Friday, February 4, 2011

Egypt: The Lost Capital of Ramses II, Pi-Ramses

" 'Lost City' of Tanis Found, but Often Forgotten"
Brian Handwerk, Mysteries of the Ancient World, National Geographic (undated)

"The treasures found in the 'lost city' of Tanis rival those of King Tut's. Yet for more than six decades the riches from its rulers' tombs have remained largely unknown.

"Many who know of Tanis at all remember the city as portrayed in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the famous film the city was buried by a catastrophic ancient sandstorm and rediscovered by Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant.

"In reality, the Ark was never hidden in Tanis, the sandstorm didn't happen, and the Nazis never battled Indiana Jones in the site's ruins. But the true tale of Tanis is also fit for the silver screen.

"A City Vanishes

"Tanis was known by many names. Ancient Egyptians called it Djanet, and the Old Testament refers to the site as Zoan. Today it's called Sân el-Hagar.

"The site, in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, was capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, during the reign of the Tanite kings in Egypt's Third Intermediate period.

"The city's advantageous location enabled it to become a wealthy commercial center long before the rise of Alexandria. But political fortunes shifted, and so did the river's waters—and in recent centuries the Tanis site had became a silted plain with some hill-like mounds thought to be of little interest.

"It was known that the ancient city was hidden somewhere in the area, but not where...."

The Lemming watched "Egypt's Lost City," an episode of the Inside Lost Worlds series. (2007) The documentary picks up roughly where Mr. Handwerk's article leaves off - where Tanis / Djanet / Sân el-Hagar was identified as Pi-Ramses the ancient capital of Egypt built by Ramses II.

Just one problem. Several, actually.

Pi-Ramses Found - Sort of

The ruins of Tanis had buildings and statues of Pi-Ramses - but Pi-Ramses had been built on the easternmost branch of the Nile. Ancient Tanis had been on a branch of the Nile, near the east edge of the Nile delta. But the Nile hadn't been there during the reign of Ramses II.

Then there was the pottery found in ancient Tanis - it was old, but not quite as old as Ramses II.

Pi-Ramses - Right Buildings, Wrong Location

So we've got an ancient city, with the buildings and statuary of Ramses II's capital, Pi-Ramses. On a parcel of land that hadn't been on the Nile when Ramses II lived. With pottery that had been made well after the reign of Ramses II.

What's with the Nile moving? Rivers do that - The Mississippi, in North America, has shifted its course since Americans used it as a reference point for state borders. And that's another topic.

Working out where the Nile had been during the three millennia of Ancient Egypt meant analyzing a detailed contour map to work out where major channels had been - and then digging along each of them to get pottery, to identify the times during which each channel had been active. That was a job for someone with a profound interest in ancient Egypt - and a high tolerance for repetitive tasks. In the Lemming's opinion.

Change Happens - People Adapt

Looks like Pi-Ramses was built near Tanis - at a place called Qantir. Which was on the Nile when Ramses II lived. A century or so later, that branch of the Nile slithered into another channel. Scans that look below ground show where streets and buildings had been. But not the buildings and statues of the city.

So, we've got the foundations of Pi-Ramses under Qantir: and the rest of the city at Tanis.

National Geographic published a map in 2003, by the way, showing sites along the Nile River:

Archeologists covered by the "Egypt's Lost City" documentary on Pi-Ramses figure that someone decided to - move the city. Most of it, anyway.

The Lemming will say this for the ancient Egyptians: They didn't seem reluctant to take on big jobs. Like disassembling a city, moving it overland, and putting it back together.

Why? The documentary doesn't go into that, but the Lemming speculates that it was a political decision. If America's capital, Washington D.C., became uninhabitable: it might make sense to relocate the capital, taking along parts of the old one as a symbol of continuity.

A Lot Can Happen in 3,000 Years

Ramses II lived a bit upwards of 3,000 years ago. (3500 BC-2011 Timeline, Google) Quite a bit has happened since then. Persians took over Egypt about 23 centuries back, followed by Greeks. Egypt still had pharaohs, but they weren't - quite - like the old sort.

Then the Roman Empire got interested, and what was left of ancient Egypt was gone. Folks still lived there - but it was the place that had been the land of the pharaohs, not ancient Egypt.

The Roman Empire went out of business about 15 centuries ago, leading to a sharp drop in property values in places like Londinium. That crisis passed, and descendants of the folks living along the outskirts of Rome's domain are sending robot spaceships to explore the universe, making dog food commercials, and - here in central Minnesota - shoveling out from the last snowfall.

Life goes on.

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