Journal: Saturday 27 March 1999 (AM)
Day of the Feast of Sacrifice, Eid el-Adha, the Saturday holiday saw everyone out on the streets dressed in their finest clothes, greeting each other with smiles and handshakes and blessings. Today the people will go to the cemeteries with gifts for their ancestors, just as they did in pharaonic times, just as they did in the Beautiful Feast of the Valley celebrated in ancient Thebes. Tonight they will feast on ritually slaughtered lamb and other specially prepared dishes, eaten beneath festive banners and bunting in the bosom of their families. I was told that though Egyptians may live at the other end of the country, they will make a special effort to come home to spend the festival with their families.
When we first arrived in Abydos we were assigned our own policeman, who followed us everywhere like a faithful dog, even sleeping in a chair in the hotel garden. He was very young and I felt sorry for him landing such a boring duty, especially as he seemed to be the only person working on the holiday. This morning Robin and I, with our policeman trailing behind, walked up the road to a bakery, where yesterday we had seen many different kinds of tempting bread and cakes, intending to buy our lunch. We should have realised that the bakery wouldn’t be open today and we were disappointed. We carried on walking past the Seti Temple and along the road through the village of Beni Mansur for about half a kilometre until we reached the Temple of Rameses II. Many books say that this temple is ‘destroyed’ with little left to see, but due to various periods of restoration there was much more than I expected, with enclosing walls around 2m high and a very impressive restored black granite gateway, 5m tall and decorated with scenes and inscriptions. His temple, like that of his father, was dedicated to Osiris and construction began while the two kings ruled together. Rameses’ cartouches here were later altered to contain his pharaonic names and titles when he became sole ruler.
The temple’s greatest attraction for me were the brilliantly coloured painted reliefs which are possibly the finest in any monument built by Rameses II. The carvings are shallow and tasteful, with colours now muted to soft hews, unlike the rather brash, self-important reliefs seen on Rameses’ later monuments. Towards the back of the temple there were chapels dedicated to Seti I and the king’s deified ancestors and there was once a king-list, now a fragmentary piece in the British museum. The pylons and courts, tall statues, pillars and colonnades and the high walls decorated with scenes of religious processions and military campaigns are now very reduced in size, giving only fleeting glimpses of what a lovely temple this must have been. There were several groups of side-chapels dedicated to various deities. My favourites were those on the western side of the hall, dedicated to Amun-Re, Osiris and possibly Horus and in the latter shrine there was a beautiful and colourful relief of the goddess Hekat ‘Mistress of Abydos’, usually portrayed as a frog, but in this case showing her human face. Next to her the god Anubis ‘Lord of the Sacred Land’ also has the head of a man rather than the usual jackal which, we were told, is the only known example of Anubis with a human head.
In the corners of the western wall at the north and south were two chambers thought to be statue halls which also had some very colourful reliefs. Each contained decorated niches and the southern chamber had a beautiful relief of Rameses offering to Osiris who is being protected by a winged djed pillar. This is thought to be one of the earliest representations of a symbol which became popular in later dynasties. Back outside the temple, Robin and I walked around the remains of the exterior walls, where we saw a version of Rameses’ Battle of Kadesh in beautiful incised relief, a calendar of festivals and offering lists. In one of the texts, Rameses describes his temple as a pylon of white limestone, granite doorways and a sanctuary of pure alabaster, which must have been very beautiful in its time.