As Muslims endeavour to visit Mecca once in their lifetime and Hindus aspire to die at Varanasi, the Ancient Egyptians devoutly wished to make a pilgrimage to ABYDOS (pronounced “Abi-dos”), cult centre of the god Osiris. Those who failed to make it hoped to do so posthumously; relatives brought bodies for burial, or embellished distant tombs with scenes of the journey to Abydos (represented by a boat under sail, travelling upriver). Egyptians averred that the dead “went west”, for the entrance to the underworld was believed to lie amid the desert hills beyond Abydos. By bringing other deities into the Osirian fold, Abydos acquired a near monopoly on death cults, which persisted into Ptolemaic times. Its superbly carved Temple of Seti I has been a tourist attraction since the 1830s, and many rate its artwork as the finest in Egypt. Its survival owes to the temple being covered by sand for centuries, as suggested by the name of the village where it is located, Al-Araba el-Madfuna (Araba the Buried).

The Temple of Seti I

While the temples of Karnak and Deir el-Bahri at Luxor are breathtaking conceptions executed on a colossal scale, it is the exquisite quality of its bas-reliefs that distinguishes Abydos’ Temple of Seti I. The reliefs are among the finest works of the New Kingdom, harking back to Old Kingdom forms in an artistic revival that mirrored Seti’s political efforts to consolidate the XIX Dynasty and recover territories lost under Akhenaten. The official designation of Seti’s reign (c.1294–79 BC) was “the era of repeating births” – literally a renaissance.

It was in fact Seti’s son, Ramses II (c.1279–13 BC), who completed the reconquest of former colonies and the construction of his father’s temple at Abydos. Strictly speaking, the building was neither a cult nor a funerary temple in the ordinary sense, for its chapels contained shrines to a variety of deities concerned with death, resurrection and the netherworld, and one dedicated to Seti himself. Its purpose was essentially political: to identify the king with these cults and with his putative “ancestors”, the previous rulers of Egypt, thus conferring legitimacy on the Ramessid Dynasty, whose ancestors had been mere Delta warriors a few generations earlier.

The temple’s spell has endured through the ages, as New Age pilgrims follow in the footsteps of Dorothy Eady – known as Um Seti (Mother of Seti) – who lived at Abydos for 35 years until she died in 1981, believing herself to be the reincarnation of a temple priestess and lover of Seti I. Her trances and prophetic gifts are related in Jonathan Cott’s biography, The Search for Omm Sety – available at souvenir stalls here. She is buried in the local cemetery, out near Shunt el-Zibib.

The forecourt
The temple’s original pylon and forecourt have almost been levelled but you can still discern the lower portion of a scene depicting Ramses II’s dubious victory at Qadesh, women with finely plaited tresses and Seti making offerings to Osiris (in a niche, nearby). From the damaged statues currently stored in the upper, second court, your eyes are drawn to the square-columned facade, the wall behind pillars covered with scenes of Ramses greeting Osiris, Isis and Horus.

The outer Hypostyle Hall
The ponderous sunk-reliefs in the outer Hypostyle Hall, completed by Ramses after Seti’s death, suggest that he used second-rate artists, having redeployed Seti’s top craftsmen on his own edifice. The entrance wall portrays Ramses measuring the temple with the goddess Selket and presenting it to Horus on Seti’s behalf, while on the wall to your right Ramses offers a falcon-headed box of papyrus to Isis, Horus and Osiris, and is led to the temple by Horus and Wepwawet (the jackal-headed god of Assyut) to be doused with holy water (represented by the interlinked signs for life and purity). Guards can point out the “Abydos helicopter”, a cartouche on a lintel that supposedly shows a helicopter and a submarine. An image first published (1996) in Alien Encounters magazine has been proved to have been manipulated, and archeologists dismiss any resemblance to a helicopter as a fluke of erosion (as demonstrated on w members.tripod.com/a_u_r_a/abydos.html).

The inner Hypostyle Hall
The deeper inner Hypostyle Hall was the last part of the temple decorated before Seti’s death: some sections were never finished, but others are exceptional. On the right-hand wall Seti stands before Osiris and Horus – who pour holy water from garlanded vases – and makes offerings before the shrine of Osiris, who is attended by Maat and Ronpet (the goddess of the year) in front, with Isis, Amentet (goddess of the west) and Nephthys behind. Seti’s profile is a stylized but close likeness to his mummy (in the Cairo Antiquities Museum). The east and west walls are of sandstone, the north and south of limestone. Two projecting piers near the back of the hall depict Seti worshipping the Djed pillar while wearing the crown of Upper or Lower Egypt. The reliefs along the rear wall – showing him being anointed and crowned by the gods – are still brightly coloured. Best of all is a scene of Seti kneeling before Osiris and Horus, with the sacred persea tree in the background, which appears above head height on the wall between the sanctuaries of Ptah and Re-Herakhte.

The sanctuaries
The finest bas-reliefs at Abydos are inside the sanctuaries dedicated to Seti and six deities. Though retaining much of their original colouring (showing how most temple reliefs once looked), their graceful lines and subtle moulding are best appreciated on the unpainted reliefs. Seti’s classical revival eschewed both Amarna expressionism and the bombastic XVIII Dynasty imperial style. The seven sanctuaries are roofed with false vaults carved from rectangular slabs, and culminate in false doors (except for Osiris’s chamber, which leads into his inner sanctuaries). To Ancient Egyptians, these chambers constituted the abode of the gods, whom the king (or his priests) propitiated with daily rituals, shown on the walls.

An exception to this rule is the Sanctuary of Seti, which emphasizes his recognition by the gods, who lead him into the temple and ceremonially unite the Two Lands along the northern wall. Below the barque near the back of the right-hand wall, Seti receives a list of offerings from Thoth and the High Priest Iunmutef, wearing the leopardskin and braided sidelock of his office. Finally, Seti leaves the temple, his palanquin borne by the souls of jackal-headed deities from the Upper Egyptian town of Nekhen and hawk-headed gods from the Delta capital of Pi-Ramses.

The fine unpainted reliefs of Seti and seated deities in Re-Herakhte’s chamber make interesting comparison with similar painted scenes in the sanctuaries of Ptah, Amun, Osiris and Isis. On the side wall just outside the Sanctuary of Horus, the pharaoh presents Maat to Osiris, Isis and Horus, a XIX Dynasty motif symbolizing righteous order and the restoration of royal legitimacy.

The inner sanctuaries of Osiris boast three side chapels whose colours are still remarkably fresh.

Hall of Sokar and Nefertum
From the inner Hypostyle Hall you can enter the southern wing of Seti’s temple. The portal nearest his sanctuary leads into the columned Hall of Sokar and Nefertum, two deities of the north representing the life-giving forces of the earth and the cycle of death and rebirth. Reliefs on the right-hand wall depict Seti receiving a hawk-headed Sokar; Nefertum is shown on the opposite wall in both his human and leonine forms. In the Chapel of Sokar, Osiris appears in his bier and returns to life grasping his penis (near the back of the right-hand wall), while Isis hovers over him in the form of a hawk on the opposite wall. The Chapel of Nefertum is next door.

The Gallery of Kings
The other portal leads through into the Gallery of Kings, so called after the list of Seti’s predecessors carved on the right-hand wall – the earliest (Zoser) on the far left of the top row, with Seti at the far end of the bottom register. For political reasons, the Hyksos pharaohs, Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his heirs have all been omitted, yet the list has proved immensely useful to Egyptologists, naming 34 kings (chiefly from the VI, VII, XII, XVIII and XIX dynasties) in roughly chronological order.

Running off from the gallery are the Sanctuary of the Boats, where the deities’ barques were kept on platforms; the Hall of Sacrifices (closed); and a corridor with vivid sunk-reliefs of Seti and Ramses harnessing a bull to present to Wepwawet, and hauling birds in a net. This will bring you out through a rear door to the Osireion, behind the temple.

The rest of the site

The site of Abydos covers a huge area, with ruins and mounds scattered across the edge of the desert. Egyptologists from the Penn Museum (w penn.museum) and the German Archeological Institute (w dainst.org) are excavating several sites, officially off-limits. You can, however, visit two structures near Seti’s temple, and Amir Elkarim might be able to arrange trips to others if you’re staying at Abydos. The longer you stay, the more likely you are to wrangle access to the off-limits areas.

The Osireion

When Flinders Petrie excavated here in the 1900s, he uncovered numerous mastabas which he believed to be royal tombs, but which later Egyptologists held to be cenotaphs or Osirian burial places – dummy tombs, built to promote a closer association between the pharaoh’s ka and Osiris, while his mummy reposed elsewhere. Seti’s Cenotaph, known as the Osireion, is the only one now visible, albeit half-buried and rendered partly inaccessible by stagnant water. Built of massive blocks, it once enclosed a room containing a mound surrounded by a moat (symbolizing the first land arising from the waters of Chaos at the dawn of Creation), where a pseudo-sarcophagus awaited resurrection. Nearby is a long underground passage that once led to the cenotaph.

Temple of Ramses II

Some 300m northwest of the Osireion is a ruined Temple of Ramses II, Seti’s father, where scenes of the Battle of Qadesh are rendered in exceptional detail on the enclosure walls and pillared courtyard. Ground-penetrating radar has detected a massive structure underneath the sand between Ramses’ and Seti’s temples that some suspect is another Osireion. Its existence has yet to be announced officially by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, but is an open secret in Egyptological circles.

Shunt el-Zibib
Elsewhere, the Germans have been excavating the Early Dynastic royal cemetery at Um el-Qa’ab (“Mother of Pots”), and extensive funerary enclosures at Shunt el-Zibib (“Storehouse of Grapes”). Neither site is as spectacular as Seti’s temple, but there’s an air of impending discovery at Shunt el-Zibib – the Arabic name for the funeral complex of Khasekhemwy, last king of the II Dynasty. It’s thought that the pyramids at Saqqara evolved from the enclosure of sunken brick-lined tombs at Abydos, where hieroglyphic writing predating Saqqara’s has been found, suggesting the existence of a Pre-dynastic king Hor or Horus who conquered the Delta and united the Two Lands a century before Narmer. Six Solar Boats found within Khasekhemwy’s enclosure in 1991 may date from the reign of the I Dynasty ruler Aha.

All this raises the possibility that the Early Dynastic burials attributed to Saqqara may have occurred at Abydos instead, and that an intact royal tomb may exist. Since 2004 the Penn Museum team has found evidence that the XII Dynasty Osirieon of Senusret III may have really been a royal tomb, looted long ago. A thirty-metre-long shaft was discovered there in 2009.

  • The cult of Osiris