Sunday,18 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)
Sunday,18 February, 2018
Issue 1378, (25 -31 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Developing the ‘Luxor of the North’

The Delta site of San Al-Hagar, sometimes described as the “Luxor of the North”, is under development as an open-air museum of ancient Egyptian art, reports Nevine El-Aref

clockwise from topp: Waziri with Ramses II obelisk; The newly discovered relief of Ramses II; Anthropoid sarcophagus lid; Montet with Psusennes’ sarcophagus (photos: Ahmed Romeih)
clockwise from topp: Waziri with Ramses II obelisk; The newly discovered relief of Ramses II; Anthropoid sarcophagus lid; Montet with Psusennes’ sarcophagus (photos: Ahmed Romeih)

San Al-Hagar, or the Tanis archaeological site, is located in Egypt’s northern Delta and was once the capital of the ancient 22nd and 23rd dynasties. The site still boasts many monumental relics and is one of the country’s largest and most impressive sites, causing Egyptologists to dub it the “Luxor of the North”.

The site is characterised by reused materials from neighbouring sites from earlier periods such as Qantir or Pi-Ramses, Egypt’s capital during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II, and the Hyksos capital of Avaris.

“Tanis is the richest archaeological site in the Delta because it gathers monuments from the Old Kingdom right through the Intermediate Period,” Mohamed Abdel-Maksoud, former secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities who has worked extensively at Tanis, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said that Tanis was actually the Greek name of the site, called Djanet by the ancient Egyptians. After the Arab conquest in the seventh century CE it was named San Al-Hagar because of the large number of rocks at the site. Its location on Lake Manzala made it an important destination until the construction of Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period.

According to Abdel-Maksoud, the city can be dated to the Old Kingdom owing to the presence of stone reliefs and blocks from the reign of the Fourth-Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu and the Fifth-Dynasty Pharaoh Pepi I at the site.

Other monuments from the Middle Kingdom can also be found, such as the arch-atrium and lintel of Senousert I and the pillar of Amenmehat I.

The city flourished during the reign of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II, who constructed three temples there in order to immortalise the visits of his father and grandfather to the city. However, he built his own capital in nearby Qantir, calling it Pi-Ramses.

During the 21st and 22nd dynasties, Tanis was a royal necropolis housing the tombs of the Pharaohs as well as nobles and military leaders. Abdel-Maksoud said that Tanis was also the original site of several obelisks, one of them now on show in the Al-Andalus Gardens in Cairo and the second at the Cairo International Airport.

The Tanis obelisks deteriorated due to earthquakes in antiquity and other factors. “Some were exported outside Egypt to cities like Rome and Istanbul,” Abdel-Maksoud added.

During Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, many objects were taken from Tanis, eventually ending up in museums in Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg. Two large red granite sphinxes and several statues were transported to the Louvre Museum in Paris.

French archaeologist Auguste Mariette was the first to excavate at the site, where he unearthed a collection of Middle Kingdom royal statues. However, he mistakenly identified the site as Pi-Ramses. It was left to the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie to draw up a detailed plan of the city with its temples and other structures. Petrie also discovered a Roman papyrus which is now on display at the British Museum in London.

Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the Weekly that the Frenchman Pierre Montet’s excavations between the 1920s and 1950s were the most important carried out at Tanis. 

Montet put an end to the enigma of the identification of the site, as some Egyptologists saw Tanis as Pi-Ramses, while others suggested that it was the ancient Avaris.

Montet showed that Tanis was neither Pi-Ramses nor Avaris, but was a third capital in the Delta of the 21st Dynasty. He also unearthed the royal necropolis of the 21st and 22nd dynasties in 1939, with their unique treasures now on display in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square. 

“This discovery was not recognised in the way that the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 was recognised because of the outbreak of World War II,” Waziri said. Among the tombs that were uncovered were those of the Pharaohs Psusennes I, Amenemonpe, Osorkon II and Sheshonq III.

The remarkable sarcophagi of Sheshonq III and Taklot II were found, along with other artefacts that explain the royal funerary rituals and goods of the Third Intermediate Period.

“Although archaeological missions have worked on the site for almost 100 years, it has never been completely excavated,” Waziri said, adding that time has taken its toll on the monuments and the whole area has been subjected to deterioration due to the high levels of subterranean water and environmental erosion.

These factors have affected the monuments, some of them still largely unexcavated in the ground. The building of a fish farm neighbouring the site has had negative impacts leading to an increase in the level of subterranean water.

During the early 2000s, a project was carried out to decrease the water level and a wall constructed to protect the area. But the area was still neglected until last year, when the ministry of antiquities launched a comprehensive rescue project to restore the monuments and develop the site into an open-air museum of ancient Egyptian art.

Waziri said that the project aims to lift the monumental blocks, reliefs, columns, statues and stelae lying on the sand and restore and re-erect them on concrete slabs in order to protect and prevent their further deterioration.

A documentation project to record the Tanis site and monuments is also underway.

During the work that has been carried out, archaeologists have stumbled on a stelae of the 19th-Dynasty Pharaoh Ramses II carved in red granite and depicting him presenting offerings to a yet-unidentified ancient Egyptian deity. 

Another three stelae of Senusert III, Pepi I and Khufu were also found one metre below the ground. They were found in pieces and will now be restored. 

“Work is continuing night and day to open the site very soon,” Waziri told the Weekly, adding that a team of workers from Luxor had been specially summoned to the site to finish the work in a shorter time.

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