San el-Hagar (Tanis)

The Delta city of Tanis, modern San el-Hagar, was the Late Period capital of the 19th Lower Egyptian nome, having replaced Per-Rameses (Qantir) as the royal residence of kings during Dynasties XXI and XXII. The city whose ancient name was Djanet (also called Suan – the biblical city of Zoan), was known as Tanis by the Greeks and represented a city similar to the southern capital, Thebes, but in miniature. Today the city takes the form of a mound of rubble, covering a surface area of almost 180 hectares but has revealed what is certainly the largest and most impressive site known in the Delta with a wealth of very important monuments still being uncovered.

Open-air Museum

At least some of the kings of Dynasty XXI and XXII were buried in underground stone chambers at Tanis. In 1929, French Egyptologist Pierre Montet began to excavate there, following his interest in the connections between ancient Egypt and the Near East. Mariette had already explored the area in 1859, finding a series of sculptures which were mistakenly assigned to the Hyksos era and so Tanis was originally thought to be the ancient capital of the Hyksos, Avaris.

Montet first discovered the royal necropolis in 1939, after spending some time concentrating on the temple area at Tanis and as the superstructures of the earlier tombs had been cleared away by subsequent domestic building by the Ptolemies, nothing was to be seen. The archaeologists had been given clues by finding a gold amulet and canopic jars of Osorkon in the area, but it came as a great surprise when on 27 February 1939 Montet and his team found their first tomb (now called NRT I) close to the south-western angle of the temple. They entered through the roof – an aperture originally made by tomb raiders – into a rich burial chamber of Osorkon II. The construction of the Tanis tombs is extremely complicated by the soft sand, and the fact that the area must have been dug and re-dug to enlarge or dismantle tombs over the period. Access shafts to at least two tombs had been covered over to create hiding places for further mummies.

Tanis royal tombs

Osorkon II appears to be the owner of NRT I, though he probably usurped it for himself and his father Takelot I, from Smendes. Osorkon was buried in a gigantic granite sarcophagus with a lid carved from a Ramesside period group statue, but only some debris of a hawk-headed coffin and canopic jars remained in the robbed tomb to identify the king. His young son Harnakht who had the title of High Priest of Amun at Tanis and had predeceased his father, shared Osorkon’s burial chamber. Takelot I (formerly identified as Takelot II) was buried in a Middle Kingdom sarcophagus in a redecorated chamber of the tomb with a few remains of burial equipment inscribed for Osorkon I. Another chamber contained the remains of a reburial of Shoshenq III. There is the possibility that Shoshenq V was also subsequently buried in NRT I, identified by his canopic equipment.

NRT II, a roughly constructed tomb built alongside that of Osorkon II and unidentified by Montet, is now thought to belong to the Dynasty XXII king Pimay, who has also been identified by his canopic equipment.

Tomb of Shoshenq III and Tomb of Osorkon II

The next Tanis tomb to be entered by Montet on 20 March 1939 (NRT III) revealed an even more exciting burial than those previously discovered. This was the burial complex of Psusennes I of Dynasty XXI, and when the archaeologist entered, again through the roof, he found himself surrounded by “marvels worthy of the Thousand and One Nights”. This tomb contained five chambers and it was the silver falcon-headed coffin a hitherto unknown king Shoshenq (II) which Montet saw first, flanked by the reburied mummies later identified as possibly kings Siamun and Psusennes II. Concealed behind a decorated wall was the burial chamber (1) of the tomb owner, the elderly Psusennes I, lying undisturbed since his interment in a granite sarcophagus which had once belonged to Merenptah. Within the sarcophagus, was a granite coffin which in turn contained a coffin of solid silver, a gold mummy-board and a solid gold mask covering the face of Psusennes.

Around the sarcophagus were piled his canopic jars, shabtis and other burial goods, a rich find indeed. A chamber (2) on the other side of that of Psusennes was prepared for his mother Queen Mutnodjmet, but her sarcophagus was found to contain the body of king Amenemope, encased in a coffin of gilded wood. Chamber 3 was found to contain the empty coffin of a general Ankhefenmut, but it was not until excavations resumed after the war in 1946 (this time by Alexandre Lezine) that a chamber (5) was found which revealed the undisturbed burial of another military man, Wendjebauendjed along with quantities of jewellery and burial equipment.

Shabtis of Psusennes and Wendjebauendjed (British Museum)

Other tombs have been found at Tanis. NRT IV was the original tomb of Amenemope which contained nothing but a beautiful sarcophagus with an inscription recording the king’s name (his body and funerary cache being placed in NRT III). Shoshenq III built his own tomb (NRT V), and it was probably during his reign that the whole funerary complex was covered by a mudbrick mastaba. The burial of Shoshenq III in a sarcophagus which was originally a Dynasty XIII lintel, was presumably conducted by Shoshenq IV, whose own sarcophagus was found in the tomb alongside that of his predecessor. There are also two more unidentified tombs.

The Tanis burials, though a very important discovery, are still very muddled, and for archaeologists it has been a daunting task to try to interpret the finds. We do not know precisely when the tombs were reopened in order to change the burial places of the kings, and we are left with a confused mass of diverse objects and incomplete caches of burial goods. There seems to have been a hurried relocation of royal bodies, perhaps for security purposes, similar to what had taken place at Thebes. What they do give us is a wealth of information about the burial customs of the period and a clearer idea of the genealogy of the rulers and family and political relationships between Tanis and Thebes. The kings of Dynasty XXI liked to reuse sarcophagi or usurp older pieces from the New or Middle Kingdom periods. Their tombs were furnished with a considerable amount of equipment in the form of vessels and precious metals, shabtis and canopic jars, which perhaps could be said to demonstrate their attachment to the burial traditions of the past. The technical capabilities of the craftsmen and metalworkers probably equalled that seen in Tutankhamun’s tomb, although goods were not of the same quantity. In comparison the Tanite Dynasty XXI tombs are meagre and had a tendency to eliminate the everyday objects in preference to specific funerary and magical items. What is more likely is that the Tanis burials reveal the poverty of the northern kings, who seemed to have quantities of precious metals at their disposal but had to re-use sarcophagi and canopic jars from earlier burials.

Rameses II at Tanis

The city of Tanis contained enormous temple structures, built largely from re-used material from Per-Rameses (which itself had re-used many older monuments) and other Delta sites. The Temple of Amun was excavated initially by Auguste Mariette, by Petrie (1883-6) then by Pierre Montet who uncovered more of the temple and a smaller temple of ‘Anta’, to the south-west of the Amun enclosure. More scientific excavations began in 1965 with a French Archaeological Mission directed by Jean Yoyotte, who worked there until 1985 when he was succeeded by P H Brissaud. The French Archaeological Mission of Tanis are still working at the site.

Processional way in the Temple of Amun

A processional way, once adorned with at least 15 obelisks usurped from monuments of Rameses II, led to a large enclosure wall built by successive kings, including Nectanebo II and Ptolemy II. This had replaced an earlier enclosure originally built by Psusennes I, who almost certainly began the construction of the Temple of Amun as he is attested by foundation deposits in the area of the sanctuary. Many other kings added to the structure – Siamun and Osorkon III probably added new pylons and courts, while Shoshenq III built a huge granite monumental gateway with blocks re-used from earlier buildings, some of which have now been partially reconstructed. Inside the temple forecourt, four 11m high palm columns were surrounded by smaller papyrus columns and beyond the first pylon, which now no longer exists, was an enclosed courtyard with an obelisk of Rameses II. In the courtyard behind the second pylon, two colossal sphinxes of Amenemhet II, the ‘Hyksos’ sphinxes of Amenemhet III and other Middle and New Kingdom monuments were found. Behind the temple façade was a pillared hall with granite papyrus columns (possibly Middle Kingdom origin). Attached to the rear of the temple was a small cult chapel, containing 10 palm columns of Old Kingdom date and two obelisks. In total 23 obelisks have been found at Tanis.

Many inscribed blocks and fragments dating to various kings are today scattered around the enclosure, forming a sort of open-air museum, including part of a colossal statue of Rameses II which must, with many other Ramesside blocks, have come from Per-Rameses. There are many other structures within the enclosure, which forms the centre of the city. Nectanebo I dedicated a temple to Khonsu-Neferhotep on the northern side of the Amun temple, with a sacred lake nearby using blocks from structures of Shoshenq V and Psamtik. Osorkon II constructed a small temple further to the east and Necatanebo II and Ptolemy II built a temple to Horus to the south-east of the inner enclosure wall.

Columns in the East Temple

To the south-west of the enclosure wall, a small temple was dedicated to the Syrian goddess Anta (who was the Asiatic Astarte and the Egyptian goddess Mut) and Khonsu, dating to Siamun and Wahibre (Apries) but completed by Ptolemy IV. Little remains of the structure of this temple, apart from a few palm columns.

The treasures of the Tanis necropolis are considered the most important source of our knowledge of the Third Intermediate Period royal funerary goods. Also, because many of the blocks and fragments found within the temple enclosure date to earlier times, archaeologists have discovered much about the history and cultural movement in the Delta, even though each structure has had to be unravelled from its complicated context. Montet believed that he had found the site of Per-Rameses at Tanis which he identified by all the Ramesside fragments he uncovered – but because of modern research in many of the Delta sites, we now know different!

How to get there

San el-Hagar is the name of the modern town closest to the ruined city of Tanis situated approximately 130km north-east of Cairo. Around 18km north of Qantir, take a left turn. San el-Hagar is another 20km drive through isolated countryside and the mound can be seen on the eastern side of the road. The site is bordered by the Bahr Saft. Entrance to the archaeological site at Tanis costs EGP 20.

~ by Su on March 3, 2009.