Cities of the Damietta Branch

Today, one of the two remaining major branches of the Nile in the Delta, the Damietta (and its offshoots, notably the Mendesian branch serving ancient Mendes) provided the necessary preconditions for the growth of some of the most important cities of Lower Egypt, although some of these significant urban centres, such as Hermopolis Parva, have either not survived at all or do so in a very badly degraded condition.


Strategically located in the centre of the southern apex of the Delta, Athribis (modern Tell Atrib, ancient Hwt-Ta-Hery-Ib), was well placed to become an important city, and is known to have existed as early as the reign of Sneferu in the 4th Dynasty. Unfortunately those same strategic advantages also apply to the modern city of Benha, which, in its rapid modern expansion, has largely consumed the remains of the ancient city – though at the beginning of the 19th century they covered an area of 1,900 by 1,500 m (6,234 by 4,921 ft). Despite its size, the mound of Tell Atrib did not attract significant archaeological activity until 1956–98 when it became the subject of a major project by the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology and University of Warsaw.

Much of the work of the Polish archaeologists concentrated on the relatively well-preserved Late Period and Ptolemaic occupation levels at ‘Kom A’ and Kom Sidi Yussef. It is only these late phases of occupation at Athribis that can be traced in detail, although the site has produced a significant quantity of statuary and architectural elements suggesting that Athribis had an impressive monumental core for much of its history, not least in the late 18th Dynasty when it benefited from the activities of Amenhotep son of Hapu, chief architect of Amenhotep III.

Tell Muqdam

Like Athribis, Tell Muqdam (ancient Ta-Remu, Classical Leontopolis) was an enormous town-mound at the beginning of the 19th century. Unlike Athribis, it did not suffer from the expansion of a nearby modern city, but rather the extensive activities of sebbakh-diggers, which have resulted in its current state as a tell of only 0.25 square kilometres (61 acres) and a rather larger water-filled pit. Although the victim of much illegal excavation, which has generated a large number of objects said to come from this site, Tell Muqdam has not been systematically excavated in a consistent way, apart from through the work of Carol Redmount and Renée Friedman for the University of California in 1993–96. The work of this mission suggests that the city was founded no earlier than the Ramesside Period and rapidly expanded during the Third Intermediate (when it may have been the seat of the 23rd Dynasty) and Late Periods.


Mendes is the Classical name of a city known in the dynastic period as Anpet and Per-Ba-Neb-Djedet (‘House of the Ram, Lord of the Enduring Place’). Today it is an unoccupied mound, Tell Rub’a. With the adjacent mound of Tell Thmuis, Mendes is c. 3 km (2 miles) from north to south and c. 900 m (2,953 ft) east to west (at its widest), making it one of the largest sites of the Nile Delta. Perhaps the sheer size of the site has historically been intimidating to archaeologists, with the first serious, systematic excavations only beginning in the 1960s with teams led by Bernard Bothmer and Donald Hansen, and more latterly Robert Wenke and Douglas Brewer, with Donald Redford carrying out an important series of excavations from 1991 onwards.

Djedhor Honours Horus of Athribis

The remarkable appearance of this statue of Djedhor, found at Athribis is due to its being a ‘healing statue’ incorporating the image of the child Horus controlling dangerous creatures – water was perhaps poured over the statue and collected in the basin underneath to be used for medicinal purposes. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

Like Petosiris at Hermopolis Magna, Djedhor was a high official who tried to continue traditional Egyptian religious practices – including temple-building and the burial of sacred animals – during the period of Persian occupation between the 30th and Ptolemaic Dynasties. His activities at Athribis are recorded on a group of statues in his image, which come from the site:

I caused to be built the wabet-temple of the Falcon [i.e. the god Horus] to the south of the temple of Iat-Mat, 68 cubits in length and 64 cubits wide, in perfect work and excellent in every way. A great hall is at its centre, six chapels to the east and to the west. Their doorframes are of beautiful white limestone, their doors of pine and their locks and hinges of bronze. A great portico is before the main door of this Wabet, provided with eight papyriform columns and covered by a ceiling of pine carved with the great name of His Majesty….

I caused to be built a great enclosure wall around the temple of Iat-Mat and the temple of the Wabet….

I caused to be prepared mrht-oil with which the embalming of the Falcon [i.e. a falcon sacred to Horus] is done … many falcons had been found in the ‘Chamber of 70’ which had not been embalmed and I caused them to be embalmed with this mrht-oil and to rest in the necropolis.

The extensive activities of sebbakh-diggers at Tell Muqdam, combined with a relatively consistent sub-soil water table in the post-Aswan Dam era, have turned much of the site into a lake. Steven Snape.

Queens in the Delta?

One obvious measure of the importance of Delta cities in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods is the presence of royal cemeteries indicating that the cities that housed them were to be regarded as the seats of royal dynasties. Such necropolises have been found, or are known, at Tanis (for the 21st and 22nd Dynasties), Sais (26th Dynasty) and Mendes (29th Dynasty).

However, the burials of important royal women of the same periods have been found at other cities in the Delta as well. Some of these, such as the Tell Muqdam tomb identified by some scholars as that of Queen Kamama, mother of King Osorkon III, might indicate the presence of a larger royal necropolis (in this case that of the 23rd Dynasty). Others suggest a burial in a home-city, such as the tomb of Queen Takhut, wife of Psammetichus II, in the important Late Period necropolis at Athribis.

Mendes before the Late Period

Deep coring on the tell close to the temple has demonstrated that the mound was occupied in the Late Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods; the evidence includes clay sealings with the names of 1st Dynasty kings and officials. The Old Kingdom seems to have been a time of great prosperity for Mendes and a substantial town grew up round the temple, the ‘House of the Ram’, which included substantial food production and storage facilities. The town came to occupy an area of over 100,000 sq. m (25 acres) – one of the largest settlements known from the Old Kingdom. In the early part of the 6th Dynasty, an elite cemetery of mudbrick and limestone mastaba tombs grew up close to the temple, which was known as Djedet – ‘the enduring place’, and the area grew to c. 150,000 sq. m (37 acres).

However, the collapse of the Old Kingdom seems to have affected Mendes especially badly, indeed the end of the 6th Dynasty saw a violent episode in the history of the site, which is indicated by a major destruction layer uncovered by Donald Redford’s team. The evidence includes burning in the area of the temple and the adjacent cemeteries as well as the sprawled skeletons of unburied bodies.

Remarkably, little evidence has yet been uncovered for the occupation of Mendes in the Middle Kingdom, apart from some repairs to the temple during the 12th Dynasty. In the New Kingdom, Mendes flourished once more, although not on the scale enjoyed in the Old Kingdom. The clearest evidence of this is the patronage of the Temple of the Ram by New Kingdom rulers, especially Thutmose III and the early Ramesside kings; under Ramesses II the temple was expanded to its greatest extent, 165 m (541 ft) in length.

Plan showing the extent and relative locations of the neighbouring sites of Mendes (Tell Rub’a) and Thmuis (Tell Timai). Steven Snape after Redford.

Mendes in the Late Period

Like many Delta cities, Mendes achieved its greatest period of political prominence and monumental display during the Late Period. In a manner similar to the way in which Sais was the royal capital and focus of building work for kings of the 26th Dynasty, so Mendes served as the royal base for the kings of the 29th Dynasty.

Part of the reason for Mendes’ long-lasting prosperity was the continued proximity of the Mendesian branch of the Nile. Late Period Mendes possessed a large river harbour where it met the river on its eastern side, and a secondary northwestern harbour on the Butic Canal, which ran off the Mendesian branch just to the north of the city.

As befitted a Late Period upgrading of the main temple, the central and rear parts behind the Ramesside pylons were heavily remodelled, although little now remains of this work, apart from the foundation trenches. However, to the south of the temple, King Amasis of the 26th Dynasty, in addition to his work at Sais, constructed an open court, 34 by 28 m (112 by 92 ft), which contained four huge naos-shrines, each cut from a single piece of granite. These were designed to house images of four deities – Re, Shu, Geb and Osiris. Unfortunately, only one remains standing today.

Other major constructions of the Late Period that would transform the sacred core of Mendes included a ‘Mansion of the Rams’ – a mausoleum for the burial of the succession of rams that were considered the living embodiment of the god himself. This structure consisted of a columned hall leading to a series of small, individual, mudbrick tombs, each containing a sarcophagus made of granite or diorite. The presence of scattered sarcophagi and their lids is further evidence.

The most obvious monumental remnant on the huge Tell Rub’a mound is the colossal monolithic naos-shrine constructed by King Amasis. Courtesy Donald Redford, The Mendes Expedition.

One of the defining features of these post-New Kingdom royal cities of the Nile Delta is their royal tombs. For his royal sepulchre, King Nepherites I of the 29th Dynasty chose an area to the east of the temple where he dug a pit 11 by 19 m (36 by 62 ft) in area to form a burial chamber, on top of which the rectangular superstructure was built. Only fragments of that superstructure have survived, and today the most obvious feature of this rather desolate royal tomb is a large limestone plinth with Nepherites’ black granite sarcophagus set into the top of it.


In the period after the late New Kingdom, Mendes expanded in a somewhat unexpected way. To the south of the mound of Tell Rub’a, and across the river from it, new land was reclaimed from the inundation, creating what was in effect a twin settlement. This later became known as Tell Thmuis (from the Egyptian Ta-Mawt). It developed as an adjacent independent town rather than simply as an extension to the long-established city (Mendes) on Tell Rub’a.

Ptolemy II Visits Mendes

Around 280 BC, Ptolemy II visited Mendes. He reviewed progress on the building projects that he had ordered at the site and took part in cultic ceremonies for the Ram. This was all recorded on an enormous stela he erected in the Temple of the Ram:

Year … first month of Winter. His Majesty came to visit Banebdjed to ask for life from the Lord of Life…. His Majesty visited the living ram as the first visit he made to any of the sacred animals since he ascended the throne of his father….

His Majesty took the prow of the sacred barque of the god and guided it downstream on the Great Lake and upstream on the canal of Akhenu, as had been done before him by all the kings of Upper and Lower Egypt. He carried out for him [the god] all the rites of visitation such as he found in writing….

His Majesty inspected the Mansion of the Rams and he found that the work was in progress on the House of the Ram, as His Majesty had ordered to repair the damage the rebellious foreigners had caused. His Majesty ordered it to be completed as a work of eternity. His Majesty inspected the Residence of the Noble Ram to which he had made restoration.

The End of Mendes

Although Mendes had survived the first Persian occupation of the 27th Dynasty, the arrival of the Second Persian Period of the 31st Dynasty was a different story. The significant destruction of the site at this time included the demolition of most of the tomb of Nepherites I – the smashed fragments were thrown over the enclosure wall that had been built by Nectanebo I, which was itself mostly levelled.

Although this was a major disaster, and effectively marked the end of Mendes’ period as one of the great Delta cities, the Ptolemaic Period saw some revival in Mendes’ fortunes – not least because of its central position in the Nile Delta and the continued importance of its riverside location. Indeed, under Ptolemy II some reconstruction work took place at Mendes, presumably to emphasize the extent to which the Ptolemaic kings – in marked contrast to their Persian predecessors – respected native Egyptian religious traditions and structures (see box, left). The shrinkage in the flow of the Mendesian branch after c. 200 BC seems to have initiated a gradual abandonment of the site, or at any rate lessened its status as a major urban centre.


The ancient city of Tjeb-Netjer, Classical Sebennytos, lies within a substantial town-mound that is completely covered by the modern city of Sammanud. The Egyptian historian Manetho, himself a native of Sammanud, closely identified the city with the 30th Dynasty and it is more than possible that the royal necropolis of those kings was located there. It is difficult to get a good sense of the extent of the ancient city, although it may well have been a monumental centre to rival other major Delta cities of the Late Period, such as Sais and Mendes. Evidence – including a number of large granite blocks still to be seen at Sammanud – suggests major temple-building under the 30th Dynasty, centred on the temple of the local god Onuris-Shu, perhaps completely remodelling earlier Saite work.

Most of the ancient city of Sebennytos has been swallowed up by its modern incarnation, the city of Sammanud. Some remains of ancient buildings are still visible, like these granite blocks strewn around a courtyard within the city. Rutherford Picture Library.

Seven kilometres (4½ miles) to the northeast of Sammanud is the village of Behbeit el-Hagar, notable for a massive collection of huge hardstone blocks, the collapsed remains of a temple to Isis, largely from the 30th Dynasty and the early Ptolemaic Period. The first part of its modern toponym may be a corruption of the ancient Per-Hebyt ‘House of the Festival’. Although a town called Hebyt is attested as early as the New Kingdom, it is unlikely that Behbeit el-Hagar was ever a major settlement in its own right and can best be regarded as a monumental offshoot of Sammanud, where kings of the 30th Dynasty (and the Ptolemaic Period) had the space to develop a massive new temple to Isis as a counterpart to its southern equivalent on Philae Island near Aswan.

A similar distance to the south of Sammanud is the village of Abusir el-Bana (Egyptian Djedu, Classical Busiris), the site of the ancient northern cult centre of Osiris. The site has not been the subject of systematic excavation.

The huge and jumbled collection of decorated and undecorated hard-stone blocks at Behbeit el-Hagar represents the remains of a now-destroyed major temple complex. Rutherford Picture Library.

Tell el-Balamun

Traditionally regarded in some ancient texts as the northernmost town in Egypt (with Elephantine the southernmost), this ancient site was known as Sma-Behdet, although its current name seems to be a corruption of a term used from the New Kingdom, Pa-Iw-n-Imen, ‘The Island of Amun’. The site consists of a series of mounds, up to 18 m (59 ft), tall, within an area of 1,000 by 800 m (3,281 by 2,625 ft), which has had little attention from sebbakh-diggers, perhaps because of the salinity of the soil in this part of the northern Delta.

Briefly explored by Howard Carter in 1913, Tell el-Balamun has been the subject of systematic excavations by Jeffrey Spencer for the British Museum since 1991. This work has not produced any remains earlier than the New Kingdom, most notably a Ramesside temple enclosure. Later major temple-building took place in the Third Intermediate and Late Periods, especially by kings who are well represented in other parts of the Delta such as Shoshenq III, Psammetichus I and Nectanebo I.

Recent excavations at Tell el-Balamun by the British Museum team have provided a greater understanding of the history of this important site in the northern Delta. Jeffrey Spencer, British Museum, London.

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