A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Construction of a massive waterway across Egypt's northern Sinai Desert threatens numerous archaeological sites. Known as the Peace Canal, the project aims to bring fresh water from the Nile to the city of El Arish, 40 miles west of the Israeli border, making the region fertile. In 1991 archaeologists launched the North Sinai Salvage Project to survey the canal's path for sites, recover data from sites that would be destroyed, and suggest where the canal might be rerouted to avoid particularly important remains.
Among many sites on the canal's route, the largest and most important is Tell el-Farama, ancient Pelusium. Almost four miles long, the site is enveloped by soft, salt-covered mud and wetlands, the remains of two branches of the Nile that once surrounded the city. The ancient name of the city, from the Greek pelos, mud or silt, reflects its location. On Egypt's eastern boundary, the city was of immense strategic importance. It was both a departure point for Egyptian expeditions to Asia and an entry point for foreign invaders attempting to conquer Egypt. During peacetime it was an important trading post, and in the Graeco-Roman period it became one of Egypt's busiest ports, second only to Alexandria. Ships from the eastern Mediterranean and caravans from Syria-Palestine came here to exchange goods, such as wine, oil, and honey, which were transported to Egypt and the Red Sea by Nile barge and overland roads.
In 1910 French Egyptologist Jean Cledat excavated at Pelusium and produced a sketch map of the site. After Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in 1982, chief inspector for the North Sinai Mohammed Abd El-Maksoud began excavating here. Perhaps his most spectacular find was a Roman bath with polychrome mosaic floors in geometric designs dating to the third century A.D. At the same time French philologist and historian Jean-Yves Carrez-Maratray was studying Greek and Roman textual and iconographical references to the city. When the salvage project began in 1991, Tell el-Farama and neighboring sites such as Tell el-Makhzan and Kanais, which probably formed parts of "Greater Pelusium," were divided into concessions allocated to teams from Egypt, Canada, Switzerland, and Britain. Egyptian archaeologists excavated in many parts of Pelusium; Ahmed el-Tabai discovered an amphitheater, and Mohammed Abd el-Samie excavated a Byzantine church at Tell el-Makhzan. The Swiss mission, including archaeologists Horst Jaritz, Sebastien Favre, and Giorgio Nogara, surveyed around Kanais, and a British team directed by Steven Snape explored the southern part of the site. Along with Abd el-Samia, el-Tabai, Osama Hamza, Julie Anderson, and John Hayes, I directed a joint Canadian-Egyptian effort to explore and preserve the western part of Pelusium.
Despite Pelusium's size and importance in antiquity and the many references to it in written accounts--including those of Herodotus, Strabo, and Greek papyri from Egypt--we know very little about the city. Ancient historians describe a bustling port with quays, magazines, and customs offices; industrial areas with salt vats, textile workshops, pottery kilns, and fish tanks; military installations; temples and later churches and mosques; and public facilities such as baths, theaters, and racetracks. For the better part of the last millennium all these structures, except a temple to Zeus Kassios (a conflation of the Greek god Zeus and the oriental mountain- or weather-god Kassios) and the walls of a fortress, were hidden by sand from the eyes of the site's rare visitors.
According to Herodotus, the pharaoh Psammetichus I (664-610 B.C.) granted his Ionian and Carian mercenaries land lying near the sea below the city of Bubastis on the Pelusiac branch of the Nile. Whether this settlement was Pelusium, however, remains to be seen, as no seventh-century remains have so far been discovered there. During the sixth century B.C. the Persians expanded throughout the Near East, eventually threatening Egypt. Herodotus reports that in 525 B.C. an army led by the Persian king Cambyses trounced the forces of Psammetichus III at Pelusium, but so far no sixth-century remains have been uncovered.
In 373 B.C. the Persian satraps Pharnabazos and Tithrantes attacked Pelusium only to be driven off by the pharaoh Nectanebo I, but 30 years later another Persian king, Artaxerxes III, destroyed an Egyptian army led by Nectanebo II, the last native pharaoh. In 331 B.C., after several years of war, the Persian empire was conquered by Alexander the Great, who was seen by Pelusians as a liberator of Egypt. After Alexander's death in 323 B.C. his general Ptolemy seized Egypt. Kidnapped by Ptolemy, Alexander's body was brought to Pelusium in 321 B.C., inaugurating almost three centuries of Ptolemaic rule. For Pelusium this was a period of prosperity and expansion, but also of war with the Seleucid dynasty, Alexander's successors in Syria. At Pelusium in 48 B.C. Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic queen of Egypt, led an army of Syrian and Arab mercenaries against her brother and husband, Ptolemy XIII. At the same time the civil war between Caesar and Pompey was consuming Rome. Losing at Pharsalos, Pompey fled to Pelusium to seek refuge with the pharaoh. But on September 28 Ptolemy had Pompey murdered and decapitated, then sent the embalmed head to Julius Caesar, who landed at Alexandria in October.
In 30 B.C. Augustus defeated Cleopatra's armies in Egypt, ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and effectively incorporating Egypt into the Roman Empire. That summer he entered Pelusium. The Pax Romana and occasional visits by such emperors as Titus (A.D. 70), Hadrian (130-131), and Septimius Severus (199-200) brought more prosperity to Pelusium. After a great plague in A.D. 524 the city was better known under its Coptic name, Peremoun. In its Arabic version the name is preserved today in the name of the archaeological site, Tell el-Farama, while the nearby village of Balouza retains the ancient name Pelusium. In 619 Pelusium was attacked and conquered by a Persian army under Khuzran, and in 640 it fell into the hands of Amr Ibn al-As, an Arab soldier who had fought with Muhammed in the conquest of Palestine and, in 642, would become the first Muslim governor of Egypt. In the twelfth century the city was attacked by Crusaders, first by King Baldwin of Flanders who died at or near Pelusium in 1118, and later by King Amalric of Jerusalem who led an invasion against Saladin in 1169. After that the city sank into obscurity.
Our team has been working in the western part of the site, a flat area of almost 75 acres less than seven feet above the nearby plain. Groundwater from the surrounding marshes prevents us from digging deep trenches, and winter rains mean that we can only work between late March and October. We have made a surface survey to identify different activity areas and excavated some areas to test our hypotheses about how they were used.
The most common surface find was slag of different colors, most of which seems to be waste from pottery and brick making (black and brownish slag) and glass production (green). In 1992 Ahmed el-Tabai excavated pottery kilns at Pelusium. Bricks were probably made in surface-built structures that only survive today as burnt patches, brick wasters, and slag lying on the ground. We found two clusters of green slag from glass manufacturing and a significant number of glass fragments, almost all of molded bowls. Based on their typology John Hayes has dated them to the late second and first centuries B.C. We excavated near one of the slag clusters, finding not the workshop that we expected, but only a rubbish heap containing mainly potsherds of late Ptolemaic date (ca. 150-50 B.C.), some animal bones, and little else. Elsewhere we excavated near two brick pillars unearthed in 1993 by el-Tabai and tentatively identified as remains of a hippodrome. Since only one hippodrome--that at Antinoe in Middle Egypt--survives in all of Egypt, the discovery of another would be very important. Although we have not been able to verify that the two pillars belong to a hippodrome, potsherds found along with the structure suggest that it dates to the first or second century A.D.
We also found a cemetery of densely packed skeletons dating to the third and second centuries B.C. During the Roman period this area was taken over for industrial installations, as indicated by surface deposits of slag and shells. Other burial grounds were found by Abd el Maksoud near and beneath a Late Roman bath and by the British expedition immediately south of Pelusium. The Swiss-Egyptian team has found what looks like the largest cluster of cemeteries east of Pelusium, near Kanais and Tell el-Makhzan.
We know from papyri that during the Graeco-Roman period Pelusium was a major center for the production and export of salted fish and fish sauce, or garum. Egyptian and British expeditions unearthed several tanks, some round and others square, that might have served this purpose. Pelusium was also famed in antiquity for its textiles, particularly its dyed linens. Recently we found several clusters of murex shells, the shells of a kind of snail that was commonly used for purple dye.
One of the most famous documents of Graeco-Roman Egypt, Papyrus Zenon I 59012, dated May-June 259 B.C., contains a list of imported goods presented to customs authorities in Pelusium. We learn from this account that wine, oil, honey, and other items were imported from various eastern Mediterranean islands. Indeed 20 percent of the nearly 600 pounds of fragmentary vessels found in the Late Ptolemaic layers of our first test-pit were amphorae from Rhodes, Kos, and Knidos. Sixty percent were of local, Nile Valley manufacture, and some were of Sinai and Palestinian types. In Roman layers Aegean types were replaced by Sinai types, perhaps indicating that Sinai and Palestine replaced the eastern Mediterranean islands as Pelusium's main trade partners.
The most impressive monument at Pelusium is a 20-acre fortress with 36 towers, three gates, and seven-foot-thick walls. It has recently been studied by Egyptian and German experts, who have dated it to the late sixth century A.D. based on its architectural style. Traces of destruction by fire are still visible and may have been caused during the Persian invasion of A.D. 619. Where were earlier fortresses, such as the one defended by a cavalry unit stationed at Pelusium during the reign of Diocletian (A.D. 284-305)? Perhaps earlier remains visible below one of the gates date to that period.
More research is also needed on Pelusiac religion, its curious onion taboo, and sacred architecture. The cult of Zeus Kassios, Pelusium's main deity, seems to have originated in Syria as a Graeco-Roman adaptation of the Semitic god Baal Zephon. St. Jerome and the second-century B.C. Greek philosopher and physician made disparaging remarks about Pelusiac priests of Kassios, who refused to eat onions and garlic, which were known to cause flatulence and thus were associated with demons. A fragment of a dedicatory inscription naming Emperor Hadrian, discovered by Jean Cledat, suggests that the temple of Zeus Kassios at Pelusium was erected in the second century A.D.
Today Pelusium is no longer a forgotten city in a far corner of Egypt. There is a good chance that much of it will be saved and studied, perhaps even becoming a tourist attraction.