What may be an ancient Israelite house has been discovered at the one-time Egyptian capital of Thebes, dating to about the same time the Israelites were settling in Canaan (Iron Age I; 1200–1000 B.C.E.).
The house was found by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak, who is directing a major excavation of Tell el-Dab’a in the eastern Nile Delta. Most scholars believe this site is the Biblical city of Ra’amses, where the Israelites were forced to make bricks for pharaoh (Exodus 1:14). Bietak did not find this Israelite house in his own dig, however, nor did he find it by excavating. He discovered it in a careful study of the report of a dig at Thebes conducted in the 1930s by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. There he found a drawing of the plan of a house that completely differed from adjacent Egyptian houses. In Bietak’s words, “The layout of this building bears no similarity to any of the Egyptian house types in the New Kingdom.” Instead, “The arrangement of the rooms bears … a high degree of similarity to the so-called Iron Age Four-Room house of Palestine.”
Scholars have been arguing for some time about whether this floor plan was introduced into Canaan by the ancient Israelites when they first appeared in the archaeological record in about 1200 B.C.E. Variously referred to as a four-room house or a pillared house, it basically consists of one broad room with three long rooms extending from it. The center of the three long rooms is usually an open courtyard and is separated from one or both of the side rooms by a row of pillars—hence the name “pillared house.” The rooms may be subdivided or have additional rooms tacked on, but the basic plan remains the same. Nevertheless, it is somewhat inaccurate to call it a four-room house, because it probably had a second story where the residents actually lived and slept. The first-floor courtyard was for domestic activities like cooking (the oven was usually located there) and the side rooms were designated for animals and storage.
In any event, this house style was so prevalent in the hundreds of little villages-that sprang up in the central hill country of Canaan between about 1200 and 1000 B.C.E. (Iron Age I) that it is sometimes called the Israelite-type house. For some, the four-room house is an ethnic marker; it is a sign that the house was probably an Israelite one. Other archaeologists have disputed this, however, on the grounds that they have also been found in adjacent territories, namely Canaan, Philistia and Transjordan. Nevertheless, some archaeologists continue to regard it as an ethnic marker of Israelites, especially when found in areas the Bible identifies as early Israelite territory. As 045Yigal Shiloh, the late excavator of the City of David in Jerusalem, said in a 1988 interview with BAR shortly before his death:
“About 95 percent of them, we know now, appear in Israelite settlements and therefore I prefer to call it an Israelite-type house. I am always astonished when people say to me, ‘Why do you call it an Israelite-type house? I have seen an example of it somewhere else.’ I say very nice, but 95 percent, statistically, are in Israelite settlements.”a
The evidence for the Egyptian example is somewhat unusual. It consists of grooves and holes in the rock. The grooves provide the wall plan of the house. The walls of the building were probably reed walls stuck into the ground and supported in the grooves with desert clay. Holes and broader grooves in corner positions probably supported posts made of reed bundles. Similar posts framed the doors. Traces of a similar building were also found beside the first one.
The four-room houses in Canaan were made of stone. It is an open question whether the prototype in Egypt, made chiefly of reeds and some wood, represents the original model or whether it is an adaptation of the masonry construction of Canaan to light building materials more suited to the transitory shelters used in Thebes.
This Egyptian four-room house was found in the precinct of a temple of Aya and Horemheb. The house may have been inhabited by workers employed when the temple was razed. Bietak dates the house to sometime between the middle of the 12th century to the first part of the 11th century B.C.E., in the reigns between Ramesses IV and Ramesses XI.
“The ethnic attribution of this type of house is a stimulating question,” Bietak observes. He raises three possibilities. First, it may have been the house of prisoners of war from Canaan conscripted to carry out this work. Second, it could have been a house for Shosu prisoners. The Shosu were Bedouin marauders out of whom, according to many scholars, the ancient Israelites coalesced. “If this is the case,” Bietak notes, “it is possible to associate them with early Israelite settlers in Canaan or with people of similar background.”
The third possibility is that these workmen came from Canaan seeking refuge from a drought or war. “In this case, too, the likelihood that early Israelites were involved is high,” Bietak says.
He concludes, “Even if we cannot prove beyond doubt the presence of Israelites in Ramesside Egypt, the Four-Room House from a workers’ quarter in western Thebes was certainly erected by people with a closely related cultural tradition.”
For further details, see Manfred Bietak, “An Iron Age Four-Room House in Ramesside Egypt,” in Eretz-Israel 23 (1992), pp. 10–12.
What may be an ancient Israelite house has been discovered at the one-time Egyptian capital of Thebes, dating to about the same time the Israelites were settling in Canaan (Iron Age I; 1200–1000 B.C.E.). The house was found by the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak, who is directing a major excavation of Tell el-Dab’a in the eastern Nile Delta. Most scholars believe this site is the Biblical city of Ra’amses, where the Israelites were forced to make bricks for pharaoh (Exodus 1:14). Bietak did not find this Israelite house in his own dig, however, nor did he find it by […]