Cat goddess city reopens
At the Tell Basta Open-Air Museum in the Sharqiya governorate stands a beautiful colossus of the Pharaoh Ramses II’s daughter Meritamun. This week, she welcomed visitors who had flocked to the site to witness the reopening of the museum after eight years of closure.
The museum is the second open-air site museum to be established in Egypt after the Imhotep Museum in Saqqara. It is a one-storey building using a straightforward architectural style and is built in stone to suit the natural environment. It is surrounded by a large collection of ancient Egyptian remains that once formed the ancient city of the cat goddess Bastet.
The interior design of the museum is also straightforward, but it displays a very rich collection of 600 artefacts relating the history of Tell Basta and nearby Zagazig. All the objects were unearthed from archaeological sites in the Sharqiya governorate.
During the reopening ceremony, Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany announced that visits to the museum would be free this week to celebrate the museum’s long-awaited reopening and to encourage Sharqiya inhabitants to visit the site, raising their cultural and archaeological awareness.
He said that the ministry had started the construction of the museum in 2006, but that work had stopped in 2010. At the end of 2017 the work had resumed and had now been completed to a budget of LE3.7 million. It includes the interior design of the museum showcasing the history of Sharqiya and the excavation work that has been carried out within it. New lighting and security systems have been installed and new showcases made for the artefacts along with descriptive panels on the history of Sharqiya.
Elham Salah, head of the Museums Sector at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the objects on display had come from archaeological excavations in Sharqiya. They include a collection of marble canopic jars, terracotta statuettes, clay pots of different shapes and sizes, domestic instruments, coins, statuettes, tombstones, offering tables and jewellery. One of the showcases is devoted to Sharqiya’s main ancient Egyptian deity, the cat goddess Bastet.
The Tell Basta Museum also contains a collection of artefacts scattered across the site. In ancient times, it was situated on the Pelusiac and Tannic branches of the Nile as it was the capital of a major district. It was strategically a very important city, from which trading missions to Sinai to bring turquoise and copper departed as well as military campaigns to Asia. During the reign of the 22nd-Dynasty Pharaoh Osorkon II Tell Basta, or its ancient name Bubastis, gained an important political status.
When the ancient Greek historian Herodotus visited the site in the mid-fifth century BCE the city was still in its heyday, and he described its temples as “the largest, most costly and most pleasant to look at”. He gave a lively account of the annual festival at the site, believed to have been a large feast.
The ancient site was also visited by the scholars accompanying Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798, who described the Bastet Temple as the “glowing temple”. Pictures of the ancient capital were also made by British Egyptologist and traveller John Gardner Wilkinson, who visited Tell Basta in 1840.
Between 1887 and 1889, Swiss Egyptologist Henri Edouard Naville carried out an archaeological survey at Tell Basta and traced the various layers of the main temple’s development and was able to confirm earlier descriptions of its size and magnificence. He recorded that the edifice was 180m long with a court built by Osorkon II, a festival gateway, and various other shrines.
Most of the structures, he noted, had been built in the 22nd-Dynasty architectural style, and some blocks in the structure bore the names of Fourth-Dynasty kings, attesting to its early development. Naville unearthed fine pieces of statuary that were sent to the British Museum in London, as well as an enormous cat cemetery filled with thousands of mummified animals along with beautiful bronze statuettes of the sacred cat.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Tell Basta subsequently suffered the fate of many ancient Delta cities. Its great monuments were used as quarries and stripped of limestone for the construction of modern buildings, and, as attested by the number of chips that dot the landscape, for millstones.
In 1904 when the government started to establish a railway link between Cairo, Mansoura and Belbeis a large section of land to the west of Tell Basta was cut off. In 1906, it was said that workmen found two hoards of gold and silver and hid the treasure and divided it among themselves. By the time the news reached the then Egyptian Antiquities Service it was only able to recover part of the treasure, including a silver jug with a gold goat handle now in the Egyptian Museum.
Other treasures were also found, including a collection of coins that is now in the Egyptian Museum. Gold and silver objects found at the site date to the Saite Period and to the earlier reign of Ramses II.
In 1943, a military road to connect Port Said with Alexandria via Mit Ghamr was dug traversing the site. The once beautiful temple became a mass of broken papyrus bud columns, pillars and lintels. Blocks of stone with inscribed texts were impacted into the earth, and the area was systematically depleted for raw materials to make bricks for houses in the ever-expanding urban area surrounding it.
About 37 feddans of the archaeological site were handed over to the municipality of Zagazig for agricultural development and to serve as the site of a drainage installation for a farm.
The late Egyptian archaeologist Labib Habashi then excavated the site and found some statues and traces of a Roman temple, as well as a 20th-Dynasty mound. He also uncovered a large block of limestone and a beautiful relief of the Old Kingdom ruler Pepi I with various deities.
This was a remarkable find, since little was known about Old or Middle Kingdom temples at the time apart from funerary monuments attached to royal burials. Various four-sided pillars were also found, some bearing vertical inscriptions and the cartouche of Pepi I. Studies confirmed that Tell Basta had been an important city as early as the Old Kingdom, and Pepi’s monument proved to be a soul, or ka, temple.
The ancient city of Bubastis provides an example of how an important ancient Egyptian Delta city was slowly and systematically destroyed in modern times until little remained amidst the expansion of neighbouring Zagazig apart from miscellaneous architectural elements, broken stelae and statues.
The importance of the site cannot be underestimated, however. Excavations have revealed settlements dating to much earlier than hitherto were constructed, and the site was already an important settlement at the end of the Pre-Dynastic Period before the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Bubastis later lost its importance or was destroyed during one of the recurring later invasions of the Delta. By the Roman period, it was no more than a small town, and when Bilbeis about 20km to the south became an important town, stone was taken to build it from the remaining ruins of Bubastis.
Photos here: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/23971.aspx
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