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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Merneptah Stele

Merenptah stele

Merneptah Stele

The Merneptah Stele is famous for its inscription by the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1213 to 1203 BC) and was discovered in 1896 at Thebes. The text glorifies King Merneptah’s victories over the Libyans and their Sea People allies. It also describes a separate campaign in Canaan which was then part of Egypt’s imperial possessions. The last two lines mention a campaign in Canaan, where Merneptah says he defeated and destroyed many ethnic groups including Israel.

The Merneptah Stele is sometimes referred to as the “Israel Stela” because a majority of scholars translate a set of hieroglyphs on the stele as “Israel.” The stela represents the earliest surviving text referring to Israel, and it is the only reference from ancient Egypt. It is one of four known inscriptions that mention Israel and date to the time of ancient Israel and is thus of unique historical importance.

Merneptah Stele

The name Israel written in hieroglyphs as it appears on the stele

The stele was found in Merenptah’s funerary chapel in Thebes, the ancient Egyptian capital. The stele is a black granite slab, over 3 meters (10 feet) high, and the inscription says it was carved in the 5th year of Merneptah of the 19th dynasty.

Stele

A stele is a stone slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected in the ancient world as a monument. Ancient Egyptian steles have been used since the First Dynasty of Egypt. Mainly as vertical slabs of stone for funerary or commemorative purposes. The surface of the stele usually had some text and sometimes ornamentation. The ornamentation was inscribed, carved in relief, or painted.

Steles have been used to publish laws and decrees, to record a ruler’s exploits and honours, to mark sacred territories, as territorial markers. They were widely used in the ancient Near East, Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia. Stelae as slabs of stone were also used extensively in the ancient Near East, Egypt, Greek and Roman as government notices or as boundary markers to mark borders or property lines. Steles are occasionally erected as memorials to battles.

Stele-like forms from China and Pre-Columbian America are also important historical records and works of art. A large number of steles, including inscriptions, surviving from Central America constitute one of the largest and most significant sources of information on those civilisations, in particular, Maya stelae.

The most famous example of an inscribed stela leading to increased understanding is the Rosetta Stone, which led to the breakthroughs which allowed Egyptian hieroglyphs to be read.

Standing stones, also called menhirs, were set up without inscriptions by ancient peoples from Libya in North Africa to Scotland, which were monuments of pre-literate Megalithic cultures in the Late Stone Age. The Pictish stones of Scotland, often with intricate carvings, date from between the 6th and 9th centuries.

Are traditional Western gravestones modern equivalent of ancient stelae?

Merneptah Stele

    • Title:                         Merneptah Stele
    • Also Known as:        Israel Stele or Victory Stele of Merneptah
    • Year:                         1208 BC
  • Medium:                  Granite
  • Discovered:             1896
  • Find site:                  Thebes
  • Dimensions:             3 meters (10 feet) high
  • Museum:                 Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Did you know?

  • A Stele like this one was called a Victory Stele by the Egyptians, a  because it boasted military conquests.
  • Merneptah was the son of Ramesses II, and during his time he ruled the dominant superpower of the region.
  • This stele claims that Israel was destroyed. History has proven this claim a mistaken.

A Tour of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities

A Tour of Egyptian Artifacts

Reflections

  • Imagine being the archaeologist who discovered this 3,000 years old document?
  • How many controversies or debates surround the interpretation of this text?
  • Is this object important as art or a historical artefact?
  • Is Ancient Egyptian culture the most alien to our modern eyes?

~~~

“For the benefit of the flowers, we water the thorns, too.”
– Egyptian Proverbs

~~~


Photo Credits: 1) Alyssa Bivins [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons 2) By Brave heart, using free hieroglyphic fonts (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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