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Facts About Abydos, a City of Ancient Egypt

Updated on July 30, 2013
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Abydos, a city of ancient Egypt. It was situated on the west bank of the Nile River, about 95 miles (150 km) north of Luxor, near the modern town of Araba el-Madfuna. Abydos was the chief town of the 8th nome (province) of the 1st dynasty of Upper Egypt. Associated with the underworld god, Osiris, who was reputed to have been buried there, Abydos long served as a holy site and royal funerary complex. An important temple of Osiris, built originally for a jackal god (Khentamenty) during the early dynastic period (3110–2665 B.C.) and soon assimilated to Osiris, was the first in a series of well-known monuments erected at the site.

The earliest settlement at Abydos, situated to the north (Kom el-Sultan), consisted of the Osiris-Khentamenty temple and a small town. Little remains of either today. To the southwest, in an area called Umm al-Qa'ab, was a cemetery consisting of mud-brick mastaba tombs surrounded by secondary burials belonging to members of the king's court. Some of these tombs were complemented by wooden boat graves and outer enclosures suggestive of later, Old Kingdom pyramid complexes. Jewelry, painted scenes, and some of the oldest hieroglyphics on record have been recovered from this necropolis.

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Undoubtedly the most celebrated monument at Abydos is the temple of Seti I (reigned 1303–1290 B.C.), father of Ramses (Rameses) II. This temple, with its unusually well-preserved ceilings, doorways, and decorations, contains the mural Tablet of Abydos, a stone-carved list of kings of the principal dynasties that has been invaluable in reconstructing the succession of Egyptian pharaohs. The L-shaped temple features two front courtyards, a pair of hypostyle halls, and seven chapels dedicated to various deities, including Osiris, Isis, and Horus. Much of the work on the temple was completed by Ramses II after his father's death, but the workmanship on those portions is not as fine as that employed by Seti's craftsmen.

The temple of Ramses II (reigned 1290–1223 B.C.), far less well preserved but nevertheless impressive, features a number of vivid, narrative wall paintings among its various courts, halls, and chapels. It too was found to contain a king's register, which is now in the British Museum in London.

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Directly behind Seti's temple is the unusual, Old Kingdom–style Osireion. Its monolithic columns and heavy, subterranean vaults are thought to be in imitation of the legendary burial chamber of Osiris. Portions of it carry excerpts from the Book of the Dead and other ancient texts. Scholars are uncertain when the Osireion was constructed, but Seti I and his grandson Merneptah (Merenptah; reigned 1223–1211 B.C.) left their marks on it.

Besides these monuments Abydos contains numerous stelae (commemorative slabs) and cenotaphs (false tombs), a number of animal (dog) burials, and various other pharaonic cult buildings (most now bare outlines). Significant predynastic artifacts have also been discovered.

The annual Osiris festival, held during the season of "inundation" (summer–fall), featured a procession from the Osiris temple to the necropolis. It also included the performance of mystery plays concerned with the cycle of death and rebirth.

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