In Egypt’s northern Delta stands the San Al-Hagar, or Tanis, archaeological site, once the capital city of the ancient Egyptian 22nd and 23rd dynasties and still presenting gigantic monumental relics today. It is one of the country’s largest and most impressive sites, causing archaeologists to call it the “Luxor of the North”.
Its monuments are characterised by reused materials from neighbouring sites from earlier periods such as Qantir or Pi-Ramses, Egypt’s capital during the reign of Ramses II and the Hyksos capital of Avaris.
It is the richest archaeological site in the Delta because it gathers monuments from the Old Kingdom right through the Intermediate Period. The city dates back to the Old Kingdom, with some stone reliefs and blocks dating to the reign of the Fourth Dynasty king Khufu and the Fifthth Dynasty king Pepi I.
Other monuments from the Middle Kingdom are also found, such as the arch-atrium and lintel of king Senousert I and the pillar of Amenmehat I.
The city flourished during the reign of the 19th Dynasty king Ramses II, who constructed three temples there to immortalise the visits of his father and grandfather to the city although he built his own capital almost 20 km away in Qantir and called it Pi-Ramses.
During the 21st and 22nd dynasties, Tanis was a royal necropolis housing the tombs of kings and queens as well as princes, nobles, and military leaders.
French archaeologist Auguste Mariette was the first to excavate at the site, where he unearthed an important stelae as well as a collection of Middle Kingdom royal statues. However, he also mistakenly identified the site as Pi-Ramses.
British archaeologist Flinders Petrie was the second archaeologist to work there, and he was able to draw up a detailed plan of the city with its temples and other structures. He also discovered a Roman papyrus that is now on display at the British Museum in London.
However, Mustafa Waziri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), told Al-Ahram Weekly that French archaeologist Pierre Montet’s excavation at the site between the 1920s and 1950s was the most important exploration work carried out there.
Montet put an end to the enigma of the identification of the site, as some Egyptologists had earlier seen Tanis as Pi-Ramses while others had suggested that it was Avaris.
Montet scientifically proved that Tanis was neither Pi-Ramses nor Avaris, but was a third capital in the Delta for the 21st Dynasty. He also unearthed the royal necropolis of the 21st and 22nd dynasties in 1939, with some of its unique treasures now on display at the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square.
“This discovery was not recognised like the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 because of the outbreak of World War II in the same year,” Waziri pointed out. Among the tombs uncovered were those of kings Psusennes I, Amenemonpe, Osorkon II, and Sheshonq III.
Remarkable sarcophagi of kings Sheshonq III and Taklot II were also found, along with other artefacts that indicate the royal funerary rituals and goods of the Third Intermediate Period.
“Although several archaeological missions have worked at the site for almost 100 years now, it has never been completely excavated and has also been neglected,” Waziri said. He added that time has taken its toll on the monuments, and the whole area has seen high levels of subterranean water and environmental erosion factors.
The creation of a fish farm neighbouring the site has had negative impacts leading to the increase in the level of subterranean water.
During the early 2000s, a project was executed to decrease the water level and walls were constructed to protect the area. But the site was subjected to negligence until early December 2017 when the Ministry of Antiquities launched a comprehensive rescue project to restore the Tanis monuments and develop the site into an open-air museum of ancient Egyptian art.
Waziri said that the project aims to lift up the monumental blocks, reliefs, columns, statues, and stelae lying on the sand and restore and re-erect them on concrete slabs to protect and prevent their direct connection with the earth.
He said that a documentation project of the Tanis site and its monuments is also underway.
During the work, archaeologists stumbled upon a stelae of the 19th-Dynasty king Ramses II carved in red granite depicting the king presenting offerings to a yet-unidentified ancient Egyptian deity.
Another three stelae of kings Senusert III, Pepi I, and Khufu were also found a metre below the ground. They were found in pieces, and they will be restored, Waziri said.
The statues of king Ramses II that have been lying on the sand since their discovery in the late 19th century have been restored and lifted up on concrete mounts covered with wooden beams to prevent damage from subterranean water. The statues are of red granite and are 6.5 metre tall and weigh 30 tons.
Several stone reliefs, engravings, statues, columns and crowns of columns decorated with foliage designs have also been found.
Last Saturday, a new visitor centre at the site was inaugurated by Waziri, French Ambassador to Egypt Marc Baréty, and the Director of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Egypt Laurent Coulon.
The new centre, located at the entrance to the site, is the result of collaboration between the French Institute of Oriental Archeology (IFAO), the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and the French mission at Tanis.
It was designed by MADA Architects and occupies an area of 350 square metres. It contains information material in the form of illustrated bilingual panels, a model of the site, and a short video in a single large room with space reserved for the presentation of a selection of decorated stone objects.
It is intended to serve as an introduction to the site not only for foreign tourists, but also for the local community.
The visitor centre is one of the achievements of the “Safeguarding and Enhancement of Tanis” project, which is a collaboration between the Egyptian and French governments with the objective of sustainably preserving and enhancing the exceptional archaeological heritage of the site of Tanis to contribute to the development of tourism in the Eastern Delta.
Other developments have been carried out as part of the same project, in particular the restoration of the Shashanq III gate and the construction of a shelter above part of the royal necropolis.
The project has also made it possible to produce educational materials in Arabic for schoolchildren visiting the site, the first for the seven to 12 age group and the second for those over 12 years old.
The booklets present the site in a fun way and are accompanied by a more detailed booklet for teachers to help them know the site better when organising visits.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly