The sacred site of Abydos lies in Middle Egypt, midway between the crowded streets of Cairo and the serene beauty of Aswan. The area is both vast and rich — ancient ruins spanning the entire Pharaonic period litter almost five miles of the sands that lie between the brooding cliffs of the desert and the fertile floodplain.
It is one of the most fascinating sites in Egypt, and archaeological exploration over the past decades (much of it funded in part by the National Geographic Society) has been enormously fruitful. Most tourists who visit Abydos explore only the New Kingdom temples of Seti I and Ramses II which lie on the edge of the floodplain, both of which are extraordinary monuments in their own right. But behind them lies a vast and unseen world of religion and mystery.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.
Abydos was revered for millennia as the birthplace of Osiris, the mythical first king of Egypt and the god of the dead. The earliest kings of Egypt were buried here, and one of the pious rulers of the Middle Kingdom identified the tomb of a First Dynasty king named Djer as the tomb of Osiris himself. Each year, a festival to honour the death and resurrection of Osiris was held at Abydos; the celebrations included a royal procession following the course of an ancient wadi which led from the tombs far out in the desert to the temple of Osiris-Khentiamentiu close to the edge of the floodplain.
As early as the Old Kingdom, a pilgrimage to Abydos became an important rite for many Egyptians: at least symbolically (perhaps often in a funerary procession around the local cemetery), the mummy was taken to Abydos for purification and association with Osiris. Many Old and Middle Kingdom tombs show versions of this journey, with the deceased as a mummy on the way to Abydos and as a blessed being who had passed to the next stage of the afterlife on the way back.
For the past several decades, this site has been the focus of a great deal of excavation. The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) has done excellent restoration work on the New Kingdom Seti Temple. The roof of this temple miraculously survived intact over the millennia, leaving it as one of the best-preserved temples form the Dynastic Period, with stunning relief-carvings painted in still vibrant colours.
Over the last 10 years, the SCA’s extensive restoration programme has brought the importance and beauty of this Temple into clear view. Important work has also been done in the mysterious Osireion, a subterranean feature behind the Seti Temple the date of which has long been in question. In addition, an Egyptian team under the direction of Yehia Al-Masri is currently excavating an important Graeco-Roman animal cemetery in the main wadi, where mummified shrews and hawks were buried in spectacular coffins.
A German expedition under the leadership of Gunter Dreyer has been making spectacular discoveries in the area of the Early Dynasty tombs, including a new tomb belonging to one of the very first rulers of a united Egypt, king Scorpion. Their work is helping to clarify the fascinating beginnings of Egyptian history.
A number of US scholars, most of whom did their graduate work, as I did, at the University of Pennsylvania under David O’Connor, have been working at Abydos. O’Connor himself is continuing to excavate and make exciting discoveries in the area where huge funerary enclosures were built by the Early Dynasty kings (as complements to their tombs). Several years ago, he found a fleet of 12 wooden boats with anchors of stone mysteriously moored in the desert near the best preserved of these enclosures.
IMPORTANT FINDS: Several of O’Connor’s protégés are doing excellent work in the area and finding things of interest both to scholars and the general public.
In the northern part of Abydos is a town and temple site dating back to the Predynastic Period in an area called the Kom Al-Sultan (the mound of the ruler). The settlement site is being explored by David O’Connor and Matthew Adams, and they have found what they believe is a governor’s palace here. Many Egyptian kings built small chapels in this area, and in 1991 Mary Ann Pouls Wegner, now a professor at the University of Toronto, found a new one.
In an area known as the Middle Cemetery, Janet Richards, a former student of David O’Connor and now a professor at the University of Michigan in the US, has been working to solve a fascinating archaeological puzzle. In 1995, she began to work in this area with the goal of creating, for the first time, a comprehensive map of this important site. She also hoped to find the tomb of Weni the Elder, one of the most important and interesting Old Kingdom officials known to have been buried at Abydos. Material from his tomb was excavated during the 19th century and is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, but no context was recorded, and the location of the tomb was lost.
Over the past seven years, she has succeeded in putting together an excellent map, finding not only the tomb of Weni but also the tomb of his father and several other important Old Kingdom officials. Weni brags in his autobiography that he was a self-made man who rose from obscurity to the highest rank in the land; we now know that he was the son of a vizier. One of the other tombs she has found shows evidence that it was built for one man but usurped by another, hinting at intrigue and treachery in the late Old Kingdom. Richards’s work is also shedding new light on the way that later generations treated this consecrated area.
At the edge of the floodplain in the southern part of Abydos, former University of Pennsylvania student and now professor Josef Wegner is excavating a mortuary temple for Senusret III of the 12th Dynasty, originally discovered at the turn of the 20th century. West of the temple is a huge tomb, which was most likely the actual burial place of the king. Wegner believes that Senusret took on the role of Osiris during his lifetime to make room for his son and co-regent, and his finds are altering the way in which we understand the international relationships of this royal family and changing our views of their religious beliefs.
Just south of the mortuary complex is a large planned settlement, probably for the workers who built the complex, the excavation of which is providing insight into the lives of the lower and middle classes of the time.
At the beginning of the New kingdom, a king named Ahmose built a temple and pyramid at the southernmost edge of Abydos, recently explored by another Pennsylvania graduate, Stephen Harvey, now a professor at the University of Toronto in Canada. Ahmose was a fascinating character. He was a boy when his father and older brother both died in battle while trying to drive foreign rulers called the Hyksos out of Egypt; their deaths left him on the throne with his mother as regent. Mother and son then bided their time until Ahmose was old enough to fight, and then they rallied the native Egyptians, defeated the foreign invaders, and chased them into Syria-Palestine, giving birth to an era of empire and unsurpassed wealth.
He is the last royal pyramid builder in Egypt. The pyramid and temple lie at the edge of the cultivated area, and a subterranean tomb lies to the west at the base of the desert cliffs. A small temple dedicated to Ahmose’s sister wife, Ahmose Nefertari, lies near the pyramid temple, and between the pyramid and the underground tomb is a small chapel dedicated to their grandmother, Tetisheri. In addition to these architectural remains, Harvey has been finding and reconstructing the remains of some beautifully carved and painted reliefs that give details of his battles with the Hyksos.
While I was a graduate at Pennsylvania, I myself participated in excavations at Abydos, and I know all of the major American excavators now working at the site personally. O’Connor was my professor and dissertation advisor, and he remains an important mentor. I would like to interview the various scholars working at the site and write an article about it. My strong preference would be to work with Ken Garrett, with whom I have already spoken about this project, who is widely and correctly regarded as the best photographer of Egyptian archaeology around today.
I believe that such an article would be enormously interesting to the general public, as the site of Abydos illuminates the entire span of pharaonic history. I might also suggest that Richards write a separate article about her work, which is quite fascinating, to accompany the larger article. With my background and personal relationships with the scholars working at the site, and with Ken’s wonderful photographs, we could take the reader on an exciting journey through the sands of time.