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Abydos: During Ancient Egypt

Façade of the Temple of Seti I in Abydos.

Set inland 10 kilometres (six miles) from the Nile River in Upper Egypt, Abydos emerged as a centre of gravity in ancient Egypt’s rich religious life. Abydos became the burial site of choice for Egypt’s early First Dynasty (3000-2890 B.C.) kings. Their mortuary complexes and tombs may represent the first step in a religious evolution that reached its apogee with the construction of Giza’s Great Pyramid.

Later, Abydos evolved into the centre of the cult worshipping the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris. A vast temple complex dedicated in his honour flourished  there. Each year a magnificent procession was staged during which Osiris’ graven image was conveyed in procession from the inner sanctum of his temple past the “Terrace of the Great God,” a series of private and royal chapels lining the route to the tomb ancient Egyptians regarded as Osiris’ eternal resting place and back again, accompanied by great fanfare. The jubilation demonstrated during the procession is confirmed by surviving records from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 BC to 1710 BC).

Abydos is estimated to cover an area of approximately 8 square kilometres (5 square miles). Today, the majority of the site remains unexplored, a fate conveyed through by its current local name of Arabah el-Madfunah, which translates as “the buried Arabah.”

Facts About Abydos

  • Abydos evolved into a centre of gravity in ancient Egypt’s rich religious life
  • Centre of the cult worshipping the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris
  • Only three of the ten originally built main temples remain, the Ramses II Temple, the Great Osiris Temple and the Temple of Seti I
  • The L-shaped Temple of Seti I is the best preserved surviving temple
  • Highlights of the Temple of Seti I are its mysterious hieroglyphs, the Abydos King List and its seven chapels
  • The climactic Festival of Osiris was once staged in Great Osiris Temple which today lies in ruins
  • Reliefs from Ramses’ famed Battle of Kadesh adorn the Ramses II Temple.

Abydos’ Pre-Dynastic and First Dynasty Tombs

Archaeological evidence suggests Egypt’s First Dynasty (3000-2890 B.C.) kings and the final two Second Dynasty (c. 2890 to c. 2686 B.C.) kings built their tombs in Abydos. These tombs were furnished with everything the soul required during its journey through the afterlife in large, stored in a complex of chambers.

North of Abydos’ royal tombs lies cemeteries U and B, housing Pre-Dynastic tombs predating Egypt’s First Dynasty. Archaeologists believe some of Abydos’ Pre-Dynastic royal tomb complexes house “proto-kings” who reigned over large parts of Egypt.

It is challenging to distinguish between early tombs built to house their kings through all eternity and those for the elite at Abydos. Engraved objects unearthed in some of these tombs contain fine examples of early Egyptian writing.

Grave Boats And Royal Enclosures

About 1.5 kilometres (one mile) north of Abydos’ royal tombs sits an enigmatic complex of enclosures build from sun-dried mud brick. These appear to be dedicated to Abydos’ kings and a queen. Each structure has its own chapel and is enclosure by imposing mud brick walls. Curiously, this complex is oriented northwest to southeast, rather than east to west.

The purpose of these monumental enclosures remains a mystery. Eight of the enclosures have been attributed to First Dynasty rulers with two more enclosures belonging to two later Second Dynasty kings. Three of these enclosures are dedicated to the pharaoh “Aha” with one honouring queen Merneith. Archaeologists speculate more enclosures are yet to be excavated at the site.

As with their royal mausoleums, the First Dynasty structures contained the burials of servants sacrificed to serve their king in his afterlife. In some enclosures, there are hundreds of sacrificial burials. By far the most imposing enclosure is that of the Second Dynasty King Khasekhemwy. His enclosure measures 134 meters (438 feet) by 78 meters (255 feet) and its walls are believed to have originally been 11 meters (36 feet), with entranceways being cut into all four sides of the walls. Khasekhemwy’s chapel, discovered inside his enclosure, housed a labyrinthine series of chambers including a modest chamber containing traces of libations and incense burning.

At the crossroads of the western mastaba and King Djer’s enclosure located northeast of Khasekhemwy’s enclosure are 12 boat graves. Each grave contains a complete ancient wooden boat; some even have a crudely worked rock anchor. Evidence suggests the boats were buried around the same time, as the enclosures were constructed. Boats played a significant part in Egyptian religious rituals. Full-size boats were discovered near the Great Pyramids. The visual imagery inscribed on temple walls and in tombs depicts boats and an enormous fleet used by deceased kings and their deities, to sail through all eternity.

Osiris’ Temple

Beginning in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (c. 2050 BC to 1710 BC), Abydos became the centre of an Osiris cult. A sprawling temple complex was built for the deity close by Abydos’ “Terrace of the Great God.” The site’s precise location has so far proven elusive, although two architectural layers from buildings date to the reigns of kings Nectanebo I (c. 360 to 342 BC), and Nectanebo II (c. 360 to 342 BC). Nectanebo II was the third and last pharaoh of Egypt’s Thirtieth Dynasty. While yet to be fully excavated, progress with the excavation indicates earlier temples may sit underneath the two earlier phases.

Egypt’s Last Royal Pyramid

Around 3,500 years ago Abydos was the site selected for Egypt’s final royal pyramid. Constructed by the 18th Dynasty’s founding king Ahmose, his pyramid, appears to have never been completed, and all that remains is a 10-meter (32-foot) high ruin. Researchers estimate the pyramid once was 53 meters (172 feet) square, comparatively modest compared to Giza’s Great Pyramids.

A nearby pyramid temple yielded shards of decorative work containing scenes depicting the Hyksos invaders being defeated by the king. An engraved stele discovered to the south narrates how a pyramid and its enclosure was constructed for the king’s grandmother, Queen Tetisheri. This claim was supported by a magnetometry survey, which revealed a 90 by 70 meters (300 wide by 230-foot deep) brick enclosure wall lying under the sand, awaiting excavation.

Seti I’s Temple

Abydos is home to numerous monuments including Seti I’s (c. 1294 BC to 1279 BC) temple. Known as the “House Of Millions Of Years,” today his temple remains one of the best preserved in all Abydos.

The primary temple structure built using limestone measures 56 by 157 meters (183 by 515 feet) and is set within a typical mud brick enclosure. The temple ascends in graceful terraces following the gradient of the surrounding desert. The lowest terrace houses an artificial lake complete with quay. Behind it, rises the first pylon with royal statue pillars bringing up its rear. Originally, each chapel held a boat-shaped palanquin to transport the deity’s image during the ceremonial procession.

The Osireion

This enigmatic structure is set behind the temple. In its surviving form today, the central room has an unfinished almost megalithic appearance. An imposing 128-meter (420-foot) passageway leads visitors to the Osireion. One hypothesis for the structure is it could have served as “Osiris-Seti’s” tomb depicting Seti as Osiris.

The Osireion’s main hall layout comprises an island, which may have held Osiris-Sety’s now vanished sarcophagus. The island is surrounded by a deep moat. The room’s ceiling was 7 meters (23 feet) across and was held up ten massive granite pillars, estimated to each weigh 55 tonnes set in two rows. The Osireion was a monumentally massive structure in one of Egypt’s oldest sites that witnessed the flow of thousands of years of Egypt’s religious evolution.

Reflecting On The Past

Enigmatic Abydos was once one of Egypt’s most powerful religious centres. Today, where desert sand now blows, once stood thousands of worshippers participating in the annual parade of Osiris’ image around the city.

Header image courtesy: Roland Unger [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Abydos: During Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, March 18, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/abydos.

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