When Ramses II built his new capital of Pi-Ramses in the northeast Delta, he filled it with luxurious palaces, temples and mansions. As the New Kingdom neared its end, and the local canal dried up, much of the stonework was transported northwards to the new capital city of Tanis. The modern visitor to Tanis will discover a random array of statues, disembodied stone limbs and royal tombs.
I inspect Ramses’ giant feet; they are cracked and worn, and his toenails are as big as my head. It’s a little against decorum for a commoner like myself to get so close to the Good God’s toes, but I suspect he won’t mind. He has bigger things to worry about after all, including the loss of his entire body above the ankles. That, and he’s stuck in a field, surrounded by crops, farmers and an inquisitive water buffalo. ‘What happened to my fabulous city?’ he might say, if he had a mouth.
Ramses’ colossal feet are the only significant visible remains of the ancient city of Pi-Ramses, one of the most important royal cities of New Kingdom Egypt. It was founded by Seti I of the Nineteenth Dynasty on the site of his family’s hometown in the northeast Delta, but was expanded significantly by his son Ramses II into a massive cosmopolitan centre, with monumental temples, luxurious palaces, homes for visiting foreign dignitaries, administrative buildings, and workshops for all types of craft.
I look up from the stone feet, and spin around. There are leafy green crops for as far as I can see, cut through with deeply churned tracks. A modern mosque, painted yellow, squats in the distance, surrounded by trees, its single minaret piercing the blue sky above. I pick my way across the clumpy black earth back to a narrow tarmac road, plied by aging taxis and tuk-tuks, propelled chiefly by the bass beats banging from their oversized speakers. Across from me, and over a dirty canal, is the village of Qantir, Pi-Ramses’ modern successor. It is a place of dusty streets, lined with low red-brick and concrete houses, where boisterous children ride donkeys past tiny stores selling chocolates, crisps, soft-drinks and mobile phone accessories. An old lady in black squats by the side of the road selling tomatoes, courgettes, carrots and peppers, an antique set of scales to her side. Clothes, hung out to dry, billow in the light breeze on balconies above. Nothing betrays the city’s illustrious past; this could be any small village in Egypt.
The most striking thing about Pi-Ramses today is its complete disappearance. There is something peculiar about standing on the spot where a vibrant and influential city once met visitors from across the ancient world, and seeing no sign of its existence. But Pi-Ramses has shared its fate with much of the Delta’s archaeology. Unlike in Upper Egypt, where the dry desert and abundant natural rock led to the survival of many ancient sites, in the Delta any mud-brick remains have long since been ploughed away into the fields; people have cut up the ancient stone temples, reusing them as doorsteps or handy building materials; and the high water table has decayed many of the perishable artefacts that might once have provided a window into a vanished world.
The ancient Egyptians themselves also deserve their own fair share of the blame for endangering Delta sites. Once Pi-Ramses’ nearby canal – the city’s main raison d’être – dried up at the end of the New Kingdom and the city declined, much of its stonework was dragged over to the new royal city of Tanis, about thirty kilometres to the north (the workers must really have enjoyed that job). Back in the modern day, finding little left at Pi-Ramses, and having been underwhelmed by Ramses the Great’s great toes, I decided to follow the stones, to see what remained of this other great Delta city.
I drive along the canal road heading north from Qantir towards San el-Hagar, the modern village beside the great archaeological mounds of Tanis. Along the way I pass a large sign, which reads ‘Bien,vinu a’Tanis’, as if I’m arriving at some quaint medieval town in southern France. Soon after, I come to a halt at the bottom of a great earth hill, its hues holding a monopoly on every shade of brown imaginable. This is the accumulated soil and dirt of thousands of years, worn by the city’s remains like a grave wears a cairn. It’s all rather desolate, and I get the feeling no one is going to offer me fine wine or cheese.
I cross the dusty car park, take a couple of snaps of two scrawny feral dogs, who run up to meet me with wagging tails, and buy a ticket from a guard, who seems just as pleased (and surprised) to see me. I get the feeling Tanis is seldom visited. I climb the mound, passing the excavation team’s dig house and other small buildings along the way, to survey the surrounding area. The undulating mound stretches off in all directions, dotted with an orderly queue of electricity poles, bringing power from distant apartment buildings and mosques to the isolated guards’ huts and the dig house. The modern urban sprawl surrounds the site, constantly threatening to invade it, and is only held off, like the Mongol hordes from China, by a single great wall.
At the end of the New Kingdom, Tanis was only a small port, merely a blip on the political radar, but it quickly developed into a major royal city under the kings of the Third Intermediate Period – a time of political instability, beginning with the Twenty-first Dynasty – because of its excellent location as a trading hub, and because the dynasty’s founder, Smendes, called it home. These kings ruled from the city, leaving the pompous priests of Amun to do as they wished at Thebes in the south.
The god Amun now ruled there, his wishes interpreted by the high priests who had effectively wrested power from the pharaohs at the end of the New Kingdom. Having lost control of Egypt’s most important temple, these wily northern kings devised a cunning plan, ‘If we can’t control the temple anymore’, they said, ‘let’s just build a new one’. And so they did, building a replica of the Temple of Amun from the remains of Pi-Ramses, like children unleashed in a box of spare Lego bricks, along with a Temple for Amun’s wife Mut and their son Khonsu for good measure.
On the way to the temple precinct I pass half-preserved statues and shabby decorative blocks, lining either side of a dirt path. To my left, the upper half of a statue of Ramses II stands smiling inanely into the distance, as if lobotomized; further along is a roughly formed White Crown, missing a head to hold it aloft; then a pair of legs to my right, lacking a body; and a single stone head, its eyes bulging manically near the centre of its round bulbous face. Standing decrepit, watching me walk between them like spectators to their own funeral procession, the statues are a grim reminder that nothing lasts forever, not even the whims of kings.
Then, passing through a gateway, nothing more than a rough collection of blocks really, I enter the scattered remnants of the precinct of Amun. As if picked straight out of Percy Shelley’s brain, the temple’s remains are the very definition of a romantic ruin; the Victorians could have picnicked and sipped tea among them for days, while prattling on about Ms. Barnaby’s marriage prospects and the scandalous affairs of the Duke of Essex. A broken obelisk, a colossus lying on its back, a block bearing scenes of smiting pharaohs, a pair of feet. They are all just there, defeated and sad, as if time itself had come along and kicked them all over, saying, ‘That’s what you get for thinking you can beat me’. Unlike the earlier grim procession, with its forced order, it is the sheer spread-out, random higgledy-piggledy nature of these ruins that give them their beauty, and appeal to that moustachioed inner adventurer who always wanted to happen across a long-lost city in the desert.
Royal Tombs and Treasure
The Tanite pharaohs were so proud of their 1:1 scale replica of Karnak’s Amun Temple that they decided to be buried there, only to be unearthed again by Pierre Montet in 1939. A great departure from the better-known royal burials in the Valley of the Kings or the pyramids, these tombs are almost humble in appearance. If I hadn’t known where to find them, I would’ve thought they were just simple stone-lined rooms, sunk into the ground beside the temple’s first court. A set of modern steps take me to the roof of one tomb, from where I peer down into its confined, garage-sized space. Within are two simple stone sarcophagi, and walls inscribed with royal underworld books.
The location and simplicity of these tombs betray an increased sense of dependence on the gods, rather than one of opulence and unique position. I get the feeling these kings were thankful simply for being able to exercise their right to rule, and didn’t want to push it all too much by demanding anything too extravagant – at least architecturally. When found, these tombs were stuffed with treasure (they were still kings after all). High-quality golden masks, jewellery, and a unique silver hawk-headed coffin that belonged to King Shoshenk II were all among the finds. Despite ruling at a time of economic difficulty, the Tanite kings were not impoverished, and may even have used some of the gold emptied from the Valley of the Kings to forge their own luxurious grave goods. All of these can now be seen in the Tanis Treasure room in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
Saving the Delta
Both Pi-Ramses and Tanis shared a ruinous fate; the former is now almost invisible and the latter is a mound of broken memories. Still, thanks to excavation, recording and conservation, both sites have been saved in their own way. Tanis might have the upper-hand as a tourist destination, thanks to its romantic remains for visitors to get lost among, but thirty years of excavation in the fields of Qantir, as well as geomagnetic surveys, have brought that vast city’s layout back to life too (just in a less obvious way).
Many other less fortunate cult centres and cities remain to be unearthed from beneath the Delta’s fertile soil, some disappearing as you read. Despite archaeologists being aware of their existence, they still await excavation and, although – as all first-year archaeology students across the world learn on day one – excavation is destruction, in the case of the Delta it is rescue. Each day, another foundation wall becomes unrecognisable, another valuable piece of everyday life becomes that bit more decayed, another piece of history vanishes. Still, it’s not all bleak; in recent years much has been done to try and rectify this problem. Projects at sites such as Mendes, Kom Firin, and Sais have revealed much about the later stages of Egyptian history, while the Ministry of Antiquities (MOA), in addition to conducting its own work in the Delta, has restricted new foreign missions from excavating south of Cairo, effectively forcing them to take their trowels northward. At the same time, some Delta sites are receiving a facelift, such as Bubastis in Zagazig, which recently received a new visitor’s centre and an open-air museum.
As the average tourist sees only an empty green void between Giza and Alexandria, these developments can only be a good thing; it’s taken a long time, but the spotlight is now firmly shining on Egypt’s northern archaeology, redressing the imbalance in our knowledge. Remember, wherever you go in the Delta – and please tell Ramses this if he asks you where his fabulous city has gotten to – there are wonderful things waiting to be discovered, right beneath your feet.
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Garry Shaw is an Egyptologist, writer and editor. He holds a PhD in Egyptology from the University of Liverpool, where he studied the pharaoh’s role in day-to-day political affairs. This was also the subject of his first book, published in 2008. He has undertaken archaeological fieldwork in the UK, Turkey and Egypt; worked with various world museums; and has taught Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and the University of Liverpool.