Tell Basta (Bubastis)
Tell Basta is the modern name for the site of Per-Bastet (the ‘Domain of Bastet’), named in ancient times as the home of the cult of the cat-goddess Bastet, a daughter of the sun-god who took on the role of a protective mother-goddess and was associated with fertility. The Greeks called this eastern Delta town, Bubastis. It was visited in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus, who described the town as having a beautiful temple on low ground in the centre of the city and surrounded by tree-lined canals, giving it the appearance of being on an island. A stone paved road led from a Temple of Hermes to a huge carved gateway which dominated the entrance to the Temple of Bastet and inside was a shrine containing a statue of the goddess. Herodotus gave a vivid account of the annual festival of the goddess Bastet, when an estimated 700,000 Egyptian pilgrims would visit the site. Many details of Herodotus’s description were confirmed by Edouard Naville’s investigation of Temple of Bastet for the Egypt Exploration Fund during 1887-9.
Although it had been occupied as early as Dynasty IV through to the end of the Roman Period, the town reached its prominence during the Third Intermediate Period and in the Late period it was the capital of the 18th Lower Egyptian nome.
Of the earliest remains, re-used blocks bearing the names of Dynasty IV kings have been found – Khufu and Khafre apparently began cult temples here. Tell Basta covers a large area, bisected by a road, with the sites of ka temples of Teti and Pepy I of Dynasty VI situated on the western side, but only a few of scattered remains of columns mark the structures which have almost entirely disappeared. An Old Kingdom cemetery has been uncovered near the northern edge of the site as well as an even earlier Protodynastic tomb.
A heb-sed (jubilee) chapel built by Amenemhet III (Dynasty XII) shows that Tell Basta was in use during the Middle Kingdom and a mudbrick palace found on the north-eastern edge of the site in 1962 and thought to belong to this king, is currently being restored. The palace has a number of halls, chambers and columns and plaques depicting Bastet and statues of Amenemhet III and his ministers were also found there. A large area of Graeco-Roman mudbrick store-houses has also recently been unearthed near the palace site.
The Temple of Bastet on the south-eastern side of the road through Tell Basta is considered to be the most important structure on the site. Built from red granite, some of the blocks found in the structure indicate that it was probably constructed on Old Kingdom foundations and may have had additions by Rameses II, but the temple is now greatly damaged and an exact plan has never been successfully produced. A hoard of gold and silver vessels and jewellery was discovered by local workmen near the temple site in 1906, the earliest pieces dating to the Ramesside period. Some of these treasures were taken illicitly out of Egypt and were subsequently acquired by Berlin and the New York Metropolitan Museums. A second similar hoard was found later the same year a few metres from the site of the first discovery and is now in Cairo Museum.
Per-Bastet, on the route from Memphis to Sinai and Asia, was strategically an important place from early times but reached its peak during the Third Intermediate Period. The Delta’s capital had been (and possibly still was) at Tanis, where many of the kings of the period were buried, but the Libyan rulers of Dynasty XXII seem to have chosen Bubastis as their Delta residence, strengthening their Egyptian ties by building new religious structures around the site of the Temple of Bastet. Osorlon I (Sekhemkheperre) may have begun by decorating the existing walls with new reliefs and was probably the ruler who built a small Temple of Atum outside the main structure. Osorkon II (Usermaatre) built a new court and entrance hall and constructed a massive granite gateway with very high quality reliefs to commemorate his sed-festival in his 22nd year. A festival hall and hypostyle hall was built by Osorkon III (Usermaatre) who also built a Temple of Maahes (Myhos), the lion-headed son of Bastet. Another of her sons was called Horekhenu, who was probably also revered in the area. The history of this period still uncertain and it is sometimes impossible to sort out the confusing succession of kings because they often chose similar names and epithets. Later, a new sanctuary was incorporated into the temple by Nectanebo II (Dynasty XXX) and another temple was built by the Romans.
In 1997 a limestone statue was found in the nearby encroaching town of Zagazig, about 300m from the ka temple of Pepy and depicts a woman with her three children, seated on a chair with lion’s legs and flanked by baboons. It is thought that the statue may date to the New Kingdom or possibly later.
There are many cemetery sites around Tell Basta. Recent excavations to the north of the Bastet Temple have revealed important burials dating to the New Kingdom including the tomb of Iuti, a Dynasty XIX vizier and tombs of two Viceroys of Kush, a father and son both named Hori, dating to Dynasties XIX and XX. Bastet was originally a lion-headed goddess who began to be depicted as a friendlier cat-headed woman during the Third Intermediate Period. Extensive animal cemeteries began to appear during this time to the north of the site, particularly for the burial of millions of mummified cats which were associated with the local cult. The cat cemetery consists of a series of vaulted mudbrick tombs about 200m north of the temple ruins.
A thousand-year-old well found among the ruins has a legend attached to it which links it to the journey of the Holy Family through Egypt. Scattered over the ground are thousands of sherds of pottery used over the centuries to draw water from the well and then smashed against a statue of the ‘lucky cat-goddess’.
Bubastis may once have been the place where thousands of pilgrims came to sing and dance the festival of Bastet, but today it resembles little more than a derelict area on the edge of the urban sprawl of the town of Zagazig. The ancient town which once played an important part in Egyptian history is now in danger of being destroyed as an archaeological site – with modern housing now covering about two-thirds of the area. Scattered inscribed stones and column fragments indicate that this is an archaeological site which is still undergoing excavation by an Egyptian team.
Recent excavations at Tell Basta have revealed many important finds. Egyptian and German archaeologists have been working at the site for more than a decade and in 1992 a cache of small gold figurines and some faience was uncovered in two bowls during clearance of the Rameses II Temple colonnade. In 1996 an SCA team doing clearance work found a previously unknown limestone gateway dating to the Old Kingdom, and it is suggested that there may be further monuments of this period at Tell Basta still to be uncovered.
More recently, during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, a team from the University of Potsdam, directed by Christian Tietze uncovered a colossal inscribed statue in the Temple of Bastet, carved from pink granite and dating to the reign of Rameses II. It is thought to have fronted a large temple of that period and columns have also been found. It is very similar to the statue of Meritamun at Akhmim, with names of Rameses II inscribed on the back pillar. Meritamun was the daughter and royal consort of Rameses II. The statue, standing at around 11m tall, has now been restored and erected on the site of Bubastis. There is also a sculpture garden near the entrance to the site displaying restored objects and statuary found during excavations at Bubastis. The Tell Basta-Mission of the Potsdam University will begin their 2008 season in March under the directorship of Dr Eva Lange, focussing their work on the remains of the ancient residential areas around the sanctuaries.
News of another important find was announced in April 2004, the discovery of a fragment of a stone stela dating from 238 BC, unearthed during excavations by a German-Egyptian team in one of the temple areas at Bubastis. The stone records a royal decree in the name of Ptolemy III and mentions a reform in the Egyptian calendar. It is remarkable in that it is inscribed in ancient Greek, Hieroglyphs and Demotic script, in a similar manner to the famous Rosetta stone found in 1799 which led to the earliest decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs. More recently in 2008, Egyptian archaeologists at Tell Basta discovered a large red granite head of Rameses II buried deep in a trench to the south of the main temple, which Zahi Hawass reports as the most beautiful statue found at the site.
It is hoped that Tell Basta will continue to reveal its treasures. The temple is being reconstructed and a new visitor centre and museum are being built at the site with the intention of making Bubastis more accessible to tourists.
A few kilometres to the south-east of Bubastis, in a village called Saft el-Hinna, is the site of the ancient city of Per-Sopdu (Per-Soped), once the capital of the 20th Lower Egyptian nome. The city was the primary cult centre of the Falcon-god Sopdu during Dynasty XXII. Known as a personification of the eastern frontier of Egypt and represented either as a crouching falcon or a bearded man wearing a head-dress with two falcon feathers, Sopdu was also worshipped in Serabit el-Khadim in the Sinai peninsula as the guardian of eastern desert routes.
Remains of brick-built temple enclosure walls at the site were investigated by Edouard Naville in 1885. Other than several uninscribed basalt blocks, the earliest dated finds are a few statue fragments of Rameses II. Of later artefacts a granite naos of Sopdu built by Nectanebo I (Kheperkare) of Dynasty XXX was perhaps the most impressive of the remains and a fragmentary granite statue of Nectanebo I from Saft el-Hinna is now in the British Museum. It has also been suggested that a stela naming a little-known ruler of Dynasty XIV, Merdjedefre, who is depicted offering to Soped ‘Lord of the East’, may have originated at Saft el-Hinna.
How to get there
Tell Basta lies about 80km north-east of Cairo on the south-eastern edge of the modern town of Zagazig, between the railway line and the town centre. There are guards and tourist police at the site. Tickets for the site of Tell Basta cost EGP 20.