The Ahmose Tempest Stele - Weather Report from Ancient Egypt

Does the Tempest Stele Report the Effects of Santorini's Eruption?

1866 Image of Santorini's Eruption circa 1500 BC
1866 Image of Santorini's Eruption circa 1500 BC. Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images

The Ahmose Tempest Stele is a block of calcite with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs carved into it. Dated to the early New Kingdom in Egypt, the block is a genre of art similar to political propaganda used by many rulers in many different societies--a decorated carving meant to extol the glorious and/or heroic deeds of a ruler. The Tempest Stele's main purpose, so it seems, is to report on the efforts of Pharaoh Ahmose I to restore Egypt to its former glory after a cataclysmic disaster.

However, what makes the Tempest Stele so interesting to us today, is that some scholars believe that the disaster described on the stone is the after-effects of the volcanic eruption of the Thera volcano, which decimated the Mediterranean island of Santorini and pretty much ended the Minoan culture. The tying of the story on the stone to the Santorini eruption is a crucial piece of evidence nailing down the still-debated dates of the rise of the New Kingdom and the Mediterranean Late Bronze Age in general.

The Tempest Stone

The Ahmose Tempest Stele was erected at Thebes by Ahmose, the founding pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Egypt, who ruled between 1550-1525 BC (according to the so-called "High Chronology") or between 1539-1514 BC ("Low Chronology"). Ahmose and his family, including his elder brother Kamose and their father Sequenenre, are credited with ending the rule of the mysterious Asiatic group called the Hyksos, and reuniting Upper (south) and Lower (north including the Nile delta) Egypt. Together they founded what would become the pinnacle of ancient Egyptian culture known as the New Kingdom.

The stele is a calcite block that once stood over 1.8 meters tall (or about 6 feet). Eventually it was broken into pieces and used as fill in the Third Pylon of the Karnak Temple of Amenhotep IV, that pylon known to have been erected in 1384 BC. The pieces were found found, reconstructed and translated by Belgian archaeologist Claude Vandersleyen [born 1927]. Vandersleyen published a partial translation and interpretation in 1967, the first of several translations.

The text of the Ahmose Tempest Stele is in Egyptian hieroglyphic script, inscribed into both sides of the stele. The front side was also painted with red horizontal lines and incised hieroglyphs highlighted in blue pigment, although the reverse side is unpainted. There are 18 lines of text on the front and 21 on the back. Above each text is a lunette, a half-moon shape filled with dual images of the king and fertility symbols.

The Text

The text begins with a standard string of titles for Ahmose I, including a reference to his divine appointment by the god Ra. Ahmose was residing in the town of Sedjefatawy, so reads the stone, and he traveled south to Thebes, to visit Karnak. After his visit, he returned south and while he was traveling away from Thebes, a tremendous storm blew up, with devastating effects throughout the entire country.

The storm is said to have lasted for several days, with bellowing noises "louder than the cataracts at Elephantine", torrential rainstorms, and an intense darkness, so dark that "not even a torch could relieve it". The driving rains damaged chapels and temples and washed houses, construction debris, and corpses into the Nile where they are described as "bobbing like papyrus boats". There's also a reference to both sides of the Nile being stripped bare of clothing, a reference that has lots of interpretations.

The most extensive section of the stele describes the king's actions to remedy the destruction, to restablish the Two Lands of Egypt and provide the flooded territories with silver, gold, oil and cloth. When he finally arrives in Thebes, Ahmose is told that the tomb chambers and monuments have been damaged and some have collapsed. He orders that the people restore the monuments, shore up the chambers, replace the contents of the shrines and double the wages of the personnel, in order to return the land to its former state. And so it is completed.

The Controversy

Controversies among the scholarly community focus on the translations, the meaning of the storm, and the date of the events described on the stele. Some scholars are certain the storm refers to the after-effects of the Santorini eruption. Others believe that the description is literary hyperbole, propaganda to glorify the pharaoh and his works. Others still interpret its meaning as metaphorical, referring to a "storm of Hyksos warriors" and the great battles that occurred to chase them out of lower Egypt.

To these scholars, the storm is interpreted as a metaphor for Ahmose restoring order from the social and political chaos of the second Intermediate period, when the Hyksos ruled the north end of Egypt. The most recent translation, from Ritner and colleagues in 2014, points out that although there are a handful of texts referring to Hyksos as a metaphorical storm, the Tempest Stele is the only one that includes clear descriptions of meteorological anomalies including rain storms and floods.

Ahmose himself, of course, believed the storm was the result of the great displeasure of the gods for his leaving Thebes: his "rightful" location for the rule over both Upper and Lower Egypt.


This article is a part of the guide to Ancient Egypt and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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