The New Kingdom and beyond — II

Zahi Hawass , Tuesday 23 Apr 2024

Zahi Hawass continues his review of the history of the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom after the victory over the Hyksos

The New Kingdom and beyond   II
Artefacts uncovered at Taposiris Magna Necropolis in Alexandria


The family of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses I came from the area of Avaris in the Delta. They appear to have owned property just to the north of the ancient town, where they kept a summerhouse. During the reigns of Seti I and Ramses II, this part-time residence was turned into a new capital city, Pi-Ramses, which was excavated by the late German archaeologist Edgar Pusch.

Its location in the eastern Delta was ideal for launching military and trading expeditions into Syria and Palestine, and Pi-Ramses (known as Ramses in the Bible and now called Qantir) rapidly became an enormous royal city.

Although many of the stones used to build and decorate this city were carried off by later Pharaohs (primarily to Tanis) for their own constructions, careful excavations carried out over the past 20 years have revealed traces of some sort of palace with pillared halls and one room decorated with a multi-coloured floor of stucco.

Associated with the palace were stables and bronze and glass workshops. Later, a chariot garrison was also built here. To the north was a peristyle court, in the floor of which Pusch found the prints of horses’ hooves. Its octagonal pillars are inscribed with the names of Ramses II.

To the south of this are multi-functional workshops connected with the manufacture and upkeep of the chariots. The stables associated with this garrison, the only such structures ever found, cover an area of more than 15,000 square metres. Inside are six rows of 12 rooms with whitewashed floors, uncovered and identified through magnetometric surveys that have revealed a great deal of fascinating archaeological evidence.

The area of Pi-Ramses/Qantir was occupied for more than 300 years, from the late 18th to the early 20th dynasties. The stratification of the site is complex, and the use of the various areas changed over time, but Pusch identified a number of key architectural features.

From the levels dating to the reign of Ramses II stones and “toilet” areas built of limestone have been uncovered. More than 460 horses, along with their grooms, could have been housed here. Many chariot-related artefacts, such as knobs from saddles and chariot finials, have also been found here, along with gold-coated nail heads and bronze buttons, a pair of horse bits, and many weapons such as short swords, arrows, javelins, and lance heads.

Limestone moulds for embossing metal sheets were also discovered within the area of the chariot garrison. These were for the shields carried by Hittite soldiers, who were, after a period as Egypt’s arch-enemies, Egyptian allies. The presence of Aegean soldiers is also attested to through finds of Mycenaean pottery and a scale from a Mycenaean boar’s tusk helmet.

More recently, Pusch found part of a clay tablet with an inscription in cuneiform writing, leading him to hope that the city’s diplomatic archives would one day be discovered. This would be an extraordinary discovery and would shed much light on this intriguing period of ancient history.


High in the Theban cliffs in the desert overlooking the fertile flood plain is a walled village built by the state for the skilled craftsmen who tunnelled, carved, and painted the royal tombs of the New Kingdom Pharaohs.

Occupied from the early 18th Dynasty until the end of the 20th, it, like Giza for the Old Kingdom and Illahun for the Middle Kingdom, provides a unique window into the lives of a particular group of ancient Egyptians. In addition to the surviving architecture and the tombs associated with the town, Deir Al-Medina has yielded many thousands of written records, allowing scholars to reconstruct family relationships, work patterns, leisure activities, legal codes, and other aspects of daily life.

The town may have been in use earlier, but its official foundation was carried out during the reign of Tuthmosis I (c 1500 BCE), whose name is inscribed on the wall surrounding the village. At the beginning, when the royal tombs were relatively small and simple, the workforce was also small. After the Amarna interlude (during which the village appears to have remained occupied), the royal workforce was reorganised, and, after what appears to have been a major fire, the village expanded.

The majority of our evidence comes from the Ramesside period, when the workforce reached its largest numbers.

The main entrance to the town was from the north, although there may also have been a southern gate. At its height, the trapezoidal enclosure reached about 5,600 square metres and held approximately 68 houses arranged in rows along a narrow northsouth street. It has been suggested that this street was roofed with reed mats, as is still done in some parts of the world today.

There is significant variety among the houses, and, like most dwellings, they were modified over time to suit the changing needs of their owners. Each was built of mud brick on a stone foundation. The wall surfaces were plastered with mud, and the external and some internal walls were whitewashed. The front door, which lay along the main street, was of wood and sat in a wooden or limestone doorframe on which the owner’s name could be inscribed. Often the doors and lintels were painted red, a colour associated with protection and the driving away of demons.

In a typical house, a short flight of steps led from the entrance to a sunken room spanning the width of the dwelling. Against one wall of this room was built a brick platform, about three-quarters of a metre high, one and three-quarter metres wide, and just less than a metre deep. This was topped by a low wall. Five steps led to an opening in the enclosing wall that gave access to the platform.

Some of these were decorated with scenes and images linked to fertility and childbirth, such as a woman performing her toilette, women and children in gardens, and Bes, the god of pleasure and protector of the household. Niches are thought to have served to house ancestor busts and stelae for the ancestor cults practised here. The platforms have been identified both as altars for these cults and as childbirth beds.

From this room, a step leads back up to street level and to the main living space for the house’s occupants. The ceiling of this room was supported in its centre by a wooden column set on a stone base. Some scholars believe that the roof here was higher, with clerestory windows set into the upper wall to let in light and air. In some houses, niches containing images of local deities were cut into the whitewashed walls. A decorated low bench against one wall served for seating during the day and sleeping at night. Cut into the bedrock below this bench could be rough stairs leading to a cellar beneath the house.

Beyond this main room were usually one or two smaller rooms, perhaps used for sleeping. At the back of each house was the kitchen, a large space left open to the sky. Limestone mortars, along with grinders and millstones of granite, were found in some kitchens, showing that grain was ground here. Cooking was done in a round oven made of brick.

Stairs from the kitchen area led to the roof of the house. As the inside of the house tended to be dark and airless, this was a vital space for many activities, including sleeping. There are no indications than any of the houses had second storeys.

A few houses lay outside the village walls. The layouts of these differ from the typical village row house, but the same essential functions are represented. An additional feature found in these outlying houses was a donkey stable.

During the working week, the royal workmen seem to have stayed in huts along a path to the Valley of the Kings. Here, there are tiny rooms in groups of one or two, with plastered walls and stone divans. A stone outside indicates the name of the owner. In this area, excavators have found decorated doorframes, stelae, and unfinished sculptures. However, they have not found any pottery, traces of cooking fires, or installations for water, so it is possible that these were not, in fact, used as temporary dwellings.

To the north of the village, near the entrance to the valley below, is the Great Pit, now 50 metres deep, with a rock-cut staircase spiralling around the inside. It is thought that this was dug as a well, so that water would not have to be hauled up from the floodplain, but the artisans never succeeded in reaching the water table.

In the late New Kingdom, the Theban area became quite dangerous. There were groups of marauding Libyans and a general breakdown of royal authority. At this point, the town was abandoned, and the inhabitants moved inside the walls of Ramses III’s Mortuary Temple at Medinet Habu.


It is not until the later New Kingdom that we have significant archaeological remains at the key city of Memphis.

We know that kings made their principal residence here, but almost all traces of earlier structures have disappeared. There are some textual references to specific palaces; for example, the Restoration Stela of Tutankhamun was issued from the Memphite palace built by Tuthmosis I 150 years earlier.

The location of this city at the point where the floodplain narrows before spreading out into the vast Delta was right at the place where Upper and Lower Egypt met and where important trade routes headed east and west into the deserts. Only about 10 per cent of what was once a vast, cosmopolitan city has been identified. This area contains 10 mounds that stood above the annual inundations and must have served as the centres for the population. It is generally thought that the city was composed of discrete residential, palace, and temple areas, probably walled individually.

The earliest traces of occupation here date to the First Intermediate Period and comprise a small cemetery. The most evident remains, and the only ones to be excavated to any great extent, are the 19th Dynasty Ptah Temple and its associated Palace of Merenptah and Palace of Apries.

The remains of the Palace of Apries lie at Kom Tuman and consist of an enormous brick platform at least 20,000 metres square. This later became part of a citadel in the Persian and Hellenistic periods known as Leukon Teikhos, or “White Fortress”, perhaps in reference to its ancient name of Inebhedj (White Walls/Fortress). This area was used extensively in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods, the remains from which include faience factories and a bathhouse.


After his triumphal entrance into Egypt in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great chose a site in the western Delta on the shores of the Mediterranean for the city that would bear his name.
Since its foundation, the city has been occupied continuously and has also been subjected to numerous earthquakes that have changed its face. Little of the ancient foundation remains visible today: the only standing structure from ancient times is the Column of Diocletian erected in 299 CE.

What we know about ancient Alexandria comes from the descriptions written by classical travellers and historians such as Rufinus, Strabo, and Philo. From this textual evidence, we know that it was well-designed and carefully laid out and home to many important monuments and institutions such as the Great Library and the Lighthouse (Pharos), the latter one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Archaeologists have generally recovered only bits and pieces in Alexandria, such as columns, bases, and capitals from various buildings and numerous pieces of sculpture. Much of this has come from underwater explorations in the Alexandria Bay. Many of the pieces found at Alexandria also predate the city’s foundation, demonstrating that the Ptolemies followed the time-honoured Egyptian tradition of using earlier monuments in their own constructions.

Other than the excavations underwater, most of the archaeology in Alexandria has been of domestic sites and necropolises. Since Alexandria is a modern city built on an ancient site, many discoveries have been made by accident, such as the tombs at Kom Al-Shukafa and the theatre at Kom Al-Dikka. In general, the finds here are almost purely Greek and Hellenistic, with only a few Egyptianising elements.


Karanis (Kom Aushim) is one of several well-preserved settlements of the Graeco-Roman period. Situated on a large mound 12 metres high, it lies in Fayoum and would once have been on the shores of the great lake there.

It was founded in the third century BCE and inhabited until the fourth or fifth centuries CE. Housing up to 3,000 people, it was first occupied by mercenaries from the army of Ptolemy II Philadelphus. Later, most of the population were farmers.

Karanis first came to the attention of Egyptologists because of a large cache of papyri discovered by diggers. These papyri, like the texts from Deir Al-Medina, have provided fascinating details about the day-to-day lives of the inhabitants.

Two north-south avenues run through the town, with mud-brick row houses grouped together in blocks. The smaller houses were simple affairs, with three rooms arranged around a courtyard. The larger houses had vaulted ceilings and elements such as lintels added in stone. Many of the houses had multiple storeys and were of the type known as “tower houses”, being higher than they were wide.

They were designed around staircases, with one or more rooms accessible at each level and a basement for storage. Light and air came in from small windows high in the walls. The interior walls could be plastered and painted with a dark wash. Courtyards scattered among the blocks of houses could contain small gardens, animal pens, and mangers. One of the largest houses at the site belonged to a banker. It was also of mud brick, but it had a stone threshold and doorway. Inside were found 26,000 coins hidden in jars and cloth bags.

Karanis also boasted a number of public buildings, including two temples and government buildings. Typical of a Roman town, Karanis was home to a set of baths. There was a cold-water bath, then a chamber for hot water (a sort of a steam bath), and then a hot dry bath that worked something like a modern sauna.

Like many Roman towns, Karanis was home to a number of dovecotes for raising pigeons. These were of mud brick, and the larger, commercial versions could house up to 1,250 birds. There were also 17 granaries, 10 large and seven small, where the grain used to pay Roman taxes was stored.

The inhabitants of the town included many farmers, potters making storage vessels to serve the local wine and olive oil manufacturers, and a complete textile industry, with shearers, weavers, fullers, and wool sellers. About 3,500 pieces of cloth were found here. Archaeologists have also recovered a great deal of ancient food, including durum wheat, barley, lentils, radishes, dates, figs, peaches, pistachios, walnuts, and olives.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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