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Taposiris Magna on Lake Mariut South of Alexandria, Egypt


Taposiris Magna on Lake Mariut

South of Alexandria, Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

The enclosure walls of the Osiris temple at Taposiris Magna

Taposiris Magna, one of the ancient towns located on Lake Mariut, is today called Abusir. Its ancient name implies that it was a tomb of Osiris, and therefore was considered to be one of numerous places where one of the scattered parts of that god's body was buried after being dismembered by his brother Seth. Isis, of course, also had a strong following in the Taposiris. The town site may have been inhabited since Predynastic times, and during the Persian Period in Egypt, it became the capital of the petty kingdom of Marea. Among the city's many claims to fame is that it is home to the oldest known wine press and one of the earliest constructed bridges.


Plan of the Temple of Osiris

Strabo mentions the site, and tells us that it is a city "which is not on the sea and holds a great public festival". It was also known to geographers such as Pseudo-Scylax of Caryanda (c. 350 BC) and Claudius Ptolemaeus (second century AD), and it was indicated on the tabula peutingeriana, a map of the ancient world copied in 1265 from an original that probably dated back to the second century. Napoleon's scholars recorded its monuments in 1801.

The great festival alluded to by Strabo was almost certainly the ceremonies honoring Osiris, one of Egypt's most important ancient gods. The ruins of his temple that crown a ridge of rocks that separate the lake from the sea remain substantial. The enclosure wall that measured 100 by 85 meters with two meter this walls still rise to a height of ten meters. There are two pylons on the eastern wall, and inside are staircases and service rooms. The construction of the sanctuary in this temple is attributed to Ptolemy II.

Another view of the Temple of Osiris at Taposiris Magna

However, the temple that once stood in the center of the enclosure is now gone. It was replaced by a church in the fourth century. However, the Ptolemic temple must have been of the Doric style, as attested to by the column fragments that were reused in more recent construction inside the enclosure. Saint-Genis confirmed this in 1801, and Marseillais Pascal Coste, a generation later, writes that"

"...all the way round this ruin and in its center one sees fragments of capitals, of cornices with triglyphs, fluted column drums 55 cm in diameter and other details of the Greek Doric. This supports the assumption that this building is of the Ptolemaic period."

The pylons of the temple of Osiris at Taposiris Magna

At the base of the enclosure wall are a series of small rooms, as well as some flights of steps that gave access to the top of the walls. We believe that this is what is left of a Roman military camp.

Along the summit of the rocky ridge is the city necropolis and the quarries, which were worked into the nineteenth century. This soft limestone has been worked since antiquity, but during modern times, this work has damaged some of the surrounding tombs. Here, there are simple pits barely large enough to hold a man, as well as shaft grave with a square opening sunk five or six meters down into the rock that gave access to lateral chambers.

The largest tombs located here have a corridor that is cut into the rock that in turn leads to an atrium and to subterranean rooms, some of which were very large. Unfortunately, the sarcophagi have now disappeared. However, above one of these large tombs, one local citizen raised a very interesting monument. It appears to be a replica of Pharos, the famous lighthouse at Alexandria considered to be the Seventh Wonder of the Ancient World. It consists of three tiers of carefully dressed small blocks of local limestone. The base is square, followed by an octagonal section and then a cylindrical one, in the same order as the Phraos.

The scale replica of the Pharos Lighthouse at Taposiris Magna

This landmark stands some 30 meters high, making it about a fourth or fifth the size of the original. A staircase within gave access to the summit. Originally, there may have even been some sort of light installed as a beacon, but irregardless, it must have been an important navigational landmark by sailors on both the lake and the sea, for it can be seen from a distance on all sides. In fact, it shows as a landmark on the charts of the British Admiralty.

Another view of the replica of the Pharos Lighthouse at Taposiris Magna

Taposiris itself faces the lake, not the nearby sea. It should be understood that the towns main commercial actives were directed towards wares in transit on Lake Mariut and over land routes. The ruins of the town cover more than a square kilometer and are almost completely unexcavated. The tops of the walls of buildings show through on the surface just about everywhere. The mudbrick ruins of the town contain remains of public baths, built by the Emperor Justinian, as well as oil presses, other domestic structures and dwellings, some decorated with plaster and mosaics.

The layout of the lakeshore here is interesting. A long breakwater built some three meters above the level of the lake extends from north to south for over 300 meters. The northern end of the breakwater is joined to the southern shore by a wall that barricades the basin and prevents all movement. Hence, boats were required to pass beneath a bridge which connected the breakwater to the northern shore. These structures clearly were used to facilitate traffic control and tax collection. Like Schedia, about thirty kilometers to the east, is probably served as a customs checkpoint for boats coming from or going to Alexandria. In fact, the existence of a long wall, known as the wall of the Barbarians, which blocks the onshore route to the west of the temple of Osiris, confirms that Taposiris' main function was that of a customs station. This wall, which is made from large blocks of local limestone during the Greek Period is still visible. It ran from the sea to the lake, thus blocking the way of caravans traveling in both directions.

A team of Hungarians very recently unearthed a small cache of gold coins minted in Constantinope and a gold bracelet decorated with nine crosses. The coins bear the bust of the Byzantine Emperor Maurice Tiberius who ruled from 582 to 602 AD. Another is graced by the Byzantine Emperor Hercules on one side and his son Hercules Constantine on the other. The Byzantine Emperor Phocas, who ruled from 602 to 610, appears on the other two coins. A well preserved black granite bust of the goddess Isis, depicted in the Greek style with a wig of curls has also been found in the temple area.

Only a kilometer to the east is another small Greek town which was called Plinthine.

The site which had previously been somewhat neglected is now undergoing preservation by the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

See also:

References:


Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Alexandria, City of the Western Mind

Vrettos, Theodore

2001

Free Press, The

ISBN 0-7432-0569-3

Alexandria Rediscovered

Empereur, Jean-Yves

1998

British Museum Press

ISBN 0-7141-1921-0

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France

None Stated

Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, The

Redford, Donald B. (Editor)

2001

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 581 4

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