Were Burnt Bricks Used In Ancient Egypt In The Time of Moses?
© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.
First Published: 10th November 2000
Last Updated: 2nd November 2005
Assalamu ʿalaykum wa rahamatullahi wa barakatuhu:
In the Qur'an (28:38) the Pharaoh, who is boastful and mocking, asks his associate Haman to build a lofty tower.
Pharaoh said: "O Haman! light me a (kiln to bake bricks) out of clay, and build me a lofty palace (Arabic: Sarhan, lofty tower or palace), that I may mount up to the god of Moses: but as far as I am concerned, I think (Moses) is a liar!" [Qur'an 28:38]
The command of the Pharaoh was but a boast, but a new question now arises: Were mud bricks ever burnt (baked) in Egypt at this time? In several articles by Christian missionaries the point is repeatedly made that Egyptians did not construct buildings out of baked bricks during this period. For example, in the article Tower of Burnt bricks in Egypt? we read:
This command of Pharaoh is a problem for the authenticity and accuracy of the Qur'an since at the time of Moses Egyptians didn't construct buildings out of burnt clay, i.e. this is a historical contradiction.
And, in their "Comparative Index to Islam" under Baked [Burnt] Bricks they again charge that the Qur'an makes a historical error concerning the use of baked bricks:
However, the Qur'an makes an historical error when it claims that the Egyptians used baked bricks. Except for some minor ruins at Nebesheh and Defenneh, baked [or burnt] bricks were not used in Egypt before the Roman period (Manual of Egyptian Archaeology, G. Maspero, H. Grevel, p. 4).
We would like to examine these statements in the light of Egyptology to see whether the Qur'anic statement of using burnt bricks in Egypt during the time of Moses is indeed a historical contradiction.
2. Hieroglyphic Evidence
The first thing to establish is whether there exist any hieroglyph that mentions the burning of bricks in ancient Egypt. A good place to start is Die Sprache Der Pharaonen Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch, a concise Egyptian-German dictionary. Under the entry "Ziegel Brennen" (i.e., "to burn bricks"), we see:
Figure 1: Hieroglyph entry for "to burn bricks".
In fact, a papyrus of the 19th Dynasty contains accounts of brick making and records the number of bricks produced by various workmen but unfortunately does not state the length of time required to make bricks. The same papyrus contains the word "gash" which Adolf Erman and Hermann Grapow in 1931 in their book Wörterbuch Der Aegyptischen Sprache stated it meant "to burn bricks". But the damaged state of the text made it impossible for them to be sure of the meaning.
Figure 2: Entry in "Wörterbuch Der Aegyptischen Sprache" showing the hieroglyph "to burn bricks".
That the burnt bricks were used in Ramesside buildings is not surprising as we shall soon see. But how early does the history of using burnt brick in Egypt go back to?
3. Evidence Of Burnt Brick In Egypt
The use of burnt brick in Egypt did not become common until the Roman Period. However, there is enough evidence to show that burnt brick was known in Egypt from a very early date. Long bars of baked clay were employed in the Predynastic grain-kilns at Abydos and Mahasna, and, while these cannot be called bricks, they show a knowledge of the effect of baking on ordinary mud. It is impossible that early Egyptians were unaware of the fact that mud-bricks could be hardened by burning, since they could have observed this process in any building which, by accident or design, was gutted by fire. There are several examples of accidental production of burnt brick. They occur in the 1st Dynasty tombs at Saqqara, due to their having been burnt by plunderers; and similar cases must have been fairly common. There is no evidence, as yet, that Egyptians deliberately prepared burnt bricks for use in buildings during the Predynastic Period or the Old Kingdom. However, there are examples of glazed tiles, appearing in a highly developed technique in both the 1st and 3rd Dynasties. This proves that the Egyptians during the advent of Old Kingdom Period were well aware of glazing as a method of decoration and protection. The earliest example of the use of burnt brick comes from the Middle Kingdom fortresses in Nubia, in which they were used as paving-slabs measuring 30 x 30 x 5 cm. The next instance of the burnt brick is recorded in the New Kingdom Period, when they occur in conjunction with funerary cones in the superstructures of the tombs at Thebes. Burnt brick as a constructional material also appears at Nebesheh and Defenneh dated to Ramesside times to which we will now turn our attention.
The assertion of the missionaries that burnt bricks were not used in Egypt during the time of Moses is allegedly based on the book Manual Of Egyptian Archaeology. Although this book is mentioned, it is never once referenced completely or quoted accurately, and furthermore, the year of publication is always conspicuously absent. The exact details of our copy at least is Gaston Maspero (Trans. by Amelia B. Edwards), Manual of Egyptian Archaeology and Guide To The Study Of Antiquities In Egypt, 1895, New Edition, Revised and Enlarged by the Author, H. Grevel & Co.: London.
This revised edition of Sir Gaston Camille Charles Maspero's (1846 -1916) book was originally published back in 1885. The very fact they had to go back so far indicates to the reader that no recent works acquainted with archaeology make such claims and it is for this reason perhaps that the date of publication is notably absent. Whatever the reason for the omission, the omission is consistent.
A simple examination of Manual Of Egyptian Archaeology shows that the Christian missionaries' citation is grossly misleading. According to the missionaries:
Except for some minor ruins at Nebesheh and Defenneh, baked [or burnt] bricks were not used in Egypt before the Roman period (Manual of Egyptian Archaeology, G. Maspero, H. Grevel, p. 4).
The actual quotation reads:
Burnt bricks were not often used before the Roman period (Note 4), nor tiles, either flat or curved.
The actual quotation should also be understood with reference to its notes, as it is in Note 4 that we are provided with the most useful data concerning the usage of baked brick architecture in ancient Egypt:
(4) They are found of Ramesside age at Nebesheh and Defenneh; even there they are rare, and these are the only cases I have seen in Egypt earlier than about the third century A.D.
Thus, although rare, baked bricks were manufactured in ancient Egypt but their use did not become common until the Roman period. The interested reader should consult Tanis, II, by W. M. Flinders Petrie and F. Ll. Griffith for further information concerning the true nature and importance of these discoveries.
About fifty years after the reign of Tutankhamen, Ramesses II ruled c. 1279–1212 BCE, during Egypt's 19th Dynasty. A statue of King Ramesses II was excavated from Nebesheh, a site in the Nile Delta. Furthermore, one of the earliest tombs to be opened at Nebesheh was built of red baked bricks, again dated to Egypt's 19th Dynasty:
The earliest tomb opened, was one built of red baked bricks, No. 35, almost at the extreme east of the cemetery... This tomb was of Pa-mer-kau, according to the two limestone ushabti found in it; and from a statue in the temple, representing Merenptah, son of Pa-mer-kau, and bearing the cartouche of Ramessu II., it may be dated to the nineteenth dynasty. The style of the two ushabti also exactly accords with that period; and some fragments of wrought granite found in this tomb, again agree to a Ramesside period.
The employment of red brick in this tomb, and in the next to be described, which is also Ramesside, is of great importance. Hitherto I had never seen any red brick in Egypt of earlier times than the Constantine period; and it appeared to be a test of that age. Now we see from these cases, and from the discovery of red brick beneath the black mud brick of the twenty-sixth dynasty, at Defenneh, that baked brick was introduced in the Rammesside times in the Delta...
Pa-mer-kau's son Merneptah bears a name that was common at the time, particularly so because the king's son was also called Merneptah. Both Ramesses II and his son Merneptah are Pharaohs of Egypt's 19th Dynasty (the New Kingdom Period), and both kings are commonly associated with the Exodus.
Furthermore, the burnt brick remains discovered at Nebesheh and Defenneh cannot simply be regarded as "minor" and unimportant based on the whims and desires of the uninformed Christian missionaries. As we have seen, both Petrie and Griffith consider the employment of the red brick during the 19th Dynasty of great importance.
Thus, the earliest example of Egyptians deliberately preparing burnt brick date from the Middle Kingdom. From the extensive study of brick architecture in Egypt, Spencer concludes that:
From the foregoing, it must be concluded that burnt brick was known in Egypt at all periods, but used only when its durability would give particular advantage over the mud brick.
As for the less extensive use of burnt bricks in early Egypt, this more due to the issue of economics than the lack of knowledge. Barry Kemp says:
The widespread preference for unfired soil architecture was thus through choice rather than ignorance.
A factor inhibiting the use of burnt brick could presumably be the cost of fuel needed for firing.
From the ongoing discussion it is clear that the burnt brick was known in all periods (i.e., Old, Middle and New Kingdom Periods) in Egypt. To claim that the mention of burnt bricks during the times of Moses is a historical contradiction is simply a case of sheer ignorance and shows a poor understanding of construction techniques employed throughout the ancient Egyptian period.
The missionaries contradicting themselves when faced with hard facts is not too surprising. They first stated that the mention of burnt brick is a "problem for the authenticity and accuracy of the Qur'an" since at the time of Moses "Egyptians didn't construct buildings out of burnt clay." When presented with the evidence that the burnt brick was known in Egypt in all periods, that is even before the arrival of Moses in Egypt, their tune suddenly changed. The missionary Vargo agrees that the "firing bricks was known throughout Egyptian history is hardly surprising" as "Egyptians were a sophisticated people." If this was indeed that case why is he contradicting himself by claiming that "the Qur'an makes an historical error when it claims that the Egyptians used baked bricks" when he himself agrees that burnt brick was known "throughout Egyptian history"? It is clear that the contradiction is in the stance of the missionaries rather than in the Qur'an.
Realising that it is a factual error to state that burnt bricks were not used in ancient Egypt at the time of Moses, the missionaries move horizontally and adopt a different, although similarly misleading approach: could brick conceivably be used to build important monuments? The missionary Vargo confidently states that, "bricks were not used to construct important monuments!" The evidence for such a claim comes in the form of a citation from Earl Baldwin Smith, Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton University,
Although Egypt had an old and fully developed tradition of brick architecture, she never evolved, as did Mesopotamia, a monumental style in this material. While brick continued to be the most common building material throughout Egyptian history, it was used more for practical construction than for important monuments. (Egyptian Architecture as Cultural Expression, American Life Foundation, 1968, page 7.)
A perfunctory glance at the citation reveals that the missionary has grossly misunderstood a simple English sentence. Professor Smith states that brick was "used more for practical construction than for important monuments." Nowhere does Smith state, indicate or imply that, "bricks were not used to construct important monuments!" in the quoted citation. Yet again, the missionaries have engaged in the misrepresentation and subsequent distortion of the source material.
Let us now discuss the accuracy of the ancient Egyptian chronology proposed by the missionaries.
4. Moses & Burnt Bricks
Even more problematic for the Christian missionaries, however, is the period in which these baked brick structures at Nebesheh are dated to Egypt's 19th Dynasty, the period of history in which Moses is usually associated. Given the fact (and Vargo's own admission!) that the burnt brick was known "throughout Egyptian history" one does not have to even worry about the issue of in which period of the Egyptian history Moses was present. Vargo, using the New Chronology proposed by David Rohls in his book the A Test of Time, goes on to discuss the period in which Moses existed. Fortunately, we have A Waste of Time homepage on the web that includes a collection of articles written by scholars of Egyptology such as Professor Kenneth Kitchen as well as amateurs. If the missionaries are sincere in advocating a new ancient Egyptian chronology, one would expect them to be working assiduously toward persuading the scholars of Egyptology and their own evangelical brethren to take Rohl's work seriously, before moving onto hasty and unsubstantiated accusations as have been discussed above.
Although rare, baked bricks were manufactured in ancient Egypt but their use did not become common until the Roman period. In fact, that the scholars of Egyptology have concluded that burnt brick production was known in Egypt at all periods. Specifically, when durability was required, burnt bricks were able to provide a qualitative advantage as compared to their mud brick counterparts, and it was in this setting that the burnt brick was used. It is also important to note that the ancient Egyptians were not ignorant behind the processes and specific manufacturing requirements in the production of burnt bricks, however, it would appear that the cost of fuel for firing was prohibitive and this could be one of the reasons for the preference of unfired soil architecture.
As early as the Thinite Period (c. 3150 c. 2700 BCE) during the 1st Dynasty, we have seen evidence of accidental production of burnt bricks at the Saqqara tombs due to the fire damage caused by the plunderers. There are examples of glazed tiles, appearing in a highly developed technique in both the 1st and 3rd Dynasties. Presently, the earliest known surviving example of the deliberate use of burnt brick is observed during the Middle Kingdom Period (c. 2040 c. 1674 BCE) which covers the 11th & 12th Dynasties, at the fortresses in Nubia; these fortresses were constructed from paving-slabs measuring 30 x 30 x 5 cm. Moving on to the New Kingdom period (c. 1552 c. 1069 BCE) which covers the 18th 20th Dynasties, we can observe that burnt bricks occur in conjunction with funerary cones in the superstructures of the tombs at Thebes. Furthermore, burnt brick as a constructional material also appears at the Nebesheh and Defenneh tombs, the former is dated to the 19th Dynasty. Both Ramesses II and his son Merneptah were the Pharaohs of Egypt's 19th Dynasty (the New Kingdom period), and both kings are commonly associated with the Exodus.
Now that it has been clearly established that the burnt brick production was well known to the ancient Egyptians for a considerable time (spanning numerous dynasties) before the advent of Moses, it has become obvious that the missionaries have failed to identify a proper context with which we can identify and appropriately categorise burnt brick usage in subsequent dynasties. Therefore, it is somewhat perplexing that the missionaries boldly asserted that ancient Egyptians during the time of Moses did not construct buildings out of burnt clay. Realising that this is quite simply a factual error, the missionaries backtracked on their original position and accepted that burnt brick production was known throughout ancient Egyptian history, but contend that such materials would never have been used to construct important monuments (e.g., the Pharaoh's construction of a lofty tower). Regrettably, this statement is based on a gross misreading of what was in all respects a straightforward English sentence. Combined with their reliance on unproven ancient Egyptian chronologies, the missionaries misrepresent and distort source material and fail to substantiate their claim that the Qur'an is in error.
And Allah knows best!
References & Notes
 R. Hannig, Die Sprache Der Pharaonen Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch - Deutsch (2800-950 v. Chr.), 2000, Verlag Philipp Von Zabern: Mainz, p. 1570; Also see the older edition of the same book by R. Hannig, Die Sprache Der Pharaonen Großes Handwörterbuch Ägyptisch - Deutsch (2800-950 v. Chr.), 1995, Verlag Philipp Von Zabern: Mainz, p. 895.
 A. Erman & H. Grapow, Wörterbuch Der Aegyptischen Sprache, 1931, Volume 5, J. C. Hinrichs'sche Buchhandlung: Leipzig, 156, 7; Also see A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, Aris & Phillips Ltd.: UK, p. 4.
 A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, op. cit., p. 140; B. Kemp, "Soil (Including Mud-Brick Architecture)", in P. T. Nicholson & I. Shaw (Eds.), Ancient Egyptian Materials And Technology, 2000, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge (UK), p. 79.
 W. M. F. Petrie, Abydos: Part II, 1903, Egyptian Exploration Fund & Trübner & Co: London, p. 25 and p. 48. Petrie comments on the importance of these discoveries by saying (p. 48):
Several objects have placed the history of art and products in an entirely new light, change some of the ideas hitherto accepted.
At the beginning of the 1st Dynasty we meet with the art of glazing fully developed, not only for large monochrome vessels, but for inlay of different colours... It was also used for relief work, and in the round... and on the great scale for the coating of wall surfaces.
 G. A. Reisner, N. F. Wheeler & D. Dunham, Uronarti Shalfak Mirgissa, 1967, Second Cataract Forts: Volume II, Museum of Fine Arts: Boston (USA), pp. 118-119 and Plate XLIX B; A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, op. cit., p. 140; "Brick Construction" in D. Arnold (S. H. Gardiner and H. Strudwick [Trans.]), The Encyclopaedia Of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, 2003, I. B. Tauris: London, p. 34.
 L. Borchardt, O. Königsberger & H. Ricke, "Friesziegel in Grabbauten", Zeitschrift Für Ägyptische Sprache Und Altertumskunde, 1934, Volume 70, pp. 25-35; A brief discussion of these bricks at Thebes is also available in A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, op. cit., p. 140.
 We are not suggesting that recent publications are of more authority, but rather, we wish to highlight our concern for the way in which certain Christian missionaries often misuse and abuse reference materials.
 G. Maspero (Translated by Amelia B. Edwards), Manual of Egyptian Archaeology And Guide To The Study Of Antiquities In Egypt, 1895, New Edition, Revised and Enlarged by the Author, H. Grevel & Co.: London, p. 4; For a similar statement see "Brick And Brick Architecture" in D. B. Redford (Ed.), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 2001, Volume I, Oxford University Press: Oxford (UK), p. 199.
 ibid., p. 334.
 W. M. F. Petrie & F. Ll. Griffith, Tanis, Part II, 1888, Trübner & Co: London.
 ibid., pp. 18 -19.
 Readers are requested to read the paper Qur'anic Accuracy Vs. Biblical Error: The Kings And Pharaohs Of Egypt for details of the period of Egyptian history in which Moses is commonly associated.
 The importance of the discovery of burnt bricks in Nebesheh can be judged by the fact that it is mentioned by numerous scholars. See G. Maspero (Translated by Amelia B. Edwards), Manual of Egyptian Archaeology And Guide To The Study Of Antiquities In Egypt, 1895, op. cit., p. 334; A. Lucas, Ancient Egyptian Materials & Industries, 1948, Third Edition (Revised), Edward Arnold & Co.: London, p. 64; A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, op. cit., p. 141; B. Kemp, "Soil (Including Mud-Brick Architecture)", in P. T. Nicholson & I. Shaw (Eds.), Ancient Egyptian Materials And Technology, 2000, op. cit., p. 79 and p. 103 for the reference of W. M. F. Petrie.
 A. J. Spencer, Brick Architecture In Ancient Egypt, 1979, op. cit., p. 141.
 B. Kemp, "Soil (Including Mud-Brick Architecture)", in P. T. Nicholson & I. Shaw (Eds.), Ancient Egyptian Materials And Technology, 2000, op. cit., p. 79; A similar observation was also made by Baldwin Smith. See E. B. Smith, Egyptian Architecture As Cultural Expression, 1938, D. Appleton-Century Company: New York & London, p. 7.
 D. M. Rohl, A Test Of Time, 1995, Volume I: The Bible - From Myth To History, Random House UK Ltd.: London.
Refutation Of External Contradictions In The Qur'an