Kemet Klub

The rise and fall of Piramesses


Dr Henning Franzmeier
2 Sunday afternoons. 3rd and 17th December 2023

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The Rise and Fall of Piramesses

2x Sunday afternoons. 3rd and 17th December
Times: 2-5 pm (UK Times) to join live.

We love to see you for the live lectures, but if you have to miss one, don't worry, you can of course catch up (or watch again) at your leisure via the recordings. You will have access to the recorded lectures for a whole month after the last live lecture. Recordings will be available until 22nd January.

This class tells the story of the site of ancient Piramesse, modern Qantir in the Eastern Nile Delta. As the capital of Ramesside Egypt, it was a place of utmost importance not only for the history of Egypt but of the whole Late Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean, an epoch currently much in focus thanks to some seemingly obvious parallels to the modern era: international trade and diplomacy on a previously unknown scale, potential climate change and migration, finally leading to a collapse. The city is mentioned in several texts and the biblical “Ramsis”, the setting of the story of Moses, is a reflection of the city’s grandeur in the cultural memory of the three large monotheistic religions. This raised a huge interest in Piramesse but paradoxically, in contrast to so many well-known sites in Egypt, this city which was one of the largest urban settlements of the whole Ancient Egyptian history, had seemingly vanished from the surface.

Since 1980 the Qantir-Piramesse Project has been permanently working on-site.  In these 43 years our picture of the ancient metropolis changed considerably, adding also to our general knowledge of New Kingdom Egypt.

1)Why was a new capital founded? The historic setting of Piramesse

The city of Piramesse was not founded on virgin soil as Akhetaten, the capital of Akhenaten. Nevertheless, the development of the place in the North of ancient Avaris which had been the capital of the Hyksos in the Second Intermediate Period, meant both a huge investment and a significant historical break. To understand the reasons, it is necessary to have a look into the historic developments of the period at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th Dynasty. After Tutankhamun, three persons without a direct family link to the previous ruler ascended the throne: Ay,  Horemheb, and Ramesses I. Already Helck coined these three rulers and also the later Ramesside kings “military dictators” who based their legitimation on the army and not on their families. It is in this context that Ramesses II or probably already his father Seti I choose to move their capital. While this has mostly been explained by the family relations to the Eastern Nile Delta and military/strategic reasons, it should also be explained as a concentration of power by the new dynasty who at the beginning of Ramesses II rule might have still not been as stable as one might guess in retrospective, seeing the 67-year rule of the king.

2) Where is Piramesse? The history of research from the 19th century to 1980  As the city of “Ramsis” has been mentioned in the bible, serving as background to the story of the Exodus, Egyptologists discussed the reality behind this story since the beginnings of Egyptology. Once the texts could be read, it seemed obvious that there was indeed a historic city of that very name: Pi-Ramesse, the “house of Ramesse”. As we know today, the ancient city is located beneath the modern village of Qantir, about 10 kilometers north of Faqus in the province of Sharqiyah. But on the surface next to nothing is visible and thus the early Egyptologists tried to identify other places as Piramesse, most notably Tanis, about 25 kilometers north of Qantir. Here many monuments are visible which belong to Ramesside kings.

Only in 1930 the Egyptian Egyptologist Mahmoud Hamza proposed the identification of Qantir with Piramesse based upon the results of his excavations, conducted in 1928. His ideas were met with reservation by many Egyptologists, most notably Sir Alan H. Gardiner and Pierre Montet, the excavator of Tanis. Only after the works of Labib Habachi in 1954 and Manfred Bietak in 1975, Qantir was finally accepted as location of ancient Piramesse.

3) Bronze, horses and a magnetic map: Work at Piramesses between 1980 and 2012. In 1980 excavations started at Qantir by the mission of the Roemer- and Pelizaeus-Museum in Hildesheim, in the first years in connection with the Austrian Archaeological Institute. Edgar Pusch directed the project from its beginnings until 2014, excavating at seven different sites and conducting a large-scale magnetic survey, covering about 1.5 square kilometers. His findings included a proto-industrial production site for copper alloys, workshops for the production of weaponry, the royal stables, and an official building or Ramesses II where in 2003 a fragment of a cuneiform tablet was found. Many finds point out in an exceptional way the connections of Piramesse with all the contemporary cultures and states in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.

Due to the difficult conditions in the Nile Delta (high groundwater table, unfired mudbricks which are almost indistinguishable in Nile silt), only about 0.25% of the city center has been excavated. For this reason, already in 1996, a magnetic survey was started which shows many further elements of the city. For the first time a plan can be created of parts of the city, based on archaeological evidence and not only upon the texts which mention the city and some buildings such as temples.

4) Palace(s) and Drones: Recent results from Piramesses. Since 2016 a new site is under excavation at Qantir. Based upon the results of the magnetic survey, the largest structure visible in the plans was chosen. On an area of 150 x 250 meters long rectangular structures, probably storerooms were visible and in the center a structure which resembles either a palace or a temple. In four seasons of fieldwork and two study seasons about 1.200 square meters were excavated and the finds processed. The results now allow for an identification of the building visible in the magnetic map as a palace and several strata can be differentiated, showing the urban development in the excavated area during the 19th Dynasty. Before the palace, another most likely palatial building and a large villa occupied the site. Most important is the find of painted plasters, pertaining to the decoration of walls and floors.

Dr Henning Franzmeier

Dr Henning Franzmeier has worked at Qantir-Piramesse for the past 18 years and has directed the excavations since 2015. Over the past ten years he has also taught at UCL Qatar in Doha, the University of Innsbruck, and the University of Bologna.

In 2014 he received his PhD from the Free University of Berlin with a thesis on the New Kingdom cemeteries at the Middle Egyptian site of Sedment – a reassessment of the 1920/21 excavations of William Matthew Flinders Petrie. His MA thesis at the University of Göttingen dealt with a well of Ramesses II at Samana near Qantir-Piramesse.

His interests range from settlement archaeology to the history of Egyptology and the analysis of funerary assemblages


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