Why an Exodus from Succoth in the Eastern Delta of Egypt to the Southern Sinai ?
(Linking the Late Bronze Age Archaeological Evidence to the Biblical Exodus Traditions)

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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10 January 2004
07 February 2004  Revised and corrected

The Exodus is portrayed in the Bible as beginning at a place called Rameses, in the eastern delta called Goshen, then the second encampment is at a place called Succoth (Ex 12:37; 13:20; Nu 33:5-6). A number of scholars understand that a location or possibly a region in Wadi Tumilat, called in Egyptian Tjeku/Tjekw, might be Succoth, noting that Egyptian tj can be transliterated into Hebrew as s (samek). The following report of some officials guarding the eastern approach to Egypt in the days of Pharaoh Mer-ne-Ptah (who reigned ca. 1212-1202 BCE) via Tjeku is of interest :

"...Another communication to my [lord], to [wit: We] have finished letting the Bedouin tribes of Edom pass the Fortress [of] Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Mat -life, prosperity, health ! which is in Tjeku, to the the pools of Per-Atum [of] Mer-[ne]-Ptah Hotep-hir-/Maat, which are (in) Tjeku, to keep them alive and to keep their cattle alive, through the great ka of Pharaoh -life, prosperity, health ! -the good sun of every land, in the year 8, 5 [intercalary] days, [the Birth of] Seth. I have had them brought in a copy of the report to the [place where] my lord is, as well as the other names of days when the Fortress of Mer-ne-Ptah Hotep-hir-Maat -life, prosperity, health !- which is (in) [Tj]ek[u], may be passed." (pp. 183-184. "The Report of a Frontier Official." James B. Pritchard, Editor. The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press. 1958.)

Pritchard observed on the above translation :

"The location is the eastern end of the Wadi Tumilat, the land of Goshen. The Fortress of Mer-ne-Ptah will have been a frontier fortess. Tjeku -could only with difficulty be Succoth and seems to be a broad designation for the region. The Semitic word birkeh is used [rendered pools of Per-Tum]. Per-Tum "the House of Atum," is probably biblical Pithom." (cf. p. 183, notes 1, 2, & 3. Pritchard)

Seely on Succoth :

"Tell el-Maskhuta located 15 km W of modern Ismailia and Lake Timsah in Wadi Tumilat has been suggested by a number of scholars as a possible location for Succoth. The name Succoth may be an adaption of Egyptian Tjeku (tkw), a region and perhaps a city proposed to be located at Tell el-Maskhuta. Brugsch has offered an explanation of the derivation of Hebrew Succoth from Egyptian Tjeku (tkw) correlating Egyptian t with Hebrew s, Egyptian k with Hebrew k, and noting that the Egyptian w is a plural suffix while the Hebrew wt represents the femine plural suffix (Bleiberg 1983:21)...Papyrus Anastasi VI dating to about 1230 BCE preserves a message sent from a frontier official to his superior that certain Edomite bedouin had been allowed to pass the fortress in the district of Tjeku (Succoth ?) to pasture their cattle near Pithom (ANET, 259), locating both places in the same area." (p. 217. Vol. 6. Jo Ann Seely. "Succoth." David Noel Freedman, editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1992. New York. Doubleday)

Archaeological excavations by Professor Holladay in the 1980's at Tell el Maskhutah revealed it had NO Ramesside era pottery debris. What was found was debris of the Hyksos period, the 16th century BCE (with some Hyksos era tombs) and Saitic pottery of ca. 610 BCE (perhaps evidence of Pharaoh Necho making this site part of his frontier for the canal he was building between the Nile and the Red Sea (Gulf of Suez), and Persian, Nabatean, and Ptolemaic Greek pottery debris. 

Holladay on Pithom (Tell el-Maskuta) [Emphais mine] :

"Contrary to Naville's conclusions, which to a large extent are based upon inscribed Ramesside monuments found at the site, there is absolutely no evidence for a New Kingdom or 19th Dynasty occupation at the site, despite widespread excavation and intensive survey. The pottery evidence which would be decisive is entirely lacking. Thus the site's numerous massive monuments obviously were imported following the building of the sea-level canal, which made relative child's play of the work of moving monuments weighing tons...The site's later fortunes (ca. 610 BC-2d/3d [?] century AD) seem closely to parallel the fortunes of the Red Sea Canal, and it would appear that the site was a major defense and control point, emporium, and entrepot for this canal. It probably also served, during the Persian period (and later ?), as a transfer point to and from Qedarite-controlled (and later Nabatean-controlled ?) caravan routes in the Sinai, Southern Palestine, and the Transjordan (below). Massive storehouses, first found by Naville, and attributed to the building activities of the Israelites (Ex 1:11), may now be dated- in at least three major phases- to the later 3d and 2d centuries BC, rather than to the Egyptian 19th Dynasty (Holladay 1982:30-32). Smaller storehouses, differently sited than the very large Ptolemaic storehouses, are witnessed from the later Persian period and the reign of Ptolemy II." (p.590. Vol. 4. John S. Holladay, Jr. "Maskhuta, Tell el-." David Noel Freedman, editor. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 1992. New York.)

Challenging Holladay's above findings is the eminent Egyptologist, Kenneth A. Kitchner, who claims that the excavations were "NOT thorough enough," and that Maskhutah (which he believes is Succoth, NOT Pithom) "must be" Ramesside because of the Ramesside statuary earlier found there (Emphasis mine) :

"The Canadian expedition failed to find anything Ramesside there because most of it had already been destroyed or removed, they did not work extensively enough, and they have consistently refused to pay sufficient serious attention to results of previous work done there. The inadequate entries on "Pithom" by D.B. Redford, LdA IV/7 (1982), 1054-58, and by J.S. Holladay, Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East 3 (New York: OUP, 1997), 432-37, and in Oxford's Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt 3 (New York: OUP, 2000), 53-55, totally ignore the firsthand Ramesside literary and other monumental evidence (e.g. the Merneptah statue, Roman milestone, etc.) given here. The blunder of dating Tell el-Maskhuta to Necho II onward is repeated by Lemche and Dever, BAR 23, no. 4 (July-August 1997): 29, who are unaware of the full facts." (p. 555. Note 35 to pp. 255-60. Kenneth A. Kitchen. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. 2003. William B. Eerdmans. Grand Rapids, Michigan)

Holladay on the site's importance in dating the Exodus narratives :

"Exodus Traditions. The citation of Pithom and Raamses as store cities built by the children of Israel has long been held to be an important piece of evidence both for the dating of the Exodus and for validating the antiquity of Israel's traditions about the Exodus (Ex 1:11). These conclusions now seem viable only if the presently secure site identification is taken to be erroneous." (p. 591. Holladay)

Holladay understands that Pithom is Tell el-Maskhuta, and concludes that as the site was occupied only in the Hyksos period of 16th century BCE and then the Saitic era under Necho, after ca. 610 BCE, that the Exodus account  in the Bible is evidently quite late, after 610 BCE.

Challenging Holladay is Professor Bietak, who argues that Pithom is Tell er-Retabeh, some 12 miles west of Tell el-Maskhuta, a site possessing the required Rameside pottery debris. I suspect Bietak is correct in insisting that wherever Pithom is, it ought to possess Ramesside pottery debris.

As noted by Seely (see above), the Ramesside era Papyrus Anastasi VI suggests that the fortress of Merneptah and the pools of Pr-Atum are in a region called Tjeku. If the great overflow lake west of Tell er-Retabeh is the "pools of Pr-Atum" and _if_ Retabeh is the fortress of Merneptah located "in" Tjeku, then Succoth is not Maskhuta, its the region at the _west end of Wadi Tumilat_, not the east end of the wadi. All this would "confirm" that certain aspects of Exodus traditions being  -in part- of the Ramesside era, the 13th century BCE. 

I say "in part" because it is my understanding that the geography of the Exodus is a fusion of events and locations from Ramesside to Exilic times (I have argued elsewhere that ca. 562 BCE is when the account was written, most of the locations mentioned in the narratives being in existence at the same time from ca. 640-562 BCE).

In the 1880's Edouard Naville who excavated Tell el Maskhutah, argued it was the Heroopolis of the Septuagint Bible (where Joseph met his father Jacob at on his descent into Egypt, composed in the 3rd century BCE at Alexandria, Egypt,) and the Pithom of the Massoretic Text, having found various Egyptian stelae and statues with Ramesside cartouches on them. Holladay has argued that perhaps Necho brought these Rameside monuments from nearby Tell er-Retabeh, which does have Ramesside Era pottery debris.

Professor Bietak has noted that in antiquity a great overflow lake existed at the end of one of the Nile's branches that terminated in the west end of Wadi Tumilat. Just east of this lake lies Tell er-Retabeh, which he thinks is probably biblical Pithom, a notion shared by an earlier scholar, Professor Alan H. Gardiner, who opposed Naville's identifications at the turn of the 20th century; so Retabeh is admirably sited to prevent access by nomads to the Nile's waters, being east of the overflow lake.

Is there any mention in the Egyptian monuments of the southern Sinai that might possibly "link" to Israel's notion of an Exodus via Succoth/Tjeku ?  According to some scholars there is nothing in the southern Sinai to link the Exodus traditions to. They have noted that archaeological surveys have failed to turn up a single Israelite campsite from the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1560-1200 BCE) or Early Iron Age (ca. 1200-1000 BCE). They have accordingly proposed new paradigms to account for Israel's presence in Canaan, suggesting that there was no invasion, Israel was merely a group of disaffected local Canaanites who either fled the lowlands and political oppression to settle in the Hill Country about Jerusalem and Hebron  (William G. Dever) , or local nomads on the periphery of Canaan who decided to settle down (Israel Finklestein).

Contra the above claims I believe that archaeological evidence does exist of events in the southern Sinai of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Ages to "link" the Exodus traditions to.

So, to return to the original question, "Is there any evidence of anyone from Succoth/Tjeku in the southern Sinai in the Late Bronze Age as suggested by the Exodus traditions ?" The answer is yes.

I have argued in earlier articles that the Exodus as presented in the biblical narratives is fiction, but that archaeolgical evidence of the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age I does exist in the southern Sinai to link the Exodus traditions to. The ONLY archaeological evidence found to date of these eras are the Egyptian run mining camps at Serabit el Khadim and the camps at the Har Timna valley and Wadi Amran in the southern Arabah. I thus have argued that the Exodus traditions are transformations and embellishments of events occuring at these camps.

In 1977 the Israeli Egyptologist Raphael Giveon discovered some "new" inscriptions that had been overlooked or missed by earlier archaeological surveys at the Egyptian Hathor Shrine located at Serabit el Khadim. In these inscriptions mention is made of Miners from Tjeku/Succoth, who are listed as "stone masons". He dates these inscriptions to the reign of Pharaoh Thuthmose IV (who he dates as reigning ca. 1425-1408 BCE). This account "somewhat" aligns with the 1446-1406 BCE Exodus leaving Succoth and its 40 years of wandering (cf. 1 Kings 6:1) favored by some Conservative scholars.

Professor Giveon (emphasis is mine) :

"We have to decide between Thutmosis III and Thuthmosis IV. As this slab was found in room "C" we should prefer Thuthmosis IV for a relief from a part of the temple which dates to the latter half of the 18th Dynasty...This is partly a re-discovery: the inscription (No. 60) was found about a hundred years ago by the Ordnance Survey, a squeeze was made of the upper part and it was not found again neither by Petrie nor by Cerny who looked for it. We discovered it in February 1977.

In the following translation we underline the parts which did not appear on the squeeze and present new material;

"Year 7 under the majesty of the king of Upper and Lower Egypt, Mn-hprw-Re (=Thutmosis IV) beloved by Hathor, Lady of  the Turquoise; the good god Mn-hprw-Re, to whom life is given forever. The son of Re Thuthmosis H'h`w. The princess Waydet , may she live...The messenger of the princess Wadyet great commander of a host of Tjeku, 'Imn-m-hzt The Overseer of the stone-masons Pth; 'Imn-mhzt."

Tjeku is biblical Pithom, modern Tell el Maskutah in the Wady Tumilat. This presents another instance when high Egyptian officials serving at key points on the eastern border of Egypt were called to do essential work in Sinai, most probably at a time of quiet at the borders. The personal names occuring here, Imnemhat and Ptah are known from other documents; it is not clear why Imnemhat puts his name again without the title preceding." 

(pp. 59-60. Raphael Giveon. "Ancient Egyptian Mining Centres in South Sinai- New Discoveries." Raphael Giveon. The Impact of Egypt on Canaan, Iconographical and Related Studies. Universitatsverlag Freiburg Schweiz [University of Fribourg, Switzerland] )


Contra the claims by some scholars that "nothing exists" of an archaeological nature in the southern Sinai to "link" the Exodus traditions to, I understand that the Late Bronze Age and later, the Ramesside era or Iron IA, miners are, -in part- behind the Exodus traditions.  I have attempted to demonstrate that the biblical association of Succoth/Tjeku in Egypt with the southern Sinai is INDEED attested by the archaeological data found at the Egyptian mines of Serabit el Khadim. That is to say, Israel in leaving the eastern Delta for the southern Sinai was probably using a track utilized by Egyptian mining expeditions to Serabit el Khadim and vicinity. I understand, based on the Papyrus Anastasi VI, that Tjeku/Succoth was "a region" and that it comprised the west end of Wadi Tumilat, the great overflow lake, "birkhet Pr-Tum" and Tell er-Retabeh, which I suspect is "Merneptah's fortress." Giveon's finding of an Egyptian inscription at Serabit el Khadim dated to the reign of Thuthmose IV, mentioning stone masons and their commander from Tjkeu/Succoth, suggests that individuals from Succoth were trekking from the eastern border of the Delta in the 15th century BCE, to the southern Sinai, the Exodus being dated to this same century, ca. 1446 BCE by 1 Kings 6:1. 

Cf. my other articles posted on this website for other archaeologically attested links of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages of events in the southern Sinai, Negev and Arabah to the biblical Exodus traditions. It is my understanding that events and locations from the Hyksos era of the 16th century BCE to Ramesside times of the 13th century BCE, to the Exile of the early 6th century BCE, are all fused and jumbled together in the Exodus narratives.

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