Famine Stela

The Famine Stela stands as an epitaph inscribed in Egyptian hieroglyphs found on Sehel Island in the Nile near Aswan in Egypt. It recounts a seven-year stretch of aridity and dearth during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty. Scholars speculate that this stela was engraved during the era of the Ptolemaic Kingdom, which held sway from 332 to 31 BC.

Portrayal The Famine Stela was etched onto a naturally formed granite block fashioned into the shape of a stela. Its inscription, penned in hieroglyphs, spans 32 columns. At the pinnacle of the stela, three Egyptian deities—Khnum, Satis, and Anuket—are depicted. Before them, Djoser stands bearing offerings in his outstretched palms. A wide crevice, pre-existing during the stela’s creation, bisects the rock horizontally. Sections of the stela have suffered damage, rendering certain passages illegible.

Narration The narrative woven into the stela unfurls in the 18th year of Djoser’s reign.

It chronicles the king’s distress and anxiety amidst seven years of drought and famine, during which the Nile failed to inundate the farmlands.

The text also delineates the Egyptians’ plight in the wake of the drought, portraying them as desperate, resorting to transgressions against the laws of the land.

Djoser implores the priestly cadre under the guidance of the esteemed high lector priest, Imhotep, for aid. The king seeks insight into the birthplace of the Nile god, Hapi, and the deity dwelling therein.

Imhotep resolves to scour the archives of the temple ḥwt-Ibety (“House of the nets”) in Hermopolis, dedicated to the god Thoth. He apprises the king that the Nile’s inundation is overseen by the god Khnum on Elephantine Island, from a sacred spring where the god resides. Imhotep promptly journeys to the locale (Ancient Egyptian: jbw). At Khnum’s temple, dubbed the “Joy of Life,” Imhotep purifies himself, beseeches Khnum for aid, and proffers “all good things” unto him. Abruptly, he drifts into slumber, greeted in his dreams by the benevolent visage of Khnum. The god acquaints Imhotep with his identity and attributes before pledging to restore the Nile’s flow. Imhotep awakens, documenting the events of his dream, and hastens to apprise Djoser.

The king receives the news with gratification, decreeing the restoration of Khnum’s temple and the resumption of regular offerings to the god by priests, scribes, and laborers. Additionally, Djoser bestows upon the temple of Khnum at Elephantine the expanse between Aswan and Tachompso (Koinē Greek: Ταχομψώ) along with its riches, as well as a share of all imports from Nubia.

Dating of the Inscription Since its initial translation and scrutiny by French Egyptologist Paul Barguet in 1953, the Famine Stela has captivated historians and Egyptologists alike. The linguistic and structural characteristics of the inscription suggest a dating to the Ptolemaic period, possibly during the reign of King Ptolemy V (205 – 180 BC). Egyptologists such as Miriam Lichtheim and Werner Vycichl posit that the local priests of Khnum authored the text. Amidst the tumultuous landscape of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, various religious factions vied for supremacy, potentially utilizing the narrative of the Famine Stela to assert the dominance of Khnum’s priesthood over the Elephantine region.

Initially, it was conjectured that the narrative of a seven-year famine bore resemblance to the biblical account in Genesis 41, where a similar famine occurs. Subsequent investigations revealed the motif of a seven-year famine to be prevalent across Near Eastern cultures; a Mesopotamian legend also alludes to a seven-year famine, while the Gilgamesh Epic features a prophecy by the god Anu regarding a seven-year famine. Another Egyptian saga detailing an extended drought is recounted in the so-called “Book of the Temple,” translated by German Demotist Joachim Friedrich Quack. This ancient text narrates the reign of King Neferkasokar (late 2nd dynasty), who grapples with a seven-year famine during his rule.

The Famine Stela stands as one of merely three known inscriptions juxtaposing the cartouche name Djeser (“lordly”) with the serekh name Netjerikhet (“divine body”) of King Djoser in a unified context. Thus, it furnishes invaluable evidence for Egyptologists and historians engaged in reconstructing the royal chronology of the Old Kingdom of Egypt.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *