Excerpted from "The Bible Unearthed," The Free Press, 2001.
In the 13th century, Egypt was at the peak of its authority-the dominant power in the world. The Egyptian grip over Canaan was firm: Egyptian strongholds were built in various places in the country, and Egyptian officials administered the affairs of the region. In the el-Amarna letters, which are dated a century before, we are told that a unit of 50 Egyptian soldiers was big enough to pacify unrest in Canaan.
Throughout the period of the New Kingdom, large Egyptian armies marched through Canaan to the north, as far as the Euphrates in Syria. Therefore, the main overland road that went from the delta along the coast of northern Sinai to Gaza and then into the heart of Canaan was of utmost importance to the pharaonic regime.
The most potentially vulnerable stretch of road--which crossed the arid and dangerous desert of northern Sinai between the delta and Gaza--was the most protected. A sophisticated system of Egyptian forts, granaries and wells was established at a day's march distance along the entire length of the road, which was called the Ways of Horus.
These road stations enabled the imperial army to cross the Sinai peninsula conveniently and efficiently when necessary. The annals of the great Egyptian conqueror Thumose III tell us that he marched with his troops from the eastern delta to Gaza, a distance about 250 kilometers, in ten days. A relief from the day of Ramesses II's father, Pharaoh Seti I (from around 1300 B.C.), shows the forts and water reservoirs in the form of an early map that traces the route from the eastern delta to the southwestern border of Canaan.
The remains of these forts were uncovered in the course of archeological investigations in northern Sinai by Eliezer Oren of Ben Gurion University, in the 1970s. Oren discovered that each of these road stations, closely corresponding to the sites designated on the ancient Egyptian relief, comprised three elements: a strong fort made of bricks in the typical Egyptian military architecture, storage installations for food provisions, and a water reservoir.
Putting aside the possibility of divinely inspired miracles, one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves fro Egypt through the heavily guarded border fortifications into the desert and then into Canaan in the time of such a formidable Egyptian presence. Any group escaping Egypt against the will of the pharoah would have easily been tracked down not only by an Egyptian army chasing it from the delta, but also by the Egyptian soldiers in the forts in northern Sinai and in Canaan.
According to the biblical account, the children of Israel wandered in the desert and mountains of the Sinai peninsula, moving around and camping in different places, for a full 40 years. Even if a number of fleeing Israelites (given in the text as 600,000) is wildly exaggerated, or can be interpreted as representing smaller numbers of people, the text describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions. Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent. However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation from the time of Ramesses II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been found in Sinai.
It has not been for lack of trying. Repeated archaeological surveys in all regions of the peninsula, including the mountainous area around the traditional site of Mount Sinai, near Saint Catherine's Monastery, has yielded only negative evidence: not a single sherd, no structure, not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment.
One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. Indeed, the archaeological record from the Sinai peninsula discloses evidence for pastoral activity in such eras as the third millennium B.C.E. and the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. There is simply no such evidence at the supposed time of the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E.
The conclusion--that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible--seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication--if present--would almost certainly be found.
According to the biblical narrative, the children of Israel camped at Kadesh-barnea for 38 of the 40 years of the wanderings. The general location of this place is clear from the description of the southern border of the land of Israel in Numbers 34. It has been identified by archaeologists with the large and well-watered oasis of Ein el-Quedeirat in eastern Sinai, on the border of modern Israel and Egypt. The name Kadesh was probably preserved over the centuries in the name of a nearby smaller spring called Ein Qadis. A small mound with the remains of a Late Iron Age fort stands at the center of this oasis. Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided the slightest evidence for activity in the Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees.