Many kings of ancient Egypt took extreme pride in their military accomplishments, and King Merneptah, who ruled from 1213 to 1203 BC, was no exception. Following a successful military campaign against the Libyans, Merneptah ordered the creation of a stele, an engraved stone or wooden tablet which generally served as a permanent memorial or headstone. The text of the Merneptah stele was actually inscribed on the back of an existing stele, which is one reason it remained undiscovered by archaeologists until 1896 AD.
The Merneptah stele describes in great detail all of the spoils of war and military victories enjoyed by the Pharaoh and his army. This permanent recording of a king's military triumphs is not unusual in and of itself, but what sets this stele apart from other stelae is the mention of a previous conquest of several smaller territories in the land of Canaan, including a nomadic tribe called "Isrir," widely translated as Israel. If the reference to Israel or Isrir is true, then the Merneptah stele is the first Egyptian stele to mention its existence.
The Merneptah stele only makes a fleeting reference to several Canaanite cities and tribes Merneptah had allegedly conquered before the Libyan campaign: Ashkelon, Gezer, Yanoam and Israel (Isrir). The stele specifically states that Isrir or Israel was "wasted and its seed is no more." Some modern experts on the stele suggest the last few lines of the stele's text are actually the lyrics of a victorious anthem or poem meant to be sung as a patriotic praise to the king's military prowess. The mention of the defeated Canaanite tribes was intended to remind listeners of previous victories, much as a modern American anthem might mention battles at Yorktown, Gettysburg or Normandy. The Merneptah stele would be a permanent reminder that an Egyptian king and his army once met all of these enemies on the battlefield and utterly destroyed them.
An archaeological expedition in 1896 AD, led by Flinders Petrie, uncovered the Merneptah stele in the king's final resting place in Thebes. A hieroglyphics expert hired to translate the writing was surprised to discover a rarely seen hieroglyph which referred to a tribe or people called Isrir. Previously, there had been very little if any outside references to the ancient tribe or nation of Israel except in sacred texts written by the Israelites themselves. The significance of the reference to Israel on the Merneptah stele was not lost on the archaeologists and translators. Within archaeological and historical circles, this stele also became known as the "Israel stele." The stele itself was eventually transferred to Cairo's Egyptian Museum, where it can still be viewed to this day.
There is some controversy surrounding the Merneptah stele, however. Many rulers, Egyptian or otherwise, were prone to exaggerate their accomplishments while in office, and some historians suggest the long list of military victories included on the stele may be such an example of regal hyperbole. Other accounts of military action during that time do not include references to a military campaign in the land of Canaan, for example. While it remains feasible that an Egyptian ruler would have to quell rebellions or establish dominance over conquered territories, there is little corroborating evidence which backs up Merneptah's victories in Canaan. In fact, there is some evidence that he may never have been in that area at all during his reign.
If the military victories recorded on the stele are indeed exaggerated or largely invented, then the reference to Isrir may be more metaphorical than historical. Some translators have also made an argument that the hieroglyph which reads Isrir may actually be a reference to the Syrians, not the tribe of Israel. The Syrians would have been a much greater military threat to Egypt than the nomadic Israelites, but many modern Syrian historians deny any such military defeat took place.