Merneptah Stele
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Merneptah Stele
Merneptah Stele
Merenptah Israel Stele Cairo.jpg
The Merneptah Stele in its current location
WritingAncient Egyptian hieroglyphs
Createdc. 1208 BCE
Present locationEgyptian Museum, Cairo
IdentificationJE 31408

The Merneptah Stele - also known as the Israel Stele or the Victory Stele of Merneptah - is an inscription by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (reign: 1213-1203 BCE) discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1896 at Thebes, and now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.[1][2]

The text is largely an account of Merneptah's victory over the Libyans and their allies, but the last 3 of the 28 lines deal with a separate campaign in Canaan, then part of Egypt's imperial possessions. The stele is sometimes referred to as the "Israel Stela" because a majority of scholars translate a set of hieroglyphs in line 27 as "Israel". Alternative translations have been advanced but are not widely accepted.[3]

The stela represents the earliest textual reference to Israel and the only reference from ancient Egypt.[4] It is one of four known inscriptions, from the Iron Age, that date to the time of and mention ancient Israel, under this name, the others being the Mesha Stele, the Tel Dan Stele, and the Kurkh Monolith.[5][6][7] As a result, some consider the stele to be Flinders Petrie's most famous discovery,[8] an opinion with which Petrie himself concurred.[9]

Description and context

Flinders Petrie's 1897 mirror image copy of the main part of the inscription (all 28 lines)

The stele was discovered in 1896 by Flinders Petrie in the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes, and first translated by Wilhelm Spiegelberg. In his "Inscriptions" chapter of Petrie's 1897 publication "Six Temples at Thebes", Spiegelberg described the stele as "engraved on the rough back of the stele of Amenhotep III, which was removed from his temple, and placed back outward, against the wall, in the forecourt of the temple of Merneptah. Owing to the rough surface, and the poor cutting, the readings in many places require careful examination... The scene at the top retains its original colouring of yellow, red, and blue. Amun is shown giving a sword to the king, who is backed by Mut on one side and by Khonsu on the other".[10]

Now in the collection of the Egyptian Museum at Cairo, the stele is a black granite slab, over 3 meters (10 feet) high, and the inscription says it was carved in the 5th year of Merneptah of the 19th dynasty. Most of the text glorifies Merneptah's victories over enemies from Libya and their Sea People allies, but the final two lines mention a campaign in Canaan, where Merneptah says he defeated and destroyed Ashkalon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel.

Egypt was the dominant power in the region during the long reign of Merneptah's predecessor, Ramesses the Great, but Merneptah and one of his nearest successors, Ramesses III, faced major invasions. The problems began in Merneptah's 5th year (1208), when a Libyan king invaded Egypt from the west in alliance with various northern peoples. Merneptah achieved a great victory in the summer of that year, and the inscription is mainly about this. The final lines deal with an apparently separate campaign in the East, where it seems that some of the Canaanite cities had revolted. Traditionally the Egyptians had concerned themselves only with cities, so the problem presented by Israel must have been something new - possibly attacks on Egypt's vassals in Canaan. Merneptah and Ramesses III fought off their enemies, but it was the beginning of the end of Egypt's control over Canaan - the last evidence of an Egyptian presence in the area is the name of Ramesses VI (1141-1133) inscribed on a statue base from Megiddo.[11]

Lines 26-28

Libyans (Tje?enu) are described by determinatives: foreign person + people + foreign country (=state/country of Libyan people)

The bulk of the inscription deals with Merneptah's victory over the Libyans, but the last 3 of the 28 lines shift to Canaan:[12]

The princes are prostrate, saying, "Peace!"
Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows.
Now that Tehenu (Libya) has come to ruin,
Hatti is pacified;
The Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe:
Ashkelon has been overcome;
Gezer has been captured;
Yano'am is made non-existent.
Israel is laid waste and his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow because of Egypt.

The "nine bows" is a term the Egyptians used to refer to their enemies; the actual enemies varied according to time and circumstance.[13] Hatti and ?urru are Syro-Palestine, Canaan and Israel are smaller units, and Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are cities within the region; according to the stele, all these entities fell under the rule of the Egyptian empire at that time.[14]

Line 27


Petrie called upon Wilhelm Spiegelberg, a German philologist in his archaeological team, to translate the inscription. Spiegelberg was puzzled by one symbol towards the end, that of a people or tribe whom Merneptah (also written Merenptah) had victoriously Petrie quickly suggested that it read "Israel!" Spiegelberg agreed that this translation must be correct.[1] "Won't the reverends be pleased?" remarked Petrie. At dinner that evening, Petrie who realized the importance of the find said: "This stele will be better known in the world than anything else I have found." The news of its discovery made headlines when it reached the English papers.[1]

The line which refers to Israel is:


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


While Ashkelon, Gezer and Yanoam are given the determinative for a city - a throw stick plus three mountains - the hieroglyphs that refer to Israel instead employ the throw stick (the determinative for "foreign") plus a sitting man and woman (the determinative for "people") over three vertical lines (a plural marker):


The determinatives "people" has been the subject of significant scholarly discussion. As early as 1955, John A. Wilson wrote of the idea that this determinative means the "'ysrr" were a people that: "The argument is good, but not conclusive, because of the notorious carelessness of Late-Egyptian scribes and several blunders of writing in this stela".[15] This sentiment was subsequently built upon by other scholars.[16]

According to The Oxford History of the biblical World, this "foreign people" "sign is typically used by the Egyptians to signify nomadic groups or peoples, without a fixed city-state home, thus implying a seminomadic or rural status for 'Israel' at that time".[17][b] The phrase "wasted, bare of seed" is formulaic, and often used of defeated nations - it implies that the grain-store 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.[17]

A portion of line 27, translated as "Israel [foreign people]"

According to James Hoffmeier, "no Egyptologists would ever read the signs of a foreign ethnic entity as indicating a foreign land, but a people group".[18]

In contrast to this apparent Israelite statelessness, the other Canaanite groups fought by Egypt: Ashkelon, Gezer, and Yano'am, are described in the stele as nascent states.[19]

Alternative translations

Alternatives to the reading "Israel" have been put forward since the stele's discovery - the two primary candidates being:

  • "Jezreel",[20][21][22] a city and valley in northern Canaan;
  • A continuation of the description of Libya referring to "wearers of the sidelock"[c]

However, these remain minority interpretations.[d]


It is not clear, however, just who this Israel was or where they were located.[25][e] The reference to Israel in the stele has spawned two major schools of thought. The traditional schools of thought identify the 'Israel' in the stele with the Biblical Israel. However, the inquiries of the minimalist school of thought which doubts the biblical narrative's antiquity have impacted on the interpretation of the stele.[27] For the "who", if those depicted on the battle reliefs of Karnak are the Israelites, then Merneptah's Israelites are therefore Canaanites, because they are depicted in Canaanite costume; if, on the other hand, the Karnak reliefs do not show Merneptah's campaigns, then the stele's Israelites may be "Shasu", a term used by the Egyptians to refer to nomads and marauders.[28]

Similarly, if Merneptah's claim to have destroyed Israel's "seed" means that he destroyed its grain supply, then Israel can be taken to be a settled, crop-growing people; if, however, it means he killed Israel's progeny, then Israel can be taken to be pastoralists, i.e., Shasu.[29] The normative Egyptian use of "wasted, bare of seed" was as a repeated, formulaic phrase to declare victory over a defeated nation or people group whom the Egyptian army conquered and had literally destroyed their grain supply in the specific geographic region that they inhabited.[17] Michael G. Hasel, arguing that prt on the stele meant grain, suggested that "Israel functioned as an agriculturally based or sedentary socioethnic entity in the late 13th century BCE"[30] and this in some degree of contrast to nomadic "Shasu" pastoralists in the region. Others disagree that prt meant grain, and Edward Lipinski wrote that "the 'classical' opposition of nomadic shepherds and settled farmers does not seem to suit the area concerned".[31] Hasel also says that this does not suggest that the Israelites were an urban people at this time, nor does it provide information about the actual social structure of the people group identified as Israel.[30] Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson writes that "this name in the Merneptah inscription of the late thirteenth-century might conceivably understand it as the name of a region, in polarity with the clearly geographical name: Canaan." Also, "The group 'Israel' ... are rather a very specific group among the population of Palestine which bears a name that occurs here for the first time that at a much later stage in Palestine's history bears a substantially different signification." For, "References to the Merneptah stele are not really helpful. This text renders for us only the earliest known usage of the name 'Israel'." So, "to begin the origins of biblical Israel with Merneptah ... on the grounds that we have extra-biblical rather than biblical attestation is willful. These texts are, mirabile dictu, even less relevant than the biblical traditions."[32]

As for its location, most scholars believe that Merneptah's Israel must have been in the hill country of central Canaan, but some think it was across the Jordan, others that it was a coalition of Canaanite settlements in the lowlands of the Jezreel valley (the potential Israelites on the walls of Karnak are driving chariots, a weapon of the lowlands rather than the highlands), and others that the inscription gives very little useful information at all.[33]

Karnak reliefs

The stele was found in Merenptah's funerary chapel in Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital on the west bank of the Nile. On the opposite bank is the Temple of Karnak, where the fragmentary copy was found. In the 1970s Frank Yurco announced that some reliefs at Karnak which had been thought to depict events in the reign of Ramesses II, Merenptah's father, in fact belonged to Merenptah. The four reliefs show the capture of three cities, one of them labelled as Ashkelon; Yurco suggested that the other two were Gezer and Yanoam. The fourth shows a battle in open hilly country against an enemy shown as Canaanite. Yurco suggested that this scene was to be equated with the Israel of the stele. While the idea that Merneptah's Israelites are to be seen on the walls of the temple has had an influence on many theories regarding the significance of the inscription, not all Egyptologists accept Yurco's ascription of the reliefs to Merneptah.[34]

See also


  1. ^ In the original text, the bird (a sparrow) is placed below the t sign (a semicircle) but for reasons of legibility, the bird is here placed next to the t sign.
  2. ^ Whether the Egyptian scribes used these determinatives consistently in general and in the Merneptah Stele in particular, is in itself a matter of some debate.[14]
  3. ^ Nibbi suggests that the first character in "" was misread - rather than G1, Nibbi suggests G4, and that such an amendment would allow the characters to be translated as "wearers of the sidelock", which refers to Libyans in other sources such as the Book of Gates. Nibbi supports this by noting that the male figure has an apparent outgrowth of hair on the side of his head.[23]
  4. ^ Hasel (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 Egyptian letter 's' in the word could also represent the 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 Israel 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)."[24]
  5. ^ Davies (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."[26]


  1. ^ a b c Drower 1985, p. 221.
  2. ^ Redmount 2001, pp. 71-72, 97.
  3. ^ Kenton L. Sparks (1998). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible. Eisenbrauns. pp. 96-. ISBN 978-1-57506-033-0.
  4. ^ Hasel 1998, p. 194.
  5. ^ Lemche 1998, pp. 46, 62: "No other inscription from Palestine, or from Transjordan in the Iron Age, has so far provided any specific reference to Israel... The name of Israel was found in only a very limited number of inscriptions, one from Egypt, another separated by at least 250 years from the first, in Transjordan. A third reference is found in the stele from Tel Dan - if it is genuine, a question not yet settled. The Assyrian and Mesopotamian sources only once mentioned a king of Israel, Ahab, in a spurious rendering of the name."
  6. ^ Maeir, Aren. "Maeir, A. M. 2013. Israel and Judah. pp. 3523-27, The Encyclopedia of Ancient History. New York: Blackwell". The earliest certain mention of the ethnonym Israel occurs in a victory inscription of the Egyptian king Merenptah, his well-known "Israel Stela" (c. 1210 BCE); recently, a possible earlier reference has been identified in a text from the reign of Rameses II (see Rameses I-XI). Thereafter, no reference to either Judah or Israel appears until the ninth century. The pharaoh Sheshonq I (biblical Shishak; see Sheshonq I-VI) mentions neither entity by name in the inscription recording his campaign in the southern Levant during the late tenth century. In the ninth century, Israelite kings, and possibly a Judaean king, are mentioned in several sources: the Aramaean stele from Tel Dan, inscriptions of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, and the stela of Mesha of Moab. From the early eighth century onward, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are both mentioned somewhat regularly in Assyrian and subsequently Babylonian sources, and from this point on there is relatively good agreement between the biblical accounts on the one hand and the archaeological evidence and extra-biblical texts on the other. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ Fleming, Daniel E. (1998-01-01). "Mari and the Possibilities of Biblical Memory". Revue d'Assyriologie et d'Archéologie Orientale. 92 (1): 41-78. JSTOR 23282083. The Assyrian royal annals, along with the Mesha and Dan inscriptions, show a thriving northern state called Israël in the mid--9th century, and the continuity of settlement back to the early Iron Age suggests that the establishment of a sedentary identity should be associated with this population, whatever their origin. In the mid--14th century, the Amarna letters mention no Israël, nor any of the biblical tribes, while the Merneptah stele places someone called Israël in hill-country Palestine toward the end of the Late Bronze Age. The language and material culture of emergent Israël show strong local continuity, in contrast to the distinctly foreign character of early Philistine material culture.
  8. ^ The Biblical Archaeologist, American Schools of Oriental Research, 1997, p. 35.
  9. ^ Drower 1995, p. 221.
  10. ^ Petrie & Spiegelberg 1897, p. 26.
  11. ^ Drews 1995, pp. 18-20.
  12. ^ Sparks 1998, pp. 96-97.
  13. ^ FitzWilliam Museum, UK: Ancient Egypt.
  14. ^ a b Smith 2002, p. 26.
  15. ^ ANET, 378 n. 18
  16. ^ Michael G. Hasel (2011). "The Battle Of Kadesh: Identifying New Kingdom Polities, Places, And Peoples In Canaan And Syria". In S. Bar; D. Kahn; J. J. Shirley (eds.). Egypt, Canaan and Israel: History, Imperialism, Ideology and Literature: Proceedings of a Conference at the University of Haifa, 3--7 May 2009. Brill. p. 67. doi:10.1163/ej.9789004194939.i-370.27. ISBN 978-90-04-19493-9.
  17. ^ a b c Redmount 2001, p. 97.
  18. ^ J. K. Hoffmeier, "The Egyptian Origins of Israel: Recent Developments in Historiography", in Thomas E. Levy, Thomas Schneider, William H.C. Propp (eds.) Israel's Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience, Springer, 2015 pp. 196-208 [202].
  19. ^ Archeology of the Hebrew Bible
  20. ^ Eissfeldt 1965, p. 14: "Unfortunately, even the supposed earliest mention of the name Israel in the triumphal hymn of Merenptah composed about 1230 b.c. does not provide any unambiguous answer to this question, for this name may also be explained as Jezreel."
  21. ^ Margalith 1990, p. 225.
  22. ^ Strahan 1896, p. 624.
  23. ^ Nibbi 1989, p. 101.
  24. ^ Hasel 2008, pp. 47-60.
  25. ^ Dermot Anthony Nestor,Cognitive Perspectives on Israelite Identity, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010 p. 191: 'while the Merneptah stele may indeed prove beyond doubt that shortly before 1200 B.C.E. Egyptian intelligence either encountered or was informed of an inimical "Israel" residing in the highlands of Palestine, and that it was considered significant enough to warrant inclusion in the only known campaign of Merneptah in this region, any attempt by biblical scholars to translate this practical category into the substantialist idiom of an internally homogeneous, externally bounded group which serves to demarcate the evolution of that singular, regulative and constituting cultural tradition identified textually and archaeologically as "Israel" simply cannot be sustained.'
  26. ^ Davies 2008, pp. 90-91.
  27. ^ Kenton L. Sparks (1998). Ethnicity and Identity in Ancient Israel: Prolegomena to the Study of Ethnic Sentiments and Their Expression in the Hebrew Bible. Eisenbrauns. pp. 95-. ISBN 978-1-57506-033-0.
  28. ^ Whitelam 1997, p. 26, fn. 16.
  29. ^ Killebrew 2005, p. 154.
  30. ^ a b Hasel, Michael G. (1994), "Israel in the Merneptah Stela", BASOR, 296 (12): 54, 56.
  31. ^ Lipinski, Edward (2006). On the Skirts of Canaan in the Iron Age: Historical and Topographical Researches. Peeters. p. 60. ISBN 978-90-429-1798-9.
  32. ^ Early History of the Israelite People, Thomas L. Thompson, pp. 139, 311, 404. Quote: "With the 'Israel' stele we have only a name in an historical context in which the shifting signification and dislocation of regional and gentilic toponymy over centuries is a commonplace"
  33. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 115-16.
  34. ^ Killebrew 2005, p. 155.


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