Three Famous Sites in One – The Story of the Legendary City of Tanis
For centuries, it was believed the city of Tanis was nothing more than a legend. Many people had doubts that it ever really existed. But that all changed when researchers who Napoleon Bonaparte brought to Egypt re-discovered the legendary city.
Many ancient monuments were still covered with sand when Napoleon went to Egypt. The researchers who accompanied Bonaparte’s army were there before Egyptology was a discipline. Wherever they went they uncovered statues, precious artifacts, and buildings. Several of their finds became important artifacts in museum collections across Europe. One of the team’s main goals was to find artifacts which could start the collection of the newly created museum known as the Louvre. Despite the impressive finds they made, they didn't recognize Tanis - all they knew was that it was an ancient city full of treasures.
The ruins of Tanis. (Public Domain)
Searching for the City’s Name
The first person who made an official excavation in Tanis was Auguste Mariette, who was at the site between 1860 and 1864. However, he didn't know the name of the city either. Although he unearthed many beautiful relics including the famous Four Hundred Year Stella, royal statues from the Middle Kingdom, and countless items of pottery and other small artifacts, he couldn't identify the place he worked in. He believed that it could have been Hyksos, the capital of Avaris or Pi-Ramesses. He wasn’t far from the truth with his second guess...
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After Mariette’s excavations, William Flinders Petrie was the next researcher to complete serious works at the site. Petrie worked for seasons from 1883 – 1886. He created a detailed plan of part of the site. He also discovered a precious Roman era papyrus which was taken to the British Museum. Neither of these two researchers managed to identify the site - this pleasure was saved for Pierre Montet.
Wendebauendjed's unique cups from his intact Tanis tomb were discovered by Pierre Montet in 1946. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
For Montet, the site in the Nile delta was a paradise. He spent over 30 years of his life in Tanis and the city allowed him to find its real name. Moreover, he opened incredibly surprising and unlooted royal tombs dated to the 21st and 22nd dynasties.
Shadows of Amarna and Pi Ramesses
Following the end of the rebellious adventures of Pharaoh Akhenaten, the ancient Egyptian officials seemed to want to forget Amarna’s story. The city Akhenaten had built was abandoned with the end of his rule. During the reign of the 19th dynasty kings, especially Sety I and his son Ramesses II, the precious stones used to build the heretic city were prepared to be re-used. Researchers suppose that Ramesses decided to take the stones from Amarna and bring them to the Nile delta, where he ordered the building of the most impressive city of his time – Pi Ramesses.
Map of Lower Egypt showing Tanis and Avaris, near Pi-Ramesses. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ramesses II was a pharaoh who wanted to be remembered as the most influential Egyptian ruler. He adopted hundreds of monuments representing other pharaohs and ordered their names changed to his own. Therefore, many ancient statues identified previously as Ramesses II did not originally belong to him and come from different periods. With his reign comes the first information about a town in the area around Tanis, but a small settlement had been located there at least since the Old Kingdom period.
The city of Tanis was built during the reign of Psusennes I and his successor Smedes, but all the kings of the Third Intermediate Period added something to the impressive settlement. Moreover, excavations at the site show that they reused stones from Pi Ramesses. The city of Tanis was created with some stones from both Amarna and Pi-Ramesses. It was the last monumental city to be built before Alexander the Great arrived in Egypt.
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Richer Than the Tomb of Tutankhamun
Montet discovered the tombs of pharaohs Psusennes I, Osorkon II, Amenemope, Sheshonq II, Sheshonq III and the sarcophagus of Takelot II, which was found in the tomb of Osorkon. These discoveries continue to be recognized as some of the most precious findings in Egyptology. But his successful excavations did not cause treasure fever at the time because World War II had started and nobody cared much for such things. The artifacts found inside the tombs did, however, shock the world of archaeology. As Lorna Sakes wrote:
“Ancient Egyptians of all walks of life loved jewelry. From the earliest days of Egyptian history there is evidence of gold-working and the use of semi-precious stones such as amethyst, carnelian, and turquoise in jewelry making. Much has been found in tombs, as the Egyptians took the jewelry they had worn during their earthly life with them to the Afterlife. They also had some jewelry made specially for the tomb. The jewelry found in Tanis is full of religious imagery and significance. Worked into the designs are many amulet-like devices to enable the king and his high officials to journey safely through the Underworld and become united with Osiris and the sun god in the Afterlife. The jewelry from the Tanis tombs are the most important evidence found so far concerning royal funerary equipment in the Third Intermediate Period.”
The gold funerary mask of Psusennes I discovered at Tanis by Pierre Montet in 1940. (CC BY 2.0)
For many centuries, rich tombs awaited discovery in the forgotten city of the last kings of Egypt (who had their origins in these lands.) The Tanis tombs were filled with beautiful artifacts including a silver anthropoid coffin of Psusennes I - one of the most magnificent ancient Egyptian treasures. (Silver was even more expensive than gold at several points in time in ancient Egypt.) The wealth that was enclosed in the tombs is overwhelming.
Brought Back from a Forgotten Page of History
Some people may remember the city of Tanis from the famous movie “Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.” In the film, the city was buried by a sandstorm and uncovered by Nazis who were looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Although the movie tells a fictional tale, Psusennes I’s city is one of the most remarkable sites in Egypt and an iconic place where the history of three cities combine to make a monumental story.
Top image: The Royal Tombs of Tanis. Public Domain
William Flinders Petrie, Tanis 1 and 2, 1883-4, 1886.
Lorna Oakes, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Pyramids, Temples & Tombs of Ancient Egypt, 2006.
''Lost City'' of Tanis, found but often forgotten by Brian Handwerk, available at:
Tanis, by Jimmy Dunn, available at: