Thursday, January 20, 2011

Abydos, a sacred site for 5,000 years

Thursday, January 20, we are up early , groom and go downstairs there there is a nice breakfast at the Abydos House laid out for us. We also enjoy seeing some artwork of the lady of the house that is lovingly displayed on the walls.

From the Abydos House it is a short walk to Abydos temple, passing by the location of tombs from the 1st and 2nd dynasty. Burials had taken place here since pre-dynastic times. The early tombs are not open – in fact, the fragile mud brick tombs have been re-buried to protect them. This was the main cult center of Osiris, lord of the underworld. The ancients believed the entrance to the underworld was located at the mouth of a canyon here.

A thousand years later, one of those 1st and 2nd dynasty tombs was mistaken for the tomb of Osiris and pilgrims would leave offerings to the god at the site. The temple we are visiting was begun by Seti I, (1294-1279 BC) and completed by his son Rameses II. Many later pharaohs put cenotaphs (funerary monument, in the form of a tomb, for one who is buried elsewhere) here in Abydos symbolizing connection between lower and upper Egypt, even though they were buried elsewhere. (Indeed some "New Age" types continue to make pilgrimages here and to Dendera, which we visit later today. However unlike those "modern" would-be Egyptians, there is no indication that reincarnation played any role in ancient Egyptian beliefs.)

There are fragments and traces of earlier temples, sacred lakes and other structures but these are all in poor shape except for this temple built by Seti I. This temple is astonishingly intact, most of it still standing and with the colors on the low relief carvings retaining much of their original brilliance.

In terms of modern tourism, this is Middle Egypt and off the beaten track. (It can be reached as a day trip from Luxor, but the numbers of visits are low) That's a shame because this 3300 year old temple is one of the most impressive we saw with many beautiful low relief scenes that remain much of their original color. According to experts is one of the most beautifully decorated temples in all of Egypt.

This was the most sacred cult center in ancient times and every ancient Egyptian tried to visit here at least once in their lifetime. (Those who failed to make the journey might place a scene of their visit here on their mortuary temple or tomb walls, which apparently secured the same blessing of Osiris.)
In this picture of the temple facade, you can see what is original
and what is reconstruction. The reconstruction allows you to
appreciate the original appearance

Although the facade of Abydos is restored, but the colors and reliefs are original. Abydos includes many illustrations of the interaction between gods and between the king and the gods. In the second hypostyle hall (a columned and roofed hall) are illustrations of Seti with the gods Horus and Osiris.
Horus blessing Seti

Seti offering a gift to the god Osiris

Further into the temple are chapels dedicated to Osiris, Horus, Ptah, Amun, Isis, Ra-Horakhty and a divine Pharaoh, Seti himself. Each would have contained a golden statue and a barque for the god. You could spend days here just looking at the walls and struggling to understand what those ancient designers intended us to learn. However, it is interesting to note some of the most important designs are in the interior of the temple where only the king and the high priests would ever see them.

However, for archaeologists and historians, the most important thing here is the king list, which claims to list every king from Menes, through Seti, from the first through 19th Dynasty. A total of 76 kings in all are listed

To the left end of the long corridor there is a depiction of Seti I, and in front of him a young boy, who is his son, who will become Rameses II. The prince is depicted wearing the "side lock" of youth.

Seti with his son, Rameses
The list covers most of the rest of of the lengthy wall, yet it is incomplete. Missing, for example, are all the kings of the the Second Intermediate Period. Also missing are the "politically incorrect" rulers. This includes the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut, and the four "Amarna" rulers, Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Tutankhamun and Ay.

The other omitted kings may be those whose rule over the entire land was questionable (as in the Intermediate Period when at times more than one king seems to have ruled at the same time).

This is one of three known Kings Lists, and by comparing these, along with other historical documents, Egyptologists have managed to piece together a pretty good record of the rulers

A small section of the Kings List
Like many other temples and tombs, this site was later used by Romans, and Coptics. Damage, including holes cut in the rock to tie up animals and soot from fires is evident in many places. Also evident are pottery shards from the Greco Roman period.

Behind the temple is the Osirieon, where it is said Osiris' head was buried. This is a pit filled with water, right now although many of the columns are visible, but it has yet to pumped out. This was built by Seti I but the legend of Osiris and his being buried there goes back to Old Kindgom and this was the cult center for that god of resurection.


Throughout all of ancient Egyptian history, religion as based on this "resurrection" concept. The reason for the tombs, mortuary temples and mummfication was to preserve the body and the being of the deceased so that he or she could resume life in the next world, as life was in this one.

Pictures from both Abydos and Dendera, which we visit next are here:

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