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Abydos, city of pilgrimage of the Pharaohs

Date of Submission: 28/07/2003
Criteria: (iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture - Supreme Council of Antiquities
Coordinates: 26°11' N / 31°55' E
Ref.: 1823

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Historical background The area was occupied by the populations of el-Amra, then of Nagada who built a prehistoric and protodynastic village which later became the city of Abdjou (Abydos is the transcription of the Egyptian name) with protodynastic kings (the Horus) and the Thinites (1st and IInd dynasty), whose capital (This) was slightly further north and whose main necropolis was in the area of Um el-Qaab. Numerous temples, often dedicated to the local divinity, also go back to the Thinites period, as well as two fortresses in Shünet el-Zebib. The importance of Abydos rose with the establishment, with the Vth dynasty, of the cult of Osiris, god and sovereign of the earth. According to mythology, the city harboured his main tomb which contained his head after his brother Seth had dismembered his body. Antef II (2121-2070, beginning of the XIth dynasty) officially made Abydos into the city of Osiris and main centre of the Osiris cult. The Egyptians believed each deceased to be an Osiris: the proximity of the god of the dead thus increased the chances of resurrection and of eternal life. Wishing to be buried there, even if only symbolically, some Pharaohs from the IInd dynasty on and the faithful too erected small brick cenotaphs or stelae representing them near the tomb of Osiris, lord of the underworld. The city thus became one of the most important cultural centres where the mysteries of the god's feastday were celebrated. The Book of the Dead which called Abydos "the island of the Just" contains a specific formula "to enter Abydos and become part of the retinue of Osiris". Most of the monuments of Abydos are based on this belief. On the hill of Kom es-Sultan (in the centre of the ancient sacred city) and dedicated to Osiris after the XIIth dynasty, the Khentamention sanctuary was mostly built of unbaked bricks, hence their disappearance, but the building work continued without interruption during almost the whole of the Egyptian period. These funerary beliefs also explain the existence of huge necropolises from various periods located between the city area and the temples which today are the most important ones, that of Sethi I (1294-1279) and his son Ramses II (1279-1213, XIXth dynasty). Abydos reached the height of its glory under these two kings. For political and religious reasons Sethi I built a funerary temple there for this father Ramses I and another one for himself. There is practically nothing left of the temple of Ramses I whereas that of Sethi I is one of the best preserved masterpieces of ancient Egypt. The temple of Sethi I The temple started by Sethi I, the overall layout, and completed by his son Ramses II (namely the foremost part and the decoration) is an exceptional piece of architecture for various reasons: 1°) its architectural value: a doubly original layout of the plan with a form at right angles instead of following a central axis and has seven parallel axes leading to seven chapels side by side; each dedicated to a divinity. 2°) The exceptionally rich and varied documentary value of some reliefs which yield rare and precise information on: a) the list of kings who governed Egypt from the first Thinite Kings (I and II dynasty) up to Sethi I himself (XIXth dynasty); approx. from 2500 to 1290, with the exception of three kings (1359-1342) omitted on purpose including Akhenaton, the heretic king b) the list of 42 nomes of Egypt (22 for Upper Egypt and 20 for Lower Egypt) c) the complete illustration of the Osiris myth where the god Seth, the furious brother of Osiris who represented the forces of evil, is portrayed and it seems that this is the only time when the assassin god Seth is shown in a temple side by side with Osiris. 3°) The esthetic value of the relief sculptures, especially those with Sethi I presenting offerings to Osiris, and enhanced with paintings where the delicate strokes and elegant composition stand out subtly from the background, constitute a real technical feat and establish the "Classical purism" which characterized the art of this period as well as a deep religiosity. The Temple of Ramses II Unfortunately only the lower parts of the architectural structures remain of the temple built by Ramses II to his own glory. There are still some extremely significant remains left of the decoration done with extreme care and infinite patience as well as the famous poem of Pentaoun on the second pylon, about the battle of Qadesh, a piece of bravery of the warrior period of the great king of Egypt whose great temple of Abu Simbel too has one of the most beautiful reliefs. The plan- The first courtyard had disappeared, only the second courtyard survived with a double portico, followed by the sanctuary and then two hypostyle halls at the back of which, in the axis of the temple, are three chapels dedicated to the three gods, Osiris, Isis and Horus, whilst other subsidiary chapels lead to the sides of the second hypostyle. The Osirion Often attributed to Osiris, opinions are however divided as to the destination of this unusual construction: is this the cenotaph of Sethi II or the ritual tomb of Osiris or both at the same time? Description- The central granite platform was surrounded by a canal, like an islet. Ten gigantic central pillars, seven of which are monoliths, served as architraves supporting a probable covering. All around are subsidiary rooms, one of which is a vast hall with a pitch ceiling with an abundant decoration including astronomical motifs and an evocation for the resurrection of Sethi I: is this the room for the king's sarcophagus. There are the remains of a city, a pyramid and a funerary temple, a cenotaph, a temple with terraces and the sanctuaries of queen Tetisheri from the time of Ahmosis I (XVIIIth dynasty). Abydos, at the time of Strabo (58 BC, between 21 and 25 AD) was already only just a small centre whose importance had whittled down to being a cult site.