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most ancient of cities

Temple of Ramesses II
Nomes bring offerings to Ramses II at Abydos.
Photograph by Olaf Tausch, CreativeCommons.

Abydos is some distance from the Nile, which may explain why David Roberts and other artists missed it. A shame, because the artwork of the great Temple of Seti I (Sety) is among Egypt's best. The photo below of Pharaoh Seti gives an idea of the rich detail of these low relief sculptures, carved over 3000 years ago. Seti Photo by Messuy, 2005 License

Seti's Temple at Abydos

Seti The Great Edited excerpt from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti, 1909, 1924
... of temples and tourists in Abydos

We are making our way through the fields of Abydos (Abtu) in the dazzling splendor of the forenoon. We have come, like so many pilgrims of old, to visit the sanctuaries of Osiris. It is a journey of some ten miles or so, under a clear sky and a burning sun.

Abydos! What magic there is in the name! "Abydos is at hand, and with a short horse ride we shall be there." The mere words seem somehow to transform the aspect of the homely green fields, and make this pastoral region almost imposing. The buzzing of the flies increases in the overheated air and the song of the birds subsides until at last it dies away in the approach of noon.

We have been journeying a little more than an hour when suddenly, beyond the little houses and trees of a village, quite a different world is disclosed--the familiar yet always strange desert. The town of Abydos, which has vanished and left nothing behind, rose once in this spot, on the very threshold of the desert. The temples and tombs of Abydos, more venerated even than those of Memphis, are a little farther on.

This domain of light and drought is shaded and streaked with brown, red and yellow colors. The horizon trembles under the little vapors of mirage like water ruffled by the wind. The background mounts gradually to the foot of the Libyan mountains. The whole region is strewn with debris of bricks and stones, shapeless ruins which, though they scarcely rise above the sand, abound in great numbers. They serve to remind us that here indeed is a very ancient soil, where men labored in centuries that have drifted out of knowledge. One divines instinctively the catacombs, the tombs and the mummies that lie below!

These graveyards of Abydos exercised for thousands of years an extraordinary fascination over this people who dwelt in the valley of the Nile. According to truly ancient tradition, the head of Osiris, the lord of the other world, reposes in the depths of one of the temples which today are buried in the sands. Men, from primeval night, held the idea that there were localities helpful to the souls that lay beneath the earth. Certain holy places behove them to be buried if they wished to be ready when the signal of awakening was given.

In old Egypt each one, at the hour of death, turned his thoughts to these stones and sands of Abydos, in the ardent hope that he might be able to sleep near the remains of his god. And when the place became crowded with sleepers, those who could obtain no place there conceived the idea of having humble stone stelae planted on the holy ground. Some arranged that their mummies might be there for some weeks, even if they were afterwards removed. And thus, funeral processions passed to and fro without ceasing through the fields that separate the Nile from the desert.

Square columns of the Temple of Seti I
Seti's Temple at Abydos
Engraving by Samuel Manning, 1875.

The first great temple--that which King Seti I raised to the mysterious Osiris--is quite close. We come upon it suddenly, so that it almost startles us, for nothing warns us of its proximity. The marvellously conserving sand had buried it under its tireless waves and preserved it almost intact untill the present day. The temple has been exhumed, but the sand still rises almost to its roof.

Hathor head columns from Seti I's Temple at Abydos. Hathor head columns from Seti I's Temple at Abydos. Through an iron gate, guarded by two tall Bedouins in black robes, we plunge at once into the shadow of enormous stones. We are in the house of the god, in a forest of heavy columns. We are surrounded by a world of people carved in bas- relief on the pillars and walls--people who seem to be signalling one to another and exchanging among themselves mysterious signs.

But what is this noise in the sanctuary? It seems to be full of people. There, sure enough, beyond a second row of columns, is quite a crowd talking loudly. I fancy that I can hear the clinking of glasses and the tapping of knives and forks. Oh! poor, poor temple, to what strange uses have you come. . . . Behold a table set for some thirty guests, and the guests themselves, drinking whisky and soda, and eating voraciously sandwiches out of greasy paper, which now litters the floor. They belong to that special type of humanity which patronizes Thomas Cook & Son (Egypt Ltd.).

This kind of thing, so the black-robed Bedouin guards inform us, is repeated every day so long as the season lasts. A luncheon in the temple of Osiris is part of the program of pleasure trips. Each day at noon a new band arrives, on bored and unfortunate donkeys. The tables and the crockery remain, of course, in the old temple!

Let us escape quickly, if possible before the sight shall have become graven on our memory.

The Temple of Ramesses II at Abydos

The remaining stones of the Temple of Ramsses II.
Temple of Ramsses II,
from an old postcard.

Without conviction now, we make our way towards another temple, guaranteed solitary. Indeed the sun blazes there a lonely sovereign in the midst of a profound silence, and Egypt and the past take us again into their folds.

This sanctuary was built by Ramses II, son of Seti I, and also dedicated to Osiris. The sands covered it with their winding sheet, but were able to preserve for us only the lower and more deeply buried parts. Not long ago a manufacturer, discovering that the limestone of its walls was friable, used this temple as a quarry, and for some years bas-reliefs beyond price served the mills of the factory. The ruins, protected and cleared as they are today, rise only some ten or twelve feet from the ground. The majority of the figures in the bas-reliefs have only legs and a portion of the body; their heads and shoulders have disappeared with the upper parts of the walls.

The goddess Heqet, Temple of Ramesses II,
Photograph by Olaf Tausch, CreativeCommons.

But they seem to have preserved their vitality: the gesticulations, the exaggerated pantomime of the attitudes of these headless things are more striking than if their faces still remained. And they have preserved too, in an extraordinary degree, the brightness of their antique paint, the fresh tints of their costumes, of their robes of turquoise blue, or lapis, or emerald-green, or golden-yellow. It amazes us by remaining perfect after thirty-five centuries.

All that these people did seems as if made for immortality. Such brilliant colors are not found in many of the other Pharaonic monuments, and here they are heightened by the white background. For, excepting the bluish, black and red granite of the porticoes, the walls are all of a fine limestone, of exceeding whiteness. The holy of holies is built of a pure alabaster.

Above the truncated walls, with their bright clear colors, the desert appears, quite brown by contrast. One sees the great yellow swell of sand and stones above the pictures of these decapitated people. It rises like a colossal wave and stretches out to bathe the foot of the Libyan mountains beyond. Towards the north and west, shapeless ruins of tawny-colored blocks follow one another in the sands until the dazzling distance ends in a clear-cut line against the sky. Apart from this temple of Ramses, where we now stand, and that of Seti in the vicinity, where the enterprise of Thomas Cook & Son flourishes, there is nothing around us but ruins, crumbled and pulverised beyond all possible redemption. They give us pause, these disappearing ruins, for somewhere among them is the debris of that ageless temple where sleeps the head of the god. Abydos, so old that it almost makes one giddy to think of the beginning.

Here, as at Thebes and Memphis, the tombs of the Egyptians are only among the sands and the parched rocks. The great ancestral people liked to place its embalmed dead in the midst of this luminous, changeless, nearly lifeless splendour, which men call the desert.

Pharaoh Seti with five goddesses.
Photograph from the Temple of Seti at Abydos.

And what is this now that is happening in the holy neighborhood of unhappy Osiris? A troupe of donkeys, belaboured by Bedouin drivers, is being driven in the direction of the adjacent Seti temple! The luncheon no doubt is over and the band about to depart, sharp to the appointed hour of the program. They all mount into their saddles, these Cooks and Cookesses, and opening their white cotton parasols, take themselves off in the direction of the Nile. They disappear and the place belongs to us.

When we venture at last to return to the first sanctuary the guardians are busy clearing away the dirty paper and the dubious crockery. All this happily ends with the first hypostyle. Nothing dishonours the halls of the interior, where silence has again descended, the vast silence of noon in the desert.

Carved walls surround a square door into the stone chamber.
Photo by Zangaki 1860

In the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, men already marvelled at this temple, as a relic of the most distant and nebulous past. The geographer Strabo wrote in those days: "It is an admirable palace built in the fashion of the Labyrinth save that it has fewer galleries."

There are galleries enough however, and one can readily lose oneself in its mazy turnings. Seti built seven chapels, consecrated to Osiris and to different gods and goddesses, seven vaulted chambers, seven doors for the processions of the gods, and, at the sides, numberless halls, corridors, secondary chapels, dark chambers and hidden doorways.

Gigantic columns, suggestive of reeds and resembling a stem of papyrus, rise here in a thick forest to support the stones of the blue ceilings, which are strewn with stars.

In many cases stones are missing and leave large openings to the real sky above. The sun of so many centuries cracked them, and their own weight brought them headlong to the ground. Floods of light now enter through the gaps, into the very chapels where the men of old had thought to ensure a holy gloom.

Seti I is blessed by Horus and another god.
Seti I offers incense to Horus and Osiris, Abydos Temple
photo by Zangaki, c.1880.

Despite the damage which has overtaken the ceilings, this is nevertheless one of the most perfect of the sanctuaries of ancient Egypt. The sands, those gentle sextons, have here succeeded miraculously in their work of preservation. They might have been carved yesterday, these innumerable people.

The whole temple, with the openings which give it light, is more beautiful perhaps than in the time of the Pharaohs. In place of the old-time darkness, a transparent gloom now alternates with shafts of sunlight. Here and there the subjects of the bas-reliefs, so long buried in the darkness, are deluged with burning rays. The sunlight shows in detail their attitudes, their muscles, their scarcely altered colors, and endows them again with life and youth.

There is no part of the wall, in this immense place, that is not covered with divinities, with hieroglyphs and emblems. Osiris, jackal-headed Anubis, falcon-headed Horus, and ibis-headed Thoth are repeated a thousand times, welcoming with strange gestures the kings and priests who are rendering them homage.

The bodies, almost nude, with broad shoulders and slim waist, have a slenderness, a grace, and the features of the faces are of an exquisite purity. The artists who carved these charming heads, with their long eyes, full of the ancient dream, were already skilled in their art. They used a convention which puzzles us today, they only drew faces in profile. All the legs, all the feet are in profile too, although the bodies confront us fully. Symbolism and magic were the intent of their art, a larger size showed greater importance, there was no need for perspective.

Seti with (L)Anubis and (R)Isis
Photographs from EgyptArchive

Many of the pictures represent King Seti, drawn without doubt from life, for they show us almost the very features of his mummy. At his side he holds affectionately his son, the prince-royal, Ramses (later on Ramesses II., known to the Greeks as the great Sesostris). They have given the latter quite a frank air, and he wears a curl on the side of his head, as was the fashion in childhood.

Seti and his son Ramesses catch a bull.
Photograph from EgyptArchive.

We thought we had finished with the Cooks and Cookesses of the luncheon, but alas! Our horses, faster than their donkeys, overtake them on the return journey among the green fields. At a stoppage in the narrow roadway, caused by a meeting with a number of camels laden with lucerne, we are brought to a halt in their midst.

Abydos Temple carving of Bas Almost touching me is a dear little white donkey, who looks at me pensively and in such a way that we at once understand each other. A mutual sympathy unites us. A Cookess in blue spectacles surmounts him, bony and severe. Over her traveling costume she wears a tennis jersey, which accentuates the angularity of her figure. In her person she seems the very incarnation of the respectability of the British Isles. So long are those legs of hers--it would be more equitable if she were carrying the donkey.

The poor little white donkey regards me with melancholy. His ears twitch restlessly and his big beautiful eyes, so fine, so observant of everything, say to me as plain as words:

"She is a beauty, isn't she?"

"She is, indeed, my poor little donkey. But think of this: fixed on your back as she is, you have this advantage over me--you see her not!"

But my reflection, though judicious enough, does not console him, and his look answers me that he would be much prouder if he carried, like so many of his comrades, a simple pack of sugarcane.

Edited and excerpted from La Mort De Philae
by Pierre Loti (France), 1909, 1924

Unknown to M. Loti, a strange underground chamber lay behind Seti's Temple.
Professor Petre and Ms Murray's report of the discovery:
Osirion at Abydos
There is a lot more to Abydos, Mr Petre's description: Monuments of Abydos

Ra-Horakhty, Seti I and Horus.
Photograph from EgyptArchive.

The Plan of Seti I's Temple at Abydos
from the Mariette expedition, 1869.
The support areas were to the left, unlike all other temples
where they are directly behind the sanctuary.
This allows the Osirion to occupy that space
as a more important position than the sanctuary.

wings of the Sun.

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