Deir el-Ballas- Full History


The ancient townsite of Deir el-Ballas is located on the west bank of the Nile in northern Upper Egypt in the neighborhood of the modern town known as Ad Dayr Al Gharbi (26° 3″ North, 32° 45″ East. Circumscribed by a bay in the limestone cliffs bordering the eastern edge of the Sahara, the ancient site lay on the desert margin of the cultivation. The principal occupation at the site was brief, from the end of the Second Intermediate Period to the beginning of the New Kingdom (ca. 1600- 1500 BC) and appears to have been a settlement grouped around a campaign palace built by the Theban kings during their campaign against the Hyksos.

The genesis of empire in New Kingdom Egypt is still a process that is not fully understood and the site of Deir el Ballas provides an important counterpoint to the excavations of Manfred Bietak at the Hyksos capitol at Ezbet Helmi in the Nile Delta. The site was originally excavated by the Phoebe A. Hearst Expedition of the University of California under the direction of George A. Reisner in the years l900 to l901. During the season’s work he uncovered the remains of a large royal palace, a series of cemeteries, and a settlement. Unfortunately, the excavations were never published and the field notes were so brief that any in depth study of the excavation was impossible. In order to clarify the records of the expedition and enable publication of the site, four seasons of survey and clearance were undertaken in l980, 1983, 1984 and 1986 by Peter Lacovara under the sponsorship of the American Research Center and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

During the recent field seasons detailed maps were made of the site and plans of the North Palace and a number of the houses excavated by Reisner. During the course of survey work we realized that there were many areas of the site which Reisner had only partially excavated or not cleared at all. In addition to the large number of houses and other domestic structures, there appears to have been a group of memorial chapels similar to those recently excavated by The Egypt Exploration Society at Tell el-Amarna, and possibly an administrative quarter, also corresponding to Tell el-Amarna. At the conclusion of the survey seasons, a preliminary report was published under the auspices of the American Research Center in Egypt.

In more recent years, the growth of the modern village and the construction of a number of roads along the desert edge, along with looting that occurred during the revolution in 2011 has threatened to destroy a significant part of the site.

History and Importance

One of the few surviving settlement sites from ancient Egypt,1 Deir el- Ballas was centered on a large royal palace situated in the middle of a wide bay opening up in the limestone cliffs along the west bank of the Nile.

Grouped around the palace to the north and south were a number of private houses, which ranged in size from small, two-room huts to large “villas, ” in a pattern similar to that of the site of Tell el-Amarna.2 Further to the south, Reisner had excavated a group of contiguous houses which were very similar in appearance to the workmen’s village at Deir el-Medina.

As at Amarna and Deir el-Medina, the workmen’s village at Deir el-Ballas was situated apart from the main settled area, beside a large hill. Survey of the western slope of this hill revealed traces of roughly built structures, which appeared to consist of one or more courts connected by short flights of stairs and built of stones and mud brick and partially cut into the hillside. These structures resemble quite closely in plan the chapels associated with the workman’s village at Amarna, and one still contained a small votive figure of Hathor in a ceramic bowl, similar to ones found in the chapels at Tell el-Amarna. As at the Palace-city of Amenhotep III at Malkata, the southern extent of the settlement at Deir el-Ballas was marked by a rectangular mudbrick platform. Of the same size and similar design as the Kom el-Ab’d at Malkata, the structure at Ballas was called by Reisner, the “South Place.” It is however, markedly non-residential and is situated far from the rest of the settlement, at the top of hill. Its location affords a commanding view of the Nile and surrounding countryside. The building consists of a wide terrace fronting an elevated platform, the top of which is reached by a broad flight of stairs. The design and situation of the South Palace suggest that it must have served principally for observation of both the river and the southern approach to the settlement, in order to regulate traffic entering the settlement. This appears to be the case with the Kom el-‘Abd at Malkata and the “Custom’s House” at Amarna. The siting of massive fortified lookout stations on high places is known from the Third Intermediate Period.

In mapping slight topographic changes, sherd concentrations and exposed brick a picture of what lay under the ground began to emerge. Here, from what we could determine, were a number of very large buildings grouped in an orderly grid pattern consisting of large structures 50+ meters square and bordered by long, narrow buildings approximately 20 x 70+ meters.

This layout suggests the pattern of the administrative buildings located in the central city at Tell el-Amarna. Many of these buildings also appear to make use of the larger size bricks apparently reserved for official structures at Deir el-Ballas. While little of this area is presently exposed, it clearly suggests another analogy with the official quarters in the central city at Tell el-Amarna with its clusters of official buildings and long rows of storage magazines neighboring the main royal palace.

The North Palace and its enclosures cover an area of 45,000+ square meters, the eastern end of the main enclosure never having been traced. The palace itself was built of unusually large mud bricks averaging 54 x 27 x 18 cm., roughly bonded and occasionally pointed with mud mortar. The building was made up of a series of columned courts and a long entrance corridor grouped around an elevated central platform.
This platform was constructed on casemate foundations: long mud brick chambers filled in with rubble and capped by a brick pavement. Some of these casemates are still preserved to a height of approximately five meters in places, and since the Hearst Expedition found remains of the original pavement capping them, this must have been their original height.

Presumably, this core supported the raised private apartments of the palace and would have given it the appearance of a fortified “Migdol” tower. The palace was decorated with wall paintings of armed men carrying battle axes,9 and faience tiles, fragments of which were recovered by the Hearst Expedition. The plan of the North Palace suggests it was a mid-point in the evolution of the royal palace from the Middle Kingdom type, such as that found at Tell Basta,10 to the New Kingdom type such as the palace of Amenhotep III at Malkata. That such palaces were built according to some standardized plan for each period seems clear when one compares the plan of the casemate core of the North Palace at Deir el-Ballas to “Palace G” and the South Palace at Deir el-Ballas to “Palace F “at Ezbet Helmi in the Delta.  The remarkable similarities between Ezbet Helmi and Deir el-Ballas have prompted Manfred Bietak to suggest that the Delta palace was based on the model of the Theban palace-city.

The settlement at Deir el-Ballas must have been a spectacular site when it was constructed and clearly its imposing structures were propagandistic in nature. As has been suggested,12 Deir el-Ballas can be seen as part of a tradition of palace cities going back as far as the founding of Memphis by Menes. These royal cities had a wide variety of purposes, and in this case as a “first volley” in the battle against the Hyksos. On the northern outskirts of Thebes the site was still quite safe, yet made a statement about the aspirations of the Theban Dynasts. This is not unlike the advancing capitols of the Mongol Empire which seem to have had a similar bellicose purpose. We also should not underestimate the strategic importance of the site at the crossroads of the Wadi Hammamat and Western Desert routes and neighboring Coptos. The site itself would have offered a large, clear plain on which to assemble an army and the “South Palace” would be an ideal post from which to monitor the movement of the Theban fleet.

Textual sources from the site give us confirmation of the site as a staging post for the campaign. A group of previously unprovenanced ostraca in storage at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston were composed on sherds of the same ware types and date as the pottery from the site. Fortuitously, photographs taken by F.W. Green, a member of the Hearst Expedition, provided by Barry Kemp, identified these ostraca as indeed coming from Deir el-Ballas. The archive translated by Stephen Quirke is largely in the same, Second Intermediate Period hand. The texts consist mostly of accounts of large quantities of goods and personnel being brought to the site: including cattle, men, possibly weapons and most interestingly, a roster of ships and their crews. Additional ostraca from the site in storage at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum await translation.

The Kamose Stela mentions the assembly of the Theban fleet at a place called Per-djed-ken, and that toponym has been linked to the Dendera area. The site of Deir el-Ballas has also been suggested to have been the royal residence Sedjefatawy, mentioned in the storm stela of Ahmose, and this seems to be confirmed by one of the ostraca. The site of Deir el- Ballas appears to have only had a brief life, the associated pottery and artifactual materials all indicate a Late Second Intermediate Period date. In addition to the Egyptian ceramics, there were a number of Nubian pots found by both Reisner and in the recent fieldwork. They belong to the Classic Kerma Period, again indicating a Dynasty 17 date. Janine Bourriau has suggested that by the Second Intermediate Period the “Pan-Grave” people had become largely acculturated, and that the Medjay-Nubians were then being recruited from the Kerma Kingdom.

While the hostilities between the Thebans and Kerma Nubians must have been breaking out at this point, it could well be a mistake to think of all members of the Kerma culture as belonging to the same political entity.

A lintel of Sekenenre Tao appears to have been removed from the North Palace and re-used in the neighboring village while the level of abandonment in the palace is associated with jar seals of Ahmose. Also in the abandonment debris of the North Palace, were votive mud figures of boats and weapons, including the earliest example of the khepesh-sword from Egypt. As most other royal cities, with the exception of Amarna, Deir el-Ballas was merely a satellite of Thebes-dependant upon its resources, as confirmed by the ostraca. With the success of the Thebans, the palace-city at Deir el-Ballas was no longer necessary and quickly abandoned. Graves from the early New Kingdom were cut through the Workmen’s village and there was only a sparse occupation in the area during the Ptolemaic and Romano-Coptic Periods.


1. Cf. Manfred Bietak, “Urban Archaeology and the ‘Town Problem’ in ancient Egypt” in K. Weeks ed., Egyptology and The Social Sciences (Cairo, 1979). pp. 97-144.
2. H. W. Fairman, “Town Planning in Ancient Egypt” Town Planning Review 20 (1949) pp.31-50; B. J. Kemp, “Tell el-Amarna as a source for the study of Urbanism in Ancient Egypt” World Archaeology 9 (1977). pp. 123-139.
3. B. Bruyère, Rapport sur les fouilles de Deir el-Médineh: 1934-5. (Cairo, 1939).
4. P. Lacovara, Deir el-Ballas: Preliminary Report on the Deir el- Ballas Expedition 1980-1986 (Winona Lake, Indiana, 1990) pp/
5. B.J. Kemp, “A Building of Amenhotep III at the Kom el-‘Abd,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63 (1977). pp. 71-82.D.
6. P. Lacovara, et al., “A Third Intermediate Period Fortress at El- Ahaiwah,” C.R.I.P.E.L. 11 pp. 73-87.
7. T. E. Peet, and C. L. Woolley, The City of Akhenaten I. (London, 1923). pp. 53 ff.

8. P. Lacovara, “The Hearst Excavations at Deir el-Ballas: The Eighteenth Dynasty Town,” in W. K. Simpson and W. M. Davis, eds.
Studies in Ancient Egypt, the Aegean and the Sudan: Essays in Honor of Dows Dunham (Boston, 1981). pp. 120-124.
9. P. Lacovara, “Archaeological Survey of Deir el-Ballas,” ARCE Newsletter 113 (1980). pp. 1-7.
10. M. Bietak, “Tell Basta: The Palace of the Middle Kingdom,” Egyptian Archaeology 44 (2014),
11. M. Bietak, “Neue Paläste aux der 18. Dynastie,” in P. Janosi, ed., Structure and Significance: Thoughts on Ancient Egyptian Architecture (Vienna, 2005), 4-7.11.
12. P. Lacovara, The New kingdom Royal City (London, 1997).
13. K. Ryholt, Kim, The Political Situation in Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (Copenhagen,1997).