Temple of Seti I and the Osirion
The site of Abydos lies about 160km to the north of Luxor and is one of the most interesting monumental sites in the Nile Valley. Its ancient name was Abdju, from which the name of Abydos was derived in classical times. The religious significance of the site dates back to the very beginnings of Egyptian history when the earliest rulers chose to be buried in a desert necropolis in the sacred cult centre of Osiris.
The area flourished from the Early Dynastic Period right down to Christian times. Abydos was considered an important place of pilgrimage often mentioned in tomb inscriptions and it seems that it was the wish of all men to be buried there, either actually or symbolically. Today the site is dominated by the New Kingdom temples of Seti I and Rameses II, but if you have time there are many older monuments in the desert to the west of the village to be visited.
The Temple of Seti I
The cult temple of Seti I is the largest of the extant Abydos temples, built of limestone and sandstone blocks to an unusual L-shaped plan, it has seven sanctuaries instead of the usual one (or three). This temple was built in Dynasty XIX by Seti I, but the decoration of the courtyards and first hypostyle hall was completed by his son Rameses II.
The temple is entered through the now ruined first pylon which would have fronted a quay linking the temple with the River Nile to the east. A courtyard with battle scenes of Rameses II on the remaining walls and two ‘wells’ or ablution tanks for the ritual purification of the priests can still be seen. The second pylon, hardly bigger than the first was fronted by a portico with niches once containing Osirid statues of Rameses II. The walls of the portico depict some of the children of the king (sons on the left and daughters on the right). The second courtyard, also decorated by Rameses II, has a doorway in its south-west corner which gave access to a complex of administration buildings and magazines, including an audience hall with a dais for the king’s throne which took up the space in the long arm of the L-shape. Near the entrance to these buildings a stela of Rameses II offering to Ptah is set up. Also in the second courtyard is a statue of a king sitting in a shrine, thought to be from the Middle Kingdom, and brought here from elsewhere in the Abydos area.
The entrance to the outer hypostyle hall is through a central doorway from a portico with square columns decorated with scenes of Rameses II offering to various deities. In the time of Seti I there were seven doorways through the façade, each having a processional way from the court to seven chapels. Rameses filled in these doorways leaving only the central main entrance and a smaller doorway at the north end of the portico. The outer hypostyle was decorated by Rameses after the death of his father and while the reliefs are not as delicate as those of Seti I, they are finer than those in some of his later temples. This hall boasts 24 papyrus columns each showing Rameses in the presence of the god of the shrine at the end of the aisle.
Seven doorways lead into the second hypostyle hall which serves as a vestibule for the seven cult chapels in the west wall. This hall, decorated in the reign of Seti I, has 36 pillars and on its walls there are beautiful reliefs of the king worshipping and performing rituals before various deities. On a raised platform to the west the chapels from left to right are dedicated to the deified Seti I, Ptah, Re-Horakhty, Amun-Re, Osiris, Isis and Horus. The sacred barques of each god would have been housed in these chapels and the scenes they contain depict fascinating accounts of the rituals associated with the festivals of each deity. The chapel of Seti I differs in its reliefs which show the king’s sovereignty being endorsed by the gods. The ceilings are vaulted and six of the chapels have a false door carved on the western wall. The Osiris chapel however, has instead a doorway which leads to a suite of rooms behind.
The chambers at the back of the temple are dedicated to the cult of Osiris. The first Osiris hall with its 10 columns, has exquisite colourful reliefs depicting the king offering to Osiris and enacting various rituals to the god. The three chambers to the right are sanctuaries dedicated to Horus, Seti I and Isis. Behind these chambers is a secret room which appears to have no entrance but is thought to have been a crypt where the most sacred temple treasures were stored. This interesting ‘blind room’ is now open to the sky and can be seen from the roof of the temple (with permission). On the other side of the main Osiris hall is a second hall containing 4 pillars with niches around its walls and three chapels to the south. The decoration is very poor in this hall but it is thought to have contained reliefs of mysteries of the resurrection of Osiris and perhaps an astronomical ceiling.
Back in the second hypostyle hall there are two doorways in the south wall. The doorway on the right leads to the hall of Ptah-Sokar and Nefertem, gods of the Memphite triad and the northern counterpart to Osiris. There are particularly interesting reliefs of a hawk-headed depiction of Sokar and both a human and lion-headed Nefertem crowned with the lotus blossom. The barque shrines for these gods are at the western end of the hall.
The other doorway in the second hypostyle hall (on the left) leads into a corridor called the ‘Gallery of Lists’ in which Seti I and his young son Rameses offer to a list of cartouches of 76 kings. Seti holds a censor while Rameses reads from a papyrus scroll. The cartouches begin with the king Menes of Dynasty I and end with Seti I and are obviously carefully selected to be those which the king considered his legitimate ancestors. Some of the rulers omitted include Hatshepsut, Akhenaten, Smenkhare, Tutankhamun and Ay.
Halfway along this gallery a doorway leads to a passage by which visitors can leave the temple via a staircase to reach the Osirion. Reliefs on the walls of the corridor date to the reign of Rameses II who is shown with his young son Prince Amenhirkhopshef roping a bull, catching wildfowl in a clapnet and dragging the barque of Sokar.
Beyond the kinglist are other chambers, a ‘hall of barques’ and a ‘hall of butchers’ with magazines and store rooms leading off to the rear. There is also an entrance out into the administrative area.
Immediately behind the Seti Temple is a curious structure known as the Osirion which lies on the main axis of Seti’s temple but at a subterranean level. It was discovered as recently as 1903, and is thought to have been constructed by Seti I and decorated later by his grandson Merenptah. The monument was originally roofed, its only entrance was through a long vaulted passage outside the northern wall of the Seti Temple and was decorated with scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’. At the end of the passage a sharp turn leads to two transverse halls decorated with scenes from the ‘Book of the Dead’ and mythical and astronomical scenes. Visitors today enter the Osirion by a wooden staircase on the south side of the huge central hall.
The central hall is built of sandstone but has 10 huge red granite pillars each 2.6m in diameter which supported the massive roofing blocks. The appearance is similar to Khafre’s Valley Temple at Giza and for this reason many scholars speculate on its precise age. The central part of the hall is an island which may have been cut off from the rest of the building by its surrounding trenches of water. At the end of the island there was a sarcophagus and canopic chests suggesting that the purpose of the structure was to serve as a pseudo burial chamber. The trenches were drained and cleared of debris in 1993 but the bottoms have never been excavated. The increased height of the water-table means that most of the year the central part of the hall is flooded. There are six small chambers in each of the northern and southern walls.
At the eastern end of the central hall is another large chamber which spans its width and reflects the transverse chamber at the western side. This chamber is still roofed and decorated with astronomical scenes on the east side and a finely carved relief of the sky-goddess Nut supported by Shu god of the air, with the Decans on the western side. This room is invariably flooded even in the dry season and is very dark.
The Osirion has been interpreted as a kind of cenotaph of the god Osiris. The style, though often thought to reflect the Old Kingdom because of the scale of its masonry, is now presumed to be the attempts by New Kingdom builders to archaize the plan and decoration of elements of a royal tomb of the period. If this is the case then the cult temple of Osiris would have the role of a mortuary temple in relation to the ‘royal tomb’, the Osirion. Because the structure was buried under a mound it is possible that the central hall was designed to symbolise the great myth of Osiris buried on an island surrounded by the primeval waters. Its real purpose however, is still obscure.
How to get there
Abydos can be reached from the town of Sohag or Asyut to the north or from Qena or Luxor to the south. The train from Cairo to Aswan stops at el-Balyana, the closest town. A journey by taxi or coach made be made from Luxor and it is no longer required that road travel is with the convoy. This gives visitors the opportunity of spending much more time at Abydos.