National Geographic : 1976 Jan
our planet, along Arab-Israeli borders as tense as drawn bowstrings. Yet, considering the scale of events that have occurred there, the territory itself seems surprisingly small. The distance between the delta of the River Nile at Cairo and Mount Nebo in Jordan-the geographic beginning and end of the Moses epic (map, following pages)-is not very much greater than that between New York City and Washington, D. C. It's an exceedingly finite place for the infinite to have happened in. Still hoping for a more satisfying begin ning, I left the Ben Ezra Synagogue and hailed a cab for the 45-minute drive to the ruins of Memphis. Leaving Cairo's frenzied traffic behind, we slid into the timeless Egyptian countryside. The Pyramids of Giza floated by in an orange haze on our right. Moses, too, may have looked upon them. Now we rolled past row on row of mud-brick dwellings, hauntingly reminiscent of the Biblical episode in which Pharaoh stopped supplying his Israelite slaves with the straw needed to bind the Nile's mud into bricks. At Memphis an Arab guide led me down an embankment to a backwater of the Nile. Tall reeds edged a pool of limpid green water. Frogs plopped rhythmically off the banks at our approach. From a nearby village came a baby's squall, suddenly drowned out by the squeals of three naked boys splashing wildly out of the reeds. My heart did a double beat. I had found my beginning. "Here baby Musa found in reeds," said the guide. "Pharaoh's wife adopt him." "You mean Pharaoh's daughter," I said. "Oh, no, his wife!" he insisted. "Holy Koran clearly say wife, not daughter. Tradition say her name Asiyah." "And what was Pharaoh's name?" I asked, wondering if he could tell me what the Bible so maddeningly neglects to specify. He shrugged. "Not say. But probably Ramesses the Great." Nearby I looked on a large statue of this same Ramesses II. A fitting antagonist for a prophet he seemed, with his massive head, flaring nostrils, and powerfully muscled torso. Many scholars believe he was either the Pharaoh of the Oppression, who enslaved the Israelites, or the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who pursued them into the sea. His long reign of 67 years began in 1304 B.C. Thus, by most calculations, the Exodus took place some 32 centuries ago, at about the same time that the Greeks were sacking Troy. Back in Cairo I gazed on Ramesses' very skin and bone-mummified-in the Egyp tian Museum. The shrunken visage bears no Echo of Exodus: An Egyptian family wends homeward from the fields at sunset. The fleeing Israelites, the Bible says, num bered some 600,000 men as well as their families and other retinue-perhaps 21/2 million persons in all. Some scholars, how ever, think "600,000" should be translated as "600 families," or fewer than 15,000 total.