The End of the Road

The Wilbour Papyrus, ca. 1147 B.C.E. Papyrus, ink, Glass: 16 15/16 x 18 1/8 in. (43 x 46 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 34.5596.27 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, CUR.34.5596.27_front_IMLS_PS5.jpg)

In Exodus 12, the Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to leave Egypt. “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!”…Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.

In the Bible, after 430 years the Israelite presence in Egypt was over. In Egypt, after 480 years the Egyptian New Kingdom was over. The 20th Dynasty first lost control of Canaan in the 12th century BCE, and then the 20th Dynasty lost control of Egypt in the 11th century BCE.

Ramesses III’s reign started off well enough, as he successfully defeated foreign invaders. But later in his reign he faced domestic troubles, possibility the result of worsening regional conditions from drought and the Late Bronze Age Collapse. And the troubles appear to have hastened his end. CT scans of his mummy show that his esophagus and trachea were sliced open, indicating that he was assassinated.

Ramesses IV began a large construction program, but some of his projects went uncompleted. Ramesses V had a short reign, and power appears to have shifted to the priests of Amun at Karnak. Ramesses VI’s claim to fame is for his tomb obstructing King Tut’s tomb, thus preserving its wealth.

Gradually conditions in Egypt worsened. The country experienced droughts and below average flooding of the Nile. There are reports of corruption lasting extended periods of time. Civil unrest was a problem.

Under Ramesses XI, there were raids by foreigners and civil war. The priests of Amun in Thebes effectively ruled southern, or Upper Egypt. Before Ramesses XI’s ultimate demise, the 21st Dynasty had taken control of parts of Egypt, marking the end of centralized rule over Egypt and the end of the New Kingdom.

The Wilbour Papyrus, shown in the image above contains a land survey and assessment for taxes. It shows that the priests of Amun controlled vast tracts of land. It is believed to date to the reign of Ramesses V, indicating the loss of control by Egypt’s kings and the concentration of power in the hands of the priests. Another step on the way to the end of the road for the New Kingdom. 

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