351 BC/1350 BC after his father Thutmose IV died...

 to "Yhw- in the land of the Shasu", which has been considered an early form of tetragrammaton
Tetragrammaton
The term Tetragrammaton refers to the name of the God of Israel YHWH used in the Hebrew Bible.-Hebrew Bible:...

.

This proposed link between the Israelites and the Shasu is undermined, however, by the fact that in the Karnak
Karnak
The Karnak Temple Complex—usually called Karnak—comprises a vast mix of decayed temples, chapels, pylons, and other buildings, notably the Great Temple of Amun and a massive structure begun by Pharaoh Ramses II . Sacred Lake is part of the site as well. It is located near Luxor, some...

 battle reliefs the Israelites are not depicted as Shasu, but wear the same clothing and have the same hairstyles as the Canaanites, who are shown defending the fortified cities of Ashkelon
Ashkelon
Ashkelon is a coastal city in the South District of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, south of Tel Aviv, and north of the border with the Gaza Strip. The ancient seaport of Ashkelon dates back to the Neolithic Age...

, Gezer
Gezer
Gezer was a Canaanite city-state and biblical town in ancient Israel. Tel Gezer , an archaeological site midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, is now an Israeli national park....

, and Yanoam.

Significance of Israel's mention


Michael G. Hasel, director of the Institute of Archaeology at Southern Adventist University
Southern Adventist University
Southern Adventist University is a college in Collegedale, Tennessee, owned and operated by the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. U.S. News & World Report categorizes it as a Southern Regional College, and the magazine has consistently ranked it as one of the top-tier schools in...

 argues that Israel was already a well established political force in Canaan
Canaan
Canaan is a historical region roughly corresponding to modern-day Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and the western parts of Jordan...

 in the late 13th century BCE:
However, Prof. Ze'ev Herzog
Ze'ev Herzog
Ze’ev Herzog is an Israeli archeologist, professor of archaeology at The Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University specializing in social archaeology, ancient architecture and field archaeology...

 of the Archaeology Faculty at the University of Tel Aviv, asserts that there is no evidence in the archaeological record that Israel was a powerful force, whether at the time of the stele's creation or at any other time during that general period. In his article "Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho", appearing in Ha'aretz (29 October 1999), he calls the mention of Israel on the stele a reference to a "population group" writing:
There is a copy of the stele in the Harvard Semitic Museum.

See also

  • List of artifacts significant to the Bible
  • Mesha Stele
    Mesha Stele
    The Mesha Stele is a black basalt stone bearing an inscription by the 9th century BC ruler Mesha of Moab in Jordan....

  • New Chronology (Rohl)
  • Tel Dan Stele
    Tel Dan Stele
    The Tel Dan Stele is a stele discovered in 1993/94 during excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel. Its author was a king of Damascus, Hazael or one of his sons, and it contains an Aramaic inscription commemorating victories over local ancient peoples including "Israel" and the "House of...

  • Shasu
    Shasu
    Shasu is an Egyptian word for pastoral nomads who appeared in the Levant and Arabia from the fifteenth century BCE all the way to the Third Intermediate Period. The name evolved from a transliteration of the Egyptian word š3sw, meaning "those who move on foot", into the term for Bedouin-type...

  • The Israel Stela

External links