Just to the south-west of the village of Qantir, 2km north of Tell el-Dab’a, lies the site of the great Delta capital of the Ramesside kings, known in ancient times as Piramesse or Per-Rameses. The area of Qantir is criss-crossed by small branches of the Nile and covered with sandy mounds which archaeologists now believe hide a number of important monuments dating from the Middle Kingdom through to the Late Period. It would be virtually impossible to excavate the whole area of Qantir due to the modern settlements which have encroached upon the site, but with the aid of magnetic sensors and measuring equipment and data transmitted to computers, the plan of Rameses’ vast city is now being slowly revealed.
When the eastern branch of the Nile began to dry up, the city was abandoned during Dynasty XXI, with everything portable removed to Tanis and Bubastis, including many of the stone monuments. During the 1920s clues were found to the location of the city when decorated tiles, some bearing the names of Seti I and Rameses II began to turn up in the area. Excavations at the time revealed that the glazed tiles, with natural designs of animals, birds and plants (now in Cairo Museum) were likely to have come from a New Kingdom royal palace. Stelae, statue fragments and stone blocks from doorways were also uncovered.
Several large temples are recorded as being built at Per-Rameses, the main one dedicated to Amun-Horakhty-Atum in the centre of the town. A Temple of Seth has also been located in the south with small temples dedicated to Astarte and Wadjet in the east and north. The city area, which stretches as far as Tell el-Dab’a, 2km to the south, has been investigated since the 1970s by the Austrian Archaeological Institute of Cairo under Dr Manfred Bietak and more recently there have been expeditions by the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Germany directed by Dr Edgar B Pusch. Ahmed Gouda Husain and his team from the Geophysical Research Centre have been able to provide detailed images of the hidden city, including streets of houses, palaces, temples and stables from the recent data they have received.
Today the site is partially buried under agricultural land surrounding the expanding villages of Qantir, Samana, Ezbet Yasergi, Tell el-Dab’a and Tell Abu Shafi’a, divided by the el-Samana canal and covering a known area of 1,500 hectares. Although the palace was founded by his father Seti I, the ancient city is especially known as the Delta residence of Rameses II who moved his capital from Memphis so that he could be closer to the borders of Libya and Syria – vassal states which were at that time still unpredictable. From here he also had swift access to the Mediterranean coast and the whole economical and religious centre seems to have moved at this time towards the Delta region.
Although there are now few remains to be seen, this has become one of the most exciting discoveries of the 20th century with settlement areas, places of worship and the necropolis now being carefully mapped out. The temples and palaces of Qantir may have been stripped of their monuments when the capital moved during the Late Period, but many statues and blocks have been recovered at Tanis which are now known to have originated here. Before the main Temple of Amun were two colossal statues of Rameses II, which were re-used in the temple at Tanis. There was also an impressive hall built by Rameses II for his sed-festivals, complete with obelisks, statues and columns, and probably also sed-festival complexes of Rameses III. Among the more recent discoveries are military workshops for the manufacture of arms and chariots and a huge stable complex which is estimated to have housed up to 460 horses. The stables, the largest ever found, comprised six rows of halls with sloping floors, which were divided into stalls for the animals, and a vast courtyard which was probably used as an exercise or practice yard. Around the military workshops, archaeologists have found various parts of weapons and armour.
The city of Rameses was partly built over Avaris which was the Hyksos’ capital for almost 100 years during the Second Intermediate Period. It is also believed by many to be the city from where Moses led the exodus – the biblical Pithom.
Qantir has seen relatively little traditional excavation. The process of discovery has been greatly speeded up by the use of modern technology, using magnetic sensors to measure electrical impulses at different levels and computers to generate images of underground structures. It would take many decades of excavation to uncover the remaining structures at Qantir if this were possible.
How to get there
Qantir is in the north-eastern Delta governorate of el-Sharqqiya, about 9km north of Faqus and about 120km north-east of Cairo. The entire settlement is now covered by several small modern villages and most of the remains have been destroyed or anciently removed. The area of Qantir includes many ancient sites, including Avaris at Tell el-Dab’a.