Professor Emmanuel Anati writes: (The Mountain of God: Har Karkom, pp. 184-185. Map added):
5. Pi-hahiroth, Migdol and Baal-Zephon
After having penetrated the desert of Etham, “Yahweh spoke to Moses and said, ‘Tell the sons of Israel to turn back [author’s italics] and pitch camp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, facing Baal-zephon’” (Ex 14:1-2). The Book of Numbers gives a virtually identical version of the events: “They left Etham, turned back [author’s italics] to Pi-hahiroth which faces Baal-zephon, and encamped before Migdol” (Nb 33:7).
The three place-names serve to define precisely where the encampment was set up and which route was taken (which incidentally must have seemed quite strategically ingenious to the biblical narrator). “… You are to pitch your camp opposite this place, beside the sea. Pharaoh will think, ‘Look how the sons of Israel wander to and fro in the countryside; the wilderness has closed in [author’s italics] on them” (Ex 14:2-3).
This seems to describe an apparent deadend, which, however, did have an exit that required a certain kill in using it. It also must not have been far from the Egyptian roadblocks, because the Pharaoh discovered where the Hebrews were hiding within quite a short time.
The three sites mentioned at this point are very important, in that they actually determine the route taken by the Hebrews. They are all Semitic names; none are Egyptian. This, however, can be said of almost every site mentioned in the Bible, incusing Succoth, Rameses remains an exception.
Pi-hahiroth means Mouth of the Canals, and by definition refers to an outlet on the sea coast. Though a number of scholars have sought this outlet on various shores, the most likely thesis is that it was allocated at the mouth of one or more of the artificial canals built by the pharaohs to drain the eastern Delta of the Nile, and that it was therefore located along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. In fact the actual topography of the Nile valley farther south, with its hills and mountains that rise between the river and the Red Sea, makes this the only plausible location for Pi-hahiroth. There is a marshy hinterland along the coastline east of Port Said that is quite difficult to cross for a fifty kilometer stretch. The remains of an ancient branch of the Nile estuary have been identified near Tell el-Farame, which rises from the surrounding plain at the edge of this area. Pi-hahiroth must have been located in the immediate environs.
A canal had already been built in the thirteenth century B.C. [sic] to connect the Mediterranean with the Gulf of Suez that utilized part of a branch of the Nile estuary and drew water directly from the Nile itself. This antecedent of the Suez Canal goes back to the reign of Pharaoh Seti I (1326-1300 B.C. [Anati follows the conventional dates – Seti should actually be dated about half a millennium later than this]. It was subsequently widened and deepened several times, by Darius King of the Persians, among others (Herodotus IV:39), and was restored during the Ptolemaic period. Herodotus recounts that: “from the northern sea to that which is called the southern or Red Sea, the shortest and quickest passage, which is from Mount Casius [i.e., along the strip of land on Lake Serbonis], the boundary between Egypt and Syria, to the Gulf of Arabia [i.e., the Gulf of Suez], is a distance of exactly 115 miles… One hundred and twenty thousand of the Egyptians, employed upon the work in the reign of Necos [pharaoh Neco], lost their lives in making the excavation” (Herodotus II:158).
Tell el-Farame is identified in literature as Pelusion, the Graeco-Roman city at the gateway of Egypt, an was at the height of its power during the fifth century B.C. Herodotus recounts that the transit route that came from Asia arrived here (the Roman Via Maris; Herodotus II:141). He also relates how the branch of the Nile farthest to the east known as the Pelusiac flowed nearby (Herodotus III:5): “From Cadytis (Gaza) … till you reach Yensus (Han-Yunis) are the Arabian king’s; after Yensus the Syrians again come in, and extended to Lake Serbonis, near the place where Mount Casius juts out into the sea. At Lake Serbonis … Egypt begins”.
The Semitic word migdol means “tower”, and refers to a roadblock or defence tower along an international route. Here it can only refer to a tower on the Way of the Sea, that is, the Way of the Land of the Philistines that today still joins Gaza with El-Qantara along the Mediterranean coastline. The fortified stations that have left traces on this trail had the function in various periods of controlling this important route which has always constituted the principle passage between Asia and Africa. Several stations were named after the pharaoh who had commissioned them to be built or restored, such as Migdal Seti or Migdal Merneptah.
The remains of a sort of roadblock in the area of Rumani have been found not far from Tell el-Farame. Although the local archaeological finds refer to later periods, it is nonetheless plausible that the biblical Migdol was located at this site or in its immediate vicinity.
The name Baal-zephon signifies Lord of the North (Baal = Lord; zephon = north), and refers to a cult site dedicated to this divinity. The name was clearly in use at the time when the texts of the Book of Exodus were compiled, but it is not certain since when. As with many other names from this same period, Baal-zephon must simply be considered a geographical reference, although of the highest value since it can be precisely located.
In actual fact, Graeco-Roman documents speak of a temple at Baal-Zephon that at the time was still in use as a singular site, at Ras Burun, Mount Casius on the northernmost point of the peninsula on that tongue of land that divides the Serbonis lagoon from the sea. It was a cult site for sailors and had been rededicated to Zeus Casios (O. Eissfeld, 1932; W.F. Albright, 1948; cf. Y. Aharoni, 1979, p. 196). Pottery was found here during the exploration of the area in 1956-57 that is identical to examples recently unearthed at Ein Qudeirat and Har Karkom. It has been classified as belonging to the Early Bronze Age (M. Dothan, Hadashot Archeologiot, 24, 1957). This could prove to be a particularly significant element for our research.
Reexamining the biblical description after the above remarks, the image of the Israelite camp “in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, facing Baal-zephon” can be said to depict the western outlet of the strip of land that seals the Serbonis lagoon. This is an internal sea by the Mediterranean, a relic of the great ancient Delta of the Nile where reeds and marsh bushes grow in abundance. An indirect confirmation of the situation of the Sea of Reeds by the Sea is given in Joshua (24:6): “I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, and you came to the Sea; the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen as far as the Sea of Reeds”. Here the Sea of Reeds was in the environs of the (Mediterranean?) Sea. Lake Serbonis is the only body of water in the area in question that corresponds to the topographical descriptions in this passage. It is also the only one that could be called Sea of Reeds. And lastly, throughout the entire Pentateuch, when the term yam appears without adjectives or proper names, it refers invariably to the Mediterranean Sea.