Site Saturday: Avaris

The city of Avaris made quite a unique mark on Egyptian civilization. Its prime location in the Nile Delta allowed for both foreigners and Egyptians to co-exist peacefully and foreign groups to establish a capital city. Come and learn about the ancient capital of Avaris!

Tell el-Dab’a Before Avaris

Avaris is in the modern Tell el-Dab’a in the northeastern region of the Nile Delta. This location allowed access to both the Mediterranean Sea and the “Horus Road,” which was a main thoroughfare to the Siani Peninsula and thus to the rest of the Near East. The area was occupied from the end of the Middle Kingdom to the New Kingdom.

The earliest settlement dates to the 1st intermediate period. This settlement was most likely built as a defense system, which would help ensure the eastern border of the Egyptian state. It was then expanded in the 12th dynasty, during the reign of Amenemhet I, around 1930 B.C.E. It was a small planned town that did not expand until around 1830 B.C.E. This site had a temple situated on the banks of the branch of the Nile, while the rest of the settlement was to the north. To the south, there was a planned settlement for workmen.

Reconstruction of some of the structures of Avaris by the Austrian Archaeological Institute.

Around the beginning of the 13th dynasty, a community of Asiatics or Canaanites immigrated to the settlement. They seemed to serve under the Egyptian crown, probably being employed as soldiers, sailors, shipbuilders, or craftsmen. A palatial quarter for officials was constructed during this time. These officials were to supervise trade and expeditions abroad. A cemetery with domed chapels for the officials was found attached to these buildings.

Canaanite Temple

Around 1780 B.C.E. a temple to Seth was built. The Canaanites, who had continued to settle in the city, considered Seth to be their god Hadad or Baa-Zaphon. This was just one indication that there was some intermingling of Egyptian and Canaanite culture within the city. Residences, tombs, and other temples seemed to combine Egyptian and Canaanite architectural styles. In 1700 B.C.E. another temple was built, this time for the Egyptian goddess Hathor and the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Oak tree pits were even found in front of this temple.

History of Avaris

Avaris was the capital of Egypt under the Hyksos people. It was called Hut-waret (Hw.t war.t), which means “Great House.” This denotes that the city was a center of administration. As mentioned previously, Tell el-Dab’a was occupied as Avaris from circa 1783 to 1550 B.C.E. This was during the 13th dynasty and the Second Intermediate Period. This was generally a period of unrest, where multiple dynasties occupied Egypt at the same time.

Click on this Image to learn more about Tel el-Dab’a! On this website, you can click on different parts of the city to learn more.

The Hyksos people arrived sometime around 1650 B.C.E. and the city expanded exponentially. It grew to over 250 hectares (1 hectare = 10,000 square meters, or roughly 1 international rugby field). With those numbers, Avaris could have been the biggest city in the world from 1670 to 1557 B.C.E.! Because of this immigration influx, the city faced overcrowding. During this time, smaller houses were built in cemeteries and burials had to be relocated. Children were buried in the doorways of larger houses and other tombs were incorporated into the structure of the houses.

While the Hyksos ruled from Avaris, a rich elite group began to emerge. Large houses with stairs to upper floors were found in the eastern section of the city, while smaller houses clustered around the large ones. This could indicate that servants or other members of lower social classes built their houses around their masters’ houses. There is also evidence that there may have been an epidemic around 1715 B.C.E. which was both documented in the archaeological record and surviving papyrus records. Large common graves were found with little evidence of ritual ceremonies, indicating that a large number of people may have died in quick succession.

During this period, burials of servants and donkeys were unique to this area. Three servant burials were found during this period. The servants’ bodies seem to have been buried at the same time as their masters’ burial, indicated that the servants could have been sacrificed to serve their masters’ in the afterlife. Donkeys have also been buried in tombs after being sacrificed. Donkeys were associated with expeditions and could relate to the journey between life and death.

At the very end of the Hyksos rule in Avaris, a thick enclosure wall and citadel were built around the city. This may indicate that the city was preparing for an attack from outside forces. Very soon after the city was attacked by Kamose, the last king of the 17th dynasty, though he was unable to dislodge the Hyksos. It wasn’t until eighteen years later, when Ahmose I attacked Avaris, destroyed the citadel, and conquered the Hyksos. The reign of Ahmose I and the defeat of the Hyksos established the 18th dynasty and the New Kingdom of Egypt.

Reconstructed map of turtle-backs and archaeological structures at Tell el-Dab’a.

Who Were the Hyksos People?

The Hyksos people have been misinterpreted by both the Ancient Egyptians and modern researchers. Ancient Egyptian scribes typically describe them as “invaders,” who conquered the land, destroyed the temples, and slaughtered without mercy. There is no evidence of these claims. It is not unlike the Egyptian scribes, who were employed by the King and the State to say whatever they wanted them to say, to exaggerate or even outright lie about certain facts in preserved writing. Since King Ahmose I, reunited Egypt after expelling the Hyksos, it is obvious that Ahmose had to call the Hyksos invaders, or else he would have no legitimate reason to remove them!

Wall painting and reconstruction of the painting from the tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hasan during the 12th Dynasty. This group of West Asiatic foreigners are labeled as “Aamu,” but are most associated with the Hyksos because the leading man with the ibex is labeled as “Abisha, the Hyksos.”

The Hyksos were most likely a Semitic people who immigrated to Egypt slowly over a period of years before gaining a foothold in the Delta around 1782 B.C.E. They may have been kings or nobility that were driven from their home by invasion, which would explain a high influx of people in a short amount of time. They could have also been traders, who came to Avaris and prospered and then sent word to their friends, whose arrival allowed them to exert political and military power over the city.

Avaris After the Hyksos People

After the conquest of Ahmose I, major parts of the city are abandoned. The citadel was destroyed, and enormous storage facilities were set up with silos, presumably for grain. Evidence of an encampment with bonfires, ovens, and tent postholes has been found on top of the storage facility.

Then a new palatial campground was built on top of the camp, constructed mainly from the brick material of Avaris. Three palaces were built on elevated platforms and covered an area of about 5.5 hectares. This settlement was surrounded by an enclosure wall with an entrance pylon in the north. It might have been Peru-nefer, which was a major naval and military stronghold of the Thuthmosids. This settlement dates to the reigns of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II.

Here in this palace, are remains of Minoan frescos. Thousands of fragments of Minoan wall paintings were discovered in 1987 in the ancient gardens that were attached to the palace. The Minoans were a Bronze Age civilization located on the island of Crete, directly north of Egypt across the Mediterranean. These frescos found in Egypt, though fragmented, were remarkably similar to those found in Knossos Palace in Crete. They were both applied as a buon fresco, which means the paint was applied directly to wet plaster. The main image has been reconstructed as a bull-leaping scene, with several individuals with dark skin and wavy hair leaping over a large bull. There are also images of griffins, leopards, and lion hunts.

The image above is a reconstruction of the fresco found in Avaris, while the one below is the fresco found in the Minoan city of Knossos.

The presence of the Minoan frescos has intrigued both Egyptologists and Classicists. Some have speculated that a Minoan colony was founded here and designed the palace and frescos. Others believe that this building could have allowed local Minoans to have a ritual life in Egypt. Nonetheless, the presence of the Minoan frescos indicates a close relationship between the Minoan people and the Egyptians living in Tell el-Dab’a at the time and that the 18th dynasty rulers were open to works and themes from the Eastern Mediterranean.  

The ruins of the Thuthmosis Period were covered by a fortress by Horemheb in the late 18th dynasty. During the 19th Dynasty, the city of Pi-Ramesses was established south of Tell el-Dab’a, which eventually absorbed the surrounding area. And finally, from the 22nd dynasty and on, the area served as a quarry for other building sites.

Excavation History

It is very important to first understand that archaeological excavations are very different in the Nile Delta than excavations in other areas of Egypt. Because of the wide, alluvial fan (or accumulation of sediments shaped like a cone that builds up where a river flows into a larger body of water) of the Nile Delta, the ground is much moister than a typical Egyptian archaeological site. Any site in this area could be damp, wet, or marshy. The delta is also almost completely covered in modern agriculture, which for decades has been turning and churning up the upper layers of stratigraphy (or layers of soil and archaeological remains). These sites have been flooded and ripped apart by modern agriculture and the shifting branches of the Nile.

Avaris rest on several turtle-backs, which are areas of land that typically stay above the annual Nile floods. These turtle-backs are south of the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which has shifted slightly since antiquity. The Pelusiac branch, which is the easternmost branch of the Nile, used to pass west of the site. Because of the modern agriculture and settlements, the location of Avaris was not known until the 1940s.

Edouard Naville, a Swiss Egyptologist was the first one to excavate in the area in 1885. In 1928, Mahmud Hamza, an Egyptian Egyptologist, first proposed that Tell el-Dab’a was Pi-Ramesses, the capital of the 19th Dynasty. Labib Habachi, another Egyptian Egyptologist, proposed that it was actually Avaris. He conducted excavations from 1941 to 1942 and was able to confirm that it was both Avaris and later part of Pi-Ramesses. The 12th dynasty site was also excavated by Shehata Adam from 1951 to 1954.

From 1966 to 1969 and from 1975 to the present, the Austrian Archaeological Institute has excavated the site led by Manfred Bietak and Irene Forstner-Muller. They have done extensive work and in 2010, they could identify the outline of the city, including streets, houses, ports, and a sidearm of the Nile passing through the city. Many of their excavation reports have been published online and can be found here.

Check out the Austrian Archaeological Institute’s publications here!

Sources and Further Reading

Picture Sources

Wikimedia Commons: Jeff Dahl – Map of the Delta

Wikimedia Commons: Jebulon – Knossos Bull Leaping scene

Wikimeida Commons: NebMaatRa – Wall painting of Hyksos and reconstruction of the painting

Martin Dürrschnabel – Reconstructed Minoan fresco – Reconstruction map of Site

Walter Rehucek (Tell el-Dab’a Homepage) – Map of Site

Manfred Bietak, ÖAW – Excavation photos, Canaanite temple map, and picture of Manfred Bietak


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