The large mound of ruins at Tell el-Maskhuta in the eastern Delta was a town-site and capital of the 8th Lower Egyptian nome during the Late Period, when it was known as Tjeku. Since it’s excavation by Edouard Naville in 1883, the site was identified by many scholars with the city of Pithom which was mentioned in the biblical story of the Exodus, but more recent excavations by the University of Toronto during the 1970s have disagreed with this theory.
Naville found the site to consist of a large mudbrick enclosure which contained the ruined remains of a temple of Atum and a few other mudbrick structures. The town’s ancient name, Per-Temu (House of Atum) may derive from the name of this temple and it was on this linguistic basis that it became associated with the Pithom of the Bible.
A red granite statue of the ‘Great inspector of the Palace’, Ankh-khered-nefer, was found at Tell el-Maskhuta. The statue was commissioned for the temple by Ankh-khered-nefer himself. Statues like this encouraged visitors to recite offering prayers, ensuring eternal sustenance. The sides are incised with two triads of gods: Re-Horalhty, Shu and Tefnut; and Amun-Re, Mut and Khonsu. The back bears the owner’s titles and the cartouches of Osorkon II. The statue is now in the British Museum. Also in the British Museum and from tell el-Makhuta, is a granite figure of a falcon which was inscribed for Rameses II and according to the inscription was intended to represent the solar divinity Re-Horakhty.
The fluctuating importance of the town may have been due to its position in the Wadi Tumilat where a canal through the wadi gave access to ships sailing from the Nile to the Red Sea during the Late Period. Recent excavations of the site have uncovered evidence of a Hyksos level of occupation below the city later founded by Nekau II (Wehemibre) of Dynasty XXVI.
Tell el-Maskhuta is the second of the two Delta sites which have been sufficiently excavated to be positively identified as centres of Hyksos occupation (the other one is Avaris at Tell el-Dab’a), although a number of other sites in the eastern delta have now produced archaeological evidence of the Hyksos culture. Canaanite influence dominated the material culture of these people, but was often blended with Egyptian traditions, both in architecture and burial customs. Six phases of Hyksos occupation of the site have been determined mostly from pottery found during the excavations. Much of the non-Egyptian pottery and ceramics are influenced by Canaanite techniques, with a distinctive decorative style of vessels with flat bottoms and deep red slip decoration. Both imported and imitation Canaanite two-handled stone jars have been found at the site, two of which were used for child burials and Hyksos tombs have been found at Tell el-Maskhuta, with evidence of robbers’ trenches dating to the same period.
The town’s importance declined somewhat after Nechau’s time but was still occupied through to the Roman Period after being revived by Ptolemy II Philadelphus with the re-opening of the canal and the establishment of a mortuary cult for his wife, Arsinoe II. The site of a Roman town called Heropolis exists to the north-east of the enclosure, near the canal.
About 14km to the west of Tell el-Maskhuta a fortress was built during the Ramesside Period to guard the entrance to the Wadi Tumilat. This military fortification also included a Temple of Atum, a god who was worshipped in the eastern Delta region from Ramesside times.
How to get there
The site of the ancient capital of Tjeku is on the edge of the cultivation, to the north-east of the modern village of Tell el-Maskhuta, about 15km west of Ismaliya on the Suez Canal.