Just outside the village of San Al Hagar, 70km northeast of Zagazig, are the partly excavated ruins of Tanis, a city known as Djanet to the ancient Egyptians and Zoan to the Hebrews. Some call it the Saqqara of the Delta because of its impressive scale. Although it is not so well preserved as that ruin and only shattered remnants of its temples remain, the statuary, obelisks and stelae scattered across the vast sands here are incredibly atmospheric.
For several centuries Tanis was one of the largest cities in the Delta, and became a site of great importance after the end of the New Kingdom, especially during the Late Period (747–332 BC).
The earliest buildings at Tanis are from the reign of Psusennes I (1039–991 BC), who surrounded the Temple of Amun with a great enclosure wall. His royal tomb and five others from the 21st dynasty were unearthed by the French in 1939, and the treasures are some of the most spectacular ever found in Egypt. The trove, which includes gorgeous jewellery, is on view in the Egyptian Museum. Psusennes I and later kings reused blocks and statues from earlier eras – so much of the stone actually dates from the Old and Middle Kingdoms. His successors added a temple to Mut, Khons and the Asiatic goddess Astarte, together with a sacred lake, and temple building continued until Ptolemaic times.
With Egypt's glut of Pharaonic sites, Tanis rightly falls low on the priority list for Egyptology fans, but for those with plenty of time on their hands, a visit here is rewarding. Cinema buffs are also quick to point out that Tanis is where Indiana Jones discovered the ‘Lost Ark’.
Local site guide, Ezzat, is usually found at the ticket office and is well worth touring the site with (tip appreciated). You won't get an in-depth rundown on Tanis' history, but he's very knowledgeable about the hieroglyphs on display and can point out many of the details you would otherwise miss if you were rambling the site by yourself. Some readers have run into aggressive wild dogs here. Although the only dogs we saw on our last visit were woeful specimens, this is another good reason to accept Ezzat's services rather than go it alone in this huge site.
You can reach Tanis by taking a microbus or East Delta bus from Ulali or Abboud in Cairo (LE15, two hours) to the town of Faqus, which is about 35km south of Tanis. From Faqus, take a service taxi or bus (LE5 to LE7) to the village of San Al Hagar, or hire a taxi (LE35) to take you to the site.
Alternatively, and much more slowly and with much more dust, the train takes about 3½ hours to get to Abu Kabir (LE20), the nearest station to Faqus. These old, non-air-con trains leave from the far east end of Cairo’s Ramses Station (ask for ‘Sharq’ or ‘Limun’) approximately every two hours. If you’re coming from Zagazig, the train is slightly more appealing. It takes just 45 minutes to Abu Kabir, and there are more options, with service every hour or so.