Tell el-Dab’a (Avaris)
Currently thought to be the site of the Hyksos capital Avaris, Tell el-Dab’a was occupied from the Middle Kingdom through to the New Kingdom and is one of a number of town-sites in the north-eastern area of the Delta. The settlement site which covers an area of two square kilometres has been undergoing excavations since 1966 and has proven to be a very complex site with several occupation levels dating from the First to the Second Intermediate Periods.
Our modern knowledge of the site began in the mid-1960s when Dr Manfred Bietak of the Austrian Institute in Cairo began to excavate, finding evidence of an extensive occupation by an intrusive non-Egyptian population which led him to identify the cultural objects he found as almost identical to Middle Bronze Age artefacts from Syria-Palestine. This in turn led to the belief that Tell el-Dab’a was the lost town-site of the Asiatic Hyksos peoples of Egyptian texts. Excavations have been continued by the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna.
The Hyksos city was built over a Middle Kingdom town. Statues of Queen Sobeknefru, the last ruler of Dynasty XII and a little-known King Harnedjheriotef (Hetepibre) of Dynasty XIII have been found there. During Dynasty XIII royal power became weakened as a result of very short reigns and Asiatic foreigners began to filter into and settle the eastern Delta area. Avaris became an important centre for trade and imported objects found at Tell el-Dab’a underline the fact that there was contact between Egypt and the Aegean countries as well as Canaan at this time. Dr Bietak’s excavations suggest that Avaris may have been colonised by both Asiatic and Aegean people who were allocated rectangular areas of land in a pattern influenced by the earlier Middle Kingdom town and the deep and virtually untouched stratigraphy has allowed archaeologists to observe the changing patterns of settlement over several generations of the Bronze Age community.
During the 1990s excavations by the Austrian team concentrated upon an area on the western edge of the site, known as Ezbet Helmi where a large palace-like structure dating to the Hyksos period was found. The ancient gardens revealed many fragments of Minoan wall-paintings, similar in style to those found in the palace at Knossos in Crete. It has been suggested that these paintings with a distinctive red-painted background may even pre-date those of Crete and Thera and possibly have influenced some of the Dynasty XVIII tomb-paintings which appear to include Minoan themes such as the ‘flying gallop’ motif of horses and bulls. In the Dynasty XVIII strata of Ezbet Helmi, Dr Bietak discovered many lumps of pumice-stone, suggested to have come from the volcanic explosion on the island of Thera.
Archaeologists have also discerned several cemeteries belonging to the Second Intermediate Period and during recent excavations at Tell el-Dab’a, burials dating from late Dynasty XIII to the end of the Hyksos Period have been uncovered. One of the more remarkable finds is a mudbrick vaulted tomb to the west of the main temple enclosure, which apparently belonged to a warrior. He was buried with his weapons, a well-preserved copper sword (the earliest of its type found in Egypt) and dagger, as well as other grave-goods and offerings. In the entrance to the tomb the skeleton of his horse was found and next to the north-eastern wall the body of a young girl – thought to have been a servant, perhaps a sacrifice, who was interred at the time of her master’s burial. A number of other horse-burials have recently been uncovered.
For many years the city of Avaris had been lost, lying buried beneath the cultivated land of the eastern Delta. A famous commemorative inscription by the Theban King Kamose (Wadjkheperre) at the end of Dynasty XVII, gives an account of his campaign against the Hyksos King Ipepi and the bringing down of the walls of Avaris. We now know that Avaris was defended by a large buttressed wall, over 8m wide which enclosed a massive fortified citadel with gardens and vineyards. Kamose had threatened to drink the wine from Ipepi’s vineyard and chop down his trees in the taunting message on his inscription and archaeologists have now confirmed that the citadel was indeed abandoned at the end of the Hyksos Period.
The Hyksos fortress was abandoned but seems to have been subsequently modified and rebuilt for re-occupation during early Dynasty XVIII. Evidence of New Kingdom occupation of the site is also seen in building activity by Horemheb and the Ramesside kings. The Delta residence of Rameses II was at Pi-Rameses (now known to be a little to the north at Qantir), but the settlement area eventually spread across Tell el-Dab’a and a large temple probably dedicated to the god Seth was built in the centre of the area.
Today there are few standing remains to be seen at Tell el-Dab’a. The natural mound is partly surrounded by a large lake resulting from flooding of the River Nile, but over the past two decades, systematic excavation is slowly beginning to reveal many of the foundations of ancient buildings – houses, palaces, tombs and temples of the towns which once flourished in the area.
News came in May 2009 of exciting new discoveries at Tell el-Dab’a excavated by Dr Manfred Bietak and Dr Irene Forstner-Mueller. The Vienna University have uncovered over 10,000 square metres of a large palace complex, now believed to date to the late Hyksos era. This structure is not Egyptian in plan, but more like palaces found in Syria. During their excavations, a fragment of a cuniform tablet, apparetntly a royal letter, was found from the late Babylonian Period, which would make it the oldest cuniform text found in Egypt so far. Another first, is the skeleton of a female horse found buried inside the palace complex, again making this the earliest known horse burial in Egypt. These are important discoveries in the Hyksos capital and attest to the wide interaction of the Hyksos with other societies and diplomatic links.
How to get there
The modern village of Tell el-Dab’a is situated about 6km to the north of the town of Faqus in the north-eastern Delta. The site is on the east bank of a Nile tributary.