A stele (known as Hungry Rock) on the island of Sahel in the Nile River near Aswan describes a seven-year famine in vivid detail.
Because the inscription refers to a famine that lasted for seven years, many people have seen a link to the Biblical famine in the time of Joseph, even going so far as to propose that Imhotep can be identified with Joseph. There are three points that contradict such a view. The first is that the inscription makes no reference to a period of plenty preceding the famine, nor to the wants of the populace being provided from the royal storehouses, both of which are essential aspects of the Bible story.
The second point is that the famine is brought to an end when Imhotep visits the source of the Nile at Elephantine, where a spring is controlled by the Nile-god Hapi. After suitable offerings are made, Hapi appears to Imhotep in a dream and promises to restore the Nile. This contrasts with the Biblical account where pharaoh is the dreamer, the dream comes before the years of plenty and famine, and the famine runs a predetermined course rather than being cut short by appeals to a god.
Finally the inscription bears all the hallmarks of being composed during the Ptolemaic period: the style of the hieroglyphs and the vocabulary all point to a late origin. As the inscription claims that Djoser made large gifts to Hapi it is likely that its purpose was to encourage the Ptolemies to copy their predecessor's generosity.
That said, the inscription does show that famines of long duration were known in Egypt and the description gives a vivid account of the suffering of the people affected by such a famine. Although the inscription is not proof of the Bible story, it is evidence that the story of Joseph is historical.
The similarity between the famine described on the stele and the famine described in Genesis is substantial. The Genesis account describes a severe shortage of food that lasted for seven years, probably the result of a drought brought on by reduced flow of the Nile river. The devastation that could have resulted was largely averted by Joseph (the son of Jacob) who foretold the coming of the event and was appointed the Pharaoh's viceroy. As viceroy, he prepared the country by storing up food during the years that preceded the famine. The Egyptian famine was a pivotal event in the history of the Israelites and the subject of continuing controversy in secular archaeology and Egyptology.
The famine on the stele is described as follows:
|“||I was in mourning on my throne, Those of the palace were in grief, my heart was in great affliction. Because Hapi [the river god] had failed to come in time in a period of seven years. Grain was scant, kernels were dried up, scarce was every kind of food. Every man robbed his twin, those who entered did not go out. Children cried, youngsters fell, the hearts of the old were grieving; legs drawn up, they hugged the ground, their arms clasped about them. Courtiers were needy, temples were shut, shrines covered with dust, everyone was in distress.||”|
Sahel island is a short distance upstream from Aswan and forms part of the First Cataract of the Nile, which in ancient times was a substantial obstacle to river travel. Many of the rocks on Sahel - as elsewhere in the vicinity of Aswan - bear inscriptions created by chipping or rubbing away the natural patina on the red granite rocks. Many of these inscriptions were created by travellers, including court officials, on their way to the wild land of Cush and are prayers for a safe journey. Others give thanks for a safe return. The inscriptions are a valuable source of information about contacts between pharaonic Egypt and its neighbour, usually referred to as "wretched Cush".
Other inscriptions are claimed to be copies of earlier texts, perhaps done as an exercise by scribes in training. No trace of an earlier version of the Famine Stele has been found and the work involved in creating it makes it an unlikely scribal exercise when papyrus, pen and ink were so readily available!
The complete text of the Famine Stela is available here.
- Ashton, John F., PhD, and Down, David. Unwrapping the Pharaohs: How Egyptian Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Timeline p.84, Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2006. ISBN 0890514682.