Summary: The discovery of the lost city of Aten gives insight to this high point of ancient Egypt and provides important biblical lessons.
And the LORD appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. – Genesis 26:2 (ESV)
City Built by Amenhotep III More Than 3,000 Years Old
Excavations have unearthed the well-preserved remains of a great city in Luxor that had been covered by the sands of time. It is believed to be the biggest city ever discovered in Egypt. Finds at the site date its activity to the time of Amenhotep III, the 9th ruler of the mighty 18th Dynasty. He was one of the greatest pharaohs to ever reign in Egypt with a reign normally dated to about 1388–1351 BC.
The excellent condition of the city from the zenith of the New Kingdom’s power promises to reveal a lot about life in Egypt at that time. Its discovery also adds clues to debates over biblical archaeology in the era of the Exodus, and even provides a valuable lesson for how we should approach the historical reliability of the Bible.
The Discovery of the Lost City of Aten
The discovery was announced by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s best-known archaeologist who is never far away from breaking archaeological news in the country. “Many foreign missions searched for this city and never found it” Hawass, a former antiquities minister, said in a statement. “We began our work searching for the mortuary temple of Tutankhamun because the temples of both Horemheb and Ay were found in this area.’”
Betsy Brian, Professor of Egyptology at John Hopkins University said, “The discovery of this lost city is the second most important archeological discovery since the tomb of Tutankhamun.” She continued, “The discovery of the Lost City …will give us a rare glimpse into the life of the ancient Egyptians at the time where the empire was at his wealthiest…”
This city of Amenhotep III was known from Egyptian historical accounts, but no one had located it until now. The excavation began in September 2020 and within weeks the team was surprised to see mudbrick formations emerging from the sand and running in all directions. Rooms within the city were filled with tools of daily life that had been untouched for thousands of years.
The site lies between Rameses III’s temple at Medinet Habu and Amenhotep III’s temple at Memnon. In the hills to the west lies the Valley of the Kings. “The city’s streets are flanked by houses, which some of their walls are up to three meters high,” Hawass stated. “We can reveal that the city extends to the west, all the way to the famous Deir el-Medina.” He believes it was the largest administrative and industrial settlement in the era of the Egyptian empire on the western bank of Luxor. (See the story about 800 Egyptian tombs discovered.)
Finds From the Ancient City
The Egyptian mission under Hawass made a large number of finds, such as rings, scarabs, colored pottery vessels, and mudbricks bearing the seals of King Amenhotep III, confirming the identity of the city’s founder. Hawass put forward the name “The Rise of Aten” for the city, or “Aten” for short.
Several neighborhoods have already been uncovered with one area containing ovens from a bakery, a food preparation area, and storage pottery. From its size, the team determined that the kitchen catered to a very large number of workers.
Another area housed a production facility for mud bricks used to build temples and annexes. Elsewhere, a large number of casting molds were found for the production of amulets and delicate decorative elements, probably used in temples and tombs.
According to the statement, a mud seal with inscriptions that can be read: “gm pa Aton” can be translated as “the domain of the dazzling Aten.” The name “the Dazzling Sun Disk” is elsewhere associated with Amenhotep III’s reign. The worship of the god Aten (represented by the sun’s disk emitting rays) was elevated by his successor, King Akhenaten, who Hawass said built a temple by the same name at Karnak. This contributed to Hawass dubbing it a “golden city.”
All over the site, many tools were discovered for use in some sort of industrial activity like spinning and weaving. A large cemetery was found with rock-cut tombs of different sizes that were accessed through stairs carved into the rock.
The history of this period has this city being abandoned when Pharaoh Akhenaten built the entirely new city of Amarna and relocated the capital there. The city of Aten seems to have experienced a time of renewed activity at the time of two of Akhenaten’s successors, the famous King Tutankhamun (King Tut) and King Ay. The mission is seeking evidence to clarify these events with further excavations of the large site. In the future they hope to uncover untouched tombs filled with treasures. (See a graveyard of slaves discovered from the time of Akhenaten.)
A Clue to the Historical Setting of the Exodus?
This find from what is considered the Golden Era of ancient Egypt highlights one of the debates about the correct historical setting for the biblical Exodus account. Those who propose that the Exodus occurred prior to the New Kingdom point out that the wealth and power of Egypt in this period, appears to be far from the devastated Egypt depicted in the Bible as a result of the Exodus.
The two most popular dates for the Exodus are the Early Date around 1450 BC and the Late Date around 1250 BC when Pharaoh Ramesses II was reigning under conventional dating. The problem is that both of these options put the Exodus at peaks of Egypt’s power during the New Kingdom when it was the superpower of the ancient world.
The Exodus was no minor calamity for Egypt. If what the Bible describes really happened, then we should expect to see Egypt brought to its knees, not thriving during a period of sustained power. Even before the 8th plague Pharaoh’s advisors challenged him with the fact that Egypt was already ruined (Ex. 10:7). After this point all of Egypt’s firstborn died, overnight they lost the massive slave-force their economy depended on (along with much of the nation’s gold and silver jewelry), and what was left of the army ended up drowned in the sea.
This must have had more than a temporary adverse effect on Egypt. In fact, in his final sermon recorded 40 years after the Exodus, Moses wrote the following:
his signs and his deeds that he did in Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt and to all his land …and how the LORD has destroyed them to this day. – Deuteronomy 11:3-4 (ESV)
If Egypt was in a state of devastation 40 years after the Exodus, this doesn’t seem to square with the middle of the 18th Dynasty of Egypt, with many putting the Exodus during the reigns of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II.
- Thutmose III 1479–1425 BC
- Amenhotep II 1427–1397 BC
- Thutmose IV 1397–1388 BC
- Amenhotep III 1388–1351 BC
Based on these standard dates, the span between the end of Thutmose III’s reign and the powerful Amenhotep III was a mere 37 years. From the end of Amenhotep II’s reign to Amenhotep III was only about 9 years. How does this fit with the Bible’s hint that Egypt was laid low for at least 40 years?
Thutmose III is known as the Napoleon of Egypt because he conquered large swaths of the Near East to give Egypt its largest empire to that date. His vast empire was largely maintained by his successors Amenhotep II and Thutmose IV. Evidence for the continued strength of these pharaohs includes the ongoing building of temples, monuments, and halls, while mostly maintaining peaceful relations with rival kingdoms – who sometimes paid tribute to them.
According to an article on Amenhotep II at Wikipedia, he recorded a campaign into Canaan where the plunder included 101,128 slaves. If true, this would be largest slave raid of its kind in Egypt’s history – something that would seem impossible for a devastated Egypt with its army at the bottom of the sea.
Not long afterward, Amenhotep III became king. He is sometimes called Amenhotep the Magnificent. The discovery of the city of Aten underscores the prosperity and splendor of Egypt at the peak of its power. He was one of Egypt’s greatest builders at a time when Egypt was prospering due to being at peace with its neighbors and robust international trade.
Some who see problems for placing the biblical Exodus during this Golden Era in Egypt’s past believe the Exodus occurred long before 1450 BC. Others (as seen in the film Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus) accept an Exodus date in the 15th century BC, but think Egypt’s history has been dated wrongly, and that the entire Kingdom period needs to slide forward by centuries. This shift in Egyptian dates would produce new contexts for the Exodus during times when Egypt became weak, chaotic and even dominated by foreign powers for extended periods. The debate between the Early Date, the Late Date and chronology shifting will continue to be investigated in future Patterns of Evidence films.
Missing Evidence for the Bible’s history?
A more fundamental issue raised by the discovery of Aten is the fact that we know far less about ancient history than many assume. Most evidence for historical events has either not survived the centuries or remains hidden under the surface. This does not just apply to the sands of the desert. In 2019 it was announced that a Canaanite metropolis that was the largest-known city in Canaan and more than ten times larger than Jericho was discovered by a road-building project in Israel.
Archaeology is best suited to finding the hard remains of brick and stone buildings and monuments, as well as pottery. Yet many archaeologists interviewed by Patterns of Evidence have estimated that only a tiny fraction of what is out there has been found so far. The discovery of previously unknown cities demonstrates that point.
Then there is the reality that nomadic groups and communities living in tents leave little trace of their existence. They are often nearly invisible to archaeological research, even when searched for just a few years after their presence. This underappreciated factor has led to skepticism of many things recorded in the Bible.
For Example, some have been skeptical of the Bible’s account of the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness after the Israelites left Egypt. This is because there is no confirmed hard evidence for their campsites. However, nomadic people don’t build brick buildings; they live in tents made of animal skins. They don’t carry heavy pots around with them; they put their water in goat skins and use leather sacks. These materials all decay rapidly. So, thousands of years later you wouldn’t expect to find any pottery or brick remains from the Israelites. The primary indicator for these ancient populations might be stone markers for their graves – when those were erected.
Another point doubted by many scholars is whether Edom even existed as an organized nation as early as the time of the Exodus. Yet the Bible has the Israelites steering around Edom on their way to the Promised Land because Edom didn’t allow them entry (Num. 20:14-21). Once again, the skepticism is based on little hard evidence for the Edomites in that period, such as forts and administrative centers. This shows a strong bias against tented populations, as though they were incapable of having strong organized nations. (See evidence of Edom discovered in a past Thinker.)
Other points debated include the size of the Israelites’ population. Currently, there are not enough physical remains of cities in Canaan to support the idea of the large numbers reported in the Bible. But this involves the same key issue. The Bible clearly portrays Israelites dwelling in tents, and it wasn’t just the patriarchs. Even at the time of kings David and Solomon and beyond, a common phrase was for Israel to return to their tents when it was time for them to go home. The same was true of their neighbors.
And Gideon went up by the way of the tent dwellers east of Nobah and Jogbehah and attacked the army, for the army felt secure. – Judges 8:11 (ESV)
And in the days of Saul they waged war against the Hagrites, who fell into their hand. And they lived in their tents throughout all the region east of Gilead. – 1 Chronicles 5:10 (ESV)
You shall not build a house; you shall not sow seed; you shall not plant or have a vineyard; but you shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.’ – Jeremiah 35:7
There may have been large numbers of people living in tents, especially in proximity to more permanent settlements and in the grazing lands east of the Jordan River. We look forward to exploring the discoveries of once hidden cities and even indications of large mobile groups in the future.
The discovery of “The Rise of Aten” should provide many years of work for archaeologists. Their findings will provide answers about Egyptian history and how it might connect to the Bible. The discovery should also provide a key lesson about attitudes toward the validity of biblical accounts. If entire cities can lie undetected under our feet, scholars should be cautious about doubting the Bible’s account of populations that included roaming bands of tent-dwellers. This can help us all to be encouraged, and to keep thinking.
TOP PHOTO: A portion of the lost city of Aten discovered near Luxor, Egypt. (credit: Zahi Hawass – the Center for Egyptology)