Israelite Houses in Egypt

According to the Biblical narrative, the Israelites dwelt in Egypt for about four centuries, for the latter part of that time as slaves. Much effort has been expended seeking for archaeological evidence of the long Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Tantalizing hints about Israel's presence in Egypt are found in certain pottery fragments discovered in Avaris (the biblical Goshen), in certain Egyptian inscriptions, and in some New Kingdom artistic representations. These are but glimpses, however. Full scale, undeniable hard evidence of an Israelite presence in Egypt between 1700-1300 BC. has yet to emerge. We should not make too much of this, however. Much of the physical culture of the ancient Egyptians themselves has vanished; tombs and temples remain, but the houses of the average Egyptian peasant are long gone. If the material infrastructure of the Egyptians has long since vanished, what should we expect of their slaves?

A notable exception to this trend may be the houses discovered at Medinet Habu in the suburbs of ancient Thebes, the religious capital of Egypt and the site of the famous Valley of the Kings, the burial place used by several New Kingdom dynasties.

Medinet Habu was the site of the mortuary temple of the 18th dynasty Pharaohs Ay and Horemheb (r. 1323-1292 BC). The temple was completed by Horemheb but later demolished by the Ramesside pharaohs. When this temple was being excavated by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago int he 1930's, researchers stumbled upon the remains of several structures in the immediate vicinity of the temple. Evidence of these structures were discerned by the presence narrow trenches chiseled out of the bedrock, from 6 to 8 inches wide and only 4 to 8 inches deep. In these small trenches were post holes, apparently for wooden poles or reed bundles bound together with ropes to be used as posts. The trenches and post holes still held evidence of the mortar or plaster used to secure the posts and the reed-walls. At two spots, post holes were found in pairs at ends of trenches, showing breaks. Here doorposts could be reconstructed. The excavators interpreted all this as evidence of workers’ huts, the walls of which were made of reeds plastered with mud or desert clay stamped around them and supported by intermittent posts in grooves in the bedrock. Similarly constructed huts can still be found in Egypt even today.

What were these workers employed at? Presumably work on the Temple of Ay and Horemheb. At first it was presumed they belonged to the crews who constructed the temple, but dating suggested that these huts were much later than the construction of the temple. The Oriental Institute placed them to the time of Ramesses IV (1153-1147 BC). This is because it is believed that Ramesses IV was the pharaoh who had the Temple of Ay and Horemheb demolished. The workmen's huts would belong to the workers who carried out the demolition of the temple sometime between 1153 and 1147. This dating will be important later on.

The layout of the huts was not difficult to reconstruct based on the position of the post holes. A four-room house consists of three parallel long rooms separated by two walls or rows of columns, plus a broad room across one end. Often the rooms are subdivided, and sometimes subsidiary rooms are added. The central long room is thought to have been a roofless courtyard, often separated from one of the adjoining rooms by a row of columns. The interesting thing is that when the layout is studied, there were no parallels found among indigenous Egyptian buildings of the same period. This means the huts belonged to foreigners, not Egyptians, for this was not the sort of construction Egyptians used. 

The four-room house is, however, the predominant type of domestic building in Palestine during the entire Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.) - in other words, throughout the entire Israelite period in Palestine. The four-room house emerged in Palestine around the time of the conquest and abruptly disappeared after the Babylonian conquest of Judah. The structure is so ubiquitous in Palestine during the Israelite period that it has been dubbed "the Israelite house." Famed Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh called it "an original Israelite concept" [1]. Israeli archaeologists Schlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust have also firmly identified this design with the Israelites, writing, "the four room house may safely be called the Israelite house" [2]. Not to say non-Israelites never utilized it - evidence of four room houses in Amalekite and Philistine territory have been discovered - but it was apparently devised by the Israelites and used primarily by them, gaining in popularity as their kingdom waxed strong and vanishing when their kingdom vanished.

While the excavators of the 1930's realized the workman's huts were not Egyptian, it was not until the early 2000s that Manfred Bietak, director of the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna and of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo, identified of the huts at Medinet Habu as Israelite four room houses. Based on the firm association of the four room house with the ancient Israelites, Bietak concludes that the workers who demolished the temple - possibly slaves - were almost certainly Hebrews. Noting that the date of 1153-1147 for the huts is way too late to make these the Hebrews of the Exodus, Bietak unfortunately goes on to try to use the presence of these few huts to overthrow the entire Exodus chronology, positing an absurd theory that the Israelite conquest of Palestine predates the Exodus.

Bietak's broader chronology is an exercise in extrapolation based on very scanty data. Nevertheless, his identification of the workmen's huts with Israelite houses is very significant. But if we are not to reorder the entire history of the Old Testament, what options are we left with? In fact there are several possibilities that can explain these houses without adopting Bietak's backwards chronology:

1) These huts are post-Exodus huts but belong to Israelites who were taken as slaves in a subsequent raid into Palestine by one of the Ramesside pharaohs; one such raid for slaves and plunder is recorded during the time of Rameses III (1186-1155 B.C.). If so, this would prove the established presence of Israel in Canaan in the 12th century B.C., right where Joshua and Judges places them. This theory works whether we date the Exodus around 1450 B.C. or 1250 B.C.

2) These huts were errantly dated in the 1930's Oriental Institute excavations. They actually date from the time of Ay and Horemheb (c. 1300 B.C.) and not from the time of Ramesses IV. In that case, they would belong to the workers who built the temple to begin with. If we adopt theory that Ramesses II was the pharaoh of the Exodus, the huts could have belonged to pre-Exodus Hebrew slaves.

Either way, we see that the presence of these Hebrew buildings at Medinet Habu gives us valuable insight into the relationship of Israel and Egypt during this important period. Regardless of whether the inhabitants of these huts were pre-Exodus Hebrew slaves or Palestinian Israelites captured in a later raid, it demonstrates that the Israelites were in fact used as a slave or menial class by the Egyptians, and that their particular trade was in constructing buildings for pharaoh (cf. Ex. 1:11).

While this does not prove conclusively - from an archaeological standpoint at least - that there was a large class of Israelite slaves in New Kingdom Egypt, it does lend support to the biblical narrative and refutes those skeptics, especially of the bankrupt Wellhausian-Documentary Hypothesis school, who believe the Israelite presence in Egypt is mere fantasy.


[1] Shiloh, “Four-Room House,” IEJ 20 (1970), p. 180.
[2] Shlomo Bunimovitz and Avraham Faust, “Ideology in Stone: Understanding the Four-Room House,” BAR 28:04.