Abydos /əˈbaɪdɒs/ is one of the oldest cities of ancient Egypt, and also of the eighth nome in Upper Egypt, of which it was the capital city. It is located about 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) west of the Nile at latitude 26° 10′ N, near the modern Egyptian towns of el-‘Araba el Madfuna and al-Balyana. In the ancient Egyptian language, the city was called Abdju (ꜣbdw or AbDw). The English name Abydos comes from the Greek Ἄβυδος, a name borrowed by Greek geographers from the unrelated city of Abydos on the Hellespont.
Considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Egypt, the sacred city of Abydos was the site of many ancient temples, including Umm el-Qa’ab, a royal necropolis where early pharaohs were entombed. These tombs began to be seen as extremely significant burials and in later times it became desirable to be buried in the area, leading to the growth of the town’s importance as a cult site.
Today, Abydos is notable for the memorial temple of Seti I, which contains an inscription from the nineteenth dynasty known to the modern world as the Abydos King List. It is a chronological list showing cartouches of most dynastic pharaohs of Egypt from Menes until Seti I’s father, Ramesses I.
The Great Temple and most of the ancient town are buried under the modern buildings to the north of the Seti temple. Many of the original structures and the artifacts within them are considered irretrievable and lost; many may have been destroyed by the new construction.
Great Osiris Temple
Successively from the first dynasty to the twenty-sixth dynasty, nine or ten temples were built on one site at Abydos. The first was an enclosure, about 30 ft × 50 ft (9.1 m × 15.2 m), surrounded by a thin wall of unbaked bricks. Incorporating one wall of this first structure, the second temple of about 40 ft (12 m) square was built within a wall about 10 ft (3.0 m) thick. An outer temenos (enclosure) wall surrounded the grounds. This outer wall was thickened about the second or third dynasty. The old temple entirely vanished in the fourth dynasty, and a smaller building was erected behind it, enclosing a wide hearth of black ashes. Pottery models of offerings are found in these ashes and probably were the substitutes for live sacrifices decreed by Khufu (or Cheops) in his temple reforms.
At an undetermined date, a great clearance of temple offerings had been made and a modern discovery of a chamber into which they were gathered yielded the fine ivory carvings and the glazed figures and tiles that show the splendid work of the first dynasty. A vase of Menes with purple hieroglyphs inlaid into a green glaze and tiles with relief figures are the most important pieces found. The noble statuette of Cheops in ivory, found in the stone chamber of the temple, gives the only portrait of this great pharaoh.
The temple was rebuilt entirely on a larger scale by Pepi I in the sixth dynasty. He placed a great stone gateway to the temenos, an outer temenos wall and gateway, with a colonnade between the gates. His temple was about 40 ft × 50 ft (12 m × 15 m) inside, with stone gateways front and back, showing that it was of the processional type. In the eleventh dynasty Mentuhotep I added a colonnade and altars. Soon after, Mentuhotep II entirely rebuilt the temple, laying a stone pavement over the area, about 45 ft (14 m) square, and added subsidiary chambers. Soon thereafter in the twelfth dynasty, Senusret I laid massive foundations of stone over the pavement of his predecessor. A great temenos was laid out enclosing a much larger area and the new temple itself was about three times the earlier size.
Temple of Seti
The temple of Seti I was built on entirely new ground half a mile to the south of the long series of temples just described. This surviving building is best known as the Great Temple of Abydos, being nearly complete and an impressive sight. A principal purpose of the temple was that of a memorial temple to the king Seti I, as well as reverence of the early pharaohs, which is incorporated within as part of the “Rite of the Ancestors”. The long list of the pharaohs of the principal dynasties—recognized by Seti—are carved on a wall and known as the “Abydos King List” (showing the cartouche name of many dynastic pharaohs of Egypt from the first, Narmer or Menes, until his time)- with the exception of those noted above. There were significant names deliberately left out of the list. So rare as an almost complete list of pharaoh names, the Table of Abydos, re-discovered by William John Bankes, has been called the “Rosetta Stone” of Egyptian archaeology, analogous to the Rosetta Stone for Egyptian writing, beyond the Narmer Palette.
There also were seven chapels built for the worship of the pharaoh and principal deities, being the “state” deities Ptah, Re-Horakhty, and (centrally positioned) Amun-Re; the remaining three chapels are dedicated to the Abydos triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus. The rites recorded in the deity chapels represent the first complete form of the Daily Ritual, which was performed throughout temples daily in Egypt throughout the pharaonic period. At the back of the temple is an enigmatic structure known as the Osireion, which served as a cenotaph for Seti-Osiris, and is thought to be connected with the worship of Osiris as an “Osiris tomb”. It is possible that from those chambers led out the great Hypogeum for the celebration of the Osiris mysteries, built by Merenptah. The temple was originally 550 ft (170 m) long, but the forecourts are scarcely recognizable, and the part still in good condition is about 250 ft (76 m) long and 350 ft (110 m) wide, including the wing at the side. Magazines for food and offerings storage were built to either side of the forecourts, as well as a small palace for the king and his retinue, to the southeast of the first forecourt (Ghazouli, The Palace and Magazines Attached to the Temple of Sety I at Abydos and the Facade of This Temple. ASAE 58 (1959)).
Except for the list of pharaohs and a panegyric on Ramesses II, the subjects are not historical, but religious in nature, dedicated to the transformation of the king after his death. The temple reliefs are celebrated for their delicacy and artistic refinement, utilizing both the archaism of earlier dynasties with the vibrancy of late 18th Dynasty reliefs. The sculptures had been published mostly in hand copy, not facsimile, by Auguste Mariette in his Abydos, I. The temple has been partially recorded epigraphically by Amice Calverley and Myrtle Broome in their 4 volume publication of The Temple of King Sethos I at Abydos (1933–1958).
Ramesses II temple
The adjacent temple of Ramesses II was much smaller and simpler in plan; but it had a fine historical series of scenes around the outside that lauded his achievements, of which the lower parts remain. The outside of the temple was decorated with scenes of the Battle of Kadesh. His list of pharaohs, similar to that of Seti I, formerly stood here; but the fragments were removed by the French consul and sold to the British Museum.