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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Largest Pharaoh-Era Fortress Discovered

The largest known fortress from ancient Egypt's days of the pharaohs has been unearthed near the Suez Canal, archaeologists announced on Sunday.

The massive fortress, discovered at a site called Tell-Huba, includes the graves of soldiers and horses and once featured a giant water-filled moat, scientists said.

The discovery dates back to ancient Egypt's struggle to reconquer the northern Sinai Peninsula from an occupying force known as the Hyksos (see Egypt map).

The campaign against the Hyksos was depicted in etchings on the ancient walls of the Karnak Temple, 450 miles (720 kilometers) south of Cairo.

Archaeologists said the new find shows those stone-chiseled tales to be surprisingly accurate.

"The bones of humans and horses found in the area attest dramatically to the reality of such battles," said Zahi Hawass, director general of Egypt's Supreme Council for Antiquities (SCA).

"Previously, the area was known only from depictions in temples elsewhere in Egypt. We had no first-hand evidence of what was happening there during the pharaonic period."

The discovery was part of a broader effort called the North Sinai Archaeological Project, which was started in 1991 to identify and protect archaeological sites that were threatened by an industrial agriculture project.

The fort, called Fort Tjaru (or Tharo), was unearthed by a team led by Mohammed Abdul Maqsoud of the SCA. The fort dates from the 18th and 19th Dynasties (from 1560 to 1081 B.C.).

Ancient Empires Clash

Tjaru's mud brick walls were 42 feet (13 meters) thick, enclosing an area 546 yards (500 meters) by 273 yards (250 meters). Twenty-four watchtowers loomed over the parapets. A deep moat ringed the entire complex.

It was the biggest in a chain of 11 fortresses that stretched from Suez to the present-day city of Rafah on Egypt's border with the Palestinian territories

The formidable defenses were built on bitter experience.

In the 17th century B.C., a people known as the Hyksos invaded from Canaan, sweeping across the Sinai to rule over the Nile Delta and northern Egypt.

The Hyksos' reign faded about a hundred years later. Subsequent pharaohs cast a wary eye to the east and militarized the northern Sinai.

By the reign of Ramses II, who ruled from 1279 to 1213 B.C., a new enemy was on the horizon: the Hittites, who came from present-day Turkey and battled the Egyptians until around 1258 B.C.

"The fort, built to secure the entrance to the Delta and protect Ramses II's city of Piramesse, demonstrates the importance to the Egyptians of securing the eastern border," Hawass said.

"The need to protect Egypt's eastern frontier was made clear by the invasion of the Hyksos, who were able to cross the desert into Egypt and establish themselves as rulers in the Delta region."

Much of this maneuvering is described at Karnak, the massive temple complex near Luxor.

(Download a wallpaper photo of the temple at Karnak.)

"The most surprising thing about the fort is how accurately its architecture was depicted [at Karnak]," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence.

"The archaeologists have found evidence of the exact buildings shown, as well as of the moat which surrounded the citadel and of the large, wooden beams which spanned it."

An expedition led by archaeologist James Hoffmeier of Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, unearthed a smaller fort known as the Lion's Lair about four miles (seven kilometers) east of Tjaru at Tell el-Borg.

(Read related story" "Ancient Egypt Cities Leveled by Massive Volcano, Lava Find Suggests" [April 2, 2007].)

Another small fortress 7 miles (15 kilometers) away was unearthed by a French team.

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