site to the north of Markaz Faqus, in the eastern Nile Delta, has been identified with Avaris, capital of the Hyksos (c. 1640–1530 BCE) and with the southern part of Piramesse, the Delta residence of Ramesses II and his successors. Some also argue that the site was identical with the biblical town Raamses/Ramesse. The Pelusiac branch of the Nile once passed to the west of the site, which was protected on its east by the huge swamps and lakes of what is today the Bahr el-Baqar drain. Situated between the two water systems, the town controlled the access path into the northeastern Delta—an important strategic position.

Excavations there were started in 1885 by Édouard Naville. From 1941 to 1942, Labib Habachi worked there for the Egyptian Antiquities Service and first suggested an identification with Avaris. From 1951 to 1954, Shehata Adam partly excavated the twelfth dynasty site of ʿEzbet Rushdi. From 1966 to 1969 and from 1975 onward, the site has been under survey and excavation with more than forty-five fieldwork and study campaigns by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo.

The site was founded at the beginning of the twelfth dynasty, under Amenemhet I, with a planned settlement. Probably in the Herakleopolitan period there had existed the estate of a king Khety, as mentioned on a stela found by Shehata Adam (1959). Soon afterward, another settlement began on the southeastern bank of the Pelusiac at ʿEzbet Rushdi es-Saghira. A memorial temple for Amenemhet I, the founder of the twelfth dynasty, was constructed in the fifth year of his reign by Senwosret III. That temple was abandoned by the second half of the eighteenth century BCE, during the time of the thirteenth dynasty.

A community of Canaanites (carriers of the Syrian-Palestinian Middle Bronze Age culture IIA) settled there in the late twelfth dynasty, which led to a considerable enlargement of the town. The majority of the settlers seemed to have been soldiers, to judge from the offerings in their tombs; probably they were also employed as sailors, shipbuilders, and craftsmen by the Egyptian crown. Their tombs, arranged in cemeteries, can be found in the midst of the settlement. At the beginning of that settlement, the Syrian “middle-room” and the “broad-room” house could be found among the architectural features; later, only Egyptian house architecture was used there.

During the thirteenth dynasty, a palatial quarter for officials was constructed. Their function was to supervise trade and expeditions abroad. They were in Egypt's service but were of Near Eastern origin. Their cemetery was found attached to the palace. It was arranged in the Delta tradition of the old royal cemeteries of Buto and Sais. In front of each tomb a tree had been planted, and each tomb was covered by a chapel. Donkey sacrifices in front of the entrances displayed, however, Near Eastern burial traditions, and the weaponry from the tombs was of Near Eastern type. According to a scarab, found in one of the plundered tombs, some of the officials were titled “Overseers of the Foreign Countries” and “Expedition Leaders.” One of the tombs had a pyramidal superstructure; in its adjoining chapel, the remains of a colossal limestone statue of an official in Near Eastern dress and coiffure were found. The statue was mutilated by hammer blows, perhaps the result of inner political turbulence during this period, especially since the palace was abandoned soon afterward. (Another such statue appeared on the antiquities market and may have come from the same cemetery.) The statues of Queen Nofru-Sobek and King Hornedjheryotef of the late twelfth and early thirteenth dynasties, found by Labib Habachi, were probably only transported to this site during the Hyksos period, along with numerous other royal statuary.

The settlement size increased steadily. During the second half of the eighteenth century BCE, an influx of Syrian-Palestinian Middle Bronze Age elements is noticable. Among the settlement pottery, the percentage of Middle Bronze Age IIA-types, the majority imports, increased from about 20 to 40 percent. Soon afterward, epidemics seemed to have decimated the town. The eastern suburbs were abandoned and in the excavated quarters emergency burials were found, some with multiple interments in shallow pits.

A sacred precinct was constructed in the Eastern town; it consisted of two temples of Near Eastern type and mortuary chapels of Egyptian type, with adjoining cemeteries. In front of the main temple, oak tree pits were identified. Possibly the cult is to be associated with the Canaanite godess Ashera, in syncretism with the Egyptian godess Hathor, who was not only established in the Near East but also had an association with the mortuary cult. Because of two fragments of door jambs with the names of King Nehesy of the fourteenth dynasty, this precinct should be associated with him. Unfortunately both stone fragments were found in secondary positions; by the scattering of his monuments, the evidence indicates that Nehesy or his unknown father separated from the reigning thirteenth dynasty and established a small kingdom in the northeastern Delta, with the capital in Avaris, as the name of the settlement became. The Egyptian storm god Seth was then introduced as the dynasty's god, with every reason to believe that he is actually the Syrian (Canaanite) storm god Hadad/Baal-Saphon, because a cylinder seal with his representation is known from the palace of the early thirteenth dynasty. Since the seal was locally made, the cult of that god was probably already established in the eastern Delta, and it is understandable why the later Hyksos chose Seth as their chief god—the local variant of Seth was actually a god from their own Canaanite pantheon.

Of special interest is the development of the settlement. At first an egalitarian pattern prevailed, which gave way to social differentiation. Bigger houses became surrounded by smaller houses on the same plots. Then with the beginning of the Hyksos period (fourteenth to seventeenth dynasties) the town expanded considerably, with a gradual internal density. During the Hyksos period, some new settlements and cemeteries were also found at the eastern edge of the Delta. Such a development can only be explained by a population influx, probably from the southern Levant, but perhaps some Egyptianized Canaanites who had settled previously in other areas of Egypt came to the eastern Delta, contributing to a “homeland” for the Hyksos rule in Egypt.

The mortuary practices found at the site before the Hyksos era display some Near Eastern features. Tombs were arranged either in small cemeteries within the settlement or in small groups within courtyards or even within houses. Normally chambers were constructed of mud bricks, covered by vaults. The vaulting technique has no real parallels in Egypt. In late Hyksos times, Egyptian vaults were introduced. Infants in their first or second year were buried within amphorae that had been imported as wine or oil containers from the Levant. Particularly interesting are burials of female servants in front of tomb entrances—all between eleven and sixteen years of age. In two cases, it was possible to prove that they were interred at the same time as their masters. This custom is so far unknown in the Levant and occured only briefly at the site. Another feature was the burial of pairs of donkeys, yet in Canaan, donkeys have been found only singly (with the exception of Tell el-ʿAjjul). That custom seems to have originated from northern Syria, where donkey sacrifices in pairs at tomb entrances are attested. Typical for this Canaanite population living in the northeastern Nile Delta were burials with such weapons as daggers, battle axes, and sometimes spears (which end in the middle of the Hyksos period).

Ceramic materials show that in Hyksos times practically all imports from the Levant came from the southern Palestine region. Almost all imports were amphorae, which contained wine or olive oil. Imports of Cypriot pottery also increased with the beginning of the Hyksos era and flourished in some parts of the town toward the end of Hyksos times. An increasingly isolationist tendency can be seen in the site's internal trade, since almost no Upper Egyptian, or Middle Egyptian wares of the Memphite area were found from that time.

Toward the end of the Hyksos period, at the western edge of Avaris, along the eastern bank of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, a huge citadel was constructed on as yet unused land. Along the river was built a buttressed enclosure wall of mud bricks, 5.25 meters (16 feet) wide, which was enlarged later to 8.4 meters (25 feet). It is unclear so far whether that is the town wall or the citadel's enclosure. Behind those walls a stratum of gardens with tree pits and traces of a vinyard were discovered—a reminder of the second stela of King Kamose, who threatened the Hyksos with uprooting the trees of Apophis' garden and drinking wine pressed from his vinyards. The stela mentions also the frightened wives of the Hyksos peeping down from the towers of Avaris. Other archaeological features of the citadel include the substructure of a huge building enclosed by another buttressed wall from the north; its stone blocks have royal inscriptions of the Hyksos, which can be seen as evidence that it was a royal citadel.

After the conquest of Avaris by Ahmose (c.1530 BCE), the major part of the town was abandoned and the citadel was destroyed. There alone was evidence of violence found. When a cleaning operation was carried out before the construction of new palatial quarters, bodies, most probably those of soldiers, were buried in pits without any offerings. One type of burial is in orderly fashion, with bodies in extended supine position; another type is of skeletons lying face down, often in multiple burials. Some multiple burials have dismembered bodies, and some of the skeletons show traces of severe injuries. Of special interest was a round pit with two bodies, and on top of them were some hundred broken pots and pieces of limestone.

In the New Kingdom, a new palace compound was constructed in the early eighteenth dynasty, mainly of brick materials taken from the Hyksos citadel. It consisted of two main elements: a platform construction with an access ramp cut through the fortification walls along the riverside, to serve as a probable base for a raised small fortress; and a big palace building with thick walls, storage magazines, corridors, and bathrooms. The two buildings so resemble the so-called Southern and Northern Palace of the late seventeenth dynasty at Deir el-Ballas that a similar function seems likely. Deir el-Ballas was probably the campaign residence of Sekenenre and Ahmose during their war against the Hyksos. It was abandoned at the beginning of the eighteenth dynasty, just at the moment that Avaris was taken. A new residence seems to have been constructed at that time, most probably by the same king for his final campaigns against the Hyksos in the southern Palestine region. Evidence for a military presence included numerous arrow tips and Kerma household pottery. Without doubt, Nubian archers had been stationed there, probably recruited from prisoners of war during campaigns in the south against the kingdom of Kush.

The site's biggest surprise was the numerous fragments of wall plaster with Minoan wall paintings that were genuine in technique and style. They were partly in dumps east of the platform and partly in situ; half were also in situ at the northern entrance of the palace. The motifs included bull hunting, bull grappling, bull leaping, floor acrobatics, hunting scenes, and felines such as lions and leopards chasing fallow deer and goats, as well as a lion devouring a bull—all showing the Minoan ideal of nature's hierarchy. The style is quite naturalistic. Some fragments depict the typical craggy landscape of Crete. The half-rosette frieze and the maze motif suggest a direct connection to the court of Knossos. Representations of a full-scale emblematic griffin and, probably, lions and leopards are similar to those in the throne rooms of Knossos and those of the Mycenean palaces, although they were later than the paintings at Tell ed-Dabʿa. Nevertheless, at Knossos similar motifs must have already existed in an early phase. Such discoveries are reminders of niello inlaid Aegean motifs on an axe and on a dagger of Ahmose, as well as the unexpected title of the mother of Ahmose as ḥnwt ἰdbw hʒw-nbwt (“Mistress of the Shores of Haunebut”), the toponym identified in the past with the Aegean. In the future, a better understanding may be effected in the light of such finds.

In the early eighteenth dynasty, the New Kingdom rulers quickly took advantage of their free access to the eastern Mediterranean. While the ceramic imports (mainly containers of wine and olive oil) at the end of the Hyksos period were those of southern Palestine and Cyprus, the pottery from the citadel shows a much wider range of trading partners. The citadel was probably not long in use as a royal residence, but its area was settled at least until the time of Amenophis II and perhaps continued until the time of Piramesse, when restorations were done at the platform building. Also a temple must have been constructed at that time, to the northeast, as a huge mudbrick enclosure wall was found there.

From the twenty-first dynasty onward, the site, as the southern part of Piramesse, served as a quarry for building materials, especially stone blocks and monumental statues used for the new residences at Tanis, Bubastis, Leontopolis (Tell el-Muqdam), and elsewhere. Along with the monuments, the cults of Piramesse were to some extent also transferred to the new sites, so it is not surprising that in the thirtieth dynasty some secondary cults of the gods of Ramesses II appeared independently in Tanis and Bubastis. This explains why in the Bible the town of Raamses/Ramesse was located at Tanis and to the east of Bubastis in the Wadi Tumilat. Without knowing the original position of Avaris or Piramesse, the identity of those two towns (and their association with the biblical town of Raamses/Ramesse) were kept in memory until Manetho's history of Egypt, according to the first-century Roman historian Josephus, became known and was reinterpreted.

Bibliography

  • Adam, Shehata. “Report on the Excavations of the Department of Antiquitites at Ezbet Rushdi.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 56 (1959), 207–226.
  • Bietak, Manfred. Tell el-Dabʿa, vols. 2 and 5. Vienna, 1975 and 1991.
  • Bietak, Manfred. “Avaris and Piramesse, Archaeological Exploration in the Eastern Nile Delta.” Ninth Mortimer Wheeler Archaeological Lecture. Proceedings of the British Academy 65 (1979), 225–290. Oxford, 1981 and 1986.
  • Bietak, Manfred. “Egypt and Canaan during the Middle Bronze Age.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 282 (1991), 28–72.
  • Bietak, Manfred. Avaris, The Capital of the Hyksos—Recent Excavations at Tell el-Dabʿa. The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Egyptology, no. 1, British Museum Publications. London, 1996.
  • Boessneck, Joachim. Tell el-Dabʿa, vols. 3 and 7. Vienna 1976 and 1992. On the osteology at the site.
  • Habachi, Labib. “Khataʿna–Qantir: Importance.” Annales du Service des Antiquités de l'Égypte 52 (1954), 443–559.
  • Habachi, Labib. Tell el-Dabʿa I and Qantir or Avaris and Piramesse. Edited by E. Engel and P. Jánosi. Vienna, forthcoming.
  • Winkler, Eike-Meinrad, and Harald Wilfing. Tell el-Dabʿa, vol. 6. Vienna, 1991. Provides an anthropological perspective on the finds.

Manfred Bietak