After Pharaoh let the people go, the Israelites left Egypt. The actual route the Israelites travelled from Egypt to Canaan has a multitude of theories. Even though the Bible is detailed in explaining the route, it is difficult to reconstruct. The names of all the places have either been lost in history, changed, or an entirely different location now uses the name. So, there is no consensus view on what was the actual route of the Exodus. But, based on the textual evidence and archaeological evidence, we can determine a plausible route.
When they left, the text says they avoided the “land of the Philistines” (erets of the pelisti).
Exod 13:17 (KJV)
17 And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not [through] the way of the land of the Philistines, although that [was] near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt:
The “way of the Philistine” route being referred to is most likely the Via Maris (purple road in map above).
Via Maris is one modern name for an ancient trade route, dating from the early Bronze Age, linking Egypt with the northern empires of Syria, Anatolia and Mesopotamia — along the Mediterranean coast of modern-day Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In Latin, Via Maris means “way of the sea”, a translation of the Greek ὁδὸν θαλάσσης found in Isaiah 9:1 of the Septuagint. It is a historic road that runs in part along the Israeli Mediterranean coast. It was the most important route from Egypt to Syria (the Fertile Crescent) which followed the coastal plain before crossing over into the plain of Jezreel and the Jordan valley.
One earlier name was “Way of the Philistines”, a reference to a passageway through the Philistine Plain (which today consists of Israel’s southern coastal plain and the Gaza Strip).
The Via Maris was, for sure, one of the most significant ancient Israel trade routes. Both In Hebrew (‘Derech haYam’) and Latin, this means ‘ Way of the Sea’ and references to it can be found both in Isaiah (in the Hebrew Bible) and Matthew (in the Christian Bible). It dates back to the early Bronze Age and was a route linking Egypt with the northern empires of Syria, Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
‘Via Maris’ is a Roman term and the reference to the sea is, of course, the Mediterranean Sea – the stretch of coast through which the route passed. It is also known by other names – the ‘Coastal Road’ and ‘the way of the Philistines’ and in modern-day Israel, it is referred to as the ‘International Coastal Highway.’
The Egyptians called this route the “Way of Horus” or “Path of Horus”.
Various parties controlled the Way of the Sea. At first it fell under the inﬂ uence of the Egyptians (and was called the Way of Horus in ancient sources), then under the Philistines (called the Way of the Land of the Philistines in the Bible), and finally under the Romans (who called it Via Maris, Way of the Sea).
The Via Maris/Way of the Philistines/Way of Horus was the shortest path from Egypt to Canaan. But, as the Bible acknowledges, it was a path full of military outposts.
The Way of Horus was heavily fortified by the Egyptians during the 18th and 19th Dynasties.
The path of Horus linked Egypt with Asia , led from Suez to the city of Rafah in Gaza . It was protected by eleven forts built during the Dynasty XVIII and Dynasty XIX , between 1560 BC. C. and 1081 a. C. , which served both for its defense and as guard posts on the eastern border of the country. These fortresses were supported by a complex system of granaries and wells, and were located within a day’s distance from each other, allowing the army (or merchants) to cross the Sinai Peninsula.safely, and were considered so important that they were performed in the temple of Seti I at Karnak , (Thebes).
In spite of the divergent opinions of Egyptologists as regards the beginning of the military route or what is called ” The Great Horus Route” illustrated in the battle relief of King Seti I in the columns court of the Karnak Temple, as having 12 fortresses and military compounds, yet they agree upon the route’s real existence.
Egyptologists have discovered until now 4 fortresses, two at Qantrah Sharq (Eastern Qantarah) at Tell Habouh and Tell Al-Borg; the third in Bir Al-Abd; the fourth in the Kharoub area near Al-Arish.
But the largest is that of Tell Habouh which had been previously the old Pharaonic Fortress of Tharou, the first to be built on the great military route. This was confirmed by the Anstasy Papyrus which bears variegated drawings inscribed by Thutomose III. The fortress embraced a station of the Egyptian army, the barracks of the soldiers and the houses of the officers; the central stores of the State and a stable. In fact, it is an important discovery because it constitutes a model of Ancient Egypt’s military architecture, and the Egyptian strategy, through different ages, for the protection of the entirety of Egypt.
After passing the Egyptian fortifications, they would next encounter major sea coast cities of Palestine that were under Egyptian control – Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod.
Inhabited since at least the 15th century BCE, Gaza has been dominated by several different peoples and empires throughout its history.
Settlement in the region of Gaza dates back to the ancient Egyptian fortress built in Canaanite territory at Tell es-Sakan, to the south of present-day Gaza. The site went into decline throughout the Early Bronze Age II as its trade with Egypt sharply decreased. Another urban center known as Tell el-Ajjul began to grow along the Wadi Ghazza riverbed. During the Middle Bronze Age, a revived Tell es-Sakan became the southernmost locality in Palestine, serving as a fort. In 1650 BCE, when the Canaanite Hyksos occupied Egypt, a second city developed on the ruins of the first Tell as-Sakan. However, it was abandoned by the 14th century BCE, at the end of the Bronze Age.
Ashkelon was a thriving Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 BCE) city of more than 60 hectares (150 acres).
Beginning in the time of Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC) the city was under Egyptian control, under a local governor.
The Egyptians conquered Canaan following the battle of Megiddo (1468 BC). Their control of Canaan lasted for 350 years, and Ashdod was a station along the only road connecting Egypt to Canaan.
As for the term “land of the Philistines”, I suspect the phrase “erets of the pelisti” could be an anachronistic redaction for the original “Way of Horus” since they both meant the same thing and the cities were not technically under Philistine rule at that time.
If they did not take the Via Maris route, the next major route would be the King’s Highway (in red in map above), which was less fortified than the Way of Horus.