Cities of the Rosetta Branch

Most of the sites along the Rosetta Branch have not survived as well in the archaeological record as the desert-edge or near desert-edge sites of the Canopic branch to the west, or the Pelusiac branch to the east. Important ancient cities such as Xois (modern Sakha) have all but disappeared owing to a combination of natural erosion and human action, although there are some exceptions such as the remarkable mound of Tell Mutubis (ancient name unknown), which appears to be the remains of a significant settlement of the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods.

To the east of the Rosetta branch there are also the substantial remains of Buto (known in ancient times as Per-Wadjet (House of the Goddess Wadjet), modern Tell Fara’in). The visible remains of this long-lived city comprise three major mounds, one of which mainly consists of the temple enclosure. Archaeological work at the site between 1965 and 1967 by Veronica Seton-Williams and Dorothy Charlesworth for the Egypt Exploration Society concentrated on the Late Period and Graeco-Roman remains, while the work of the German Archaeological Institute led by Thomas von der Way has, since 1983, focused on developing an understanding of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic settlement.

However, the southern part of the Rosetta Branch does run close to the current desert edge, allowing some level of survival to sites such as Merimde and Kom Abu Billou, the Classical town of Terenuthis, whose Ptolemaic temple enclosure is in too poor a condition to encourage archaeological exploration, in contrast with its long-lived cemetery, which has produced burials as early as the 6th Dynasty and as late as the early Christian Period. Further south still, the town of Ausim (Egyptian Khem, Classical Letopolis), capital of the 2nd Nome of Lower Egypt, is known from textual sources to have existed as early as the Old Kingdom, but is an archaeological void, apart from a few architectural elements from the Late Period.


The ancient city of Sa, which was called Sais by Classical authors, has its name preserved in the modern toponym Sa el-Hagar (‘Sa of the Stone’). It was capital of the 5th Lower Egyptian Nome, but is best known as being the royal capital of the 26th Dynasty (Saite) kings of a reunified Egypt, when it benefited from large-scale royal patronage, especially in the temple precinct of its patron goddess, Neith.

Recent excavations at Sais have begun to explore the possibilities of urban archaeology at this superficially unpromising site. Penelope Wilson.

Description of the Site

Partly because of the remarkably poor state of preservation of its remains, relatively little systematic archaeological work has been carried out at Sais, with the exception of the programme of fieldwork under Penny Wilson since 1997.

Today the site falls into two distinct areas. To the south, fringed by the modern village of Sa el-Hagar, is a large depression, c. 400 by 400 m (1,312 by 1,312 ft), often referred to as the ‘Great Pit’. This was created by a combination of sebbakh-digging, and digging for antiquities, and is now usually filled with water. To the north are the remains of a huge rectangular enclosure, 800 by 700 m (2,625 by 2,297 ft), whose massive mudbrick walls were visible to 19th-century visitors including Jean-François Champollion (who regarded it as the precincts of the Neith temple), Karl Richard Lepsius’ Prussian expedition and, in 1898, Antiquities Inspector Georges Foucart who did much to record the then current condition of many Delta sites. During the early 20th century, the intensive activities of sebbakh-diggers effectively removed these walls, although they can still be traced by following a track that runs on top of their ground-level courses on three of the four sides of the enclosure. Wilson believes that, during the Late Period, these two areas formed two distinct, massive rectangular enclosures, linked by a dromos or processional way.

Sais before the Late Period

The association between the goddess Neith and Sais is an ancient one (a wooden label from the tomb of the 1st Dynasty king Aha shows the monarch visiting the Lower Egyptian towns or, rather, Neith’s temples at Buto and Sais). Sais is depicted as a simple enclosure containing the totem of the goddess. The appearance of ‘Neith’ as part of the names of several royal women of the 1st Dynasty have led scholars to speculate that this was an aspect of dynastic marriage between the new rulers of a now-unified Egypt whose origins were at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt (whose patron deity was Horus) and female members of the most important of the Predynastic Delta cities, Sais. It is certainly the case that – along with Buto – Sais was regarded by Egyptians of later periods as one of the most ancient cities of Egypt.

Despite this reference to Sais as an important cult centre at the very beginning of Egyptian dynastic history, the archaeological evidence for Sais during the following two millennia is astonishingly meagre, although deep-coring by Penny Wilson’s team has produced evidence of occupation during the Maadi/Omari Neolithic phase and a relatively extensive Ramesside settlement.

Sais in the Late Period

The emergence of Sais as a politically important centre of the late Third Intermediate Period, as the base of the short-lived 24th Dynasty and then the Egypt-unifying 26th Dynasty, gave Sais a hitherto unprecedented importance as a city that was de facto capital of Egypt. Naturally enough, a major royal city needed to have a major monumental core. The form and extent of the New Kingdom temple of Neith (for there surely must have been one) is completely unknown: it must have been entirely subsumed within or, more likely, replaced by the building activities of 26th Dynasty kings, perhaps especially Amasis.

With the subsequent disappearance of these monuments, attempts to reconstruct the layout of Late Period Sais – including the identification of the forms and relationships of its principal buildings – have had to be based on references to those buildings in texts that come from the site. Remarkably, none of these texts has been recovered from Sais itself, but from relocated and reused monuments that were once set up at Sais. The evidence from these suggests that an enormous temple enclosure was created for the temple of Neith (note that the Late Period kings did not feel the need to copy their Third Intermediate Period predecessors at Tanis and other sites in the Nile Delta by creating a ‘Thebes of the North’ based around a temple complex for Amun), but this complex nevertheless also contained temples and shrines for other deities, most notably a local form of Osiris (Osiris-Hemag), who seems to have been provided with a tomb. There were also royal tombs for kings of the 26th Dynasty, a tradition following the precedent of burial within a temple precinct in the Nile Delta that had been started at Tanis and Leontopolis, and would be continued at Mendes.

Plan of Sais, showing the main visible areas of the site and a tentative reconstruction of how they might have been connected during the 26th Dynasty. Steven Snape.

A view of the ‘Great Pit’ surrounded by scattered fragments of ancient masonry. Steven Snape.

Wadjhorresnet Describes Sais in c. 520 BC

One of the most famous of the relocated monuments from Sais is a private statue of the Chief Physician, Wadjhorresnet. It is now in the Vatican Museums, probably having come from the collection of Egyptian monuments assembled by the emperor Hadrian at his villa in Tivoli. Wadjhorresnet describes his activities as a major Egyptian official serving Cambyses, Persian conqueror of Egypt and first king of the 27th Dynasty. Despite this foreign rule, Wadjhorresnet is keen to emphasize the way he used his influence with Cambyses for the benefit of Egypt in general and the city of Sais in particular, as the following extracts from the autobiographical inscription on his statue demonstrate:

An offering that the king gives to Osiris-Hemag … for the ka of the one honoured by the gods of Sais, Chief Physician, Wadjhorresnet….

The Great Chief of all foreign lands Cambyses came to Egypt…. His Majesty assigned to me the office of Chief Physician. He made me live at his side as companion and administrator of the palace ….

I let His Majesty know the greatness of Sais, that it is the seat of Neith-the-Great … and the greatness of the temple of Neith … and the nature of the greatness of the castles of Neith and of all the gods and goddesses who are there; and the nature of the greatness of the Palace, that it is the seat of the Sovereign, the Lord of Heaven; and the nature of the greatness of the Res-Neith and Meh-Neith sanctuaries; and of the House of Re and the House of Atum….

I made a petition to … Cambyses about all the foreigners who dwelled in the temple of Neith, in order to have them expelled from it, so as to let the temple of Neith be in all its splendour, as it had been before. His Majesty commanded to expel the foreigners who dwelled in the temple of Neith, to demolish all their houses and all their unclean things that were in this temple….

The statue of Wadjhorresnet, bearing a votive figure of the god Osiris in a shrine. His long robe is covered in the hieroglyphic texts describing his activities. The head is a reconstruction. Photo Scala, Florence.

Cambyses came to Sais. His Majesty went in person to the temple of Neith … he made a great offering of every good thing to Neith-the-Great…. His Majesty did this because I had let His Majesty know the greatness of Her Majesty Neith, that she is the mother of Re himself.

The Dispersal of Sais

Once Sais was abandoned as a royal capital, its statues, obelisks and the very fabric of the monumental stone buildings themselves effectively became available for more active building projects, which required suitable monumental embellishment. Just as a significant portion of the Ramesside monuments of Pr-Ramesses had flowed downstream along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile to come to rest in Tanis during the Third Intermediate Period, so the choicest antiquities of Late Period Sais could easily be transported down the Damietta/Canopic branches of the Nile to add to the necessary pharaonic ambience of Alexandria. In fact, largely unlike Tanis, Alexandria was not a final destination for many of these transplanted and rejuvenated antiquities: instead many went much further afield, becoming part of the collection of Roman emperors who used Egyptian artifacts to decorate both Rome and Constantinople, and indeed their own private collections. The most famous was that of the Egyptophile emperor Hadrian, whose extensive gardens at his villa in Tivoli were embellished with imported Egyptian artifacts, probably including the important statue of Wadjhorresnet from Sais. Statuary from Sais has turned up, or is now contained, in collections ancient and modern from locations as disparate as the islands of Delos and Cuba.

Although little remains to be seen of the once-magnificent temple buildings at Sais, stone fragments of its monumental past – shrines, sarcophagi, pieces of colossal statues – still litter its surface. Rutherford Picture Library.

Herodotus Describes Sais in c. 450 BC

… in the temple of Athene [i.e. Neith], very near to the sanctuary, on the left of the entrance. The people of Sais buried within the temple precinct all kings who were natives of their province. The tomb of Amasis is further from the sanctuary than the tomb of Apries and his ancestors, yet it is also within the temple court; it is a great colonnade of stone, richly adorned, the pillars whereof are wrought in the form of palm trees. In this colonnade are two portals, and the place where the coffin lies is within their doors.

There is also at Sais the burial-place of him whose name I deem it forbidden to utter in speaking of such a matter [presumably the tomb of Osiris-Hemag]; it is in the temple of Athene, behind and close to the whole length of the wall of the shrine. Moreover, great stone obelisks stand in the precinct, and there is a lake hard by, adorned with a stone margin and well worked on all sides, circular in shape.

Amasis made a marvellous outer court for Athene at Sais, surpassing in height and grandeur, and in the size and splendour of the stones, all who had erected such buildings; moreover he set up huge images and vast man-headed sphinxes, and brought enormous blocks of stone for the building. Some of these he brought from the stone quarries of Memphis; those of greatest size came from the city of Elephantine, distant twenty days’ journey by river from Sais. But let me now tell you of what I hold the most marvellous of all his works. He brought from Elephantine a shrine made of one block of stone; three years it was in the bringing, and two thousand men were charged with the carriage of it, pilots all of them. This chamber measures in outer length 21 cubits, in breadth 14, in height 8.

The shrine described by Herodotus (II: 169–70, 175), over 9 m (30 ft) in height, has not been found, but one might compare the still-standing granite naos-shrine, over 6 m (20 ft) tall, erected by the same king at Mendes.

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