According to the Bible (Genesis 47:27), the ancient Israelites lived in a land called Goshen and (Exodus 1:11) toiled as slaves there, building “treasure cities” called Pithom and Raamses, before Moses led them out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Victorian archeologists strove to uncover these biblical locations, some shrewdly plugging the biblical connection to raise money for digs. Pithom may have been Tell al-Maskhuta, an enormous kom off the road between Zagazig and Ismailiya, while Raamses has usually been identified as Pi-Ramses, the royal city of the XIX Dynasty pharaoh Ramses II – which is why his successor, Merneptah, regularly gets fingered as the pharaoh of the Exodus.
In the 1930s, French archeologist Pierre Montet discovered the kom at Tanis and suggested that this was Pi-Ramses, but work by Austrian archeologist Manfred Bietak in the 1960s showed that in fact Pi-Ramses centred on the modern-day village of Qantir, and extended to the nearby site of Avaris.
Avaris had previously been the capital of the Hyksos (XV Dynasty), whose name derives from hekau-khasut (“princes of foreign lands”). The Hyksos rulers had Semitic names, but in 1991, Minoan-style frescoes were unearthed at a Hyksos-era palace on the western edge of the site, evincing strong links with the Minoan civilization of Crete, though most still believe that the Hyksos originated in Palestine or Syria. Avaris existed long before the Hyksos invasion, however, and before finding the frescoes, Bietak’s team excavated what had been a hilly residential quarter, uncovering grave goods which suggested that the bulk of the population originated from Palestine and Syria. This lay above a stratum of evidence for an older, more sophisticated community of non-Egyptians, where 65 percent of the burials were of children below the age of two. David Rohl argues that this represents the Israelites during their sojourn in Egypt and the culling of their male newborn by the “pharaoh who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), and that the Exodus occurred during the XIII Dynasty rather than the New Kingdom, as biblical scholars believe.
The main archeological site at Avaris is Tell al-Daba, 7km north of Faqus, but it is not open to tourists, though there are plans afoot for an archeological museum near the site. For information on Tell al-Daba, see w egyptsites.wordpress.com/category/delta; the official website of the Austrian excavation team at w auaris.at includes a map of the area
The Delta’s largest archeological site is a huge kom near the village of San al-Hagar, 167km northeast of Zagazig and best known by its Greek name, TANIS, though it was called Zoan in the Bible (Numbers 13:22; Isaiah 19:11 and 13, and 30:4; Ezekiel 30:14), and known to the Ancient Egyptians as Djanet. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is here that Indiana Jones uncovers the Ark of the Covenant.
The site looks as if the huge Ramessid Temple of Amun was shattered by a giant’s hammer, scattering chunks of masonry and fragments of statues everywhere. The ruins aren’t all that impressive in themselves and few tourists come here, so you’ll have the site pretty much to yourself.
Originally identified by archeologists with Avaris, the capital of the Hyksos, or the much later city of Pi-Ramses, Tanis is now thought to have come into existence long afterwards, during the Third Intermediate Period (1070–664 BC). Confusingly for scholars, the founders of Tanis plundered masonry from cities all over the Delta (some predating the Hyksos, who had earlier usurped it). In 1939, Pierre Montet discovered the tombs of Psusennes II and Osorkon II, containing the “Treasure of Tanis”, which is now in the Cairo Museum. Perplexingly, it was soon noted that the tomb of the XXI Dynasty ruler Psusennes seems to have been built after that of Osorkon, who is supposed to have lived well over a century later, during the XXII Dynasty. In his book A Test of Time, British Egyptologist David Rohl argues that the two dynasties were actually contemporary, and that by assuming that they were sequential, archeologists have overestimated the duration of the Third Intermediate Period by at least 140 years – thus distorting the whole chronology of Ancient Egypt. Rohl uses his “new chronology” to try to match archeological evidence with events described in the Bible, but it should be said that most Egyptologists do not take his arguments seriously.