A new rehabilitation project is shaking the dust off ruins that reveal Egypt’s great military history, writes Nevine El-Aref
Two weeks ago, archaeologists and heritage officials applauded when President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi gave the go-ahead for the Suez Canal Corridor Development Project (SCCDP).
The project will widen parts of the existing waterway and create a second, parallel canal. The scheme will not only develop Egypt’s economy and provide jobs, but it will also open up new tourist destinations.
The new waterway is ten km south of Qantara, the eastern gateway to Palestine and Syria in ancient times and the starting point of the famous Horus Road, the longest military road in Egypt and the only one to have retained physical evidence of its ancient fortresses and military structures.
Horus Road was a vital commercial and military link between Egypt and Asia and has borne the marching feet of no fewer than 50 armies. From west to east, the pharaohs Thutmose III and Ramses II crossed Sinai with their military forces. From east to west came the Assyrian hordes, the Persian army of Cambyses, Alexander the Great and his mercenaries, Antiochus and the Roman legions, and Arab conquerors led by Amr Ibn Al-As.
“Digging a parallel canal, ten km from one of Egypt’s most important archaeological sites, is certainly good news for archaeology,” Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damati told the Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the project is a good opportunity to spruce up a planned development project for archaeological sites located within the vicinity of the Suez Canal, especially at Qantara.
“The chequered history of Qantara is a reminder of military battles from Pharaonic times to the early 1970s,” Al-Damati said.
He added that the development projects at these sites were part of the ministry’s efforts to protect and preserve the country’s monuments by developing and opening new archaeological sites.
“This will provide employment, security and tourist income,” Al-Damati said.
Collaboration with the Suez Canal Authority (SCA) began in February last year when the SCCDP plan was in its initial stages, he said. The ministry provided the SCA with maps identifying the location of archaeological sites, in order to prevent encroachment or destruction of the sites when the new waterway is built.
This is why the digging work is to be located ten km south of Qantara, an area of no known monuments or archaeological sites. No work will take place at Qantara west, he said. “News that the SCCDP is violating one of Egypt’s archaeological sites is unfounded and false,” Al-Damati told the Weekly.
As a first step towards development of the sites and to make them more tourist-friendly, a committee had been set up, which he will lead, to study all the archaeological sites in this area and to see which sites are appropriate for restoration and eventual opening to the public.
“I want to open seven archaeological sites in Qantara, three on the east and four on the west, while the other sites will follow one by one,” Al-Damati said, adding that all of the selected sites will be restored and opened to the public by the time the SCCDP is completed.
The three sites in east Qantara are Tel Abu Seifi, Pelusium and the Habwa Fortress. Those to the west are Tel Al-Dafna, Tel Al-Maskhouta, Tel Al-Seyeidi and Ein Al-Sukhna.
A site management component will be included in the development project. It will provide a tourist route so visitors can enjoy the different architectural styles of the ruins, together with information panels and a high-tech security and lighting system.
A visitor centre, bookstore, souvenir shop and cafeteria will be built. Two buildings displaying a “Panorama of Ancient Egypt Fortresses”, similar to the October War Panorama in Nasr City in Cairo, are also planned for the area.
Al-Damati told the Weekly that preliminary project work will be carried out by the Ministry of Antiquities. This includes required studies and documentation of the monuments. The ministry plans to sign international cooperation agreements with several European countries in order to complete the actual development work.
He did not give details of these agreements, but said that they involved countries interested in the area and in the cultural heritage of Egypt. “This is a new tourist site with very distinguished monuments that relate to Egypt’s military history through the different time periods,” Al-Damati said, adding that once work starts a new site could be completed every three months.
The scene of several battles: “The development of Horus Road as a tourist attraction has finally gained momentum,” archaeologist Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, head of the archaeological committee of the Horus Road development project, told the Weekly.
During the ancient Egyptian era, Qantara East, the start of Horus Road, was the scene of several battles, among them those led by the pharaohs Ahmose I in his war of liberation against the Hyksos, Seti I in his military campaigns against rebels in Sinai and Canaan, and Ramses II in his war against the Hittites.
In modern times, Abdel-Maqsoud said, Qantara East saw battles between the allies and the Ottomans during World War I, as well as serving as the base of Australian operations in Sinai from 1916 until final demobilisation in 1920.
It was the location for a World War I-era warehouse and hospital centre that were also used during World War II. The town was captured by Israel during the 1967 War, but won back after the 6 October War of 1973.
In peacetime, the city was an important trading post and one of Egypt’s busiest ports during the Graeco-Roman period, second only to Alexandria. Ships from the eastern Mediterranean and caravans from Syria and Palestine came to trade goods such as wine, oil and honey, which were transported to Egypt and the Red Sea by Nile barge and by road.
Osiris and Horus finds: By the mid-1990s, the area was drawing interest as an important archaeological site, particularly after a number of ancient Egyptian monuments and artefacts were discovered during excavations by archaeologists from the US’s Trinity University, France’s Sorbonne and the then-Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), now the Ministry of Antiquities. These finds came within the framework of the salvage operation of Sinai monuments organised in response to the threat posed to scores of sites by the new Al-Salam Canal.
Several ancient objects and structures were discovered, among them a mud-brick temple, a number of bronze and limestone coins and scarabs featuring Osiris and Horus, limestone reliefs bearing the names of two royal figures and two seated statues.
Weapons, pottery shards, grain silos, stables, storerooms, a dormitory for soldiers and dwellings were also excavated, along with the remains of military fortresses, citadels, churches, amphitheatres and baths.
At Pelusium and neighbouring sites at Tel Al-Makhzan and Kanais, which probably formed part of Greater Pelusium, excavation work has been carried out around the ancient port, amphitheatre, Byzantine church and ruins of three more churches dating from the fourth and fifth centuries CE.
“The Horus Road was, of course, also the highway along which Christian pilgrims travelled, and there were churches from Rafah to Pelusium,” Abdel-Maqsoud said.
Excavations in the Tel Al-Borg area revealed two limestone forts, one dating from the reign of the 28th Dynasty pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1475-1425 BCE) and the second from the 19th Dynasty. The latter was probably a Ramesside fort as it bears the name of the pharaoh Ramses II, and is dubbed “the Mansion of the Lion.”
The remaining part of the first fort was found on the east bank of the Al-Salam Canal. It consists of a moat built on a foundation of between nine and 14 layers of fired red brick, a material used only rarely during the ancient Egyptian New Kingdom.
A small stela dedicated to the Asiatic gods Resheph and Astarte was among the items found, and a number of horse and donkey burials were uncovered in the moat. Other items recovered include several jar handles stamped with the cartouches of the pharaohs Smenkhare and Tutankhamun and inscriptions from Tuthmosis III and a stone block of a deity with the name “Strong Bull” written on it.
The walls of the fort are 100 metres high and are embellished with a number of rectangular mud-brick towers. Surrounding it is a two-km-long moat that was once filled with water.
At Tel Al-Heir, 25 km east of the Suez Canal, the French mission from the Sorbonne found the Migdol Fort of Seti I. This large fort had soaring towers and a rest house for the pharaoh. It is believed to be the second most important military fort on the Horus Road after Tharo West, found in 2003 by an Egyptian team led by Abdel-Maqsoud.
In 2004, the fort of Tharo East was discovered. It is 500 metres long, 250 metres wide and featured walls that were 13 metres thick and a 12-metre-wide southern entrance. It was once surrounded by a giant water-filled moat.
“This is the largest fortress yet found,” Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly, adding that the structure included 24 massive defence towers, 20 metres by four metres in size. Along with Tharo West, it was part of the eastern defences of the ancient Egyptian military town of Tharo and Egypt’s gateway to the Delta. It was also the point where the ancient Egyptian army carried out military campaigns to secure the city borders.
The graves of soldiers and horses have been found. “The bones of humans and horses found in the area attest to the reality of such battles,” Abdel-Maqsoud said.
“This discovery is concrete evidence of the events depicted on the reliefs of Seti I, engraved on the north wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak,” he added. The reliefs narrate Seti I’s campaign to smash rebels forces in the first year of his rule. Abdel-Maqsoud said that the discovery also shows that ancient artists drew accurate topographical maps of the Horus Road, which once stretched from Egypt to Palestine.
According to the reliefs, 11 forts were built on this section of the road, although excavations have so far unveiled only five. The first was at Qantara East and the last was in Gaza.
Although the New Kingdom pharoah Seti I was the founder of the Horus Road, said Abdel-Maqsoud, several parts of a Middle Kingdom fortified barrier named the Al-Amir Wall have also been discovered along the military route. It is still not clear whether this was once part of a wall linking the Middle Kingdom series of fortresses, he added.
Protecting archaeological sites: The existence of forts on Horus Road has long been part of the historical record, first revealed in reliefs at Karnak. But their ruins were only excavated from 1859 onwards, when initial excavations started to dig the Suez Canal to link the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. While digging, workers stumbled upon what were believed to be the traces of an archaeological site.
The Suez Canal Company, responsible for building the canal, arranged for an international archaeological mission to excavate the planned waterway before continuing the digging. The mission carried out several archaeological surveys along the planned waterway, from Suez to Port Said, as well as on the western and eastern edges of the canal route.
Several archaeological fragments, pots, stelae and reliefs were discovered and the company built a museum in Ismailia, now the Ismailia Museum, to display the unearthed artefacts. “Due to such discoveries, the planned path of the Suez Canal was changed to the one we see today,” Abdel-Maqsoud said.
He explained that the original waterway was to have run from Qantara West to the Al-Bardawil Lake, but this was changed to run from Qantara West to Port Said. “This led to the creation of Port Fouad,” Abdel-Maqsoud pointed out.
Excavations were carried out in the area until the Israeli occupation in 1967. Israeli archaeologists then excavated Sinai between 1967 and 1980 and unearthed several objects which were returned to Egypt under the 1977 Peace Treaty.
In 1983, when Egypt’s military forces left Qantara East, the site was turned over to the SCA. During the 1973 War, soldiers building a military camp stumbled upon ruins dating back to the reign of the pharaoh Seti I, including objects bearing his cartouche. In the mid-1990s, further excavation work was carried out within the Al-Salam Canal.
Earlier this year, Abdel-Maqsoud told the Weekly that excavation work carried out at Qantara East has uncovered an ancient logistics area, including a collection of administrative buildings, customs buildings, structures used to store grains, stables, and a dormitory for soldiers.
A cartouche of Ramses II was also unearthed. The cartouche is engraved with Egypt’s ancient name — Kemet. “This is the first time that Egypt’s name has been seen on a monument built in Sinai,” Abdel-Maqsoud said.