Egypt: Sais (Sa el-Hagar)

Sais (Sa el-Hagar)

by Jimmy Dunn writing as John Warren

Sais, known as Zau in ancient Egyptian and today as Sa el-Hagar, is located in Egypt's Delta. It was the county's capital during the 26th Dynasty late in Egypt's history and was at various other times an important center. The city is known from the very beginning of Egyptian history from wooden labels associated with King Aha. It was probably always the capital of the 4th Lower Egyptian nome, which, until the 12th Dynasty, also incorporated what was to become the 4th nome. However, the city really came into a prominent position towards the end of the 8th century BC when Tefnakhte and Bocchoris (24th Dynasty) rivaled the Nubian kings of the 25th Dynasty. It was also a major center for the worship of the Goddess Neith.


Statue of the 26th Dynasty Ruler probably found at Sais.

Regrettably, the history of Egypt is skewed, particularly to the average reader, to the desert areas where the Pyramids are located and to the southern regions around Luxor and Aswan. The reason for this is that in the Delta, monuments are most often in a much worse state of repair due to water damage. We may never know the splendors that might have been because the ancient building projects are often either completely gone, or only fragmentary bits and pieces remain.

This is the case with Sais. While it was an important center, not much remains and much of what we know comes from documentary evidenced found elsewhere as opposed to archaeological discoveries at Sais itself. In fact, It is Herodotus who mostly tells us of its temples, royal palaces and tombs. There have actually been few archaeological excavations around the city, and those that have been carried out have for the most part been small and unsuccessful. Even as late as the middle of the 19th century, there were some remaining mud brick walls, but by the end of that century, only a trace could be found of a huge rectangular enclosure. The rapid demise in this case was probably due to farmers who use the mud brick for fertilizer. Stone blocks were reused in the Middle Ages, and today, only isolated stone blocks remain.


A statue of Chief of Physicians, Psammetik-seneb, originally installed in Sais.

However, in 1997, the Egyptian Exploration Society did mount a fairly substantial survey to Sais, and they appear to continue some work in the area. They were able to trace the last vestiges of the enclosure wall. They have turned up some interesting data, including core samples that seem to contain pottery shards from the predynastic period. And while their evidence suggests that after the Saite kings, the city shrank back to its most glorious period, indications are that the Temple of Neith may have rivaled in size and splendor that of the Temple of Karnak. The society maintains that, contrary to appearances, there is probably considerable excavation work that needs to be carried out in the area.

What is more evident from Sais is a substantial number of artifacts, including statues, stelae and sarcophagi scattered about in various museums throughout the world. Most of these date from the 26th Dynasty, but none so far have turned up that are earlier than the 3rd Intermediate Period.

We know, for example, that that Amasis (Ahmose II) was an extremely active builder within the city, erecting a pylon for the Temple of Neith, setting up colossal statues and even creating a human-headed sphinx processional way. The enclosure of Neith where her main cult center was located seems to have been a focus of building projects and the Kings of the 26th Dynasty were interred in chapel tombs in the courtyard of her temple. However, there were also provisions for other Egyptian gods including Osiris, Horus, Sobek, Atum, Amun, Bastet, Isis, Nekhbet, Wadjet and Hathor.

There were specifically building projects surrounding the God, Osiris, including a burial place and a sacred lake where rituals of the Festival of the Resurrection of Osiris were celebrated. This site was impressive, with obelisks and other adornments that are now mostly ruined.

Today Sais is not really a tourist destination and most non-archaeological visits are met with disappointment. However, the city may one day help Egyptologists better understand the structure of communities and their inhabitants in the Delta.