Tell el-Yahudiya

The Delta site of Tell el-Yahudiya (Mound of the Jews) probably takes its name from remains of a temple and town built in the 2nd century BC by a Jewish priest called Onias, who was given permission by Ptolemy IV Philometor to build a temple modelled on Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. The town was constructed for Jewish exiles from Jerusalem and flourished for 200 years before the temple was closed by Vespasian in AD 71.

Onias’s temple and town was only a small part of the whole site however, which had been called by the ancient Egyptians Nay-ta-hut and Leontopolis (City of Lions) by the Greeks. The site dates to at least as early as the Middle Kingdom and seems to have been occupied right up to the Roman Period. Tell el-Yahudiya was first excavated and published by Naville in 1890, Petrie in 1906 and later investigated by du Buisson for the French Archaeological Institute.

Decorated faience fragments depicting prisoners, foreigners and rosettes, from the palace of Rameses III at Tell el-Yahudiya. (Musée du Louvre E1691 A-D)

The main focus of interest in the site has centred on a massive rectangular walled enclosure, measuring about 515m by 490m, which has been dated to the late Middle Kingdom or early Second Intermediate Period. The purpose of the huge earthwork is not clear. There are no Egyptian parallels for a structure with such massive defensive earthen walls which were sloping and plastered on the outer face and almost vertical on the inner face. For this reason the enclosure was thought to be of foreign design and often interpreted as a Hyksos fortification and known as the ‘Hyksos Camp’. The Hyksos people were of Asiatic origin, who were known to have gradually infiltrated the Delta regions during the late Middle Kingdom, becoming a very powerful force in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period. Tell el-Yahudiya may have been one of their many strongholds, although some Egyptologists regard the structure as religious rather than military. Little of the enclosure walls survive today.

Redware orange slip pottery vessels from Tell el-Yahudiya showing Mycenean influence. (Petrie Museum)

Remains of colossal statues of Rameses II have been found inside the northern part of the enclosure and it is thought that he may have also built a temple here. On the western side of the enclosure wall was a temple of Rameses III and probably a palace which was decorated with faience tiles depicting cartouches, rosettes and flowers, rekhyt birds and foreign captives (many tiles are now in Cairo and other Museums). Pottery dating to the Middle Kingdom and Hyksos Period found at the site is especially characterised by a type of juglet named ‘Tell el-Yahudiya ware’, which were manufactured from black-fired clay, often decorated with a white incised zig-zag design. Study of the pottery has revealed centres of production in Egypt and the Levant.

To the east of the enclosure there are cemeteries of various dates.

How to get there

Tell el-Yahudiya is about 20km to the north of Cairo and about 2km from the village of Shibin el-Qanatir, off the road to Ismaliya. It is not known whether the site is open to visitors.

~ by Su on March 2, 2009.