As it makes its way north toward the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile, which the Egyptians called simply “The River,” opens into a papyrus-shaped fan branching out northward from the base at Egypt’s capital. Today, we call this landscape the Egyptian Delta because its shape resembles the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet: delta (Δ).
Archaeological sites in this part of Egypt are among the most difficult to excavate and are often poorly preserved due to the high water table and intensive agricultural activity that took place over thousands of years, and is still ongoing. Nevertheless, the Delta has provided us with important information about ancient agriculture, trade relationships, and changing Egyptian identities. This week, the Nile Scribes visit five important sites for a visitor to explore on their next journey to Egypt.
Visitors to the northeastern Delta will certainly make a stop at Tanis, Egypt’s capital city during the Twenty-First Dynasty. Its builders reused a vast amount of building material from sites in close vicinity – a practice that is all too common throughout most of Egypt. A plethora of pieces inscribed with the name of Ramesses II led early scholars to identify Tanis as the Ramesside capital, Piramesse. Now, however, we know that the Tanite builders simply reused the ample building material from nearby Piramesse, and others, to build their new capital. A major highlight is the large temple complex dedicated to the god Amun, as well as the accompanying complex of Mut. It was conceived of as a northern counter-part to Amun’s temple complex at Karnak on the Theban east bank.
In the late 1930s, French archaeologist Pierre Montet discovered several aboveground royal tombs of the Twenty-First and Twenty-Second Dynasties in the southwestern part of the complex, inside the temple walls, which visitors can see at the site today. Many astonishing funerary goods were found within the tombs including the famous gold mask and silver coffin belonging to Psusennes I, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. His tomb also contained the stone sarcophagus belonging to the Nineteenth-Dynasty king, Merenptah, which Psusennes I had caused to be moved here all the way from Merneptah’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings!
In close vicinity to the modern city of Zagazig, a short drive north of Cairo, is located a major cult centre of the feline goddess Bastet. Popularly known by its Greek name, Bubastis, the site’s Egyptian name emphasises the importance of the goddess, namely “the Domain of Bastet”. Occupation of the site goes back to Early Dynastic times but it was during the Twenty-Second Dynasty that Bubastis would become the royal centre of Egypt’s ‘Libyan’ rulers. Recently, a new museum was opened at Tell Basta displaying the objects found at the site across its thousands of years of history.
The temple to Bastet is perhaps its most well-known monument and its importance as a cult centre is reinforced by the discovery of many Late Period mummified cats to the northwest of the temple. The Greek traveller and historian, Herodotus, supposedly made a stop here on his travels through Egypt. He describes a major festival taking place annually that brought a large number of religious travellers to the site. His detailed descriptions of the temple have been partially confirmed by archaeological investigations. Today, however, like Tanis, most of the site’s monuments remain in a fragmented state with numerous granite blocks littered across the surface.
3. Taposiris Magna
A drive along the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria will take you to the Ptolemaic-era site of Taposiris Magna, from the ancient Egyptian name ta-per-wsir meaning “the House of Osiris,” where a cult of Isis and Osiris was located. Perched on a hill between the Mediterranean and the freshwater Lake Mariout, the city affords an excellent vantage point over the flat, Delta landscape. Taposiris Magna has received attention in recent decades as the proposed place of Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s burials according to Kathleen Martinez… although years of excavations have revealed little to support the theory.
The temples and acropolis at Taposiris Magna were founded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, but continued to be used well into the Roman period. The site is a remarkable one to visit, as it seems to have never been finished – the extant temple walls are undecorated and uninscribed. Nearby at the same site, a stone tower called the Pharos of Abusir served as a lighthouse for the port nearby, likely one of many lighthouses that watched the coastline between Taposiris and Alexandria. The lighthouse, while not always open, provides an excellent view of the sea and the city.
4. Abu Mena
Abu Mena, an important Coptic pilgrimage site in the northwestern branch of the Delta, is one of seven Egyptian sites on UNESCO’S World Heritage List. The site marks the burial place of Saint Menas, an Egyptian soldier in the Roman army who was martyred for his faith in the third century AD. Although the ancient city dates back to the fourth century AD, Saint Menas is still revered today and the modern monastery at the site that contains the relics of Saint Menas receives large numbers of pilgrims for Saint Menas Day on November 11th.
Abu Mena is among the largest archaeological sites in Egypt – the ancient city of Menas contained numerous churches, baths, markets, workshops, and housing centers for the large numbers of pilgrims who visited the site between the fourth and seventh centuries AD. Visitors can walk among the remains of these buildings and streets, stopping in an open market where vendors could set up stalls of wares for pilgrims visiting the Great Basilica. Pilgrims were drawn to Abu Mena’s natural springs, and small clay flasks called ampullae containing spring water or holy oil were sold to pilgrims who carried them to far-reaches of the Christian world.
The site of El-Rashid is located along the Mediterranean coast on the Rosetta branch of the Nile and may be better known to some audiences by its anglicised name: Rosetta. The modern town was established during the ninth century AD and derives its name from Caliph Harun al-Rashid, an Abbasid ruler during the eighth century AD. The town flourished as a trading centre under Abbasid and Ottoman rule, although in Egyptological circles the site is well-known for the discovery of the famous Rosetta Stone.
To the north of El-Rashid, a Mamluk fort built in the fifteenth century was chosen to be reconstructed into Fort St. Julien by French engineers who were part of the famous Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1798-9. In their search for building materials in the vicinity of the fort, they came across an inscribed stone slab in the foundations: what would later be known as the Rosetta Stone. The stone made its way to Cairo, where in 1801 the French surrendered it to the British as part of the Capitulation of Alexandria. Today, the Rosetta Stone is on display in the British Museum, though a copy of the stele stands inside the fort in El-Rashid.