Thomas Hartwell

Israelites or Canaanites? Although more than half destroyed, this scene differs in an important way from the other three battle reliefs of Merneptah’s Canaanite campaign: It contains no city; even if the relief were complete, there would be no room for a city. The rear legs of pharaoh’s chariot team, drawn on a larger scale to reflect pharaoh’s importance, appear at right in a rearing stance. In the complete relief, pharaoh’s horse would be seen looming over the smaller enemy chariot and the confused jumble of retreating soldiers.

Yurco identified this scene with Merneptah’s boast in his famous stele, “Israel is laid waste.” If Yurco is right, this relief is the oldest known visual portrayal of Israelites, and it shows them soon after they are thought to have emerged as a distinct group.

Author Rainey disagrees, however, and equates this scene with the first line of the Canaanite campaign description in the Merneptah Stele: “Canaan has been plundered into every sort of woe.” One powerful reason for believing the figures in the scene are Canaanites instead of Israelites is that they wear ankle-length clothes typical of Canaanite soldiers. In addition, Rainey emphasizes that the Israelites almost certainly had no chariots at this time and that it is simpler to identify the people as Canaanites using Canaanite chariots than as Israelites using borrowed Canaanite chariots. The disagreement is important because the Canaanite dress of the figures in this relief leads Yurco to subscribe to the theory that the Israelites emerged from Canaanite society; whereas Rainey identifies the Israelites mentioned in the stele text with the pastoralist Shosu/Shasu depicted in other reliefs on the wall.