It is time to move on, because we will need to make a brief stop at Abydos, the most sacred city throughout antiquity.
The whole area is scattered with tombs and temples going back to the earliest ancient Egyptian dynasties. From the remaining foundations of the early kings from about 2800 BCE, recent excavations have uncovered burials that scientists say may indicate that retainers were killed and buried with their Pharaohs.
This is a controversial thought that cannot be dismissed, even if this particular practice was restricted in ancient Egypt to a short period of time, perhaps fewer than 100 years. Even so, for the retainer concerned, this would have been the highest form of service. If he could join the king immediately after the king died, then the retainer would be able to receive the glories of the eternal afterlife and not give fate a chance to deprive him of its benefits. Unfortunately, the massive funerary complexes of the early kings have been reduced to rubble, and only the monuments of Pharaohs 2,000 years later have remained visible.
The first sight on the horizon is the wonderful temple of the New Kingdom ruler Seti I. It was completed for him by his son, Ramses II. The temple is unique in its layout and beauty, and upon entering and walking towards the back seven separate chapels dedicated to various deities can be seen. The walls of the chambers contain some of the most beautiful reliefs in Egypt. It is always surprising to see that Ramses II could actually do such work.
The world considers this Pharaoh to have been the creator of great monuments. That is partially true. But he also usurped great monuments created by his forefathers by putting his own name on them. Ramses II was in such a hurry to enshrine his name on anything that was standing that the work he produced from the ground up has always seemed a bit primitive.
However, at Abydos Ramses II surpassed himself in his efforts to immortalise his father Seti I. His workmen obviously took the time to include details of his brilliance. One example is the chapel to the god Osiris, where fine lines can be seen forming the body of the god in the drawings on the walls. The colours have even remained in good condition. At the chapel to Isis, there is also a special grace about the diaphorous clothing worn by the women in the drawings.
This commendable workmanship extends to other buildings prepared by Ramses II at the site. His wonderful temple to himself, which lies about 1,000 feet from his father’s, still maintains the glory of the time in which it was built, for example. There is no roof now, and the colours are fading because of the weather, but the design and execution of this smaller building cannot be ignored. It is well worth the 15-minute walk over the Um Al-Gabor, or “Mother of Sherds”, pathway.
Between the two temples of Ramses and Seti I lie huge numbers of graves from the time of the Old Kingdom up through Ramses II and even later. Many of the pottery grave goods have been robbed from the tombs under the pathway and been left in bits and pieces on the surface. To the modern conservationist, a walk over these almost seems like sacrilege. There is virtually no way not to break the pottery into even smaller pieces, and as a result it will be increasingly difficult to properly reconstruct the activities of this sacred area.
There is an easier site to be seen just behind Seti’s temple in the shape of a grave for the god Osiris. Some consider this to be a cenotaph or symbolic burial place for Seti in his union with Osiris, something which occurred when a Pharaoh died. Osiris was an important god at this time, but in fact the Osiris cult, with the inclusion of his wife Isis and his son Horus, was always a strong element in ancient Egyptian religion from the Old Kingdom onwards and throughout the history of this fascinating civilisation. It is this triad of venerable individuals that came down through paganism to Christianity and later became the holy family.
The final treasure is on a nearby wall and is hard to see clearly because the lighting is not always good. This is an important document for Egyptologists, since the columns of names inscribed here constitute one of only four such lists that still exist. The blocks that look like seals are called cartouches, each containing the name of a dead king. There are the names of 76 Pharaohs carved on the wall, and the last name is that of Seti I.
But there were more than 76 kings before Seti, so someone, upon the king’s instruction, eliminated the earlier Pharaohs that Seti did not like.
Exploring the golden age of the Pharaohs
DENDERAH: While the temples at Abydos are an exception, many of the important temples from ancient Egypt up until the Late Period in about 400 BCE are in bad condition. Simply due to their newness, the better-preserved temples are those from the last great centuries of Egypt, the period between 400 BCE and the time of Christ.
One example is the temple at Denderah, approximately 40 miles north of Luxor. For those who wish to view only the very oldest monuments, it may be comforting to know that the present temple of Denderah was built on many layers of former temples that likely date back to the Old Kingdom.
The temple of Denderah stands on the west bank of the Nile opposite the modern town of Qena. It is dedicated to the goddess Hathor. As is usual with temples from all the periods of ancient Egypt, the temple is surrounded by a mudbrick wall. The structure was built during the reign of the Ptolemies and into the time of Roman rule in Egypt, or from 333 to 30 BCE.
The reliefs on the walls of this temple have an exaggerated form. The knees, elbows, and breasts of the figures are far more delineated than in previous reliefs and in those that can be seen in Luxor. But the temple itself conforms to tradition, and there is a pylon, a vestibule, a colonnade hall, a sanctuary, and assorted other standard features of an ancient Egyptian temple. However, there is also the relatively rare additiaon of a Zodiac ceiling, the first time that such a ceiling had been included in a temple although they were worked into the ceilings of tombs.
Outside the temple, but still within the enclosure, there is a separate building called a mammisi. This is a structure that the Graeco-Roman period gave to the religion of the ancient Egyptians. It was the place where the gods gave birth to the divine king, a concept that then reinforced the importance of the ruling king. This was not an inconsequential point when the rulers were actually foreigners and not Egyptians.
The Denderah temple is probably best known for its connection with Cleopatra VII, the famous queen who gave birth to Julius Caesar’s son and had a tempestuous affair with the Roman general Mark Antony. Her dramatic death, as immortalised by Shakespeare in his play Antony and Cleopatra, ended the reign of the Ptolemies in Egypt. Cleopatra VII was the last Ptolemy to rule over Egypt, and her son was killed by the Romans who then began to rule over Egypt and continued to do so for the next 300 years.
But before we think too long about these sad events, let us move on to one of the highlights of the glorious days of ancient Egypt.
Perhaps the phrase the “golden age of the Pharaohs” is applied by many people to the sites and treasures that still can be seen in Waset, the ancient name for Luxor, called Thebes by the Greeks. Whatever name you know the city by, no one will dispute the fact that it gripped the world’s imagination in 1922 when the British archaeologist Howard Carter stumbled upon the tomb of Tutankhamun, the brother of Akhenaten and the husband of one of Nefertiti’s and Akhenaten’s daughters.
Egyptologists have traced the origins of the town back to the Middle Kingdom in about 2000 BCE. There is no evidence dating it to the time of Cheops in the Old Kingdom. Nonetheless, Waset quickly became an important administrative and religious centre, with the god and his family taking precedence here being Amun-Ra.
The triad of Osiris, Isis, and Horus was still included in the pantheon of gods to be worshipped, but the focus of the temple-building programmes and tributes went to Amun-Ra and his consort Mut and their son Khonsu.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly