The Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham Project

About the Project


The fortress-town of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast 280 km west of Alexandria, has been excavated by Steven Snape for the University of Liverpool since 1994. It is clear that this fortress town, known to its occupants as ‘The Town (dmi) of Usermaatre-Setepenre’, was intended for long-term and extensive occupation because of its size and the range of buildings within its massive mud-brick exterior wall. This wall, 140m along each side, had a single towered gate with a fragmentary inscription referring to mnnw-fortresses – a type of heavily defended dmi/town, which is an accurate description of the archaeological remains of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham.

Inside the fortress-town, the Egyptian occupants erected a limestone temple, a series of storerooms and a ‘governor’s residence’, which included a private chapel. Inscribed objects from the temple and other private chapels next to it tell us that the fortress was garrisoned by probably over 500 soldiers at any one time and that their commander was a senior military official called Neb-Re. The extent to which these soldiers brought their families with them to this most distant posting in the Egyptian empire, and the extent to which they might have fraternised with the local population, is one of the major research questions being studied by the Liverpool team. The life of the town was relatively short, being abandoned either before or shortly after the death of its founder, Ramesses II, briefly occupied by ‘Libyan’ squatters, and then completely unoccupied until the present day.

This fortress-town may have been partly supplied by transport barges from the Nile Delta, perhaps especially in the early phases of its building and occupation, and exotic foreign products such as olive oil, wine and (probably) opium arrived by sea courtesy of maritime traders travelling between Crete and Egypt. However, the long-term survival of the town and its population relied much more on self-sufficiency, especially in terms of food production. Water – the most critical requirement – was supplied by a series of wells (two have so far been excavated) and, possibly, by the water-harvesting of rainfall in cisterns.

Production findings

Evidence for various types of production comes from ‘Area K’, which took up a substantial portion of the southeast corner of the town. Here a series of granaries, mortars, saddle-querns, quern-rubbers/grinders and ovens (along with one of the wells) provided all that was needed to turn grain into flour, bread and beer, the main dietary staples.

The grain itself would probably have been grown in fields on the fertile coastal strip outside the walls of the town, and watered by winter rainfall. In addition, ‘Area K’ has also produced both spindle whorls and ‘spinning-bowls’, which are associated with the spinning of linen, also sourced locally through the cultivation of flax.

In addition to consumption by the population of the town, the products of ‘Area K’ – including beer and linen, as well as pottery and metal objects produced in other parts of the town – could have been traded with local Libyan pastoralists in return for additional food, perhaps explaining the goat bones and ostrich eggshells that have been found in large numbers at the site.

International interest in the site

The site of Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham has attracted considerable international interest as a point of Egyptian control for coastal landfalls of seagoing merchants making the crossing from Crete to Egypt, part of the great cyclic trading system of the Late Bronze Age.

Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham has produced good primary evidence for the material culture of the ‘Libyan’ Bronze Age, long-distance trade (high-quality prestige imports and foreign ceramics found in significant quantities) and the best evidence for a well-preserved Egyptian fortress of the New Kingdom (including a find-rich residential area).

Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham is a unique opportunity to work on first-rate primary material relating to currently significant issues in the archaeology of the Near East/Eastern Mediterranean, including international trading systems in the Late Bronze Age, the archaeology of imperial peripheries, and nomadic interaction with agrarian states.