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The Monuments of Abydos

Abydos (Thnis) is known today as the home of the Temple of Seti - one of the finest and best preserved New Kingdom temples, and also of the Osiron, a strange underground set of chambers built of huge, mostly undecorated stones and quite unlike any other site in Egypt, except to some degree a temple near the Giza Sphinx.

There are a number of other interesting features at Abydos, as this paper prepared by Sir William Flinders Petrie explains.

Modern scholarship has given much more recent dates to the Old Kingdom of Egypt, these modern estimates are given in (parenthesis).

The Monuments of Abydos
by William Flinders Petrie

published in 1911
from: The Gutenberg Encyclopedia
Adapted for

Priest of the Osiris Temple ABYDOS, one of the most ancient cities of Upper Egypt, about 7 miles West of the Nile in lat. 26 deg. 10' N.

The Egyptian name was Abdu, the hill of the symbol or reliquary, in which the sacred head of Osiris was preserved. Thence the Greeks named it Abydos, like the city on the Hellespont (the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between European and Asiatic Turkey); the modern Arabic name is Arabet el Madfuneh.

The history of the city begins in the late prehistoric age, it having been founded by the pre-Menite kings (Petrie, Abydos, ii 64), whose town, temple and tombs have been found there. The kings of the Ist dynasty, and some of the IInd dynasty, were also buried here, and the temple was renewed and enlarged by them.

Great forts were built on the desert behind the town by three kings of the IInd dynasty. The temple and town continued to be rebuilt at intervals down to the times of the XXXth dynasty, and the cemetery was used continuously.

In the XIIth dynasty a gigantic tomb was cut in the rock by Senwosri (or Senusert) III. Seti I in the XIXth dynasty founded a great new temple to the south of the town in honor of the ancestral kings of the early dynasties; this was finished by Rameses (or Ramessu) II, who also built a lesser temple of his own. Mineptah (Merenptah) added a great Hypogeum of Osiris to the temple of Seti. (This attribution is disputed)

The latest building was a new temple of Nekhtnebf in the XXXth dynasty. From the Ptolemaic times the place continued to decay and no later works are known (Petrie, Abydos, i and ii).

The worship here was of the jackal god Upuaut (Ophols, Wepwoi), who "opened the way" to the realm of the dead, increasing from the Ist dynasty to the time of the XIIth dynasty and then disappearing after the XVIIIth. Anher appears in the XIth dynasty; and Khentamenti, the god of the western Hades, rises to importance in the middle kingdom and then vanishes in the XVIIIth. The worship here of Osiris in his various forms begins in the XIIth dynasty and becomes more important in later times, so that at last the whole place was considered as sacred to him (Abydos, ii 47).

The temples successively built here on one site were nine or ten in number, from the Ist dynasty, 5500 B.C. (now believed to be about 3050 B.C.) to the XXVIth dynasty, 500 B.C. The first was an enclosure, about 30X 50 ft., surrounded by a thin wall of unbaked bricks. Covering one wall of this came the second temple of about 40 ft. square in a wall about 10 ft. thick. An outer temenos (enclosure) wall surrounded the ground. This outer wall was thickened about the IInd or IIIrd dynasty.

The old temple entirely vanished in the IVth dynasty, and a smaller building was erected behind it, enclosing a wide hearth of black ashes. Pottery models of offerings are found in the ashes, and these were probably the substitutes for sacrifices decreed by Cheops (Khufu) in his temple reforms.

Offering shaped as a camel.
Offering found at the Osiris Temple

A great clearance of temple offerings was made now, or earlier, and a chamber full of them has yielded the fine ivory carvings and the glazed figures and tiles which show the splendid work of the Ist dynasty. A vase of Menes with purple inlaid hieroglyphs in green glaze and the tiles with relief figures are the most important pieces. The noble statuette of Cheops in ivory, found in the stone chamber of the temple, gives the only portrait of this greatest ruler. (In 2016 this still is the only known image of the builder of the Great Pyramid, however Zahi Hawass argues with some cause that it is a much later imitation.)

Red-Granite-Statue of a Pharaoh from Abydos.The temple was rebuilt entirely on a larger scale by Pepi I (2332-2283 B.C.) in the VIth dynasty. He placed a great stone gateway to the temenos and an outer temenos wall and gateway, with a colonnade between the gates. His temple was about 40X50 ft. inside, with stone gateways front and back, showing that it was of the processional type.

In the XIth dynasty Menthotp (Mentuhotep) III (1997-1991 B.C.) added a colonnade and altars. Soon after, Sankhkere entirely rebuilt the temple, laying a stone pavement over the area, about 45 ft. square, besides subsidiary chambers. Soon after Senwosri (Senusert) I in the XIIth dynasty laid massive foundations of stone over the pavement of his predecessor. A great temenos was laid out enclosing a much larger area, and the temple itself was about three times the earlier size.

The XVIIIth dynasty began with a large chapel of Amasis (Ahmosi, Aahmes) I, and then Tethmosis (Thothmes, Tahutmes) III built a far larger temple, about 130X200 ft. He made also a processional way past the side of the temple to the cemetery beyond, with a great gateway of granite.

Rameses III (1183-1152 B.C.) added a large building; and Amasis II (570 - 526 B.C.) in the XXVIth dynasty rebuilt the temple again, and placed in it a large monolith shrine of red granite, finely wrought. The foundations of the successive temples were comprised within about 18 ft. depth of ruins; these needed the closest examination to discriminate the various buildings, and were recorded by over 4000 measurements and 1000 levellings (Petrie, Abydos, ii).

(The Ancient Temple of Osiris today lies below a modern town and thus is mostly unavailable to archeology. This may not be all bad, techniques continue to improve and there should be some undisturbed sites for scientists of future centuries.)

Square columns of the Temple of Seti I
Seti's Temple at Abydos
Photograph by Henri Bechard 1887

The Temple of Seti I (1294-1279 B.C.) was built on entirely new ground half a mile to the south of the long series of temples just described. This is the building best known as the Great Temple of Abydos, being nearly complete and an impressive sight.

A principal object of Seti's Temple was the adoration of the early kings, whose cemetery, to which it forms a great funerary chapel, lies behind it. The long list of the kings of the principal dynasties carved on a wall is known as the "Table of Abydos."

There were also seven chapels for the worship of the Pharaoh and principal gods. At the back were large chambers connected with the Osiris worship (Caulfield, Temple of the Kings); and probably from these led out the great Hypogeum (the Osiron) for the celebration of the Osiris mysteries, built by Mineptah
(Osirion at Abydos by Murray).

The temple of Seti was originally 550 ft. long, but the forecourts are scarcely recognizable, and the part in good state is about 250 ft. long and 350 ft. wide, including the wing at the side. Excepting the list of kings and a panegyric on Rameses II, the subjects are not historical but mythological. The work is celebrated for its delicacy and refinement, but lacks the life and character of that in earlier ages. The sculptures have been mostly published in hand copy, not facsimile, by Mariette in his Abydos, i.

The adjacent Temple of Rameses II (1279-1213 B.C.) was much smaller and simpler in plan; but it had a fine historical series of scenes around the outside, of which the lower parts remain. A list of kings, similar to that of Seti, formerly stood here; but the fragments were removed by the French consul and sold to the British Museum.

The remaining stones of the Temple of Ramsses II.
Many of the limestone blocks of the Temple of Ramsses were burned to make cement, leaving only the lowest courses.

Plan of Ramsses II's Temple at Abydos.
Auguste Mariette Expedition 1869

The Royal Tombs of the earliest dynasties were placed about a mile back on the great desert plain. The earliest is about 10X20ft. inside, a pit lined with brick walls, and originally roofed with timber and matting. Others also before Menes are 15X25 ft. The tomb probably of Menes (c. 3050 B.C.) is of the latter size.

Steep roofs above ground mark burials of early Pharaohs. Steep roofs above ground mark burials of early Pharaohs.

Tombs of early Pharaohs

After this the tombs increase in size and complexity. The tomb-pit is surrounded by chambers to hold the offerings, the actual sepulchre being a great wooden chamber in the midst of the brick-lined pit. Rows of small tomb-pits for the servants of the king surround the royal chamber, many dozens of such burials being usual.

By the end of the IInd dynasty the type changed to a long passage bordered with chambers on either hand, the royal burial being in the middle of the length. With its dependencies it covered a space of over 3000 square yards.

The contents of the tombs have been nearly destroyed by successive plunderers; enough remained to show that rich jewellery was placed on the mummies, a profusion of vases of hard and valuable stones from the royal table service stood about the body, the store-rooms were filled with great jars of wine, perfumed ointment and other supplies, and tablets of ivory and of ebony were engraved with a record of the yearly annals of the reigns.

The sealings of the various officials, of which over 200 varieties have been found, give an insight into the public arrangements (Petrie, Royal Tombs, i. and ii).

The cemetery of private persons begins in the Ist dynasty with some pit tombs in the town. It was extensive in the XIIth and XIIIth dynasties and contained many rich tombs. In the XVIIIth-XXth dynasties a large number of fine tombs were made, and later ages continued to bury here till Roman times.

Many hundred funeral steles were removed by Mariette's workmen, without any record of the burials (Mariette, Abydos, ii. and iii). Later excavations have been recorded by Ayrton, Abydos, iii.; Maclver, El Amrah and Abydos; and Garstang, El Arabah.

Stele are flat carved stones, similar to tombstones, although they do not always mark graves. Here are some of those gathered by Mariette:

The "forts" lay behind the town. (These are rough stone or brick enclosures now considered tombs.) That known as Shunet el Zebib is about 450X250 ft. over all, and still stands 30 ft. high. It was built by Rhasekhemui (Khasekhemwy), the last king of the IInd dynasty around 2700 BC.

Bronze bowl and ewer. (British Museum)
Found in the tomb of Khasekhemwy,
these mark the beginnings of the bronze age in Egypt.
Bronze chisels make dressed (squared) stone buildings practical.
The greatest achievements of Egypt
were created without iron.
Photograph from EgyptArchive.

Another fort nearly as large adjoined it, and is probably rather older. A third fort of a squarer form is now occupied by the Coptic convent; its age cannot be ascertained (Ayrton, Abydos, iii).
The Monuments of Abydos
by William Flinders Petrie, 1911.

At least 14 brick lined pits have been discovered near the funerary enclosure of Pharaoh Khasekhemwy in Abydos, each holding a 60 to 80 foot (18 - 25 meter) wooden boat from the first or second Dynasty. First found in 1991, excavation and conservation of these boats is continuing.

by Prisse d'Avennes, 1878

The discovery of the Osirion is discussed
by Sir William Flinders Petrie and Margaret Alice Murray in:
The Osirion at Abydos

Seti's Great Temple at Abydos

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