Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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A different kind of stable

By Nevine El-Aref

A German-Egyptian archaeological team located the capital city of Ramses II, featuring a stunning horse stable, using high-tech equipment, known as cutting-edge imaging.

"This is the biggest and oldest horse stable ever found in the world," said Gaballa Ali Gaballa, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). It was found on the site of the 3,300-year-old city of Piramesse (Per Ramses or House of Ramses), 115kms northeast of Cairo at Qantir, a farming village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiya.

The stable covers nearly two acres of land and is sub-divided into six rectangular areas, each with its own gate, connected to a vast courtyard. Each area has 12 compartments for horses,12 metres long.

The stable was built by Ramses II to raise up to 460 horses. Bronze pieces of battle chariots, stones for attaching trappings to the horses and two-wheeled war chariots were also found. Numerous reliefs on temple and tomb walls show that the chariots were pulled by two horses and ridden by two soldiers. Ramses II himself has been depicted riding one. An arms assembly line was also found nearby, with arrow shafts, flint arrow heads, javelin heads, daggers and bronze scales from body armour.

Nevine El-Aref
"Horses were very important in the expansion of the Egyptian empire and these stables were built on a strategic location close to the trade routes leading to Lebanon and Syria, and not very far from the Hittites," said Mohamed El-Saghir, head of the Pharaonic antiquities department in the SCA.

The discovery is especially significant because the entire Nile Delta is covered with alluvial soil to a great depth. Until now, it has been necessary to dig in agricultural land to carry out trial excavations. Now, with this new technique, the presence of antiquities can be detected without disturbing the land.

Land that is shown by this method to contain antiquities is rented from the farmers and they are compensated for the crops. The crops are subsequently uprooted and drained of water to prepare the site for excavation.

The computer plotting produced by the team shows winding streets, royal palaces, statues and mud-brick houses. "Some parts of the ground of the royal complex is gold-plated," said El-Saghir.

The images may be vague but, nevertheless, show spacious buildings and even a lake shore in hazy outline. The structures are at a depth ranging from 50cms to five metres. Edgar Pusch, head of the German archaeological team, envisions opening "excavation windows" at the site at certain select areas. Later, he believes that a small museum should be constructed to house the objects dug from the site. Three-dimensional models of the buried city can be constructed from computerised images.

This is a long-term project. The new technique being used in Qantir is only possible for a few days each year, depending on the availability of geophysicists. In the last three years, about 750,000 square metres have been covered, and this is believed to be only one-fifteenth of the total area. To produce the necessary magnetic images has so far cost more than $2 million.

The late Egyptologist Labib Habachi would have been delighted at news of the discovery. Way back in 1942, when he was a young inspector of antiquities, he found evidence near the village of Khata'na-Qantir suggesting that it was the site of Ramses II's capital city, and he questioned the views of early scholars, including Pierre Montet, who believed it was Tanis. He reported his discovery to the then Antiquities Service (under French control), but little attention was paid to his observations. It was not, in fact, until the 1980s that Manfred Bietak, director of the Austrian expedition to Tel El-Daba, confirmed Habachi's hypothesis.

A detailed study of the topography of the area suggests how the magnificent city of Ramses II could have ended up submerged in layers of mud and, to all intents and purposes, lost forever. It seems that the city developed on the mount south of a lake which provided a harbour through a channel from the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. It was a strategically important area on Egypt's north-eastern frontier, protected by a huge drainage system and providing a water link with the Mediterranean. When the Pelusiac branch began to silt up, it caused a great problem to the local inhabitants. They tried to dredge the river and created great dump-hills, but it was no use. The Nile had the last word. So the site was abandoned.

The latest discoveries will draw back the curtain on the activities of one of Egypt's greatest Pharaohs and his preparations for his wars in Asia.

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