Over the millennia of prehistory, the modern Nile River is at least the fifth major version of itself to have flowed from the Ethiopian highlands through North Africa and down to the Great Western Sea, more lately known as the Mediterranean. Modern satellite imagery has identified a number of dry watercourses in the sprawling desert west of today’s Nile. One of those watercourses, an “ancestral” Nile that researchers named the Eonile, flowed robustly through now barren desert several million years ago.
More “recently,” during 3,000-plus years of ancient Egyptian dynastic rule, the Nile has changed its course as well. Its most dramatic turn during the age of pharaohs may have been the well-documented silting up and disappearance of its “Pelusiac” branch, named after Pelusium, a once-great port city on ancient Egypt’s eastern Mediterranean coast. Its once-imposing presence—and eventual complete disappearance—played a significant role in Jewish history.
Pelusium was known in Jeremiah’s time as Sena, or Per-Amun, meaning the house of the sun god, Amun. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Pelusiac Branch, named after its Mediterranean outlet (the “Sena stream” in my novel, Jeremiah’s Last Call), was a powerful, flowing river in 1876 BC, the approximate year that Abram (eventually, Abraham) arrived in Egypt as told in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 12.
The same was probably true 200 years later when Joseph arrived in Egypt (Gen 45:6-11), as well as 150 years later when Moses was born. But archaeological evidence suggests that gradually, during the approximately 950 years between Moses’ birth and the arrival of the Prophet Jeremiah in Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem, the Pelusiac Branch had, at best, dried up and become unnavigable, likely no more than a lengthy, disconnected chain of swamps and mires striking inland from the coast along the river branch’s former route.
The Nile is mentioned in the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, at least 34 times, sometimes by name and sometimes simply as “the river.” In the 41st chapter of Genesis, you may remember that Egypt’s Pharaoh had an impactful dream beside the Nile. About 130 years later, as the Book of Exodus begins, a different pharaoh “who did not know Joseph,” after failing to coerce Egyptian midwives into killing male Hebrew newborns, “commanded all his people, saying, ‘Every (Hebrew) son who is born you are to cast into the Nile, and every daughter you are to keep alive.’” This all happened in the biblical “land of Goshen.” Thanks to modern archaeology and because Genesis 47:11 also refers to Goshen as “the Land of Rameses,” we have a good idea of where Goshen was.
In the 19th century, archeological digs in Egypt at ancient Pi-Rameses, the home of Rameses, turned up compelling evidence that, when the prophet Jeremiah arrived in Egypt almost nine centuries after Rameses ruled there, Jeremiah and the Jewish remnant at Tahpanhes were quartered less than 50 miles from Rameses’ abandoned palace, the Goshen of the Bible’s first two books.
But how could a large number of Jewish refugees have effortlessly invaded Egypt and settled themselves so close to a former seat of power? The most likely answer is that, when the Nile’s Pelusiac branch, the entire region’s principal provider of food, transportation and commerce, dried up, Egypt’s eastern frontier withered with it, becoming a wasteland, an abandoned, defenseless frontier. (It also seems like no coincidence that less than a generation after Jeremiah and the remnant moved to Tahpanhes, thousands of years of Egyptian dynastic rule ended abruptly in a historic civil war.)
Jeremiah received his last recorded instruction from the Lord while at Tahpanhes after he and several of his surviving countrymen, five or six years after Jerusalem’s fall, were forcibly led there from a hilltop fortress near Jerusalem, Mizpah, where they had been Babylon’s prisoners…
…and they entered the land of Egypt…and went in as far as Tahpanhes. Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah in Tahpanhes, saying, “Take some large stones in your hands and hide them in the mortar in the brick terrace which is at the entrance of Pharaoh’s palace in Tahpanhes, in the sight of some of the Jews.(Jer 43:7-9)
Though the Tanach is mum on whether Jeremiah succeeded in carrying out the above command, there exists amazing extra-biblical evidence that suggests that he was successful. Archaeological excavations conducted in 1886 by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie, an English Egyptologist, unearthed a platform of brickwork at a site in eastern Egypt which Petrie identified as ancient Tahpanhes, then known by natives as Qasr Bint al-Yehudi, the “Castle of the Jew’s Daughter.” This Arabic place name also adds credence to the biblical account because the Book of Jeremiah says that at least two Jew’s daughters had been included among the remnant that trekked to Tahpanhes…
But Yohanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces took the entire remnant of Judah…the men, the women, the children, the king’s daughters…together with Jeremiah the prophet and Baruch the son of Neriah and they entered the land of Egypt…and went in as far as Tahpanhes.(Jer 43:5-7)
Petrie wrote of his discovery afterward. “Here [at Tahpanhes], the ceremony described by Jeremiah 43:8–10; ‘brick-kiln’ (i.e. pavement of brick) took place before the chiefs of the fugitives assembled on the platform, and here Nebuchadnezzar II spread his royal pavilion…”
But the topography of Jeremiah’s day would have posed a formidable obstacle to Jeremiah’s finding and setting the pavement of large stones that Petrie found. While the modern Nile consists of only two branches flowing through stable environs, Jeremiah’s Nile consisted of six flowing branches and the withered Sena Stream, a maze of countless, unimproved and meandering tributaries and spreading stagnant swamps.
So, while Tahpanhes sat at the edge of a desert in Jeremiah’s day, it was also surrounded by streams and marshland to its south and west. Since the stones discovered at Tahpanhes’ ruins were almost certainly hauled there from a distance, Jeremiah would have had to overcome several obstacles to accomplish the task, not the least of which was his age, which was somewhere over 70 when he arrived. Baruch ben Neriah, his trusted scribe, was not a young man either, probably well into his 50s.
And there’s more. The rock quarry nearest to Tahpanhes was an ancient, abandoned mound that still exists near Cairo and is now known as Red Mountain. It is called Red Hill in the novel, so-named for the abundant red stone it provided for monument and pyramid building for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Red Mountain lay some 60 or 70 miles southwest of Tahpanhes near both ancient Memphis and the site of modern Cairo. Anyone at Tahpanhes, in Jeremiah’s day, would have found it extremely challenging to learn of its whereabouts, to navigate through unfamiliar territory to get to it, to manage to cut and gather heavy stones while there then travel safely to and from the site while contending with difficult terrain, hostile locals and perhaps even the Egyptian military.