Ins and outs
Most people come to Abydos on an organized trip from Luxor in a convoy. If you want to take public transport (and thus arrive alone rather than with masses of others on a fixed schedule) is possible to take a service taxi to the nearby village of El-Balyana, halfway between Sohag and Qena, from Sohag or take a train to Qena from Luxor so the police don't stop you, and change there. The turn-off from El-Balyana to Abydos is marked by a police checkpoint, where officers will insist you take a private taxi the remaining 12 km southwest to the temple. You might want to negotiate a return trip with waiting time, so as not to be at the mercy of the taxis at the other end. You tcan then hire a private taxi on to Dendara.
Abydos is home to the stunning
Temple of Seti I. It contains some of the most exquisitely carved reliefs of any monument in Egypt, and the detail in faces, jewellery and hairstyles can be utterly transfixing, particularly on the unpainted reliefs. Meanwhile, blocks of white light coming through the holes in the ceiling allow you to admire the extensive colours of ochre, turquoise, umber and colbalt still clinging to the interior walls. As the holiest town of all for the ancient Egyptians, pilgrims were making the journey to Abydos from the Seventh Dynasty (2181-2173 BC) until well into the Ptolemaic era (323-30 BC). And it is still a spiritual visit for many people.
It was the cult centre for
Osiris, the god of the dead who was known as 'Lord of Abydos' because, according to legend, either his head or his whole body was buried at the site . Abydos, which looked out over the Western Desert, was considered the door to the afterlife. Initially, in order to achieve resurrection it was necessary to be buried at Abydos but the requirement was later changed to a simple pilgrimage and the gift of a commemorative stela.
There are cemeteries and tombs scattered over a very wide area in Abydos but there are only a few buildings left standing that aren't too far apart: the Temple of Seti I, the Osirieon (Cenotaph) and the Temple of Ramses II.
Temple of Seti Iwas constructed in fine white marble by Seti I (1318-1304 BC) as an offering in the same way that lesser mortals would come on a pilgrimage and make a gift of a stela. Most of the work on the temple and its convex bas-reliefs, among the most beautiful of all New Kingdom buildings, was carried out by Seti I, but when he died his son Ramses II (1304-1237 BC) completed the courtyard and façade. This can be seen from the quality of workmanship, which changes from Seti I's beautiful bas-reliefs to Ramses II's much cheaper, quicker, and therefore cruder, sunken reliefs. It is unusual in being L-shaped rather than following the usual rectangle design and because it has seven separate chapels rather than a single one behind the hypostyle halls.
The theme of the seven separate chapels is evident in the
First Hypostyle Hall, built and decorated by Ramses II's second-rate craftsmen, where the columns with papyrus capitals depict Ramses with the god represented in the corresponding sanctuary. In the much more impressive
Second Hypostyle Hall, built by Seti, the first two rows of columns also have papyrus capitals but the last row have no capitals at all. On the right-hand wall Seti is pictured before Osiris and Horus who are pouring holy water from vases and making offerings in front of Osiris' shrine as five goddesses look on. The quality of the work in this hall contrasts sharply with the rougher decoration in the outer hall - probably because Ramses had ordered all the most skilled craftsmen to concentrate on his own temple.
Behind the inner hypostyle hall there are seven separate
sanctuariesthat are dedicated to the deified Seti I, the Osiris triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus, and the Amun triad of Amun, Mut and Khonsu. Many of the wonderful bas-reliefs are still coloured, which gives a good idea of the temple's original decoration, but some of the finest are unpainted and show the precision and great artistry used in the moulding. The sanctuary furthest to the left is dedicated to Seti and contains a beautiful scene of the Pharaoh being crowned by the goddess of Upper and Lower Egypt. His plaited sidelocks of hair symbolize childhood and are utterly beautiful.
Each of these sanctuaries would have contained the god's barque as well as his stela placed in front of a false door. The sanctuary was locked and only High Priests had access because the Ancient Egyptians believed that the gods lived in their sanctuaries. The daily rituals that were carried out included a sacrifice as well as the dressing and purification of the stelae. Unlike the others, the
Sanctuary of Osirisdoes not have a false door at the back of the chapel but connects with the pillared
Suite of Osiris. It is decorated with scenes from the Osiris myth and has three shrines on the west wall dedicated, with magnificent and incredibly vivid paintings, to Seti, Isis and Horus. The Mysteries of Osiris miracle play would have been performed in the hall and in the unfinished and partially destroyed
Sanctuary of Osiris, which is reached through a narrow entrance on the opposite wall.
Back in the Second Hypostyle Hall the temple changes direction on the left-hand or southeast side with two entrances leading to a number of other halls. The nearest is the three-columned
Hall of Sokar and Nefertum, northern deities subsequently integrated into the Osirian cult, with the separate
Chapel of Sokarand
Chapel of Nefertumat the back. Through the other entrance is the narrow star-decorated
Hall/Gallery of Ancestors/Listswhich, very usefully for archaeologists, lists in rows the names of the gods and 76 of Seti's predecessors although, for political reasons, some, such as Hatshepsut, Akhenaten and his heirs, are omitted. The gallery leads on to the
Hall of Barqueswhere the sacred boats were stored, the
Hall of Sacrificesused as the slaughterhouse for the sacrifices, and other storerooms: they are currently closed to visitors. Instead it is best to follow the side
Corridor of the Bulls, where Ramses II is shown lassoing a bull before the jackal-headed 'Opener of the Ways' Wepwawet on one side and driving four dappled calves towards Khonsu and Seti I on the other, before climbing the steps to the temple's rear door and the Osirieon.
Osirieon, built earlier than the main temple and at water level, which has led to severe flooding, is sometimes called the Cenotaph of Seti I because it contains a sarcophagus. Although it was never used by Seti I, who is actually buried in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor , it was built as a symbol of his closeness to Osiris. Many other pharaohs built similar 'fake' tombs, which were modelled on the tombs at Luxor, in Abydos but were eventually buried elsewhere. The Osirieon is the only remaining visible tomb but is unfortunately largely inaccessible because of the inundation of sand and the flooding caused by the rise in the water table.
Temple of Ramses IIis accessed via the track to the right of Seti I's temple, someone will fetch the key, is naturally an anticlimax after the scale and sheer beauty of the Temple of Seti I. However, it was originally a very finely built shrine, erected in 1298 BC for Ramses'
Kaor spirit in order to give him a close association with Osiris. The workmanship is better than in most of Ramses II's monuments because it was probably decorated by craftsmen trained in his father's era. Although the temple was reportedly almost intact when first seen by Napoleon's archaeologists, it has since fallen into ruin except for the lower parts of the limestone walls which are still surprisingly brightly coloured. Ramses' chunky feet and calves are all that remain of the statutory in the main courtyard.