Tanis (San El-Hagar) in Egypt

Tanis (San El-Hagar)
by Jimmy Dunn

A royal statue from Tannis

Whether Tanis is considered to be the most important archaeological site in Egypt's northern Delta or not, it is almost certainly one of the largest and most impressive. Nevertheless, it is characterized by an eclectic reuse of materials that were usurped from other locations and earlier reigns. Tanis was actually its Greek name. We are told that its ancient Egyptian name was Djanet. Tanis was built upon the Nile distributary known as Bahr Saft, which is now only a small silted up stream that dispatches into Lake Manzalla.

The Processional way leading up to the Temple of Amun at Tanis

Napoleon Bonaparte had the site surveyed in the late 1700s, but afterwards, in the early 1800s, most of the work at Tanis was concerned with the collection of statuary. Jean-Jacques Rifaud took two large pink granite sphinxes to Paris, where they became a part of the Louvre collection. Other statues were taken to Saint Petersburg and Berlin. Henry Salt and Bernardino Drovetti found eleven statues, some of which were also sent to the Louvre, but also to Berlin and Alexandria, though those sent to Alexandria are now lost.

A plan of the main Temple of Amun and that of Mut, Khonsu and Astarte

Auguste Mariette was the first to really excavate the site between1860 and 1864. It was he who discovered the famous Four Hundred Year Stela, as well as several royal statues, many of which were dated to the Middle Kingdom. However, he mistakenly identified it as the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a). He also thought that it might have been Ramesses II's residence city of Piramesse (Pi-Ramesses).

Mariette was followed by Flinders Petrie, who excavated here between 1883-86. Petrie made a detailed plan of the temple precinct, copied inscriptions and excavated exploratory trenches. Roman era papyrus discovered by Petrie are now in the British Museum.

An overview of some of the ruins at Tanis

Pierre Montet, excavated at Tanis between 1921 and 1951, and the site is still being excavated by the French today. It was Montet who conclusively proved that Tanis could not have been Avaris (Tell el-Dab'a) or Piramesse. Montet also discovered royal tombs of the 21st and 22nd Dynasties at Tanis in 1939, but his discovery resulted in little recognition because of the outbreak of World War II. The tombs were all subterranean and built from mud-brick and reused stone blocks, many of which were inscribed. Four of the tombs belonged to Psusennes I (1039-991 BC), Amenemope (993-984 BC), Osorkon II (874-850 BC) and Sheshonq III (825-733 BC). The occupants of the other two tombs are unknown. However, the hawk-headed silver coffin of Sheshonq II was also found in Psusennes' tomb, as well as the coffin and sarcophagus of Amenemope. The sarcophagus of Takelot II (850-825 BC) was found in the tomb of Osorkon II. The artifacts from the Tanis necropolis are the most important source of knowledge covering royal funerary goods of the Third Intermediate Period.

Poor old, tired Ramesses the Great rests in the sand at Tanis

During the Old and Middle Kingdoms, the region was known as the Field of Dja'u, which was a good fishing and fowling preserve. Today, the area is often called San al-Hagar, which actually refers to the northern tell (or hill) where much of the site is located. San al-Hagar is actually the largest tell in Egypt, encompassing some 177 hectares of land, and rising about 32 meters. However, there is also a southern mound known as Tulul el-Bid. San al-Hagar is also the name of the local village, which was built upon the western quay of ancient Tanis.

Another huge statue of Ramesses II

Originally, the region was a part of the thirteenth nome (province), but Tanis became the capital of the nineteenth Lower Egyptian nome in the late period (747-332 BC). The earliest mention of the town is known from a 19th Dynasty building block of Ramesses II discovered at Memphis. However, nothing at the site itself suggest an existence prior to the 20th Dynasty. 20th Dynasty burials lie under an enclosure wall, which indicate a settlement, but the greater metropolis was probably not founded until the reign of Ramesses XI, the last king of the 20th Dynasty, when Egypt was divided between two rulers. It became the northern capital of Egypt during the 21st Dynasty. It was probably the home city of Smedes, the founder of that Dynasty and, since one of his canopic jars was found in the vicinity, probably the location of his tomb. Though there were rival cities, we believe it remained Egypt political capital during the 22nd Dynasty.

By the Roman Period, the port of Tanis had silted up, and Tanis became a fairly minor village. Most of the temple limestone was burned for its lime at that time. During Byzantine times, Tanis became a small bishopric, but it was eventually abandoned during Islamic times, and was not resettled until the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha.

Presumably (Khonsu is clear), the Tanis Triad rest next to a pharaoh wearing only the White Crown, associated with Upper or Southern Egypt

There were a number of temples, seven according to the Egyptian government, located in the area of Tanis. The chief deities worshiped here were Amun, his consort, Mut and their child Khonsu, who formed the Tanite Triad. Note that this triad is, however, identical to that of Thebes, leading many scholars to refer to Tanis as the "northern Thebes".

The earliest recorded building at Tanis dates to the reign of Psusennes I, Smedes's probable successor during the 21st Dynasty. He was responsible for the huge mud-brick enclosure wall surrounding the temple of Amun between four ranges of hills on Tell San el-Hagar. which he erected in a depression of virgin sand some eight meters above the flood plain using earlier blocks quarried from structures at Piramesse, The wall measures 430 by 370 meters 10 meters tall, and was 15 meters thick. Within the outer wall is a mud-brick interior wall. Joint inscriptions of Psusennes I and Pinudjem I within the temple indicate a reconciliation between the thrones of Tanis and Thebes.

However, rulers from the 21st and early 22nd Dynasties added to the temple complex, and Nectanebo I (380-362 BC) used stone from earlier building projects of Sheshonq and Psamtek to construct the sacred lake.

An obelisk at Tanis clearly connected with Ramesses II, from the cartouch

An obelisk at Tanis clearly connected with Ramesses II, from the cartouch

Tanis is shrewn with blocks, obelisks and columns that are difficult to project into any sort of structure

Today the site is full of inscribed and decorated blocks, columns, obelisks and statues of various dates, some inscribed with the names of rulers such as Khufu, Khephren, Teti, Pepi I and II and Senusret I.However, the majority of inscribed monuments are connected with Ramesses II, though these items must have been brought in for there is no evidence that the site dates from before the reign of Psusennes I. He is positively attested by foundation deposits in the sanctuary in the easternmost part of the great temple. Other later kings are also attested to through foundation deposits. Egyptologists believe that the artifacts of Ramesses II were probably imported from ancient Piramesse, which we today identify with the modern town of Qantir.

The tip of an obelisk sits upright at Tanis

Near the southwestern corner of the main temple complex are smaller temples dedicated to Mut and Khonsu.Astarte, an Asiatic goddess, was also worshiped in these smaller temple, which were originally built under the reign of Siamun (984-965 BC). This construct therefore completed the ensemble of structures fashioned after Karnak, and thus making Tanis into a northern replica of Thebes.

There were other structures within the enclosure wall, in particular a sed-festival chapel and a temple of Psamtik I, but these were some of the stones used by Nectanebo I in his building efforts.Osorkon II usurped many of the earlier monuments of the Amun Temple to built an East Temple, using granite palmiform columns dating to the Old Kingdom that were re-inscribed first by Ramesses II prior to their reuse, and then once again by himself. Sheshonq III built the West Gate of the temple precinct from reused obelisks and temple blocks, some from the Old and Middle Kingdom. It was fronted by a colossal statue usurped from Ramesses II.

A procession of nome gods at Tanis

During the Late Period, the Nubian king Piye of the 25th Dynasty conquered Tanis and King Taharqa, a successor made it his residence for a short time. Some reliefs from that dynasty have been found reused in the Sacred Lake's walls. Afterwards, Tanis passed back and forth between Nubian, Assyrian and Saite rulers until the 26th Dynasty, when Psamtik built a kiosk at Tanis. It featured a procession of nome gods, but this structure was later dismantled and reused in other structures. During the First Persian Occupation of Egypt, no further building seems to have taken place at Tanis.

Necktanebo I, during the 30th Dynasty, probably was responsible for an enormous outer wall built of brick, as well as a temple to Khonsu that was annexed to the northern side of the old Amun temple, near the Northern Gate. However, it was not completed until the Ptolemaic period. There was also a temple of Horus, near the East Gate, that was begun during the 30th Dynasty, but it too was completed by the Ptolemies. Ptolemy I built the East Gate of the precinct, and Ptolemy II and Arsinoe dedicated a small brick chapel, while Ptolemy IV built a temple in the southwestern Mut enclosure. However, by this time, the Amun temple was almost certainly abandoned, as there were Ptolemaic era housed built over the structure.

The Pylon of Sheshonq III

Today, the site of Tanis mostly consists of large mounts of occupational debris. The temple precinct lies in the middle of these mounds. The huge enclosure walls are now mostly gone, and one may enter the site from several directions, though the classical route is through the ruined pylon of Sheshonq III. Within, the site is littered with fallen statuary,

The Nilometer Well at Tanis

reused columns ranging in date from the Old through the New Kingdoms, around fifteen reused obelisks of Ramesses II, and reused temple blocks from all periods. At the center of the Amun temple are two deep wells that once served as Nilometers. The northern corner is the site of the ancient Sacred Lake, while at the southeastern corner, outside the main temple precinct, is the smaller precinct where the temples of Mut, Khonsu and Astarte were located.

Tanis is probably not one of those sites one would wish to visit on a one time, short tour of Egypt. However, for those on a second trip, or with a little additional time, it is a very nice tour through Egypt's Delta, including perhaps a stopover at Tell Busta, further south. Such a tour would usually only take one day.

See also:


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Ancient Egypt The Great Discoveries (A Year-by-Year Chronicle) Reeves, Nicholas 2000 Thmes & Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05105-4
Atlas of Ancient Egypt Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir 1980 Les Livres De France None Stated
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The Wilkinson, Richard H. 2000 Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3
Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian; Nicholson, Paul 1995 Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers ISBN 0-8109-3225-3
Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses, A Hart, George 1986 Routledge ISBN 0-415-05909-7
Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture, The Arnold, Dieter 2003 Princeton University Press ISBN 0-691-11488-9
Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The Redford, Donald B. (Editor) 2001 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 581 4
Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, The Shaw, Ian 2000 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-815034-2

Last Updated: Aug 4th, 2011