Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 August 2007
Issue No. 857
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The tale of a city

The discovery of the eastern fortress of the New Kingdom military town of Tharo in North Sinai charts the military quarters used by the ancient Egyptian to protect Egypt's northeast border, says Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
From top: a worker brushing the sand off the newly discovered water channel; a bird view of the Tharo foundation; the inscription of king Seti I engraved on a wall of Karnak Temples photos courtesy of SCA

The fortified city of Qantara East (Sharq) in North Sinai is often hailed by historians as Egypt's eastern gateway to the Nile Delta. Its chequered history is a reminder of several military clashes from Pharaonic times to the early 1970s.

During the ancient Egyptian era, Qantara East was the stage of several battles, among the most important of which were fought and won by Ahmose I in his war of liberation against the Hyksos, Seti I in his military campaigns against the rebels in Sinai and Canaan, and Ramses II in his war against the Hittites.

In modern times Qantara East was the site of numerous battles between the Allies and the Turks during World War I, as well as being the main base of the Australian Light Horse operations in Sinai from 1916 until the final demobilisation in 1920.

It was also the site of a massive warehouse and a hospital centre, which were used again in World War II. The town was captured by Israel during the 1967 War but won back after the 6 October War of 1973.

Owing to Qantara East's immense strategic importance as a vital commercial and military stop between Egypt and Asia, it was the starting point of the famous Horus Road, the military route that operated from ancient Egyptian times until the Ottoman period. It has also played a major role in the Egyptian-Israeli struggles over the years.

In peacetime, the city was an important trading post, and in the Graeco-Roman period it was one of Egypt's busiest ports second only to Alexandria. Ships from the eastern Mediterranean and caravans from Syria and Palestine came to trade goods such as wine, oil and honey, which were transported to Egypt and the Red Sea by Nile barge and overland roads.

Early in 2000, however, the town achieved repute as an extremely fruitful archaeological site when a number of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts came to light after a massive archaeological excavation project carried out by three archeological teams from Trinity University in the US, the Sorbonne in France and the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). These achievements came within the framework of a salvage operation of Sinai monuments caused by the threat posed to scores of sites by the new Al-Salam (Peace) Canal.

Over the past seven years the remains of several ancient objects have been discovered, among them a mud-brick temple, a number of bronze and limestone coins and scarabs featuring Osiris and Horus, and a cachet of limestone reliefs bearing the names of two royal personalities and two seated statues of differing sizes. The larger statue is made of limestone and belongs to a yet unidentified personage, but from its size and features archaeologists believe that it could be a statue of Horus, the god of the city. Weapons, pottery shards, grain silos, stables, storerooms, a dormitory for soldiers and dwellings were also discovered, along with military fortresses, citadels, churches, amphitheatres and baths. Slowly the idea of developing the Horus Road as a tourist attraction gained momentum.

At Tel Al-Farama (Pelusium) and the neighbouring sites at Tel Al-Makhzan and Kanais, which probably formed parts of Greater Pelusium, were also subjected to excavation work along with the area around the ancient port, the amphitheatre, the Byzantine church and the ruins of three more churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries. The Horus Road was, of course, also the highway along which Christian pilgrims travelled, and there were churches from Rafah to Pelusium. The largest is a church dedicated to Aba Maques, a martyr of the Diocletian persecutions in the fourth century.

Excavations continue to take place in the Tel Al-Borg area under James Hoffmeier of Trinity University. So far these have revealed two limestone forts, one dating from the reign of the 28th Dynasty Pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1475-1425) and the second from the 19th Dynasty. This is most probably a Ramesside fort as it bears the name of Pharaoh Ramses II, "the Mansion of the Lion". The only remaining part of the first fort was found on the east bank of the Al-Salam Canal. It consists of a moat built on a foundation of between nine and 14 layers of fired red brick, a material that was used only rarely during the New Kingdom. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said that only 50 per cent of the second fort had been uncovered, but this included a wall with a large opening 13.5 metres wide.

A small stela dedicated to the Asiatic gods Resheph and Astarte was among the blocks, and a number of horse and donkey burials were uncovered in the moat. Several stamped jar handles with the cartouches of Smenkhare and Tutankhamun and inscriptions from Tuthmosis III were also found. A stone block of a deity was found with the name "strong bull" behind it.

The walls of the fort are 100 metres tall and are embellished with a number of rectangular mud-brick towers. Surrounding it is a two-kilometres long moat once filled with water.

At Tel Al-Heir, 25 kilometres east of the Suez Canal, the French mission from the Sorbonne found the Migdol fort of Seti I. This large fort has soaring towers and a rest house for the Pharaoh, and is believed to be the second military fort on the Horus Road after Tharo (East and West). Tharo West was found in 2003 by an Egyptian team led by Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the central administration of ancient Egyptian antiquities at the SCA.

This summer, for the second time, Qantara East was in the limelight when early last week Egyptian excavators chanced upon the fort of Tharo east. The fortress is 500 metres long, 250 metres wide and with walls 13-metre thick and a 12-metre-wide south entrance. A giant water-filled moat that once surrounded the fort was also found.

"This is the largest fortress found yet," Abdel-Maqsoud told Al-Ahram Weekly, adding that it consisted of 24 huge defence towers 20 metres in width and four metres thick. Along with Tharo West, Abde- Maqsoud said, the fort was considered to be the eastern front of the ancient Egyptian military town of Tharo and Egypt's gate to the Delta. It was also the point where the ancient Egyptian army carried out several military campaign to secure the eastern the city borders at the time. Graves of soldiers and horses were also found. "Bones of humans and horses found in the area attest dramatically to the reality of such battles," Abdel-Maqsoud said.

Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the SCA, said this discovery was concrete evidence of the events depicted on the reliefs of Seti I engraved on the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak Temple. These relate to the military campaign to smash rebels led by Seti I in the first year of his rule. Hawass pointed out that the discovery also showed how ancient artists drew accurate topographical maps of the Horus Road, which stretched from Egypt to Palestine. According to Seti I's relief, 11 forts were originally built on this section of the road, although excavations have so far unveiled only four.

THE NEWLY discovered settlement in Bahariya Oasis reveals that the oasis continued to be a buzzing residential area during the Old Kingdom right through to the Graeco-Roman period, Nevine El-Aref reports.

Last week the area of Garet Al-Abiyad in Bahariya Oasis was the focus of world archaeological news. During a routine archaeological survey, a Czech archaeological mission from Charles University in Prague stumbled upon what is believed to be an Old Kingdom residential settlement. The key that led to the discovery was the first sand layer accumulated on the site mixed with heavily-eroded potsherds. Below it, directly adjoining the bedrock, archaeologists unearthed remains of mud-brick buildings and two fireplaces. Digging further down, according to the mission director Miroslav Barta, artefacts dating from the Old Kingdom were found including domestic pots, pans, flat-bottomed flasks, bread baking trays, low bi-conical stands and falcate bowls.

He added that team members had also unearthed an unusual food vessel with significant marks of cooking both inside and outside. The vessel is composed of two clay cups with flat bases moulded together with a height ranging from 8-12cm each.

Barta said early studies on the pottery had not determined the exact date of the finds, but all could be dated back to the Old Kingdom and most likely were from the Sixth Dynasty.

"It is a very important discovery that can help in rewriting the history of Bahariya Oasis," Supreme Council of Antiquities Secretary-General Zahi Hawass told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that prior to the discovery it was obvious to all Egyptologists that owing to its prosperous agricultural environment and abundant rainfall, Bahariya Oasis was one of Egypt's main residential areas during the Old Stone Age. However, because nothing had been found from the Old Kingdom Egyptologists believed that the oasis was abandoned during this period and only regained its reputation as a buzzing residential area on the eve of the Middle Kingdom, with several objects from that era having been discovered at different sites in the Bahariya.

During the Graeco-Roman era, Bahariya Oasis was one of Egypt's main regions for producing and exporting wine, which reflected the wealth of the oasis inhabitants during that period. Among the most important and interesting discoveries in Bahariya are the Valley of the Golden Mummies, where dozens of gilded mummies have been found, the 26th Dynasty tomb of the High Priest Zed-Khonsu-ef-ankh and his brother Sheben-Khonsu, governor of the town in the reign of the Pharaoh Ahmose II, the temple of Ain Al-Muftillah, the noble's tombs and the only temple in Egypt dedicated to Alexander the Great.

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