From the early days of Egyptology, continuing attempts were made to locate the position of the Ramessid capital called “The House of Ramesses Beloved of Amun Great of Victories.” It was believed to be identical with the biblical city called “Ramesses,” from which the Israelites departed Egypt on their Exodus. In the Nile Delta, the vast ruins of Tanis, the region around Pelusium, and the frontier forts of Sile, Tell el-Maskhuta and Tell el-Rotaba, all situated on the eastern edge of the Nile Delta, were in turn identified and then dismissed as Piramesse. The French archeologist Pierre Montet insisted that Tanis was indeed the only Ramessid city that could be considered a candidate, because of the enormous numbers of Ramessid architectural fragments that he had uncovered there. Excavations in the vicinity of the modern village of Qantir, led by the Egyptian Egyptologists Mahmoud Hamza (1928) and Labib Habachi (1940–1943), uncovered parts of palaces as well as dwellings of high Ramessid officials and brought the region of Qantir into focus. This work was continued, with a detailed evaluation of archeological remains within the region's topography, by the Austrian Egyptologist Manfred Bietak (since 1966). With further progress of the excavations at Tanis and Qantir, all data led to the final localization of the Ramessid capital in the region between Qanti and el-Khata'na, which has come to be generally accepted. Qantir/Piramesse, the central area of which covers more than 10 square kilometers, is about 100 kilometers (65 miles) northeast of Cairo and about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Ismailia, not far from Faqus, in Sharkijeh province.
In cooperation with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization and in collaboration with the Austrian mission, the Pelizaeus Museum initiated intensive work in the endangered archeological zone. Francis L. I. Griffith, the British scholar, could still note on an inspection of the area in 1886 that one finds at Qantir a low tell (settlement mound), which continues without interruption as far south as el-Khata'na, more than 2 kilometers (1.5 miles) to the south of Qantir. Today the area is almost completely leveled and prepared for agricultural exploitation, except for very limited remains at Tell ed-Dabʿa. Already in antiquity, specifically during the twenty-first dynasty, most of the stone masonry, statues, obelisks, and the like had been removed from Piramesse to build new residences in such sites as Tanis and Bubastis.
During the course of nineteen field seasons since 1980, five excavation sites have been opened; two of these were labeled Q I and Q IV, respectively. Both major sites contain, from top to bottom, badly damaged remains of cemeteries, followed by a more or less preserved habitation level; beneath this is a chariot garrison with attached multifunctional workshops and extensive horse stables; and below that is a foundry with installations for the industrial production and casting of bronze (Q I) and glass (Q IV). The latest excavations have revealed the remains of a palace-like structure below the royal stud (Q IV), comprising further stables, pillared halls, and a room with a polychrome stucco floor, including gold-plating. These latter elements can be dated to the reign of Ramesses II by inscriptions and are most likely connected to the systematic building activities of the new residence. They may also reflect a technological transfer in regard to metal processing.
Evidence for this is provided by vast installations that demonstrate the melting of bronze by heating open crucibles from above, and the use of specialized furnaces for heating large-scale casting molds. Those installations cover an area well over 30,000 square meters and are unique in antiquity for their high-temperature technology and size.
Altogether, the strata represent a period of a more than three hundred years of settlement history, from about 1300 BCE to the beginning of the first millennium, from the latter part of the eighteenth dynasty to the early twentieth. Earlier occupation levels (Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period) are to be found at Tell ed-Dabʿa.
Traces of connections to foreign cultures and countries of the eastern Mediterranean are well documented at Piramesse. Particularly interesting in this regard is the occupation level labeled the Chariot Garrison. Three large contemporary functional units may be distinguished. The north of site Q I contains a peristyle court lined with octagonal pillars which protected polychrome wall paintings from the frequent, sometimes violent rainstorms. The pillars show on their four principal sides the royal protocol of Ramesses II in a version that dates its erection to his first sed-festival in regnal Year 30. The clearest indication of the use of this court for chariotry, in addition to the numerous objects recovered, is the prints of horses' hooves in parts of the courtyard floor.
The second functional unit—multifunctional workshops with intra-craft and cross-craft specialization—is situated within the south part of Q I. These include fireplaces of various types, crucibles of various types, tyeres, layers of ashes and burnt clay, slag, charcoal, casting molds, scrap metal, and recycled bronze objects, all of which indicate the presence of foundries in which not just bronze but also gold, silver, and glass were being produced or worked. Regional concentrations of humus layers, dunghills, and latrines, in combination with stone and bronze knives, hatchets, scrapers, and sickle blades, point to the processing of organic materials such as wood, leather, or reeds. Stone detritus such as flakes and nodules of flint, blue chalcedony, different varieties of carnelian and agate, fragments of alabaster still bearing saw marks, smashed pieces of desert boulders, drill cores from rock crystal, pressure stones of bow-drills and their crescents, ball-hammers, and anvils suggest a wide spectrum of raw materials, techniques, and occupations. A specialized area served for the working of animal bones, receiving some of its raw material from a nearby zoo in which elephants, lions, gazelles, and other wild animals were kept. Taken as a whole, this cross-craft workshop reveals an interrelated web of dependent processes, linked together like a modern assembly line to repair and produce chariots and their equipment as well as bronze and glass.
The third functional unit at site Q IV comprises within an area of more than fifteen thousand square meters six rows of twelve rectangular rooms each, a column hall being situated at the western end of each row. The function of this architectural complex, which has no known parallel, can be inferred from the whitewashed floors, tethering stones, and “toilets” built of limestone inside these rooms: all of them—column halls as well as the slender rectangular rooms—are to be designated as “stable rooms,” the whole being a royal stud housing a minimum of almost 460 horses and their grooms. Finds of chariot finials include yoke saddle knobs and yoke knobs, mainly carved of alabaster, limestone, or marble. Similarly numerous planoconvex discs, made of the same materials, once decorated the terminal ends of the wooden frame of the chariot's floor frame. Gold-plated bronze buttons, nailheads covered with gold leaf, punched gold bands, and rivets, together with a once-gilded linchpin, reveal that in addition to standard chariot types, lavishly decorated parade chariots were also manufactured and used here.
This conclusion can be further verified by the recovery of a functioning pair of horse bits along with a nave cap made of bronze. Numerous weapons—short swords, arrows, javelins, and lance heads—as well as pieces of scaled body armor belonging to helmets and cuirasses, complete the picture of the charioteers' armory. Correlating the information gained by excavations to ancient Egyptian texts, we can recognize the architecture and its contents as the “armory” and at the same time the “headquarters of thy (the king's) chariotry,” described in the hymns of Piramesse.
Within the workshop we note limestone molds for embossing metal sheets, which are unparalleled in the cultural record of the ancient Near East. The identification of the designs engraved into these slabs is possible through Egyptian reliefs depicting Hittite soldiers carrying a shield whose outline exactly resembles the design and proportion of the motif found on the limestone slabs; it is comparable also to the orthostats found at Zencirli, on which the Hittite weather god wears the horned crown and is armed with a lance, a short sword, and the same Hittite figure-eight shield. The Amarna Letters contain lists of gifts sent by Tusratta, king of Mitanni, to Amenhotpe III, naming alongside other costly items, “nine leather shields, the urukmannu of which are of bronze.” Therefore I identify the Hurrian word urukmannu with those metal parts that were produced by embossing bronze sheets using the above described molds, hammers, and punches, also found at Piramesse. Their presence within this metropolis can only be understood as proof that Egyptians and Hittites worked peacefully, side by side. This holds true also for the motif on the back side of the molds, depicting a highly stylized head of a bull, symbol of the Hittite weather god.
The most likely explanation for the peaceful presence of Hittites in Egypt's Ramessid capital is the occasion of the diplomatic marriage between Ramesses II and the eldest daughter of the Hittite king Hattusili III, Maat-hornofru-re, which took place in regnal Year 34 of Ramesses II. In several texts, particular emphasis is placed on the friendly encounter of the formerly hostile troops, enabling the ancient historians to state that “both lands had become one (and the same) land.” The shield molds with the Hittite motifs must have been used to maintain the shields of the Hittites who served as a palace or body guard for the queen in the Ramessid residence, an outward expression of the friendly union between the two superpowers of the day.
Finds from the Mycenaean world are also present in abundance, most of them in the form of pottery; there is also a scale of a Mycenaean boar's-tusk helmet. We also have evidence for the cults of several foreign deities, such as a relief depicting a statue of Astarte, the ancient Near Eastern goddess of war and love and protectress of the royal horse team, mounted on horseback; in addition, the name of the ancient Near Eastern god of war, Resheph, was found on a limestone door post. The former object is the archeological manifestation of a passage in one of the hymns of Piramesse, telling us that “Astarte [is situated] in her (the city's) east.” Since the hieroglyphic name of Astarte is also preserved on one of the palmiform columns of the stable, it may be assumed that the stable at least was protected by this goddess. Altogether, we have more than circumstantial proof that the hymns on Piramesse are accurate in describing its splendor, contents, layout, and size, comparing Piramesse to other Egyptian cities such as Thebes, Memphis, and Heliopolis.
Since 1996, the size and layout of the Ramessid metropolis has been further investigated in cooperation with the Bayerisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Munich, using a caesium magnetometer (SMART SM4G). With this device, sun-dried mud-brick walls, foundation pits filled with sand, and similar features of lower magnetism are clearly to be differentiated from cultural layers with higher magnetism. This enables us not only to measure but also to draw the outlines of individual buildings as well as the ground plans of city districts. Covering an area of almost 100 hectares, the investigated fields contain a palace area, vast living quarters consisting of villas and houses of the Amarna type, with courtyards, gardens, streets, avenues, channels, and perhaps parts of a harbor. Several official buildings of still unknown function, one of them resembling in part the North Palace of Tell el-Amarna, and another one comparable to the so-called Foreign Office depicted in the tomb of Tjai at Thebes, are situated to the south of Q I and Q IV. It is hoped that the continuation of the magnetic investigation will lead to a map covering at least the city center with its area of more than 10 square kilometers.
- Bietak, Manfred. Avaris and Piramesse, 2d ed. Oxford, 1986.
- Hayes, W. C. Glazed Tiles from a Palace of Ramesses II at Kantir. New York, 1937.
- Pusch, Edgar B. “Ausländisches Kulturgut in Qantir-Piramesse.” In Akten München 1985, edited by S. Schoske pp. 249–256. Hamburg, 1989.
- Pusch, Edgar B. “Bericht über die sechste Hauptkampagne in Qantir' Piramesse-Nord herbst 1988.” Göttinger Miszellen 112 (1989), 67–90.
- Uphill, Eric P. The Temples of Per Ramesses. Warminster, 1984.
Edgar B. Pusch