of a City
The history of the capital city of Ramesses differs significantly from the development of other major Egyptian cities, such as Thebes, Memphis or Heliopolis. It is not an established political or religious centre, but a deliberately built base of royal power on the eastern border: a military camp, the residence of various rulers and a hub of cultural exchange.
Rise and Bloom
Human presence in the eastern Nile Delta is attested from prehistoric times, with several settlements and cemeteries present during the 4th millennium BCE. Later, around 2000 BCE, a planned settlement was founded in this region, which developed over the following centuries into Avaris, capital of the Hyksos – a name linked to the Egyptian term “heqa khasut,” meaning “rulers of the foreign lands”.
Originally from south-western Asia, the Hyksos dominated northern Egypt from approximately 1700 to 1550 BCE.
Around 1550 BCE, King Ahmose besieged Avaris and conquered the city, returning it to Egyptian control. Afterwards, parts of the town remained in use and were developed by the Egyptians. A palace adorned with Minoan frescoes (bull leapers) was built during this phase and points to the close contact between these two cultures. The port of Avaris also continued to function and retained its strategic position as a trading hub for foreign luxury goods. During the 15th century BCE, however, the city appears to have lost its pivotal role for about 150 years.
Towards the end of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1330 to 1300 BCE during the reign of either Tutankhamun or Horemheb), new activity is visible in the archaeological record. In approximately 1290 to 1280 BCE, Seti I started to expand the city, and built a palace as a significant part of his new construction programme. Turquoise-coloured faience tiles that decorated a monumental gateway have survived from this phase, with a reconstruction of this gateway on display at the Louvre in Paris.
At the outset of Ramesses II’s reign (c. 1279 BCE), the city was renamed Pi-Ramesse, “House of Ramesses”, and after the battle of Kadesh in his fifth year on the throne, the king returned to Pi-Ramesse with his troops, underlining the importance of his new residence.
Egyptian texts, such as Papyrus Anastasi II and IV, describe the city’s enormous extent and its impressive architecture. This information has been confirmed by archaeological research over the past decades, which has revealed an area as large as 10 km² covered by monumental temples, palaces, and military installations.
Pi-Ramesse remained a capital and royal residence for about 100 years, and in its heyday, was one of the largest settlements in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia. It was there that messengers of the Hittite king met the Egyptian pharaoh to present the famous peace treaty between these two Late Bronze Age superpowers.
Decline of the City
During the second half of the 12th century BCE, our knowledge of Pi-Ramesse’s history begins to fade. While it is certain that the city remained inhabited to some degree (e.g. see a cooking pot), we don’t know about its importance, function, and whether kings were present there.
Then, from the beginning of the 21st Dynasty (c. 1070 BCE), the city became a quarry. This dynasty’s kings transferred stone monuments – obelisks, statues, and columns among them – to their new capital of Tanis, about 30 km away, for use in new buildings. This process took at least 100 years, annihilating Pi-Ramesse and rendering it nearly invisible in the Delta’s landscape. Once this process ended, the city was finally abandoned.
Though its exact location might have already been forgotten, the memory of the Ramesside kings’ magnificent capital was still preserved in the 7th to 6th centuries BCE when the “city of Ramesses” became Egypt’s capital in the biblical tradition. Later, in the 4th century BCE, some of the divine cults venerated at Pi-Ramesse were revived at Tanis; while at the same time, a new settlement developed in the area of the old capital, but this did not become particularly important. For the following two millennia, the knowledge of Pi-Ramesse remained limited to the cultural memory.
The decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 enabled people, for the first time in almost 1,500 years, to translate ancient Egyptian texts about Pi-Ramesse. These present it as a splendid metropolis bustling with life.
From 1825, the ruins of Tanis were subject to archaeological exploration, with archaeologists unearthing vast amounts of monuments bearing the names of Ramesses II. As the knowledge of Pi-Ramesse’s whereabouts had been lost, a century-long debate erupted: where was the city located?
In 1928, Mahmoud Hamza Ali, one of the first Egyptian archaeologists, conducted archaeological excavations in the vicinity of the modern village of Qantir. By that time, the local people had already been unearthing Pharaonic antiquities for decades. Finds from the Ramesside Period, like splendid faience tiles bearing the names of Seti I and Ramesses II, and inscriptions on amphorae naming Pi-Ramesse, were correctly interpreted by Hamza as evidence for the identification of Qantir with ancient Pi-Ramesse.
Many scholars initially rejected Hamza’s hypothesis, but further research since the 1940s has confirmed that he was correct. In particular, the results of the archaeological excavations by Labib Habachi, Shehata Adam, and Manfred Bietak contributed to the paradigm shift in Egyptology.
In 1966, Manfred Bietak started excavating at modern Tell el-Dab’a, ancient Avaris, and discovered evidence for Ramesside settlement activities.
In 1980, the Roemer- and Pelizaeus-Museum Hildesheim, collaborating with varying national and international partners, took over the archaeological exploration of the site. Our knowledge of the ancient city has developed significantly since then.
Edgar B. Pusch: Forty Years as Field Director in Pi-Ramesse
Dr. Edgar B. Pusch talks about his more than forty years of work as field director of the archaeological excavations in Pi-Ramesse. He explains the circumstances of the rediscovery of Ramesses II’s capital and why the excavations at the modern village of Qantir started.
Our esteemed colleague Edgar B. Pusch passed away on January 7, 2023.
The Qantir/Pi-Ramesse Project Today and Tomorrow
Even though more than 90 years have passed since the first excavations by Mahmoud Hamza, and after more than 40 years of continuous work by the Qantir-Piramesse Project, many questions remain unanswered about Pi-Ramesse. To date, only about 0.5 % of the city centre has been excavated, while about 30 % has been surveyed using magnetometry. During the excavations, installations, such as the stable and the bronze foundry, have been discovered and investigated, significantly broadening our knowledge. Nevertheless, many areas and types of archaeological context remain unknown to us. So far, no residential buildings have been completely excavated, and no temples have been thoroughly investigated.
Until recently, this held true for palatial buildings too, which must have existed in a larger number. Ongoing excavations in area Q VIII are now, for the first time, uncovering such an edifice. The complex covered an area of approximately 150 × 250 m. It consisted of a variety of different functional elements, including a central building with a throne room at its centre, accessible through columned halls. In front, there was an open courtyard. Behind flanking walls, large magazines stored provisions and other materials used in huge amounts each day in the palace.
The excavations in area Q VIII will be ongoing until at least 2024 in order to uncover every element of the palace in an exemplary manner. Subsequently, the project wants to focus on areas of the city that we know little about. This includes closing the gaps in the magnetic maps and investigating the currently unknown northern end of the city centre. As only the south of the modern village of Qantir has been subject to excavations in the past, the northern parts will, in general, be the new focus of investigation. Moreover, residential areas will be excavated for the first time to better understand the realities of life in the capital of Ramesside Egypt.
Current Excavations in Qantir/Pi-Ramesse
Dr. Henning Franzmeier, Field Director of the Qantir/Pi-Ramesse Project, presents the excavations of the spring season 2022 in the capital of Ramesses. He talks about the fieldwork’s goals, the research methods used, and the staff members and project partners involved in the excavation.
Quftis: "We are excavators, uncovering walls, pottery, and stone..."
Four long-time staff members of the excavation in Qantir introduce themselves. The excavators from Quft, the so-called Quftis, are highly specialised archaeologists who are employed for the project.
Team Portraits: Archaeological Illustrator
Drawing archaeological objects requires special training and expertise. Josefine Bar Sagi, student assistant for the Qantir/Pi-Ramesse Project, uses a relief fragment to show how she works and which techniques she applies.
AN XXL CITY
CHRONICLE OF A CITY
A CITY OF TECHNOLOGIES
HORSES FOR THE PHARAO
PI-RAMESSE AROUND THE WORLD