Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 June 2010
Issue No. 1004
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

One less lost city

State-of-the-art radar imaging techniques have allowed the outline of the Hyksos capital Avaris to be mapped in detail, reports Nevine El-Aref

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Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni has announced that the Austrian mission at Tell Al-Dabaa has located the southern suburban quarters of the ancient city of Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, dating back to the Second Intermediate Period (1664- 1569 BC). The excavation team found the area using a combination of magnetometry and resistivity surveys.

The 3,500-year-old city was established after the Hyksos invaded Egypt, which they ruled for more than a century, holding the southern part of the country in alliance with the Nubian kingdom of Cush. The drive to expel the invaders began in Thebes, and the Hyksos were finally repelled by Ahmose, the founder of the 18th Dynasty.

The location of their summer capital, Avaris, had long been one of the great mysteries of Egyptology.

Objects excavated at San Al-Hagar, Tel Al-Yahoudiya in Qalioubiya and Tel Al-Rataba in Ismailia, had led to wrong attributions of their capital, Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of Antiquities in Lower Egypt and Alexandria, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Later studies revealed that while the unearthed artefacts did indeed date from the time of the Hyksos rule they were reused items that had been transferred from Avaris.

"The site of the ancient city was one of the great historical enigmas," says Abdel-Maqsoud. "The city was almost completely destroyed during the war to liberate Egypt, and it was not until the early 1960s that the Egyptologists Mahmoud Hamza and Labib Habashi correctly identified the site of Avaris at Tel Al-Dabaa in Sharqiya governorate.

The settlement was in antiquity a well-developed trade centre with a large harbour that moored over 300 ships during the height of the trading season.

The Hyksos, probably Semitic in origin, brought more than weapons to the country. Along with the invaders came hump backed Zebu cattle and new vegetable and fruit crops. They introduced technical innovations in the making of pottery, improving traditional potters' wheels and in the weaving of cloth with the novel introduction of vertical looms. But perhaps the greatest contribution of the Hyksos was their preservation of Egyptian documents, both literary and scientific.

The hunt to discover their capital was further complicated by the construction of cities nearby. When Ramses II came to the throne, he built a new capital, Pi-Ramses, two kilometres from Avaris. Successive dynasties also engaged in major construction, building cities such as Tanis (San Al-Hagar) and Bu-Bastet (Tel Basta). Along the way the ruins of Avaris disappeared from sight.

In the second part of the 1960s an Austrian mission headed by Egyptologist Manfred Bietak traced all the former branches of the Nile, and the cities built along the banks, Avaris among them.

In 2004, geophysical surveys undertaken by an Austrian archaeological team headed by Irene Forstner-Mèller, determined the extent of the ancient city, which remains hidden beneath agricultural land and modern settlements.

The latest radar imaging, says Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), has allowed for detailed computer- generated images of the city to be constructed. A very detailed layout of Avaris's street plan has emerged. Several architectural features, including houses, temples, streets, cemeteries and palaces can be seen. The team has also been able to make out the arrangement of neighbourhoods and living quarters.

"Using such a special scientific survey to locate such a city is the only way to gain a better understanding of such a large area at one time," Hawass points out.

Forstner-Mèller says that approximately 2.6 square kilometres have been investigated using a combination of geophysical survey and excavation.

She explains that the aim of the magnetometric and resistivity surveys were to define the borders of ancient Avaris. The team has succeeded in identifying a collection of houses and a possible harbour area. A series of pits of different sizes are also visible but their function has not yet been determined.

Such high-tech surveys, Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly, accomplish what would take a century of conventional excavations to uncover. Now, he says, excavations can be more focussed, pin- pointing the most important monuments, thus saving time, effort and money.

Avaris is one of four ancient cities in the area. Given the close proximity of Pi-Ramses, Bu-Bastet and San Al-Hagar, the SCA is looking into schemes to develop the site and attract more tourists, including the construction of a museum dedicated to the history of the four cities.

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