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Pithom is a city mentioned in Exodus 1:11.
- Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.
Since the birth of professional archaeology, several attempts have been made to locate the city, none of which have stood up to scrutiny. A site favoured by some of the more extreme Biblical literalists today is Tell Maskhuta.
Location and recent history
The site is located in the eastern delta, circa 15km WSW of Ismailia, Egypt, immediately adjacent to the Benha-Zagazig-Ismailia mainline, north of the Nile valley-Suez motorway. An airbase sits opposite the site. Charming little place.
Tell Maskhuta was first studied in detail from 1882 by Henri Édouard Naville on behalf of the Egypt Exploration Society of London, and it was he who first identified the city with Pithom. Flinders Petrie, also working for the EES, investigated the site just over 20 years later and reached the same conclusion. Both men were regarded as some of the most competent archaeologists of their time, but were operating under severe restrictions. At this time the EES received a considerable amount of its funding from religiously-motivated sponsors who were interested in Biblical archaeology, and the resulting publications reflected this backing.
At the time of the EES work, Ramesses II was believed by Christians to be the "Pharaoh of the Exodus", and Ramesside statue elements were recovered from the site, inscribed with the city name pr-itm, which was quickly etymologically liked with the Biblical Pithom. Alas, from Pharaonic times right through to the 19th century CE, the sheer quantity of Ramesseside statuary made it prudent for cost-conscious megalomaniacs to ship old Ramesside monuments from abandoned cities to their own for instant, low cost glamour, and these were no exception. The statues were indeed Ramesside, but the context they were found in wasn't. After all, if we go by monumental remains, Alexandria was adorned with obelisks by Thutmose III. They were simply recarved statues.
Bricks without straw
Literalist Christians get very excited when discussing the mud-bricks made without straw found at Tell Maskhuta. However, firstly the structure in question undoubtedly dates to the Roman period. Secondly, mud-brick without straw, while not common, was by no means unknown in Egypt. The ingredients used in Egyptian brick manufacture varied greatly according to local conditions.
A young ancient city
Tell Maskhuta is a young site by Egyptological standards. The earliest layer of urban development at the city dates from the Saite Period (26th Dynasty) of the 7-6th centuries BCE. Recent excavations suggest the site was developed by Necho II as a harbour and administrative centre for the Nile-Red Sea canal he was constructing, and served in broadly this role through to the Coptic/Roman period.
- Sarna, Nahum M. (1996) Exploring Exodus: The Origins of Biblical Israel, Knopf Doubleday Publishing. ISBN 0805210636.
- At least it's easy to get to, if 3rd class stopping trains are your thing
- MacDonald, B (1980), Excavations at Tell el-Maskhuta, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 43 No. 1, p49-58 (on JSTOR)
- Spencer, P (2009), The Egypt Exploration Society, Ancient Egypt, Vol. 9 No. 4
- Nims, C (1950), Bricks Without Straw?, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 13 No. 2, p.22-28 (on JSTOR)