Controversial Archaeological Discovery
Locating the actual site on the Nile where the mystery play with Moses in the rushes seems to have taken place may well confirm a great deal of the Bible's
account of the episode. This biblical scene of Pharaoh's Daughter walking by the
river may now, by means of archaeology, be localized on the east bank of the
Nile at Thebes (now Luxor/Karnak) in front of the great temple of Amun, the
supreme god of Egypt.
According to the
Rabbinical Writings, Moses was brought from the ark to a royal palace.
Until recently, archaeological investigations had not with any certainty been
able to recover any ruins deriving from a royal palace in Thebes, the Egyptian
capital of that era. Palaces were built of solid, but perishable mud bricks,
whereas temples and often tombs were built "for eternity", out of blocks of
Now, however, references
to a royal palace have been found in the inscriptions from Hatshepsut, both in
the temple at Deir el-Bahari to the west of the Nile outside Thebes, as well as
on fragments from her "red chapel" (later torn down, and now rebuilt) in the Amon-temple at
These descriptions also
mention that Hatshepsut - among other names here called "Divine Successor to the
Throne" - was crowned as her father's co-regent. Furthermore, it appears that
during the ensuing ceremony she arrived at the Amun-temple on board a holy
barque and went ashore at (quote:) "the head of the canal". This was a small
basin with a jetty and steps leading up to the courtyard in front of the temple
After this, in the large
temple court she followed a certain route, as was usual with "stations" on the
way, i.e. a ceremony in accordance with the same principles used for idols being
brought from the boat to the temple.
It is important to bear
in mind that Hatshepsut's inscriptions say that the ceremonial route through the
large courtyard ended in the king's palace to the left (of the basin) and thus
northwest of the temple.
Hatshepsut also had
descriptions made of another religious ritual on the holy River Nile, similarly
performed as a mystery play. In this case she had the role of the goddess Maat -
whose name forms part of Hatshepsut's other name, Maat-ka-re. Here the
inscription states how, via the river, she arrives at her palace which
consequently she calls "the palace of the goddess Maat".
Today, the very existence
of the palace and large parts of the plan of the site are known to
archaeologists. They are described e.g. in French Egyptologist Michel Gitton's
treatise "Le Palais de Karnak", in Bulletin de l'Institut Francais d'Archéologie
Orientale (tome 74, Le Caire 1974, pp. 63-70).
excavation of the temple, the forecourt, and the previously mentioned basin -
which, by way of the short canal, gave access from the river to both the palace
and the temple - agrees with an ancient Egyptian mural painting of a section of
the whole structure. The depiction was made on the wall of a sepulchral chamber
at Thebes belonging to temple administrator Neferhotep, 12th century BC - i.e.
only about a hundred years later than the epoch of Moses.
According to this
recovered plan the ceremonial route went by a processional route from the basin
through the common court and front gardens of the palace and temple, and
continued through the double gates of the buildings. Even though the palace site
is not shown on the mural, archaeologists have found traces of an outer wall
belonging to a contemporaneous building exactly where the palace can be
localized according to the above descriptions established by Hatshepsut.
It is evident, too, from
Hatshepsut's text that the palace was placed along the north bank of the river,
to the left of (at right angles to) the temple front.
Such a combination of
royal palace and temple - also known, for instance, in connection with biblical
King Solomon - agrees with the fact according to the Rabbinical Writings as well
as the Bible that the residence of Pharaoh's Daughter was not far away,
apparently only a few steps from the river. The Rabbinical Writings confirm this
- e.g. in S. Baring-Gould's collection of Rabbinical Writings: "Legends of Old
Testament Characters, from Talmud and Other Sources" (vol. 2, p 73 et seq.) -
which further add:
"… Bithja (name of
Pharaoh's Daughter) … bathed, not in the river, but in baths in the palace;
but on this day she went forward to the bank of the Nile, though otherwise
she never left her father's palace …".
The ark was observed among the bulrushes in the river, and then Pharaoh's
Daughter sent out a maid to fetch it. This indicates that the ark was towed to
the entrance of the canal leading to the small basin in front of the temple and
palace, where normally the receptions took place at the various river
ceremonies. Hence, this event did not take place at the Mut temple, where
Hatshepsut, when she later became queen, had placed her own barque
In later times, the river
and the canals receded from the shoreline at the palace. Gradually the ground,
basin and canal were filled up with material, and several pharaohs extended the
temple across the site, including the courtyard and the riverbank. This happened
especially about 300 years later when Rameses II extended the temple, redoubling
its original size. The pharaohs continued to enlarge the temple for more than a
thousand years. The ruins covering 1.5 square km make up the world's largest
group of religious buildings ever.
During this process the
palace was gradually reduced to a few small rooms in connection with the temple,
merely functioning as a ceremonial resting place for the pharaohs when
travelling around the country participating in temple ceremonies. It was an
accommodation arrangement becoming a well-known tradition also at the other
large temples in Egypt.
As time went by, the
course of the Nile changed so that the river was some distance away, and the
small basin, as mentioned, was filled up as a building site for the expansion of
the temple. This means that the scene with Pharaoh's Daughter and Moses cannot
possibly have taken place during the time of Rameses II.
The Rabbinical Writings -
e.g. S. Baring-Gould's above-mentioned collection (vol. 2, p. 74) - give us this
vivid description from "Targum Jonathan": Although Pharaoh's Daughter had sent
her lady-in-waiting out into the bulrushes to fetch the small vessel, she dared
not depend solely onher. Not being able to wait she herself stepped into the
water to take hold of the ark with the child, she reached out to such an extent
"… her arm was
lengthened by 60 ells …",
- clearly expressing her extreme eagerness and worry as could be expected by
the child's real mother.
By saying so the
Rabbinical Writings indicate that Pharaoh's Daughter already knew that there
was a child in the vessel. She could not have seen it from the river bank,
as the ark - according to the Bible - had to be opened first. The Rabbinical
Writings precisely describe that there was a lid over the small floating
Thus the incident with
Moses in the ark floating on the Nile was not a "foundling performance", but a
perceptible official expression of the fact that here was "the child of the god"
delivered by the river to be received in the royal palace.
Rabbinical Writings say that instead of just walking to the basin, Pharaoh's
Daughter, solicitous for the child's safety, walks all the way to the
shore of the river, i.e. to the entrance of the basin.
Behind the claim that
Pharaoh's Daughter had "arms" reaching out for Moses in the ark to a length of
60 ells, is another matter of interest: Measured from the steps of the jetty
down to the Nile, the length of the basin in front of the temple and palace was
60 Egyptian ells, altogether; i.e. 30 m, standard measure.
Some information about
Egyptian measures supports this observation. The Egyptian term remen
means '(upper)arm' and could, with the same pronunciation, mean 'the side of a
lake or pond'. With ui added to signify the dual form, the meaning is
An Egyptian ell, meh,
is a full arm's length, consisting of seven handbreadths or 28
fingerbreadths. One meh equals 0.525 m. Such high precision of this
particular measure was not always commonly in use at the time of Moses, in fact
not until the "metric" reform during the 26th dynasty in the 7th century BC. It
is known to have been introduced almost simultaneously with similar reforms in
other Mediterranean countries, e.g. Palestine. Cf. also Danish Egyptologist Erik
Iversen's "Canon and Proportions in Egyptian Art" (Warminster 1976).
Anyhow, during the time
of Moses, around 1500-1400 BC, the Egyptian ell is known to measure close to 0.5
m. It is remarkable that "60 ells" and "arms", as asserted in the Rabbinical
Writings, hold a double meaning. The archaeological surveying of the length of
the basin and the small canal leading to the Nile is 60 ells or "arms" (30
metres). And it is in agreement with the extremely widespread Egyptian custom to
assign a multiple meaning to words - the ancient Egyptians also called the canal
"the arm" (and, accordingly, the basin: "the head").
More that 30 years after
the archaeological discovery of the basin, there was - in the late autumn of
2007 - a new excavation resulting in some extra data, however nothing changing
the above main picture.
The Bathing of the Princess Was of Special Significance
By putting a child (Moses) in a vessel off the river bank at a place where the
princess and her attendants usually passed by, the Bible may give the impression
that an attempt was made to avoid Pharaoh's decree of drowning all boy children
in the Nile.
On the whole, this Bible
passage is highly contradictory. The parents assumedly wished to save the child
from being killed by drowning. Yet, of all places in all Egypt they chose to set
the child out where the risk was at its greatest - namely, in the exact area
frequented by the courtiers of the pharaoh who had issued the aforesaid death
More clearly, it shows
that it had all been arranged. It is supported even more so by the fact that
Pharaoh's Daughter - as already quoted from the Rabbinical Writings - just on
that very day, when Moses arrived in the ark, went directly to the river bank
instead of going to the basin by the palace.
Similarly, an extra
aspect of the case is described in Exodus (2:5), revealing one more peculiarity
of this point of the episode. It says,
"... and the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river
However, a Pharaoh's Daughter would hardly take a bath directly in the river.
Like most people she would rather avoid bathing surrounded by rush and papyrus,
where - besides the danger of crocodiles - small organisms such as flukes and
bugs (ticks) containing borrelia bacteria live in the water and on aquatic
plants. This species of bacteria may cause infections leading to highly
dangerous diseases (e.g. attacks the joints, cause inflammation, skin diseases,
meningitis, and insanity). Particularly dangerous are bilharziosis (intestinal
disease) and onchocerciasis (leading to river blindness).
In modern times, when
looking at statistics from around the year 2000, more than 20 million people
along the Nile are victims of these micro-organisms; and in Egypt alone 20
percent of the population are infected with river parasites.
Also back at the time of
the pharaohs, these diseases were commonly known. It was difficult to avoid them
completely; they were in foodstuffs, water etc. The remains of mummies of
several Egyptian kings as well as of their subjects, dating back 4.600 years,
show clear signs of bilharziosis (according to "Parasitology Today", 1996).
Egyptian physicians of
the time would prescribe no direct contact with the water of the river,
and ancient pictures show fishermen, sailors, and peasants protecting themselves
in various ways. Only certain places which are mostly free of aquatic plants
provide safe bathing in the Nile, preferably in the South and during the winter
In addition, another
important aspect has to be considered - a lady of high rank simply would not
perform her bathing in public. Furthermore, the Bible's Hebrew term lirchos
means 'wash', not 'bathe' (swim or plunge). It is even more unlikely that a
high-born lady should wash herself in public; and certainly not in the often
dangerous water of the river. Despite this, experienced researchers and
translators throughout the ages have accepted the story of the bathing in the
What really seems to have
happened is a ceremonial performance in which Pharaoh's Daughter participated in
the reception of the child, "the new king". According to traditional preparation
for the meeting with this god, she would simply perform a ritual ablution:
the ceremonial cleansing, i.e. exactly (Hebrew: 'al, 'above')
as the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 2:5) - verbatim - says about her:
above the Nile ...!"
The person in question would be slightly sprinkled with holy water from
iteru, 'the Nile'. Ritualistic cleansing was compulsory preparation prior to
holy scenes in which "the gods would perform" and it was even considered to be a
necessary ceremonial act at the introduction of the mystery plays.
The king was sprinkled
with holy water before entering the "Holy of Holies" of a temple. Usually,
ablution was carried out in pools made for that special purpose in front of the
Egyptian temples, but in this case the rabbinical text emphasises that it took
place at the river - i.e. unlike normal practice.
In the mystery play
Pharaoh's Daughter was the goddess Isis receiving her son. In Egyptian mythology
several episodes are mentioned in which gods and goddesses rinse themselves in
the holy river.
A summary of this
information shows that both the Bible and the Rabbinical Writings indicate that
1. The residence of Pharaoh's
Daughter - the palace of the pharaoh - was situated close to the river.
2. There actually was a basin at the
palace of the pharaoh.
archaeological findings and research the agreement is striking.
In later Israelite religion which took over many customs from Egyptian
practice, e.g. through the Laws of Moses, the use of ceremonial ablution was
determined and kept. Even some of the earliest texts contained in the Five Books
of Moses, The Pentateuch, refer to this.
Ablution was strictly
ritualistic. A person had to be 'cleansed' before taking part in religious
ceremonies. Later on, in ancient Israel, for instance in the ruins of Qumran,
this kind of ceremonial bath (mikveh) has been found side by side with
ordinary hygienic baths. Many orthodox Jews all over the world still use
Not even recent Bible
translations - supported by a greater knowledge of the past - show this kind of
practice, i.e. the well-known religious ablution ceremony performed at the Nile
by Pharaoh's Daughter. It ought to be taken into consideration and
- The location where the episode in the Bible and the
Rabbinical Writings took place seems to be identical with the location at
the old reaches of the Nile, where archaeologists uncovered the canal and
its basin in front of the temple. Furthermore they have identified, by means
of Hatshepsut's inscriptions, the site of the royal palace.
- The specification of measurements on the waterfront as
stated in the Rabbinical Writings corresponds with Egyptian usage and the
archaeological surveying of the basin constructions.
- The idea that a lady of the highest rank, Pharaoh's
Daughter, went down to the river in order merely to take a bath (or wash) in
public, is an unrealistic assumption. In reality it was a well-known
ritualistic practice under special circumstances, e.g. in connection with
holy processions on the river.