Cutting-Edge Technology Opens a Window on Ancient Egyptian City


This is a typical Nile Delta farming village, its simple mud-brick houses sitting along dirt roads amid the green carpeting of rice and corn fields.

Yet there’s grandeur here--a vast, buried metropolis from millenniums ago that was discovered by German archeologists using cutting-edge imaging technology.

The exploration team believes the site is the long-lost capital of Ramses II, a mighty pharaoh who lived more than 3,200 years ago.

Working with magnetic imaging equipment used by geophysicists to search for oil, the archeologists have mapped an underground city they estimate spread over 12 square miles.


It “is so vast and so big that there are no words to describe it,” said Edgar Pusch, head of the archeological team from the Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany. “Something like this has never been detected before in Egypt.”

The computer plottings produced by the team show winding streets, structures that look like small houses, spacious buildings, palaces and a lake shore in ghostly white lines on black.

Among the marvels are a huge stable with attached royal chariot and arms factories.

“This stable is an amazing thing,” Pusch said.

Covering nearly 185,000 square feet, the stable had six identical rows of halls connected to a vast courtyard. Each hall had 12 rooms, each 40 feet long. The floors sloped down to holes for collecting horse urine that Pusch speculates was used in dyeing cloth, softening leather and fertilizing vineyards.

Pusch said the stable held up to 460 horses, making it “the largest ever ancient stable.”

West of the stable is the chariotry, where light, two-wheeled war chariots were manufactured and maintained. Numerous reliefs on temple and tomb walls show such chariots pulled by two horses and ridden by two soldiers. Ramses II himself was depicted riding one.

An arms assembly line is nearby. Pusch’s team has dug up chariot parts, arrow shafts, flint arrowheads, javelin heads, daggers and bronze scales of body armor.


The scientists dug in only a few spots, then calculated the rest of a structure’s outlines. “If we excavated all this, we would need a lifetime,” Pusch said.

For the most part, the team relies on the magnetic images to look at the ancient city.

When small areas are excavated, they are filled back in so farming can resume. Pusch said the village cannot be quarantined as a historic site.

“What could be done is to open ‘excavation windows’ in certain very interesting areas like a villa or a house,” he said.


He also envisions a local museum to house objects dug from the site, models of the whole city and three-dimensional, computerized images reconstructing the city.

Historians know Ramses II moved ancient Egypt’s capital from the south, known as Upper Egypt, to the Nile Delta.

Pusch believes Ramses II moved the capital to Qantir to escape the powerful priests who resided in the south and also to be close to the coasts of Turkey and Syria.

“It was ideal for him and his military campaigns to have a post like this,” Pusch said.


Some statues, texts and remains of pottery had pointed to the ancient capital’s being near the cluster of villages around Qantir, about 60 miles northeast of Cairo. Qantir had been excavated on and off since the 1920s without ever before yielding much.

Rather than dig up colossal amounts of mud and disturb farming, Pusch called on Egyptian and German geophysicists to help map the grounds using an ultra-sensitive, portable cesium magnetometer. The technique is akin to looking into a person’s chest through an X-ray image, only on a much grander scale.

Transferred to computers, the readings become lines and shapes like a blueprint of a building.

Magnetic mapping has been used for oil prospecting and military uses like detecting submarines from the air, said Helmut Becker of the Bavarian State Authority for Monument Conservation.


A serious application to archeology has existed only since 1994, and the team working in Qantir is only the second such in the world after Austria-based experts, Becker added.

The technique is used in Qantir only a few days each year, depending on the availability of geophysicists. Since 1996 about 810,000 square feet have been covered, or one-15th of the total area, Pusch said.

“We need another 10 years to finish” the city center alone, he said.

Producing the magnetic images has so far cost more than $2 million, with most of the money provided by the German government.


“It gives us one of the best chances to look into everyday life of ancient Egypt in an area which has not been investigated so deeply until now,” Pusch said.