Egypt: Pelusium (Tell el-Farama) in the Sinai

Pelusium (Tell el-Farama) in the Sinai

by Jimmy Dunn

Columns in the sand at Pelusium

For the visitor to Tell el-Farama, located in the extreme northwestern Sinai not really very far to the east of Port Said, it might be difficult to image this once being a part of the Nile Delta, but it was in ancient times, with two branches of of the Nile (Ostium Pelusiacum) surrounding what was then Pelusium, the eastern gateway to Egypt. Actually, it occupied the eastern extreme of the Nile Delta, and technically remains in the delta today. The site has been known by many names. It has been called Sena and Per-Amun by the Egyptians, Pelouison by the Greeks, its Aramaic name was Seyan, and it has biblical significance as Sin. The Greek form of the name is derived from the term pelos, which refers to mud or silt, reflecting its location between the two branches of the Nile.

A part of the large theater at Pelusium

Egyptologist Jean Cledat excavated at Pelusium in 1910, producing a sketch map of the site. Beginning in 192, Mohammed Abd El-Maksoud, who was then the chief inspector for the Northern Sinai, excavated at Pelusium. However, due to the proposal for the Peace Canal, a project that would bring fresh water from the Nile to the city of El Arish, making the region fertile, archaeologists launched the "North Sinai Salvage Project" in 1991, much more work has been carried out at Pelusium, as well as Tell el-Makhzan and Kanais, which were probably parts of "greater Pelusium in ancient times. The North Sinai Salvage Project divided up these ruins between teams from Egypt, Canada, Switzerland and Britain.

Another part of the theater, presumably the seating area

It was, during ancient times, the eastern most major city of northern Egypt. There it was of immense strategic importance, both as a departure point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia and a an entry point for foreign invaders attempting to conquer Egypt. It was perhaps the most important fortress city along Egypt's ancient Horus Military road. However, during peaceful times, it was also an important trading post, and during the Graeco-Roman era, it became one of Egypt's busiest ports, second only to Alexandria. On the west side of Pelusim, commercial life is illustrated by traces of large scale purple dye production, from murex seashells. Nevertheless, its primary importance to Egypt was in its role as a border fortress.

The area presumably inside the theater at Pelusium

Hence, Pelusium has an interesting history, much of it involving violent confrontation, though in some instance the history is spotted with fanciful tails. The king of Assyria, Sennacherib (720-715 BC), during the 25th Dynasty, intent on invading Egypt, approached Pelusium, but withdrew without a fight, according to Herodotus and Strabo.

A distant view of the fortress at Pelusium

We are told that a host of field mice gnawed the bow-strings and shield straps of the Assyrians as they slept. Afterwards, the Assyrians fled, and many of them were slain in their flight. Herodotus records seeing in the temple of Hephaestos at Memphis, a statue of the Egyptian king holding a mouse in his hand, thus recording the victory over the Assyrians. Though the Egyptian king is referred to as Sethos, this would have been during the reign of Piye. Then, in 525 BC, a decisive battle was fought near Pelusium which ultimately resulted in the Persians, under the leadership of Cambyses II, taking control of Egypt from Psammetichus III.

All around the fortress at Pelusium are protrusions that might have once been towers

Pelusium itself, according to legend, fell without a fight when the Persians drove cats, sacred to the local goddess Bast, ahead of their advancing army. Herodotus visited the site of the battle and informs us that the ground was littered with the bones of the combatants. He claimed that the skulls of the Egyptians were easily distinguishable from those of the Persians by their superior hardness, a condition he claims caused by the fact that the Egyptians shaved their heads from infancy, while the Persians covered theirs with folds of cloth or linen.

Protrusions along the Pelusium fortress wall

According to Sisculus, in 373 BC, Pelusium was threatened by Pharnabaza, satrap (governor) of Phrygia, and Iphicrates, the commander of the Athenian armament, but were driven off by Nectanebo I, who had added water defenses to the site, and had also blocked up the navigable channels of the Nile. Nevertheless, the city was attacked and taken by the Persians in 169 BC. At the time, the city had a garrison of 5,000 Greek mercenaries under the command of Philophron, At first the defense was successful, but then Nectanebo II, the last native king of Egypt during ancient times, made the disastrous decision to engage in a pitched battle resulting in, according to Siculus, his troops being cut to pieces.

Today, work is on going at the fortress

In 333 BC, Pelusium opened its gates to Alexander the Great, who the Pelusiuns as a liberator of Egypt. After Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC, one of his generals, Ptolemy, seized Egypt, kidnapped the body of Alexander the Great and brought it to Egypt by way of Pelusiam. Afterwards, Pelusium would see considerably more and better documented action. In 173 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes devastated the troops of Ptolemy VI Philometor beneath the walls of Pelusium. For sometime afterwards, the city remained in Syrian hands, at least until the fall of the Syrian kingdom, if not somewhat before. Se know that in 55 BC it belonged to Egypt when, Mark Anthony, as a cavalry general to the Roman proconsul Gabinius, defeated the Egyptian army and too the city.

These tanks may have been used to produce salted fish and fish sauce, or garum

At Pelusium in 48 BC, Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, led an army of Syrian and Arab mercenaries against her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII. At the same time the civil war between Caesar and Pompey was consuming Rome. Losing at Pharsalos, Pompey fled to Pelusium to seek refuge with the pharaoh. But on September 28th of that year, Ptolemy had Pompey murdered and decapitated. After a great plague in 524 AD, the city was better known under its Coptic name of Peremoun. In its Arabic version the name is preserved today in the name of the archaeological site, Tell el-Farama, while the nearby village of Balouza retains the ancient name Pelusium. In 619 Pelusium was attacked and conquered by a Persian army under Khuzran, and in 640 it fell into the hands of Amr Ibn al-As, an Arab soldier who had fought with Muhammed in the conquest of Palestine and, in 642. He became the first Muslim governor of Egypt.

With the exception of columns and some other building elements, all of the structures at Pelusium are made of mudbrick

In the twelfth century the city was attacked by Crusaders, first by King Baldwin of Flanders who died at or near Pelusium in 1118 from food poisoning, and later by King Amalric of Jerusalem who led an invasion against Saladin in 1169. After that the city sank into obscurity. In reality, we know very little about Pelusium, despite its apparent importance and size during ancient times, and for that mater the many references to it in written accounts. We know from the likes of Herodotus and Strabo, as well as from Greek papyri that is was a bustling port city with quays, storage facilities, customs offices, industrial areas, textile workshops, pottery kilns, theaters, baths and race tracks, as well as religious and military installations.

Pelusium is considered a mud flat, where in ancient times there were nearby marshes

Today, this archaeological region, almost four miles in length, consists of a number of sites, mostly dating to the late Roman period. They include thermal baths with a water tower, a well preserved theater and, situated in the center, a large roman fortress. Archaeologists also believe that they have found the Hippodrome, the racetrack, as well as what appears to be a few fish tanks. Only recently a harbor wall, some 300 meters long, has also been discovered. There are also at least several necropolises. Nearby is the site of a huge church complex, including a basilica, crypt, baptistery and courtyard, dating to the fifth and sixth centuries. For the better part of the last millennium all these structures, except a temple to Zeus Kassios (a conflation of the Greek god Zeus and the oriental mountain, or weather-god, Kassios) and the walls of a fortress, were hidden by sand from the eyes of the site's rare visitors.

Much remains to be explored and understood at Pelusim

The fortress covers 20 acres, measuring about 200 by 400 meters. Its walls averaged about seven feet thick, and were set with 36 towers and three gates. However, the current fortress can only be dated to the late sixth century AD. Traces can still be seen of its destruction by fire, which may have been caused by the Persian invasion of 619.

More research is needed on Pelusiac religion, its curious onion taboo, and sacred architecture. The cult of Zeus Kassios, Pelusium's main deity, seems to have originated in Syria as a Graeco-Roman adaptation of the Semitic god Baal Zephon. St. Jerome and the second century BC. Greek philosopher and physician made disparaging remarks about Pelusiac priests of Kassios, who refused to eat onions and garlic, which were known to cause flatulence and thus were associated with demons.

The Byzantine Church ruins at Tell el-Makhzan

A fragment of a dedicatory inscription naming Emperor Hadrian, discovered by Jean Cledat, suggests that the temple of Zeus Kassios at Pelusium was erected in the second century AD It should be noted that Pelusium was not the only fortress located along the Horus Route in what is today the northern Sinai. Of the Ptolemaic defence line in the dune area laong the old coastline, south of Pelusium, the forts of Magdolos (Tell el-Herr) and Sile (Tell Abu Seifa) are also easily accessible. East of Pelusieum, the military settlement of Gerra (Mahammediya) guarded the entrance to Egypt from the third century BC onwards.

As a final note, Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman artifacts unearthed during excavations at Pelusium and other sites along the Horus Road route are on display at the Centre for Sinai Studies at Qantara West.