Photo: Ruins at Tanis, Egypt

The city of Tanis is relatively unknown among Egypt's wealth of historical sites, though it yielded one of the greatest archeological troves ever found. Once the capital of all Egypt, Tanis's royal tombs have yielded artifacts on par with the treasures of Tutankhamun.

Photograph by O. Louis Mazzatenta

By Brian Handwerk

The treasures found in the "lost city" of Tanis rival those of King Tut's. Yet for more than six decades the riches from its rulers' tombs have remained largely unknown.

Many who know of Tanis at all remember the city as portrayed in the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the famous film the city was buried by a catastrophic ancient sandstorm and rediscovered by Nazis searching for the Ark of the Covenant.

In reality, the Ark was never hidden in Tanis, the sandstorm didn't happen, and the Nazis never battled Indiana Jones in the site's ruins. But the true tale of Tanis is also fit for the silver screen.

A City Vanishes

Tanis was known by many names. Ancient Egyptians called it Djanet, and the Old Testament refers to the site as Zoan. Today it's called Sân el-Hagar.

The site, in the Nile Delta northeast of Cairo, was capital of the 21st and 22nd dynasties, during the reign of the Tanite kings in Egypt's Third Intermediate period.

The city's advantageous location enabled it to become a wealthy commercial center long before the rise of Alexandria. But political fortunes shifted, and so did the river's waters—and in recent centuries the Tanis site had became a silted plain with some hill-like mounds thought to be of little interest.

It was known that the ancient city was hidden somewhere in the area, but not where.

"People kept trying to identify different places with it," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at American University in Cairo and a National Geographic Society grantee.

Egypt's "intermediate periods" were times of weak central government when power was divided and sometimes passed out of Egyptian hands. During this time the rulers of Tanis were of Libyan decent, not scions of traditional Egyptian families. That distinction may have contributed to the city's disappearance in later years.

"It's not like the Valley of the Kings, where everyone knew they'd been burying [pharaohs] for ten generations or so," said David Silverman, an Egyptologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

Lost, Then Found

In 1939 a French archaeologist named Pierre Montet brought Tanis into the 20th century after nearly a dozen years of excavations. He unearthed a royal tomb complex that included three intact and undisturbed burial chambers—a rare and marvelous find.

The tombs held dazzling funereal treasures such as golden masks, coffins of silver, and elaborate sarcophagi. Other precious items included bracelets, necklaces, pendants, tableware, and amulets.

Statues, vases, and jars also filled the tombs, all part of an array that still bears witness, after thousands of years, to the power and wealth of Tanis's rulers.

One of the kings, Sheshonq II, was unknown before Montet discovered his burial chamber. But he wore elaborate jewelry that once adorned the more famous Sheshonq I, who is mentioned in the Bible.

"That shows you that [the kings of Tanis] were very important at least during that time period," Silverman said of the biblical reference.

Tanis was found largely as it was abandoned, so the city is home to many archaeological treasures in addition to the tombs. Temples, including a Temple of Amun and a Temple of Horus, have been found. Even urban districts of the ancient city remain, and the site continues to host archaeological expeditions in search of more finds.

With so much to discover, how did Montet succeed so spectacularly where others had failed?

"It takes somebody who is really persevering to conquer the odds," Silverman said. "Pierre Montet worked very, very hard to finally discover what is referred to in the Bible—what was known from contemporary history but had been lost."

But if Montet's achievements were extraordinary, his timing was atrocious. His discovery of Tanis was completely overshadowed by the nearly simultaneous eruption of World War II.

Even today, few know the tale of the treasures Montet discovered. And though the objects reside in Cairo's Egyptian Museum, they draw far fewer visitors than their more famous counterparts.

"Had the Second World War not intervened, the royal burials of Tanis would have been as well, if not better, known that the tomb of Tutankhamun," Ikram notes.

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