Why such a trip? What was the appeal of Qantir? Or Tanis? Would it be worth the effort? According to Genesis 47:6, Pharaoh of Egypt granted permission for the brethren of Joseph to dwell "in the land of Goshen." I had long wished to travel through the fertile fields of the delta where the Hebrews had lived during their sojourn. And my interest intensified as I heard reports of recent archeological excavations, particularly at Qantir.
I had often been puzzled that the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasty remains of Lower Egypt were scanty as compared to the colossal structures of ancient Thebes to the south. According to the Bible, the events of the sojourn and Exodus occurred in the north, far from these monuments of ancient grandeur. Where was the political center of the nation during the period of Israel's travails? Where did the Pharaohs have their residence? Where were the Hebrews employed? Now the answers were coming to light, and I was eager to see where the excavators have been at work uncovering the evidence.
The archeological and literary sources point to three major cities of Lower Egypt linked together as political and religious centers—Memphis, Heliopolis (the On of the Bible), and Rameses. Memphis was known as Noph to the Hebrews (Isa. 19:13), and the prophets pronounced judgments against it (Jer. 46:19; Eze. 30:13, 16; Hosea 9:6). Heliopolis is the first city in Egypt that is mentioned in connection with the Israelites. According to Genesis 41:45, Joseph was given "to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-pherah priest of On."
As to Rameses, Genesis 47:11 states, "And Joseph placed his father and his brethren, and gave them a possession in the land of Egypt, in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses, as Pharaoh had commanded." The two terms, "land of Goshen" and "land of Rameses," apparently refer to the same district. Within the district there was also the city of Rameses, for the Israelites built for Pharaoh as treasure cities "Pithom and Raamses" (Ex. 1:11). According to Exodus 12:37, Israel's departure from Egypt was from Rameses. The name Rameses must be a later designation because the city would not have been known by that name in the days of Joseph. Very likely the name had not yet been changed at Israel's departure from Egypt—if, as seems probable, they left in the mid-fifteenth century.
Egyptian sources associate the city of Rameses with Avaris, capital of Egypt during the reign of the Hyksos kings, the period when Joseph entered as a slave. Thus the city looms important for a period of many centuries.
Our unforgettable trip that December day of 1982 was in search of this city. Tanis, about eighty miles northeast of Cairo, has for many years been identified as the likely site, the result of early excavations by Marietta and Petrie, and the later work of Montet. The area does indeed give evidence that a thriving city of antiquity existed there at one time, boasting the most extensive remains of any city to be found in Lower Egypt.
But this site was never firmly established or accepted by all scholars as the Avaris-Rameses of the Bible. The complete lack of archeological evidence of any occupation 'of the area before the twenty-first dynasty made this identification problematical. The massive remains include twenty-three fallen obelisks or fragments thereof and numerous columns and statues—including part of one of Ramses II that once stood ninety-two feet high. But impressive as these large artifacts identified with Ramses II are, we have no pottery fragments, scarabs, or inscriptions that would date the construction in this area to the period of Ramses II or earlier. Apparently the city did not come into existence until the twenty-first dynasty, about 1100 B.C., and the materials for building and ornamentation must have been brought in from another city fallen into decay, most likely the true city of Rameses.
Here Qantir, located about fifteen miles south of Tanis, enters the picture. Excavations at Qantir have brought forth telling evidence identifying it as the authentic site of the city of Rameses. The massive artifacts now in Tanis must have originally been erected here. M. Hamza, who began to dig at Qantir in the early 1930s, first advanced claims to this effect. He uncovered a mass of industrial tools and objects and a large glazing factory with ten thousand terra cotta molds having some eight hundred varieties of designs. These had been used on a great palace built by Seti I and enlarged by his son Ramses II. (Later kings of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties continued to make use of them.) Literary evidence revealed that the site was a chief center for the worship of Amon-Ra and that it was closely linked with the sun city of Heliopolis.
The work at Qantir was taken up by W. C. Hayes, and in more recent years by Labib Habachi. Both men have added considerably to the evidence, so that today most scholars accept the identification of the site at Qantir with the original Rameses.
Our first stop in the Qantir area was at Tell el-Dab, a little to the south, where the most extensive excavations are presently being carried on by Austrian archeologists under the direction of M. Bietak. They dug from 1966 to 1969 and resumed their work in recent years. To our disappointment, they had completed their work for the 1982 season just two days before our arrival and had already left the site.
Parking our car in front of the lone white building, which served as their living quarters and workroom—we saw the telltale fragments in the backyard— we walked across the field to the two sites, a few hundred yards apart, where the recent work had been done. The exposed ancient walls and chambers were clearly visible, spread over a considerable area.
Here Bietak has produced convincing evidence of Hyksos occupation, as well as of the destruction that came to them with the Egyptian Pharaoh's conquest of Lower Egypt in the early eighteenth dynasty. The excavators have found no remains from the late eighteenth dynasty, but enough from the nineteenth dynasty to evidence a thriving occupancy. The lack of eighteenth dynasty remains would seem to preclude the occupation of the area during the mid-fifteenth century and thus militate against an Exodus date of that period. However, the work is still in its early stages, considering the many tells in the greater Qantir area still untouched. Bietak estimates the area of Tell el-Dab at 1.2 square miles, within which he has mapped almost a dozen sites of antiquities.
Leaving Tell el-Dab, we drove north to Qantir, now a thriving village. We took note of the home occupied by the archeologists while working in the area. Leaving the car near the branch of the Nile that flows through the town, we hiked again through fertile fields. Ancient building blocks could be seen in different places, though the area was then under cultivation. Here vast pal aces and temples had once dotted the landscape.
In 1954 Habachi discovered twenty-four palace doorways in the region. The ancient city was laid out in four divisions, each dedicated to one of the national gods of Egypt, while the great palace stood in the city's center. A sizable town had flourished during the Hyksos period, but, like its suburb of Tell el-Dab, it reached its zenith during the nineteenth dynasty, when it was greatly enlarged and enriched. From the tiles and statues, Hayes judged the work of Ramses at this palace city to be on a scale superior to any other ever achieved in ancient Egypt. Lacking stone in the delta, the builders made the walls of mud brick and decorated them with glazed tile of incomparable magnificence.
Following the nineteenth dynasty, Qantir sank into obscurity. Then during the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties, with the nation in decline, the wealth drying up, and conditions unfavorable for building operations, its stone monuments and statues became the quarry for the new capital at Tanis. Egyptian kings before this had often used older materials in their building ventures, but here an entire city was quarried and, in bits and pieces—some large, some smaller—transported fifteen miles to Tanis to be used again in buildings or set up as statuary.
Driving from Qantir to Tanis seemed more like a trip of fifty miles than fifteen to us, given the extremely rutted and narrow roads, at times little more than donkey trails. We made a forced stop at the Biblical city of Zoan, where the muffler was welded back into position on the car.
The site of Tanis was most impressive, with its fallen obelisks and other remains. Montet estimated the ruins to cover a thousand acres. Recent diggings at this site continued until 1980 and were to resume in March, 1983.
A number of circumstances militate against Tanis being the Avaris-Rameses of antiquity. First, there is the lack of evidence of any building in place before 1100 B.C. Then, the dry and barren area is in striking contrast with the fertility to the south. Also, Tanis, as opposed to Qantir, would have been off the main route of travel, and thus an unlikely location. Furthermore, literary references on the monuments identify with the gods of Qantir, not Tanis. Finally, had the journey of the Israelites begun at Tanis, they would have had a wide branch of the Nile to ford before reaching the Red Sea, an event that would probably have been noted in the Biblical account.
The excavations and especially the inscriptions portray a fascinating relationship of the three cities, Memphis, Heliopolis, and Rameses. Memphis served as the capital of the Old Kingdom for eight centuries. Then followed the Hyksos period. After their expulsion the capital was moved to Thebes. But Thebes was never an ideal location, being too remote from the northern approach to the country, so Memphis soon regained the position as northern capital. Inscriptions often link Thebes and Memphis.
On, or Heliopolis, site of immense temples and shrines, was the religious center of the nation from the most ancient times. The earliest obelisk of which we have any knowledge was erected there about 2340 B.C. Today the site is marked by a lone obelisk of Sesostris I. Inscriptions of 1968 B.C. speak of his plans for its construction. It, along with its mate, which fell in A.D. 1158, fronted a huge temple dedicated to the sun. Thebes was sometimes known as "the Heliopolis of the south," thus indicating the higher claims of the latter. It was sacred to the sun god Ra and nine other gods. Thutmose III went by the title "ruler of Thebes," but he also assumed the title "ruler of Heliopolis," and thereafter all the kings used the two terms, often in conjunction.
The kings of the eighteenth dynasty and later customarily went to On at the beginning of their reign for their coronation ceremony, and often thereafter for their jubilee celebrations. They usually erected pairs of obelisks to commemorate these events. The one on .the east they dedicated to the rising sun, and the one on the west to the setting sun. To commemorate his fourth jubilee (c. 1468 B.C.), Thutmose III erected in Heliopolis the obelisks now in New York's Central Park and in London (the eastern and western obelisks, respectively). His successor, Amenhotep II, erected a huge temple on the Heliopolis site, fronted by a pair of obelisks. Seti I built extensively at Heliopolis, his work including a temple with its obelisks. One of these, now in the Piazza del Popolo in Rome, bears the inscription "Seti who filled Heliopolis with obelisks shining with rays." His work there included a model of the sun temple, the original base of which, along with a replica of the model, may be seen today in the Brooklyn Museum. Extant reliefs show the coronation of both Seti I and Ramses II at Heliopolis. During the New Kingdom period (1570-1085 B.C.) the temple area of Heliopolis must have been as great as, if not greater than, that of Karnak. The size of the densely populated metropolitan district is believed to have been one hundred to two hundred square miles, if not larger—comparable to ancient Babylon or Nineveh.
While Memphis served as the administrative capital, and Heliopolis as the great religious center, Rameses was usually the official residence of the king and sort of a secondary capital. The residence of the Israelites would have been in the fertile area from Qantir in the north toward Heliopolis in the south, the very area of our journey that December day. The parents of Moses would have been among those living not far from the king's palace. With a major branch of the Nile flowing by the city, Pharaoh's daughter would have found baby Moses in nearby waters. Miriam would not have had far to go to summon her mother to be the child's nurse.
As we traveled back toward Heliopolis we paused at a village to pick up a mud brick as a souvenir. The Israelites had built the city of Rameses and had no doubt been employed in other vast building projects, such as those at Heliopolis and Memphis. Some had probably been transported south to assist in the great enterprises at Thebes— Thutmose I is the first of the kings to record the use of Asiatic slaves there— but Lower Egypt, which included "the land of Goshen," "the best of the land," was the primary center of both the political and the religious life of the nation, as it is today.