the capital, royal cemetery and principal Mediterranean port of Egypt (31°N, 32°E) during the Third Intermediate Period (c.1081–711 BCE). Its role as a great metropolis was brief, for it had little history before that period and declined thereafter. As an archaeological site, Tanis, in the northeastern Nile Delta, is characterized by an eclectic reuse of materials that were usurped from other locations and earlier reigns.

The village of San el-Hagar was built upon the western quay of Tanis, which occupied the eastern bank of the Tanite Nile distributary, the Bahr Saft, now only a small stream that dissipates into Lake Manzalla. The site of Tanis comprised two geziras (sandy hills above the flood plain); the southern hill is called Tulul el-Bid, and the northern Tell San el-Hagar. This northern tell, the largest in Egypt, comprises more than 177 hectares, and rises as high as 32 meters (100 feet). Its once fertile fields are now salty steppe, a condition that has prohibited modern occupation and preserved the site from recent destruction.

During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the region was known as the Field of Djaʿu and was considered a favorable fishing and fowling preserve. It belonged to various Lower Egyptian nomes; originally in the thirteenth nome, it fell within the fourteenth during the Middle Kingdom and ended as capital of the nineteenth in Ptolemaic times.

The first mention of the town is known from a nineteenth dynasty building block of Ramesses II (ruled c.1304–1237 BCE) used originally in Memphis. At Tanis, twentieth dynasty burials lie under an enclosure wall, indicating a settlement; however, the greater metropolis was not founded until the nineteenth year of the reign of Ramesses XI (c.1087 BCE), last king of the twentieth dynasty, when Egypt was divided between two potentates: High Priest Herihor took Upper Egypt, while Generalissimo Smendes seized Lower Egypt, and opened Tanis as a port, since Piramesse had ceased to function. The Story of Wenamun, a tale of trade in the Levant, depicted Wenamun embarking from Tanis on a mission for Herihor, under Smendes and his wife Tentamun, at the end of the twentieth dynasty. Smendes (r. 1081–1055 BCE) eventually founded the twenty-first dynasty. He was probably buried in Tanis, since one of his canopic jars, a funerary object, was found in the vicinity.

Smendes's successor, Psusennes I (r. 1055–1004 BCE), selected a depression of virgin sand some 8 meters (25.5 feet) above flood level, between four ranges of hills on Tanis's northern gezira, for the foundation of a temple to Amun; there a large brick enclosure wall was built from stone quarried from earlier structures at Piramesse. Joint inscriptions of Psusennes I and Pinudjem I within that temple indicate a reconciliation between the thrones of Tanis and Thebes. Psusennes I constructed a mastaba (tomb 3) at Tanis, in the southeastern corner of the enclosure, decorated with reliefs of himself offering to afterlife deities. He was interred there with rich furnishings, including usurped New Kingdom royal sarcophagi (one belonging to Merenptah of the nineteenth dynasty), a silver coffin, a gold death mask, and copious jewelry. General Wendjebaendjedet and Hornakht were also buried within the mausoleum of Psusennes I. Another king of the twenty-first dynasty, Amenemope (r. 1000–990 BCE), was buried in the adjacent structure (tomb 4), with another usurped sarcophagus, a gold death mask, some jewelry, and some objects of Siamun's, although this tomb was too small to have also contained his burial. Siamun (r. 984–965 BCE) built the temples of Mut and Khonsu in a southwestern enclosure, completing the ensemble of temples after the fashion of Karnak and making Tanis into a northern replica of Thebes. The kings of this dynasty whose burials have yet to be located are Smendes, Osochor (c.990–984 BCE), Siamun, and Psusennes II (c.965–931 BCE).

Sheshonq II (r. 931–910 BCE) of the twenty-second, or Libyan, dynasty, was buried intrusively in the antechamber of Psusennes I, with much finery, including a silver falcon-headed coffin, a gold death mask, jewelry, and silver canopic vessels. Osorkon I (r. 910–896 BCE) built a new four-chamber mausoleum (tomb 1) adjoining the southern wall of that of Psusennes I. It had scenes portraying funerary themes, but it was robbed in antiquity. Takelot I (r. 896–873 BCE) and Osorkon II (r. 873–844 BCE) were buried in Osorkon I's mausoleum. Osorkon II usurped many of the earlier monuments of the Amun temple and built the East Temple, using granite palmiform columns of Old Kingdom date, that were reinscribed by Ramesses II and himself.


Tanis. The ruins of the temple of Amun. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

Sheshonq III (r. 819–767 BCE) built the West Gate of the temple precinct, constructed out of reused obelisks and temple blocks (some from the Old and Middle Kingdoms). It was fronted by colossal statuary usurped from Ramesses II. He was buried to the north of Amenope in a separate structure (tomb 5), inscribed with royal mortuary books, but his tomb was robbed in antiquity. Two other destroyed tombs with unknown occupants were discovered—to the south of this structure (tomb 2) and to the west (tomb 6). Kings of the twenty-second dynasty whose burials have yet to be located are Takelot I (r. 896–873 BCE), Sheshonq IV (r. 763–725 BCE), and Sheshonq V, the blocks of whose kiosk were reused in a wall around the Sacred Lake.

The Late period Nubian king Piya (ruled c.731–712 BCE) of the twenty-fifth dynasty conquered Tanis and King Taharqa (r. 690–664 BCE) made it his royal residence for a brief time. Some archaizing reliefs of the dynasty have been found reused in the Sacred Lake's wall. Tanis then passed back and forth between the Nubians, the Assyrians, and the Saites until the twenty-sixth dynasty when Psamtik I (r. 664–610 BCE) built a kiosk at Tanis. It was adorned with a procession of nome gods but was dismantled and reused in later structures. No significant work was then undertaken at Tanis during the ensuing First Persian Occupation. In the thirtieth dynasty, Nektanebo I (r. 380–363 BCE) probably erected the enormous outer enclosure wall of brick, as well as a temple to Khonsu that was annexed to the northern side of the Amun temple, near the North Gate; but it was not completed until the Ptolemaic period. The temple to Horus near the East Gate was also begun in the thirtieth dynasty and completed by the Ptolemies after the Second Persian Occupation. Ptolemy I (r. 305–282 BCE) built the East Gate of the precinct. Ptolemy II (r. 282–246 BCE) and Arsinoe dedicated a small brick chapel; some fine Ptolemaic statuary was also found in the vicinity. Ptolemy IV (c.222–205 BCE) built a temple in the southwestern Mut enclosure. Some Ptolemaic-era houses were built over the Amun temple, indicating that it was no longer in use.

By the Roman period (27 BCE–337 CE) the port of Tanis had silted up, and Tanis became a minor village. At that time, most of the temple limestone was burned for its lime. In Byzantine times (337–641 CE), Tanis served as a small bishopric, but it was eventually abandoned in Islamic times and was not resettled until the reign of Muhammad Ali, Pasha, under the Ottoman Empire.

Excavations at Tanis in the nineteenth century concerned the collection of statuary. In the late 1700s, Napoleon Bonaparte had the site of Tanis surveyed; in 1825, Jean-Jacques Rifaud sent two of its large pink granite sphinxes to Paris, to the Louvre Museum. Other statues soon went to Saint Petersburg and Berlin. Henry Salt excavated in Tanis during the British protectorate, and Bernardino Drovetti found eleven statues, which were sent to the Louvre, to Berlin, and to Alexandria (now lost). Auguste Mariette undertook the first large-scale excavations at Tanis from 1860 to 1864, discovering the Four Hundred Year Stela (with a Ramessid inscription in honor of Seth in Near Eastern garb) and several royal statues (many of Middle Kingdom date). Mariette identified Tanis with the Hyksos capital of Avaris on the basis of his unusual finds; moreover, the ubiquitous inscriptions of Ramesses II, naming the city of Piramesse, led Mariette to surmise that his site was also the Ramessid royal residence (most of his finds are now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo).

M. W. Flinders Petrie dug at Tanis in 1884, and made a detailed plan of the temple precinct; he also copied inscriptions and excavated exploratory trenches. He found some Roman-era papyri that are now in the British Museum in London. Pierre Montet began working at Tanis in 1929. Just as World War II began, he discovered the royal tombs, which resulted in a severe lack of publicity (all those treasures reside today in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo). Pierre Montet's team conclusively proved that Tanis could not have been Avaris or Piramesse, but that inscribed materials from those cities had been moved to the site during the Third Intermediate Period. The French excavated at Tanis after the war, under Jean Yoyotte and Philippe Brissaud.

The site of Tanis is now characterized by large mounds of occupational debris, in the center of which lies the ruined temple precinct filled with scattered granite and sandstone blocks. The temple precinct, once enclosed within enormous brick walls, is entered through the remains of the pylon of Sheshonq III. The interior is strewn with fallen statuary, reused columns ranging in date from the Old through New Kingdoms, some fifteen or so reused obelisks of Ramesses II, and the reused temple blocks of all periods. At the center of the Amun temple are two deep wells that once served as Nilometers. The royal mausoleums are in the southwestern corner. In the northeastern corner is the Sacred Lake. At the southeastern corner, outside the main temple precinct, is a smaller precinct that houses the temples of Mut, Khonsu, and Astarte.


  • Aldred, Cyril. Jewels of the Pharaohs: Egyptian Jewellery of the Dynastic Period. London, 1971. Detailed color photographs of certain objects found in the royal tombs of Tanis.
  • Baines, John, and Jaromir Málek. Atlas of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, 1980. A concise article on Tanis with a plan of the site's temple precinct and two illustrations of its statuary.
  • Brissaud, Philippe. Cahiers de Tanis, vol. I. Paris, 1987. First in an intended series on the on-going excavations at Tanis.
  • Goyon, Jean-Claude. La decouverte des tresors de Tanis. Paris, 1987. A brief French account of the discovery of the royal tombs at Tanis.
  • Kitchen, Kenneth. The Third Intermediate Period in Egypt (1100–650 B.C.). 2d ed. with suppl. Warminster, 1986. A detailed history of the Third Intermediate Period.
  • Montet, Pierre. Les nouvelles fouilles de Tanis (1929–1932). Paris, 1933. A heavily illustrated French summary of the excavations at Tanis from 1904 to 1932.
  • Montet, Pierre. Tanis: Douze annees de fouilles dans une capitale oubliee du delta egyptien. Paris, 1942. A popular-style French book on the site and the discoveries of Montet's expedition, including line drawings and black-and-white photographs.

Geoffrey Graham