The Pharaonic Royal City of Sais Leaves Few Clues for Researchers
On the Canopic branch of the Nile laid a city known as Sais, or Sa el-Hagar. The ancient city dates back to 3,000 B.C, however habitation at the site extends back to the pre-dynastic and Neolithic period, from at least 4,200 B.C. It was the provincial capital of the fifth nome of Lower Egypt, known as Sap-Meh. During the twenty-fourth dynasty of Egypt, spanning from 732–720 BC, Sais was the seat of power. At that time, it was known as Zau.
This ancient city is well-known for many reasons. According to ancient texts, during the Pharaonic Era (around 3,000 B.C.) Sais was “cult center of the creator- and war-goddess – Neith.” Later, it was Egypt’s pharaonic capital. During the eponymous Saite Period (664-525 BC), Sais was a ceremonial center for kings. Greek historian, Herodotus, described Sais as a “great city,” declaring that it was the location of the grave of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.
Ancient Greek historians and scholars, including Herodotus, Plato and Diodorus Siculus, all identified Neith with Athena and even suggested a primordial link to Athens. Diodorus wrote that goddess Athena built Sais before the deluge that supposedly destroyed Athens and Atlantis. While all Greek cities were destroyed during that cataclysm, the Egyptian cities including Sais survived.
Map of Sais ruins drawn by Jean-François Champollion during his expedition in 1828. Wikipedia
During the mid-19 th century, western explorers wrote of a massive, protective mud brick enclosure wall and a citadel located at the city of Sais. A citadel is a fortress used to protect a town. However, late in the 19 th Century, the mud brick enclosure wall and the citadel had been removed, leaving very little of the ancient city of Sais. It is believed that treasure collectors and builders removed the structures. Later, in 1993, Penny Wilson and a team from Durham University and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities began exploring and excavating Sais, searching for evidence of those who once lived there, seeking to learn which great kings resided there, and locating any architectural structures that could be found.
The researchers were able to uncover the location of the capital city of Sais, which included an industrial area. They also discovered an area believed to be a garbage dump, which they excavated. The researchers uncovered Greek trading amphorae and cups, and Syro-Palestinian resin or wine jars, indicating that the city of Sais engaged in much trading with the surrounding areas. They also excavated the foundation of a large building, uncovering evidence that the city had been settled continuously from the Ptolemaic Period (332 to 30 B.C.) until today, where the modern city of Sa el-Hagar still stands.
Detail, Illustration of the ruins of Sais, 1878. Public Domain
In addition to archeological finds, the team also searched for information about the ancient kings that once ruled from the city of Sais. Their goal was to uncover information about the pharaohs of 26th Dynasty Sais, dating from 664-525 B.C. They identified one area as the likely location of a royal palace, containing mud brick walls that were up to 20 meters tall, surrounded by an enclosure of 700 meters by 680 meters. Then they viewed an area known as the “Great Pit,” located to the south. The area was approximately 400 meters by 400 meters, and was dug approximately 3 meters below ground level. Surrounding debris indicated that the area one contained ancient buildings.
Further searching revealed material from the 20th Dynasty, which was around 1,100 B.C., a time when Sais was a wealthy farming town. They discovered that the houses contained ovens, storerooms, reception rooms and courtyards, and that the residents drank wine from the Near East. They worshipped Wadjyet, a local cobra goddess. Ultimately, they found evidence dating back to 3,500 B.C., the Predynastic period, before Egypt was ruled by pharaohs, and evidence dating back to 4,200-3,900 B.C., the Neolithic period.
Wadjyet, Cobra Goddess, depicted with body of a woman and head of a lion. CreativeCommons
It is clear that the ancient city of Sais contains many secrets. Some of these secrets may be waiting to be revealed, while the passage of time may preclude some of those secrets from ever being discovered. Sais dates back further than originally thought, showing that the city has endured through the ages, as it transformed from a large kingdom, to the smaller city of Sa el-Hagar, which remains to this day. Through the works of Penny Wilson and the team from Durham University and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, much information was uncovered about the city and its ancient inhabitants. Whether any further details about Sais will ever be discovered remains uncertain.
Featured image: Herodotus claimed that Sais was the location of the grave of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. Detail, ‘ grave of Sennedjem’ . Wikimedia
Sais – World Archaeology
An Overview of the Cities and Towns of Ancient Egypt – Tour Egypt
Sais Egypt – Wikipedia
By M R Reese