Upper Egypt’s unpolished gem

Stepping off the train onto the platform of the rather small and uninspiring town of Ballyana in the Sohag governorate, it is difficult to imagine that only a few kilometers west of the train station lies what was once one of the most important religious sites of ancient Egypt.

Abydos, as it was known to the Greeks, is stretched across an area of approximately 8 km² along the western desert, close to the edge of the floodplain. Although not a touristic hotspot like the more popular sites of Giza and Luxor, it nonetheless houses one of the most beautiful and partially intact temples of ancient Egypt, that of the Pharoah Seti I, father of Ramesses II. Further inland, both to the north and south of this impressive structure, lie many more hidden ruins spanning more than 4000 years of history.

Abydos, or ancient Abdju, was not only the burial ground for the first pharaohs of ancient Egypt but was also the cult center of the funerary god Osiris, the god of the Underworld, who controlled the passage of the dead into the afterlife. He was the protagonist in the mythical battle between him and his evil brother Seth in a tale that pitted good against evil and saw order eventually prevail over chaos.

Beginning with the simple settlements of the Predynastic period, occupation at Abydos continued unabated well into the Coptic period, as the site rapidly developed into one of the most important pilgrimage centers of ancient Egypt. It is no wonder that for over 100 years archaeologists have continued to conduct excavations hoping to piece together the city’s extensive and partially untold history.

Religious practices at Abydos have not ceased to this day, as modern revivals of the ancient Egyptian religion have seen its followers continue to pay homage to the holy site and its imposing temple of Seti I.

Eccentric Englishwoman Dorothy Louise Eady, who became convinced that she was the reincarnation of a former priestess at the temple and secret lover of the Pharoah himself, adopted the name Umm Seti (“mother of Seti”), and took up residence in the city from the late 1950s. Her “modern” incarnation at Abydos was dedicated to the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods, burning incense and laying down offerings in a re-enactment of the sacred city’s ancient rituals.

On approaching the site, dilapidated mud brick buildings stand on either side of the impressive ramp that leads up to the Seti temple, overlooking its sacred precinct. Ancient inhabitants, who most likely occupied similar homes, would have been pleased to reside in such close proximity to a temple believed to bring worshippers closer to the eternal afterlife. Beyond the temple, the desert stretches out for kilometers on end with barely a structure in sight save for a large mud brick enclosure. Nonetheless, the site is hardly what one would call barren as Abydos today is strewn with an array of ancient temples, tombs, towns and chapels that attest to its long history.

The city’s diverse landscape is the subject of Egyptologist David O’ Conner’s latest book “Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris.” Discussing the site that he has researched for over 40 years and where he conducted numerous excavations, he traces its development from a royal burial ground for the kings of the 1st dynasty, to its eventual transformation into a focal point of worship of the god Osiris (formerly known as Khentimentu). It was here that the famous myth of Osiris and his fall out with his evil brother Seth was re-enacted in an annual ritual that commenced at the temple of Osiris at Kom el-Sultan and ended at the god’s burial place at the mound of Umm el-Qaab. His statue, after having been ceremoniously buried, was revived and taken back to his temple, thus perpetuating the ancient belief of resurrection after death and immortality.

As one walks west to the area of Umm al-Qaab, the predynastic and early dynastic mastaba (flat-roofed rectangular) tombs of Egypt’s earliest rulers become visible. Associated with one of these tombs, that of King Djer, are the 325 burials of his servants and officials. In what was likely a gruesome scene, it is believed they were put to their death following the death of their king, to be carried with him to the afterlife where they would continue to serve him. This practice was later dropped as shabtis (funerary figurines) made for a good substitute.

According to O‘Connor, Abydos’s early tombs is where the first evidence for ancient Egyptian writing, dating to around 3300 BC, was found. Also dating to this period is the ambiguous mud brick structure that protrudes from the empty landscape known as ‘Shunet el-Zebib’. It is a massive barren rectangular enclosure whose functional purpose remains unclear. O’Conner’s latest theory suggests that such enclosures were associated with the tombs of the rulers and that upon their death they were razed to the ground and symbolically transferred with them to the afterlife.

Although Abydos was never an ancient Egyptian capital and ceased to function as a royal burial ground in the Old Kingdom, its strong religious significance as home to the burial ground of Osiris earmarked it as a special site for construction and private burial. The Middle Cemetery, dating back to the Old Kingdom contains tombs of prominent individuals from all over the land. During the Middle Kingdom, a large memorial chapel zone was established in front of the Osiris temple where people from all classes were able to erect stelas (inscribed commemorative stones) and build chapels dedicated to Osiris. Such setups are similar to today’s holy shrines of Sayida Zenaib and Sayida Nifeesa, which continue to attract large crowds of pilgrims that offer prayers to the “saints” in the hopes of receiving blessings for a better life.

Abydos today, although visually different from the past, still retains much of its intrigue. Friends who have performed excavations here extensively over the past few years and who stay in dig-houses located far out into desert share stories of creepy noises and strange visions that appear to them during the night. Although most of these stories make for a good laugh, they still convey the eeriness associated with a site that has remained sacred for kings, gods and commoners for centuries. It was only by the 3rd century AD that the Roman Emperor Theodosius I ordered the closure of all pagan temples, and with that came the eventual decline of one of the holiest sites of ancient Egypt.

It is interesting to note that during the Coptic period a church, Deir Sitt Damiana, was erected in a small village to the north of the site and was built following the same layout as that of the Seti temple, with seven adjacent chapels dedicated to seven different saints. In a way, part of the Abydos tradition continues to live on to this day.

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