Exodus: Gods and Kings, released in 2014, is an epic retelling of the Biblical story of Moses and the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt after 400 years of slavery. Christian Bale stars as Moses in this The Ten Commandments remake with Joel Edgerton channeling Yul Brynner as Ramesses the Great. We began Nile Scribes as a way to address common misconceptions about ancient Egypt that are often perpetrated through Hollywood films such as the Exodus. Most Egypto-inaccuracies are harmless and clearly intended for cinematic effect like the flesh-eating scarab beetles in The Mummy (pure fiction). Others may simply lead you to believe that ancient Egyptian royalty lived in enormous stone palaces – they didn’t. But some, like Exodus’ stereotypically whitewashed cast, continue to feed the long-held social fiction that Egypt’s splendors could never have been built by an African civilisation. This week, the Nile Scribes are reviewing Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings as the first part in our two-part series on the Exodus.
Exodus narrates one of the most foundational myths from the Abrahamic religions and tells the story of the conflict between the ancient Hebrews and their Egyptian overlords in the Hebrews’ struggle to escape their captivity of 400 years. While researching the story of the Exodus from an academic viewpoint, it quickly becomes apparent that few scholars can agree on the subject. For our review, we will discuss some of the Egyptian elements as they are presented in the film, and present a discussion surrounding the date and route of the Exodus as well as the presence of Israelites in Egypt in next week’s blog post.
Fact-Checking the Ancient Egyptian Elements
As in The Ten Commandments, this film assigns Moses’ lifetime to the early Nineteenth Dynasty (1,292-1,191 BC) reigns of Seti I and Ramesses II, although the Biblical text does not name the Egyptian king under whose rule the event took place. In Ridley Scott’s version, Moses is the adopted nephew of King Seti I who is nearing old age and expects to soon pass on the throne to his son, Ramesses. The film begins in Memphis (near modern-day Cairo) where the royal palace was traditionally located for many periods of Egyptian history. Egyptian palaces are typically shown in Hollywood films as columned, stone structures, but in reality, Egyptian houses, even for royalty, were built of mudbrick which were plastered and vibrantly painted. Houses for the living were built out of cheaper and faster building materials, while houses for the gods and the dead, which were intended to be permanent, were built from stone.
The Battle of Qadesh
At the Memphite palace, Seti I along with his advisors and princes discuss the plans for the ensuing confrontation with the Hittites at the city of Qadesh, on the Orontes River, in modern-day Syria. The film borrows loosely from the famous battle early in the reign of Ramesses II (c. 1274 BC), or else, it might also refer to earlier attempts made by his father Seti I to quell rebellions in the northern lands and secure Qadesh for Egyptian territory again. Scenes of the famous battle decorate several temples in both Egypt and Nubia and show the king in much larger fashion than his infantry (a typical Egyptian artistic convention). While the chariot was only introduced into Egypt at the beginning of the New Kingdom, the Egyptian army consisted at that point mostly of infantry with groups of chariot-drivers providing increased mobility. Seeing the swaths of cavalry on either side in the Exodus battle scenes over-emphasises the role they must have played in the actual battle. On the one side, there are few horse riders in the reliefs, but the full use of calvary in ancient Egyptian warfare was not realised properly until the first millennium BC.
Perhaps the best Egyptological moment of the film follows the famous Battle of Qadesh, where a scribe reads Ramesses’ account of the battle aloud from papyrus accompanied by the reliefs of the Battle that we know so well from many of his temples. This charming scene will no doubt be easily overlooked by those unfamiliar with Ramesses’ self-indulgent boasting concerning the battle. In this context, Ramesses II was almost humiliated, which changes his image dramatically to that we encounter in the texts.
As the two princes enter the battle, Ramesses II is shown with a golden vulture-shaped headdress. Egyptian kings in the New Kingdom are often shown wearing the Blue Crown, which was probably made of leather with metal circles sewn on (although few actual crowns have survived!). In older literature, the Blue Crown is often referred to as a War Crown, yet recent studies suggest it is more a crown for the ‘living’ king. In the film, however, the crown that Edgerton’s Ramesses wears is the typical headwear associated with Egyptian queens!
Pithom and the pyramids
The geographic depiction of the Memphite landscape is also worthy of some note: several pyramids are shown along the banks of the Nile including Djoser’s iconic Stepped Pyramid. In contrast to what we know of this ancient area, the film’s digital reconstruction of this landscape includes an additional stepped pyramid, which does not exist. In fact, in an opening shot we visit Memphis under construction and, in the background, get a glimpse of a large pyramid with construction ramps snaking around its exterior. Assuming that this image depicts a pyramid being built (and not being restored), the director has fudged the timeline for visual grandeur. By the New Kingdom, pyramids had been long since replaced as royal funerary monuments by the less conspicuous rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings (Ramesses II was buried in KV 7). Additionally, pyramids were never incorporated into cities of the living, typically built on the east banks of the river, but developed a ‘pyramid town’ of their own of priests and caretakers of the pyramid complexes.
While Moses is learning the skills of a shepherd from the Midianites, Ramesses spends his years as king focusing on the construction of his new capital city, Pithom. Pithom, probably from the Egyptian words Per-Atum, meaning “House of Atum,” is a presumed Delta site, the location of which is still much debated (perhaps located at the modern sites of Tell el-Maskhuta or Tell el-Retabeh). Tanis was for many decades misidentified as the new Ramesside capital due to the wealth of stones inscribed with Ramesses’ name. Contrarily, archaeologists actually identified the city of Per-Ramesses, also known as Qantir, as the city built by Ramesses II. Both Pithom and Per-Ramesses appear in the Biblical story as the “store-houses” of Pharaoh, although for the film they were seemingly merged into one royal city built by Hebrew slave-labour.
Slave-labour has often been proposed to account for the large number of persons needed to build the pyramids during the Old Kingdom. In this context, the word slave brings up Classical notions of persons in the complete ownership of another human being, but for Egypt attestations for slavery are very scanty for before the Second Intermediate Period (1,759–1,539 BC). Nevertheless, while prisoners-of-war were often “acquired” as a royal resource into captivity, there is evidence to suggest that these persons were still allowed to own property or marry a free person, for example.
The problem of exotic animals
Wild animals featured heavily in New Kingdom tomb scenes as exotic trade goods sent to Egypt from the regions surrounding, primarily Nubia and the Levant. In the tomb of Rekhmire, a Vizier during the Eighteenth Dynasty reigns of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II, painted scenes of foreign peoples show them bringing a giraffe, cheetah, baboons, bears, horses, and monkeys as tribute for the Egyptian king. Exotic animals also featured in Exodus, including tiger skins on the royal dais (not native to Africa but perhaps used in error for leopard skins which are often shown in Egyptian scenes), zebra-skin shields (model wooden soldiers from Asyut carry what seem to be cow-skin shields), and elephants and camels shown side-by-side used as pack animals at the construction site of Pithom. It is unlikely that the Egyptians would have used imported elephants for manual labor when they could have relied on readily available teams of men or oxen, while camels were not introduced to ancient Egypt until the Persian Period (525-404 BC).
A Hebrew inscription before its time
As the plagues are wreaking pain and suffering upon the Egyptians, Moses eventually lays out his demands written in red ink on the side of a horse. Sent to Ramesses, the king’s officials tell him the inscription is written in Hebrew and read the text out loud and translate it for him. In ancient times, Egyptian scribes were certainly proficient in drafting correspondence to their foreign neighbours. This is particularly evident in some of the bilingual texts surviving from the New Kingdom, but also in the major networks of correspondence among the Near Eastern powers of the same time period. Here, however, the use of Hebrew is somewhat anachronistic. The letters resemble more closely forerunners of today’s Hebrew script, namely Phoenician and Paleo-Hebrew. While there is some evidence to suggest that Phoenician was in use by ca. 1,200 BC, the use of Paleo-Hebrew is not attested before the first millennium BC. The use of the modern name in the film was most likely adopted due to the higher familiarity of the audience with the modern language.
Abu Simbel as a Burial Place?
Once Sety I makes his journey into the west, the film shows a funeral procession taking the deceased king to his tomb at Abu Simbel. Abu Simbel is a large temple complex that guarded the ancient border between Nubia and Egypt and does not date to the reign of Sety I at all. Begun and completed by Ramesses II, it is dedicated to the gods Amun-Re, Re-Horakhty, and Ptah, along with a deified Ramesses II. The temple, located along Lake Nassar, was famously dismantled in the 1970s and reinstalled at a higher elevation in order to save it from the rising waters of the new Aswan Dam.
King Sety I was in reality buried in his rock-cut tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 17). It is puzzling to ponder the purpose of the pyramid shown under construction at the beginning of the film, if it was not intended as the king’s burial place. On the positive side, the film does show how the well-known ritual called the Opening of the Mouth (intended to reanimate deceased persons or a statue of a deity) was performed in ancient times by a son for his father. The mummified body of the king (rendered in subtle Karloffian fashion) is shown in his coffin as Ramesses takes on the role of the priest. A well-known scene of this ritual is found in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings (KV 62) where his successor Ay is shown performing the ritual on Tutankhamun’s mummy.
The Scribes’ Take on the Film
Despite the artistic licenses taken by the writers and director on the Egyptian landscape, wardrobe, and monuments, consulting Egyptologist Dr. Alan Lloyd’s dedication to imbuing the film with ancient Egyptian colors, motifs, and history should not be overlooked. The film’s visual storytelling creates as lush and stunning a world as one could ever imagine for the ancient Egyptians, even if Ramesses’ golden armor and feminine headdress looks impossible to fight in. Ultimately this film follows very closely in the cinematic footsteps of The Ten Commandments (but with stunning digital effects) and The Prince of Egypt (but without the songs). If you’ve seen both of those already, you’re not missing much in Exodus: Gods and Kings.
- The table of the scripts has been adapted from page 45 in O. Goldwasser. 2010. ‘How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs’. Biblical Archaeological Review 36 (2): 40–53.