The archaeological site of Avaris (also Auaris) is located in the eastern Nile delta in the immediate vicinity of today's town of Tell el-Dabʿa (8 km north of the modern provincial capital Faqus, in the province of Sharqia). The site can be identified with certainty as Avaris, capital city of the Hyksos (ca. 1640–1530 B.C.) and as the southern part of Pi-Ramesse (today, the town of Qantir), the delta residence of Ramses II and his successors.
Avaris was a hub site of important trade routes to the sea and to the interior. Its location between the Pelusian arm of the Nile, which guaranteed access to the Mediterranean, and the Bahr el-Baqar was decisive for the significance of the city, while on the other hand its location at the terminus of the Horus Road, which led to Palestine over the northern Sinai peninsula, also played an important role. The city enjoyed a vital function as a port, where presumably much of the sea trade was transacted. This trade is attested via inscriptions, yet is also evident in the large amount of imports such as, for example, amphorae found here. Due to its exposed location in the north-eastern Nile delta, which allowed it to control the flow of goods and people, Avaris possessed a strategically important position from a military perspective in addition to its economic relevance.
History of Research
Édouard Naville already undertook the first excavations at this site in 1885. During excavations in 1928, Mahmud Hamza came across a massive palace site dating to the 19th and 20th Dynasty, ca. 2 km north of Tell el-Dabʿa at the southern boundary of the village of Qantir, which he identified as Pi-Ramesse. In the years 1941–1942, Labib Habachi carried out investigations for the Egyptian Antiquities Service and, for the first time, proposed an identification with ancient Avaris. Between 1951–1954, in the course of excavations near ʿEzbet Rushdi, Shehata Adam brought to light part of the area dating to the 12th Dynasty, and underneath this, a temple for the cult of Pharaoh Amenemhet I. Since 1966 (with a brief interruption from 1970 to 1974), the archaeological site has been investigated by the Cairo branch office of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, from 1966 until 2009 under the direction of Manfred Bietak, and since 2009 under the direction of Irene Forstner-Müller.
Whereas during the earlier investigations the exposure of palaces played a central role, more recently the research focus has shifted to issues of settlement archaeology and urbanistic questions. The overview plan of Tell el-Dabʿa, created on the basis of geomagnetic survey, provides a foundation for this research approach. Amongst other aspects, this approach includes the study of the ancient river arms and the reconstruction of the harbour landscape.
In antiquity, Avaris lay on the Pelusian branch of the Nile, the eastern-most arm of the Delta. This location offered a rapid connection to the Mediterranean coast and into the Nile valley. Based on geophysical investigations the ancient topography, which to a very large extent is no longer preserved, could be reconstructed in the vicinity of Tell el-Dabʿa. The modern surface area is flat and is agriculturally exploited. Only a small tell is visible (to the north of Areal A/II), which is today used as a cemetery.
In the pharaonic period the territory consisted of a chain of small hills of sand ridges, so-called 'geziras'. As land which was protected from flooding, they offered favourable settlement locations. Two wide side branches (F2 and F3) led to the east from the Pelusian branch of the Nile; these were connected via smaller branches, thus surrounding the geziras as 'islands'. Although branch F2 was indeed shallower than F1, it was still navigable. In contrast, branch F3 was presumably still active as a river arm at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, yet nevertheless in the late Hyksos period it was already extensively silted up.
The city reached its greatest extent during the 15th Dynasty, and again during the Ramesside period. At the end of the 20th Dynasty, at about 1100 B.C., Pi-Ramesse was abandoned, presumably due to the silting up of the Pelusian branch of the Nile. When the settlement was relocated to Tanis, 30 km distant, numerous monuments from Pi-Ramesse were also transported. This led to the fact that Tanis was at first identified with the Ramesside city due to the large number of inscriptions found there.
In the course of the silting up of the Pelusian branch of the Nile, after the 20th Dynasty the city was abandoned for almost half a millennium; an extensive settlement with tower houses and a temple was only inhabited again after the reactivation of the waterway, from the Saite and Persian period up until the early Ptolemaic period.