Journal: Tuesday 10 March 1998
For many years, long before I first came to Egypt, I had wanted to visit the Temple of Seti I at Abydos. I had a friend who used to tell me stories about Omm Sety, an English lady who had had a particular relationship with Abydos and the pharaoh Seti I. Jo had known her and visited her whenever he was in Egypt. I had also read Jonathan Cott’s book, ‘The Search for Omm Sety’ and this had fired up my imagination and created a mystery about the temple.
Abydos is about 160km to the north of Luxor and is one of the most interesting monumental sites in the Nile Valley, dating 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 mentioned in tomb inscriptions and it seems that it was the wish of all men to be buried there, either actually or symbolically. The site is now dominated by the New Kingdom temples of Seti I and Rameses II.
So this was an exciting day for me, to see Abydos at last, an ambition which up until now had been thwarted because of the tight security in the area and because the temple had previously been closed to tourists. Robin and I had arranged to make the journey by taxi with our good friend and taxi driver Tayib, but this meant inevitably joining the convoy. We left Luxor at 8.00am with the long lines of coaches and taxis heading north towards Qena, some turning off to the Red Sea coast and others continuing on to Dendera. What we hadn’t realised was that we would have to spend an hour and a half at Dendera before being allowed to carry on. Although I had been there a couple of times before, we made good use of our time at Dendera, taking a closer look at the birth houses, the Coptic Church, which was being restored and the block fields with some interesting reliefs.
Eventually we were able to carry on and the agricultural countryside was very pretty in places. I noticed many houses with rows and rows of pottery water jars stacked up in piles and even used in the construction of walls. Qena province is a centre for traditional pottery which is laid out in the sun to dry before being fired in open pit kilns. The houses themselves are built from neat rows of brick, often in terraces like working class suburbs in an English town and they looked very different to the painted and plastered houses in the Luxor area. Strips of fields were being cultivated by men in galabeyas and brightly clad children who were tending animals, sometimes waved to us as we sped by. We went through the town of Nag Hamadi, renowned in Egypt for it’s sugar production. Here we crossed the long bridge over the Nile to the West Bank and noticed a couple of cruise boats moored by the barrage. This was interesting because it meant that the boats were once more allowed on this stretch of the river. The area of Middle Egypt around Nag Hamadi is largely Coptic by tradition, the early Christian sects lived in desert isolation or in walled fortresses around here and the radical theologies of the Gnostics who were suppressed by the later church only recently came to light with the discovery of the Nag Hamadi scrolls.
By the time we arrived at Abydos there were only three cars left in the convoy, although there seemed to be a lot of Egyptian tourists here, which was unexpected. The village of el-Araba was much larger than I had imagined and as we left our taxi we walked through a garden area with a cafe, we had a spectacular view of the front of the temple. To my dismay, we were told that we would only be allowed one hour here to see everything, so we quickly went into the temple.
The cult temple of Seti I is the largest of the extant Abydos temples, built 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 and there are two courtyards, which we had no time to look at. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
The Seti reliefs in the temple were absolutely superb and I was captivated by the beauty of the artwork, but time was very limited and I was barely able to have more than a cursory glance at each wall before making my way out to the Osirion. This is a curious structure which lies on the main axis of Seti’s temple but at a subterranean level and was discovered as recently as 1903. This monument was originally roofed, its only entrance was through a long vaulted passage outside the northern wall of the Seti temple though visitors today enter the Osirion by a wooden staircase on the south side of the huge central hall. The central hall has 10 huge red granite pillars which supported the massive roofing blocks. The appearance reminded me of 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, which 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. 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.
The Seti Temple itself was very dark and I knew that my photographs here would not be good, so on this occasion I didn’t take many inside. But the Osirion fascinated me and I spent a lot of time photographing it. Luckily the water was low and I could walk right around the low island structure. Our hour was very quickly gone and it was so frustrating to come all this way for so little time, but I was grateful for being able to get here at all. The area was still very heavily guarded with police on camels patrolling the walls and there was no time to see the Rameses Temple or any of the desert sites which I would have loved to have visited, but it just meant that I would have to find another way to spend more time here. At least I now knew Abydos was not impossible.
The journey back was not so good. We stopped for what seemed like a long time at the Qena checkpoint to wait for the convoy from Dendera and speeded back to Luxor as though the tourist police couldn’t wait to get home. The 100 kph journey along bumpy roads in an unsprung taxi was uncomfortable and the heat and diesel fumes made Robin and I both feel quite ill. Although we had had a wonderful day and one of my ambitions had been fulfilled, we were both glad when we reached the outskirts of Luxor and could leave the convoy.