Ancient Near Eastern Studies: Egypt
1. Introduction: Beginnings
Before 1800, no accurate first-hand knowledge of Egypt's ancient remains was available to compare with biblical mentions of that land and its ancient civilization. During the nineteenth century, detailed pioneering exploration of Egypt and Nubia led to extensive recording and major publications of the visible monuments and inscriptions, while decipherment of ancient Egypt's hieroglyphic and other scripts, along with their language, finally opened the way towards recovering three millennia of history, literature, and social organization, including religious belief and practice. During the last third of the nineteenth century, excavations added further materials. Different countries had different objectives. Thus, the French went for monumental temple sites (Deir el-Bahri, Abydos, Karnak, the Ptolemaic temples), while the Germans began systematic clearance of unexplored pyramids and their complexes, and the city of the ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhnaton, first explored by Petrie. In Victorian Britain, much popular interest focused on possible connections with the Bible, and especially on its ‘Egyptian’ themes such as the exodus. So, the Egypt Exploration Fund of that time initially undertook pioneering excavations at east Delta sites, looking for evidence of such biblical places as Raamses, Pithom, Succoth, Tanis, Goshen, and so on. The vast ruins of Tanis were unmistakable, with masses of stonework derived from temples of the Ramesses kings and of later rulers; so, the site of Hebrew Zoan = Egyptian Djacan(et) = Greek Tanis was assured. Likewise at Bubastis = Egyptian Pi-Bast = Hebrew Pi-Beseth. However, the other places proved elusive, and also (thanks to the primitive archaeological techniques of that time) such sites as Tell el-Maskhuta produced very limited Egyptian monuments for much labour, and very little trace of either the Hebrews or other Semites. Petrie was slightly more ‘successful’, biblically, in his discovery of the victory stela of Merneptah (naming Israel) in 1896, but not in his attempts to identify further Delta sites such as Tell er-Retaba.
Therefore, with the start of the twentieth century, the interests of the Fund (now, Egypt Exploration Society) and other such agencies shifted to much more promising sites of purely Egyptological interest, with invaluable results for that discipline down to the present day. No firm identifications could be made for (e.g.) Pithom or Succoth, while disputes over rival identifications for Raamses raged for decades, down to the 1970s, when very modern work at Khataana-Qantir and Tell el-Dab'a by Bietak and Pusch finally confirmed the 1930s/1940s views of Hamza and Habachi, fixing Raamses (strictly, Egyptian Pi-Ramesse) and the Hyksos centre Avaris respectively at these two neighbouring sites (cf. Bietak 1975: 189–98 for Avaris and 199–220 for Pi-Ramesse). The often colourful scenes of Egyptian life in tomb-chapels of the Middle and New Kingdoms (c.2000–1070 BCE) were much used to illustrate the Egyptian episodes of the Joseph and exodus narratives from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The impact of the last half-century of Egyptology covers several themes.