general information

OTHER NAMES: Abusir; Abousir; Abu Sir; Busiris, Busir; Taposiris; Taposiris Magna; Taposiris Megale; Taposeiris; Taphosiris
GREEK NAMES: Ταποσιρις; Ταποσιρις Μαγνὰ
ARABIC NAMES: أبو صير‎
AREA: Western Coast
PAThs ID:338
TYPOLOGY: Settlement, Harbour
DATE FROM: Early Hellenistic period
DATE TO: VII c. CE (601-700 CE)
DATING CRITERIA: Archaeology; Epigraphy, Literary sources; Modern reports
STATUS: completed
EDITOR: Valeria Parisi
LAST MODIFIED: 21/01/2019



Located 45 km west of Alexandria, the settlement of Taposiris Magna is situated on the northern shore of Lake Mareotis (known today as Mallahet Maryut), on the slopes of the narrow limestone ridge (so called “taenia”), which starts at Canopus and runs along the Mediterranean coast through Alexandria and beyond the lake. Thanks to its strategic position Taposiris – called “Magna” to distinguish it from “Parva” at Montazah – was founded in the Early Hellenistic era and flourished until VII c. CE.

After its abandonment the site was not reoccupied, so that archaeological evidence has been well preserved. Its key role throughout the centuries is confirmed, among others literary sources, in the Letter to the Alexandrians by emperor Claudius (41 CE), who defines Taposiris the “eisbolè” (gate) of Egypt. Along with that of Alexandria, Taposiris’ harbour is the only in Mareotis region with a closed basin, which allowed to monitor and manage maritime traffic.

The rediscovery of the site in modern times is due to the Egyptian expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte, starting from 1798. The remains of the ancient buildings of Taposiris, together with those of Alexandria, were examined by the Napoleonic architects and scholars and then illustrated in the volumes of the Description de l'Égypte (Saint-Genis 1820-30). The first archaeological excavations on the site were conducted from 1905 to 1907 by the Italian Evaristo Breccia, director of the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria Unfortunately, the results of his investigations were never published, but his manuscripts, entitled Contributo sull’esplorazione della Regio Mareotis - Taposiris Magna, are kept in the archive of the University of Pisa. Thirty years after Breccia’s excavations, Achille Adriani, his successor to the direction of the Museum of Alexandria, was involved in the study and restoration of the main preserved ancient monuments (1937-1939). The programme of restoration continued from 1945 to 1948 under the direction of Jasper Y. Brinton, President of the Royal Archaeological Society of Alexandria, and then in the Eighties and in the Nineties (1982-84, 1995-97) by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. From 1998 a French mission has started a research and excavation project, also extended to the nearby settlement of Plinthine (about 2 km east of Taposiris) and still ongoing. Under the direction of M.-Fr. Boussac (1998-2017) and B. Redon (2018-), the French équipe focused both on the lower town of Taposiris, especially on the harbour area (where an American mission led by E.L. Ochsenschlager have already carried out soundings in 1975), and on the upper town, on the so called “Breccia terrace” below the Acropolis temple. A Hungarian mission, active from 1998 to 2004 (director G. Vörös), has explored the Hellenistic, Roman and Christian phases of the Acropolis’ monuments. The excavation by an Egyptian-Dominican team, that came after the Hungarian expedition had stopped digging, have had a great media coverage, even if so far without adequate scientific documentation (Hawass 2008; Hawass, Goddio 2010; Hawass, Martinez 2013).

The settlement is mentioned in many ancient written sources of different chronology (Strabo, Plutarch, Ptolemy’s Geography, Tabula Peutingeriana, Stadiasmus of the Mediterranean, The History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church at Alexandria), with some linguistic variations in the toponym. Regarding the ethimology, Plutarch (De lside et Osiride, 21) derives the name Taphosiris from taphos (grave) of Osiris. Also, according to this indication, the main Hellenistic sacred building on the Acropolis is traditionally identified with the shrine of Osiris.

Recent studies and excavations have made it possible to identify three main sectors - the upper, the middle and the lower town - in which the city is divided, each one characterized by important archaeological . The most famous and monumental architectural remains are located on the upper town, the Acropolis. Here, according to the latest reconstruction hypothesis proposed by the Hungarian mission, a Greek-style temple, surrounded by a precinct with Egyptian-style pylons, was turned into a fortress in Roman age, through a careful process of dismantling and reuse. Finally, inside the enclosure walls, a Christian basilica was constructed. The main monumental landmark, a kind of symbol of Taposiris through the centuries, is a stone-tower of about 20 meters high, also known as “Tower of the Arabs” (Burg al-Arab) both in the local tradition and in the descriptions of the travellers, like the Italian Giovanni da Carignano (XIV sec.). The tower-like structure, with a rectangular podium, an octagonal middle section, and a cylindrical top, starting from H. Thiersch’s study (1909) on, is supposed to be a duplication on a smaller scale of the lighthouse of Alexandria but it is really a Ptolemaic funerary monument, as shown by the presence of a hypogeum below the structure.

On the so called “Brescia terrace”, below the temple, on the eastern side of the road to the lower town, there is the structure called “tempietto” (little temple) by its excavator E. Breccia: it is a complex with an underground room with niches and benches, probably with a Doric architecture, hypothetically connected to the nearby “cemetery of sacred animals”. Here a system formed by several underground rooms carved into the rock was used for multiple depositions of mummified animals. In the framework of Hellenistic architecture, is also noteworthy the bathing complex of Taposiris Magna, with two tholoi and a heating system also including a heated wall surface, so far not known in other Greek baths in Egypt. The first phase of the tholos baths dated back before the middle of the II c. BCE, the abandonment sometimes between Hellenistic and Roman age (Fournet Redon 2009; Fournet 2011-12).

As for the lower town, the most impressive and lasting structures are those connected to the harbour area: the construction of the closed system is part of a wider public works program, dated back to the II c. CE. that completely changed the topography of this sector of the settlement, interring Hellenistic buildings and even moving the shoreline.

In Roman and Late Antique times, Taposiris Magna is a thriving city with a relevant urban expansion and several public buildings. One of the most important architectural complexs of the later phases are the Byzantine thermae: located west of the paved road connecting the Acropolis to an artificial channel, they were built after the middle of the V c. CE and abandoned around the middle of the VII c. CE. Furthermore, also warehouses and harbour structures are active until the VII c. CE, proving the prosperity of the city in Late Antiquity, till the conquest by the Persians in 619 CE.

As to Christian architecture, together with the basilica on the Acropolis, they must be mentioned a three-aisled basilica with two opposing apses on the western and eastern walls, located in the south-eastern area of Taposiris, 150 m west of the complex excavated by an American Mission in 1975 (Grossman 1992) and a large complex located outside the wall to the west of the city, comprehending a basilica with a chapel and two large courts, surrounded by rooms (Grossmann 1982).



The Hungarian excavations (1998-2004) allowed to reconstruct more accurately the characteristics of the Ptolemaic sanctuary on the Acropolis of Taposiris Magna (Vörös 2001, 2004, 2007). Its overall appearance was that of a Greek temple with Doric columns surrounded by an enclosure wall with pylon entrance in Egyptian style. What remains of the temple, located in the western part of the courtyard, is only its rectangular imprint carved out from the rock, brought to light after the removal of the 80-90 cm thick filling under the Roman stone pavement. Only one ashlar block was found in situ. To this structure have been attributed pieces of fluted Doric columns, re-used in the upper rows of the wall enclosure in Roman times. The total number of the column drums is 117 (Vörös 2007, p. 105). P. Grossmann (2005, pp. 16-19), however, because of the small dimension of this architectonic elements, considers unlikely that they belonged to the temple and refers them probably to an outbuilding (a portico in the temple area or outside of it: Grossmann 2002, p. 356).

The temenos encloses a square-shaped area, with the side of 86 m in length. The northern wall is founded on an artificial platform of blocks, while the southern one rests on the rocky floor (Breccia 1922, pp. 338-340). The main entrance is on the eastern wall, between two pylons; in the thickness of these, a staircase allows to reach to the top. Other two smaller entrances are in the northern and southern walls. On the limestone blocks (about 1/1.10 m in length, about 50-60 cm in depth) of the walls there are ancient markings. The full height of the wall, where preserved, is about 9 m.

According to G. Vörös, the Fortuna Primigenia mosaic from Palestrina (Praeneste) (II c. BCE) would represent just the Acropolis shrine in Taposiris Magna and precisely the Khoiak festival in honour of Osiris (Vörös 2001, pp. 100-111).


The sanctuary is unanimously reported to the cult of Osiris, while for Hungarian team is Isis the goddess of the Taposiris Acropolis’. This interpretation is mainly based on the discovery of a black granite statue, identified with the cultic image of Isis (cfr. Artifacts), and on the epigraphic source that mentions the Taposiris Isis in Delos and Fiesole (Vörös 2001, pp. 86-97; Vörös 2004, p. 49).

Epigraphic Sources

  • Ταποσειρὶας is associated in some inscriptions from different geographical origins to the goddess Isis, as a toponymic epithet (Bricault, Dionysopoulou 2016, p. 60, s.v.; Bricault 1996, s.v., pp. 68-69). One of these comes from Taposiris Magna and is dated back to I c. BCE (Bricault, Veymiers 2014, p. 320; cfr. Boussac 2010, p. 70). In Taposiris is also documented the cult of a deity νεικαφὸρος, probably Isis, associated to Serapis on a marble rectangular plaque from the harbour area (Bricault, Dionysopoulou 2016, p. 113, s.v.; Boussac 2010, III-II c. BCE). The name of Isis is also depicted on a fragment of wall coating found in 1998 in the shops near the harbour (Boussac 2010, p. 69, note 2).
  • A dedication by the priestess of Taposiris on a granite (limestone?) base was discovered by E. Breccia and dated to Roman Imperial era (Alexandria Graeco-Roman Museum, inv. 21451) (Vörös 2004, p. 38, considered lost; Boussac 2007 (2009), p. 447, fig. 2b; Boussac 2010, p. 69, note 4). On a marble inscription from the area south of the temple there is the mention of a royal couple (Alexandria Graeco-Roman Museum, inv. 5111) (Breccia 1906, p. 149; Breccia 1911, pp. 393-398 n. 44; Boussac 2010, p. 69).

Literary Sources

Plutarch, De Iside et Osiride, 21; Strabo, XVII, 1,7; 14,15; Stadiasmus Mari Magni (cfr. J. Ball, Egypt in the Classical Geographer)

Architectural Elements not in situ

117 doric columns drums, originally belonging to Hellenistic sanctuary, were reused in the upper rows of the later Roman walls. E. Breccia also refers that “here and there, quantities of worked blocks (triglyphs and metopes) may also be seen, which had once formed part of the frieze of an immense building” (Breccia 1922, p. 340) (cfr. Thiersch 1909 p. 206; Adriani 1940-50, p. 139). A sector of the original pavement of the Hellenistic sanctuary, mostly reused in the Roman fortress, has been identified in the Hungarian trench in front of the pylons (1 sq. m. area, average thickness 0,25 m) (Vörös 2004, p. 64).


The Hungarian excavations have brought to light several findings, still unpublished or, in any case, not yet studied in an analytic way.

In 2000 and 2003 was discovered a statue carved out of black granite, fragmented in three pieces: the head was found in the courtyard, the other two parts of the body near the south gate, where they were reused as pivot stones in concurrence with the renewal of the V century CE. In particular, the one on the west side of the gate was used over time on both sides, as gate pivot. The half-life size, late Hellenistic, statue has been identified with the cultic statue of Isis, also thanks to the hypothetical presence of attributes of the Goddess, such as the so-called Hathor crown on the head and the pleats of the so-called Isis knot on the toga on the body. Traces of a supporting pilaster are visible on the back of the head and the body (Vörös 2004, pp. 49, 68, 128-139).

Still during Hungarian research, in 2001, inside one of the cells belonging to Roman fortress, in the area west of the south gate left untouched by previous excavations, was made an extraordinary discovery. A bronze treasure, dated back to the II or III century BCE, was discovered in the corner of a cell along the south wall, buried under the ground-floor foundation layer and the Roman paving stone. The treasure is composed of a oinochoe (jug), with the handle decorated by a rampant lion; a patera (bowl); an incense-burner (or brazier) on a tripod with lions legs, with its lid and a reticulated decoration; a three-pronged lamp, with its chain; a scale and weights rolled up with their chains. The lamp is said to be late Hellenistic, the scale Roman (Vörös 2004, pp. 68, 94-125). According to Vörös’ interpretation, the Isis statue and the bronze treasure would have been voluntarily hidden in Roman times.

Among other artifacts, can be remembered: a limestone sistrum handle with the cartouche of Pharaoh Ptolemy; a faience sistrum; a late Hellenistic two-pronged lamp, with a bust of Isis and another lamp, decorated with Aphrodite of Paphos, now lost; fragments of a terracotta statue of Harpocrates; a black granite male statue, probably of Marcus Antonius (Vörös 2004, pp. 46, 58, 60, 135-136). Furthermore, the Dominico-Egyptian team more recently working in the area has brought to light foundation plaques dated to Ptolemy IV (Hawas, Martinez 2013, pp. 241-242), a cartouche, probably related to a statue of pharaonic style and a stele (Hawass, Goddio 2010, p. 206; Hawass, Martinez 2013, pp. 238-239, 241-242; Boussac 2015, p. 201).

Roman Phase

The area of the Hellenistic sanctuary underwent major functional changes during the Roman Empire. The large inner courtyard and the mighty peribolos walls were reused to accommodate a military camp, after the dismantling of the existing structures. This interpretation of Roman and Late Antique remains is mainly due to P. Grossmann (2005), who rejected the previous interpretation, proposed by Ward Perkins (1946) and Adriani (1940-50), who identified these structures with the remains of a monastery. A series of rooms were added along the east, south and west walls. They are single-storey constructions, of the same size, covered by a simple pitched roofs inclined towards the courtyard, supported by wooden beams, with double-leaf doors, interpretable as rooms for the accommodation of soldiers. The doorways of the cells open upon the main courtyard; in some cases, along the inner walls can be recognized remains of bedsteads, so it has been calculated that in each room unit eight soldiers could have been accommodated. In the southeast and southwest corners there are two staircases, intended for the ascent onto the wall crown of the boundary wall. Along the northern wall of the peribolos there are no remains of similar structures, so it is likely that here were located workshops and storerooms or perhaps the officers' quarters.

The floor stone slabs from the Ptolemaic complex were reused as stone material for the cells. Columns and other architectonic elements from the sanctuary were reused on the top of the temenos walls to make it higher. During the Hungarian research (1998-2004) the excavations of the filling under the Roman pavement, with an average height of 80-90 cm, has brought to light Roman coins and potteries. If the chronology at the end of the III c. CE under Emperor Diocletian is accepted, thus Taposiris camp, probably with a cavalry unit on horses or camels, would belong to the thirteen legionary camps that protect the Libyan coast between Alexandria and Paraetonium.

Literary sources

Vita Petrus der Iberers (T. Raabe ed., p. 67): in 460 CE, on the occasion of the imprisonment of the Monophysite patriarch Timotheos II Ailuros (457-60/475-77), under the Chalcedonian patriarch Timotheos II Salophakiolos (460-75/477-82), the place “Tafosirion” is described as a fort 30 miles away from Alexandria. Zacharias Rethor (Historia Ecclesiastica 4.1)


Roman coins and ceramics come from the excavations of the floor-level foundations of the pavement's stones (Vörös 2004, p. 48). Beneath the floor of a cell was found a small group of Hellenistic vases (Adriani 1940-50, p. 131)

Late Antique Phase

The Church develops along the axis of the main entrance of the Hellenistic sanctuary, located between two pylons, with an orientation slightly deviated from that of the military camp. It was built with local limestone re-used blocks and originally was paved with limestone square slabs.

According to Ward Perkins, its plan has had two main phases: the first, with a T-cross form and the entrance at the west side, had a central apse, two rectangular side-chapels and a sacristy. In the second phase were added a western narthex and two corridors to the north and south of the nave, at the end of which there were two rooms. Near the eastern wall of the northern corridor are the remains of an altar (contra Grossmann 2005, p. 26), while in the same position at the southern corridor a doorway was found. Plastered benches were in both the corridors. In the north-east angle of the north-east room of the original building there is a basin cut in a rectangular block, so this room was identified with the baptistery (contra Grossmann 2005, p. 26). The main accesses are located on the northern and the southern walls, respectively on the eastern and western ends. The thickness of the wall is on average from 0,33 to 0,45 m, while the aps’s wall is narrow and rests upon a wider base. The average height of the preserved walls is about 1 m.

The barriers to the presbytery, located in front of the apse, were not preserved since they were probably made of unfired clay bricks. The rooms added to the apse are identified with pastophoria. The small, chamber behind the apse, accessible from the northern pastophorium, is considered a peculiar architectural feature: it was hypothesized that it could keep the camp aerarium or the soldiers’ deposita (Grossmann 2002, 2005).

In the Byzantine period was also restructured the path towards the south gate where, next to the two Hellenistic torso fragments reused as pivots, there is a byzantine cross carving (Vörös 2004, pp. 137, 139).

An early Byzantine glass furnace was unearthed by the South gate (Vörös 2004, pp. 148-149), evidence for the production of glass on the Acropolis.

Architectural elements not in situ

A marble fragment with a cross-relief (0,75 x 0,48 m) was found in the ninth cell on the western side, turned and reused as a floor slab between two small walls (Adriani 1940-50, p. 132, note 1, p. 139, fig. 68). Another two marble fragments with cross-relief (square outer border around 0,65 m) were discovered by E. Breccia (Vörös 2004, pp. 146-147).


Glasses made in the Early Byzantine furnace; lamp with a cross on the bottom (Vörös 2004, pp. 146, 152).

In 2003 the Hungarian team unearthed outside the church, near the west side, a gold treasure consisting of five early Byzantine gold coins and a bracelet, buried in the ground floor foundation of the church around 640 CE to keep it safe from Arab invaders (Vörös 2004, pp. 166-181). On the coins, all made by the mint of Constantinople, are depicted four Byzantine emperors: Mauritius Tiberios (582-602 CE), Phocas (602-610 CE), Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine (610-641 CE). On the bracelet, dated about 582-641 CE and probably made in Constantinople, alternate cross and Sun symbols. Taposiris gold treasure is now in the Alexandrian Graeco-Roman Museum.

South-East Area

Late Antique Phase

The Early Christian basilica is located to the south of the Acropolis, close to the south-eastern urban limit of Taposiris and 150 m west of the complex excavated by an American Mission in 1975. It was discovered during an archaeological survey in November 1990 and published by P. Grossmann in 1992 (Grossmann 1992; Andriolo, Curto 1998, pp. 337-338; Grossmann 2002, pp. 41, 384).

The church, partially preserved, is orientated east-west and its main feature is represented by two apses facing each other at the western and eastern ends. This latter apse is very small and it protrudes completely outside the eastern wall of the church; the western apse, on the other hand, is only slightly smaller in width than the central nave. In general, the plan is rather irregular, and the walls have a very reduced thickness.

Inside the basilica there were probably six pairs of columns arranged into 2 rows, but only the ones at the eastern end of the nave are preserved. At a distance of 2,35 m from these columns and in line with them, two buttresses protrude slightly out of the wall. On the opposite side, at the western end of the nave, two other buttresses, aligned with the colonnade, frame the western apse. The broad space in front of the eastern smaller apse can be identified with the presbytery, separated from the central nave by cancelli. The small side rooms on northern and southern side of the presbytery are the pastophoria.

At the eastern end of the southern aisle, there is a small apse. A large, lateral apse is also along the outer wall of the northern aisle, in the western end.

Further to north of the northern aisle, there are other apsidal rooms: one has a small north-facing apse, the other, probably a side-chapel of the church, has an eastwardly pointing apse.

Beyond the southern side of the church there are two irregularly shaped courts: the eastern one, larger than the western one (probably a later addition), should be part of a rich private domus, dating before the church and extending further east. According to Grossmann, it is possible that the owner of the domus has renounced part of his property for the building of the church (Grossmann 1992, p. 29).

The presence of the two facing apses, an uncommon planimetric feature in Egyptian churches, suggests establishing comparisons with the Northern Africa Christian architecture (cfr. the church beside the mausoleum of Sidi Mahmud at Burg al-cArab and the church in Uppenna, modern Chigarnia in Tunisia: Grossmann 2002, pp. 40-41). The hypothesis that the western apse was used for incubation rituals has also been advanced.

West Area

Building complex with extra muros basilica

Late Antique Phase

The complex is located about 235 m West from the “wall of the Barbarians”, outside the city and probably along a E-W road and comprises a basilica and two large courts (Grossmann 1982; Andriolo, Curto 1998, pp. 341-342; Grossmann 2002, pp. 385-387). The three-naves church (17.5 x 28m) has the central nave (10 m width) three times wider than the side aisles. The east side of the central nave ends with an apse (about 4,4 m width; 45-50 cm thickness), protruding from the church’s body with three rectangular buttresses on the outer wall. A small, one-nave, side chapel (parekklesion) (6 m width) with a semi-circular apse is attached to the northern wall of the basilica; it is probably a later addition.

In the immediate vicinity of the small, auxiliary chapel remains of a building within a depression of the ground and traces of a walled entrance could indicate the presence of an underground grave chamber.

On the north and the south of the church there are two courtyards of different size. The first one has a small rectangular extension on the north side; the second one, larger, is characterized by several rooms. Eight rooms are preserved along the southern side - probably with a two-storey development, accessible by a staircase in the middle - , but it is assumed that they also exist on the east and west. The east-west wall that separates the court is probably a more recent addition. Grossmann thinks that this assemblage is similar to the valetudinarium of a military camp and could therefore have served as a hospital.

A building north-south oriented, with a south facing apse and several rooms on the east side, is located outside the complex so far described, on the south. According to Grossmann, it is probably a triclinium, so this structure could be a bishop’s external residence (Grossmann 1982). More recently the same Author had identified the whole complex with an ecclesiastical hospice or a construction for charitable purposes (Grossmann 2002, p. 385), while M.F. Boussac suggest that the structures might correspond to a monastery, thanks to its extramural location, dimensions (over 2800m2) and the presence of several structures, not mentioned by Grossmann, on the south, identified during a recent survey in the area (Boussac 2015, pp. 203-204).

Architectural elements not in situ

A fragment of a small Corinthian crystalline marble capital (height 32 cm; lower diameter 24 cm; upper width 37 cm) has been found few steps southwest of the apse. Because of its small size, it probably belongs to the ciborium.


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