Giant Fortress's Remains Found in Egypt

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2008
Archaeologists have uncovered more remnants from Tharu, the largest known fortified city in ancient Egypt, which sits near the modern-day border town of Rafah.

The fortress, also known as Tjaru or Tharo, covered about 31 acres (13 hectares), Egyptian authorities say. Its discovery near the Suez Canal was announced in July 2007.

Tharu helped guard the empire's eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula and served as a military cornerstone for Egypt's ancient leaders.

"It was built [more than] 3,000 years ago, and it was an important and strategic point," said Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The fort's remains were found as part of a project that began in 1986 to explore the "Horus Way," an ancient military road that connected 11 fortresses linking Egypt and Palestine.

The path also served as an entry point for traders coming from Asia.

"This is the only way to enter Egypt by land coming from the east," said Fayza Haikal, a professor of archaeology and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "It was the way not only for armies but also commercial [expeditions]."

So far Egyptian authorities have discovered four fortresses along the Horus Way, which essentially formed the same line as Egypt's current eastern border (see map).

Home of Kings

Among the ruins, archaeologists uncovered reliefs depicting several pharaohs—including Thutmose II, who reigned from 1492 to 1479 B.C.; Seti I, who ruled from 1294 to 1279 B.C.; and Ramses II, ruler from 1279 to 1213 B.C.

This indicates that the fort was one of the most important locations in ancient Egypt.

"All of the kings arrived here," Abdel-Maqsoud said. "The inscriptions we found explain this."

The Thutmose relief is thought to be the first such royal monument to be found in Sinai, suggesting that he may have built a fort in the area, according to Egyptian officials.

Earlier studies suggest that Seti I built Tharu in the area of Thutmose's original fort. That is a common occurrence in Sinai, where buildings from many eras can be found stacked atop each other, the American University's Haikal said.

(Related: "Egypt's Earliest Farming Village Found" [February 12, 2008].)

Tharu subsequently served as the headquarters for Egypt's vast military empires.

The fort lasted for at least a thousand years after Seti's death, including periods of rule by the Greeks and Romans.

Double Fortification

Tharu stood for a millennium mostly for one reason: its size. Its walls stretched 1,640 feet (500 meters) long and 820 feet (250 meters) wide.

"A fortification like that, with the Nile also—it must have been very difficult to attack Egypt," Abdel-Maqsoud said.

Tharu's walls were lined with towers 66 feet (20 meters) wide and 13 feet (4 meters) tall that overlooked the east bank of a now desiccated tributary of the Nile.

Sketches of Tharu from the north outside wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak indicate the fort may even have included a moat filled with crocodiles.

In addition to its own troops, weapons, and horses, Tharu may have supplied all the troops following the Horus Way with food and water.

Archaeologists discovered rows of large granaries that had their own extra fortifications, just in case enemies breached the exterior defenses.

Tharu's reputation for defense eventually earned it a new name, Hedwa, which means "to walk on the ground while looking in every direction."

"The Egyptians were never defeated here," Abdel-Maqsoud said.

"If you want to pass through this area you must hide yourself," he added. "You must walk on your hands and knees."

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