a site, ancient ʒbḏw, situated in the ancient Thinite nome (eighth Upper Egyptian nome) in southern Egypt (26°11′N 31°55′E). On the western side of the Nile, the site is on the edge of the low desert, 15 kilometers (9.5 miles) from the river. Greater Abydos spreads over 8 square kilometers (5 square miles) and is composed of archaeological remains from all phases of ancient Egyptian civilization. Abydos was significant in historical times as the main cult center of Osiris, ancient Egypt's primary funerary god. Many cult structures were dedicated to Osiris, and vast cemetery fields were developed, incorporating not only the regional population but also nonlocal people who chose to build tombs and commemorative monuments at Abydos. In the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods, Abydos may have functioned primarily as a satellite funerary center for the nome capital of Thinis, which is perhaps to be located in the vicinity of the modern town of Girga or Balliana at the edge of the Nile. The significance of Abydos, however, exceeded that of a provincial burial center. It was the burial place of the first kings of Early Dynastic times (first and second dynasties), and during the subsequent Old and Middle Kingdoms Abydos evolved into a religious center of great importance.

The most striking buildings standing at Abydos are the well-preserved New Kingdom temples of Sety I and Ramesses II (nineteenth dynasty); the Early Dynastic funerary enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (second dynasty); and the walled enclosure called the Kom es-Sultan, which was the location of the early town and the main temple dedicated to Osiris. The greater part of the site, however, remains concealed beneath the sand, a fact recognized in the Arabic name of the modern town: Arabah el-Madfunah (“the buried Arabah”). Abydos can be discussed in terms of its major areas.

North Abydos.

The area includes the Kom es-Sultan, the temple precinct, Umm el-Gaab, funerary enclosures, and cemeteries.

Kom es-Sultan and the temple precinct of Osiris-Khentyamentiu.

North Abydos was the major focal point of early activity, and it was here that an early town and temple site developed in the Predynastic period on the desert fringe at the locale now called the Kom es-Sultan (“Mound of the Ruler” in Arabic). Meager remnants of the Predynastic and Early Dynastic settlement were exposed in 1902–1903 by W. M. Flinders Petrie, who conducted the first extensive recorded excavation in the Kom es-Sultan. However, most of the early town lies covered by remains of later periods and beneath the level of modern groundwater.


Abydos. Plan of Abydos.

Petrie's work produced evidence for the existence of a cult structure dedicated to the canid deity Khentyamentiu (“Foremost of the Westerners”) during the Early Dynastic period. A temple dedicated to that god is likely to have formed the primary ritual center of Abydos in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. During the Old Kingdom, Khentyamentiu was syncretized with the newly important funerary deity, Osiris. A temple dedicated to Osiris-Khentyamentiu existed from the time of the late Old Kingdom and is referred to on many stelae and private votive objects from the Old Kingdom and later periods. Petrie's work also exposed a series of royal cult buildings erected by kings from the Old Kingdom through New Kingdom. These structures are probably royal cult buildings (ka-chapels) built in proximity to the main temple of Osiris-Khentyamentiu, the remains of which are yet to be exposed. Beginning in the Old Kingdom, the temple precinct and core town area was provided with a town wall, which was modified and extended into the Late period, creating the large walled temenos visible there today. Research on the Kom es-Sultan has resumed under the University of Pennsylvania–Yale–New York University Expedition to Abydos. Work in 1979 and 1991 by D. O'Connor and M. Adams examined parts of the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period town.

Umm el-Gaab.

At the locale now called Umm el-Gaab (“Mother of Pots” in Arabic) excavation undertaken first by E. Amélineau (1895–1898) and then by Petrie (1899–1900) exposed an extensive royal cemetery dating to the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods. Plundered in antiquity but still preserving a significant sample of their original contents, several large Early Dynastic tombs were identified as the burial places of the earliest kings of the historic period. Subsequent to Petrie's work at Abydos, excavations at North Saqqara by W. Emery exposed a cemetery consisting of large mastabas of the first and second dynasties. This led many scholars to interpret the Abydos royal tombs as “cenotaphs,” or symbolic tombs built by the early kings in an ancestral burial ground for religious reasons. More recently, scholars have accepted Abydos as the burial place of the earliest kings of dynastic times, whose roots were in the Thinite nome.

Renewed archaeological work since 1973 by the German Archaeological Institute, directed by G. Dreyer, has recorded in detail the development of a royal cemetery beginning in the Naqada I period. The history of this cemetery at Umm el-Gaab (covering much of the fourth millennium BCE), provides evidence for the increasing wealth and complexity of society in the late Predynastic period. Umm el-Gaab is especially important because of the evidence it provides for the emergence of political power culminating in pharaonic kingship and the associated centralized state around the beginning of dynastic times (c.3100 BCE). In a locality designated Cemetery U, royal tombs of late Naqada II and Naqada III display the differentiation associated with a stratified society and the existence of powerful kings who controlled considerable resources. Inscribed labels from the largest Predynastic tomb (tomb U-J, dating to the Naqada IIIa period) provide the earliest evidence for use of the hieroglyphic writing system in Egypt.

In the Early Dynastic period, Umm el-Gaab was the burial place of the first pharaohs of the historic dynasties (as well as their immediate Dynasty “0” predecessors). All the rulers of the first dynasty, as well as two kings of the second dynasty (Peribsen and Khasekhemwy), were buried at Abydos, a phenomenon which expresses the continued importance of dynastic associations between the first kings of the historic period and their Predynastic forebears. Tombs at Umm el-Gaab of the first and second dynasties are much larger than those of the Predynastic period and typically consist of a central burial chamber surrounded by storerooms and subsidiary burials. The tombs from the Predynastic were subterranean, with little more than a mound and upright stelae marking locations.

Early Dynastic funerary enclosures.

The primary aboveground structures associated with the Early Dynastic royal tombs were the funerary enclosures, which were built not at Umm el-Gaab but rather adjacent to the Kom es-Sultan. From the time of the early first dynasty, these structures consisted of large, rectangular mud-brick enclosures employing the “palace-façade” style of architecture. Two still stand today: the enclosure of Khasekhemwy and that of Qaa (now occupied by the Coptic village of Deir Sitt Damiana). After initial excavation by Petrie, work in 1986–1991 by D. O'Connor reexamined parts of the interiors of these structures and exposed twelve buried boats on the east side of the Khasekhemwy enclosure. The specific functions of these funerary enclosures remain an issue of debate, but they probably played a role in both the funerary ceremony itself and the long-term maintenance of a royal cult. Architectural elements articulated in the funerary enclosure of Khasekhemwy suggest continuity of form and religious function with the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser (third dynasty) at Saqqara.

Development of the cult of Osiris.

The burial place of the first kings at Umm el-Gaab was of supreme importance in the later development of Abydos. By the time of the Old Kingdom, Abydos was already understood as the burial place of Osiris, ruler of the netherworld and personification of the deceased pharaoh reborn into rulership in the afterlife. During the Old Kingdom, Osiris merged with Khentyamentiu. By the time of the early Middle Kingdom, there is evidence that Umm el-Gaab was understood as the burial place of Osiris himself; one tomb in particular, that of King Djer, appears to have been thought to be the deity's tomb. A yearly procession from the temple of Osiris-Khentyamentiu in the Kom es-Sultan reenacted the myth of the god's murder by Seth and his burial and rebirth as ruler of the netherworld. This procession, in which the god's image was carried aboard the sacred neshmet bark, progressed from the Kom es-Sultan through a low desert wadi leading up to Umm el-Gaab. The offerings presented to Osiris by pilgrims, especially in the New Kingdom and later periods, created the vast pottery-covered mounds that gave Umm el-Gaab its Arabic name.

North and Middle cemeteries.

From the time of the late Old Kingdom, the temple and cult of Osiris-Khentyamentiu created the impetus for the development of large cemeteries immediately west of the Kom es-Sultan and flanking the route of the Osiris procession to Umm el-Gaab. Excavation of the Northern and Middle cemeteries by a series of archaeologists—Mariette (1858), Peet (1909–1913), Garstang (1898–1899), Petrie (early 1900s), and Frankfort (1925–1926), among others—produced a large volume of objects; material from the North and Middle cemeteries constitutes an important body of funerary material in collections throughout the world.

The North Cemetery developed on the northern side of the wadi around the area of the Early Dynastic royal funerary enclosures and extends westward for one-half kilometer in the direction of Umm el-Gaab. Its development is associated primarily with the Middle Kingdom and later periods. An important area associated with the cult of Osiris lies adjacent to the west side of the Kom es-Sultan; there, large clusters of tombs as well as private offering chapels (cenotaphs) were erected beginning in the Middle Kingdom. These chapels were intended to provide an eternal association between the deceased and the god Osiris, and the area of the North Cemetery closest to the Kom es-Sultan was called rwd n ntr ʿʒ (“Terrace of the Great God”). This area has produced an immense number of inscribed stelae and statues, especially in the second half of the nineteenth century through the work of G. Maspero, A. Mariette, and antiquities dealers such as Anastasi. More recent archaeological work was undertaken by the Pennsylvania–Yale Expedition codirected by D. O'Connor and W. K. Simpson. The Middle Cemetery extends along the southern side of the wadi, also running nearly a kilometer toward Umm el-Gaab; it was developed from the Old Kingdom onward.


Abydos. Central Hall of the Osireion, viewed from the west. (Courtesy Dieter Arnold)

Flanked on north and south by the extensive nonroyal burial grounds of the North and Middle cemeteries, the sacred processional route to Umm el-Gaab was protected by royal decree from burials and other development. A series of royal stelae set up at the terminal ends of the processional route by the time of the Middle Kingdom demarcated this sacred area. Recent work in 1996 by M. A. Pouls has discovered a limestone chapel of Thutmose III, which may be part of the formalized layout of the processional route during the New Kingdom.

Middle Abydos.

The area includes the Sety I temple and the Osireion.

Temple of Sety I.

Standing one kilometer to the south of the Kom es-Sultan and at the northern edge of the area often called “Middle Abydos,” the temple of Sety I is the largest well-preserved building of the New Kingdom at Abydos. The L-shaped limestone temple was named “The Mansion of Millions of Years of King Menmaatre Who Is Contented in Abydos.” The building consists of the two hypostyle halls that front seven sanctuaries, in sequence from south to north dedicated to Sety, Ptah, Re-Horakhty, Amun-Re, Osiris, Isis, and Horus. The southern sanctuary, dedicated to Sety himself, celebrates his deification as a deceased king. To the south of the Sety sanctuary, the King's Gallery contains a list of Sety's predecessors on the throne of Egypt. While including veneration of Egypt's principal deities, the Sety temple is most explicitly focused on the king's associations with Osiris and his deified predecessors, fully within the tradition of New Kingdom royal mortuary temples. The temple proper is set within a large brick enclosure (220 × 350 meters/700 × 102 feet) containing two open forecourts, as well as rows of mudbrick storage magazines on the south. A rear gateway set within a brick pylon is oriented to the site of the archaic royal cemetery at Umm el-Gaab; like the temple complex in the Kom es-Sultan, the Sety temple was linked both conceptually and through actual ritual processions with the putative burial place of Osiris.


In addition to the Sety temple's orientation to Umm el-Gaab, behind the temple stands a subterranean structure, the Osireion, which functioned as a symbolic tomb or cenotaph of Osiris. The structure was excavated primarily in 1902–1903 by M. Murray, working with Petrie. The main central chamber contains a central platform and ten monolithic red granite piers. The architecture is intentionally archaizing in style (mimicking the monolithic architecture of the fourth dynasty) and was perhaps intended to provide a suitable burial structure for Osiris. The central platform is surrounded by water channels meant to represent the primeval mound of creation surrounded by the waters of Nun. Attached to the main chamber are other chambers and passages containing scenes and texts from the Book of Gates and Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), standard elements of Ramessid royal tombs. Adjacent to the Sety temple was a smaller one-room chapel dedicated to Sety's father Ramesses I, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Farther north stand the well-preserved remains of a temple built by Ramesses II. Remains of other Ramessid royal buildings lie along the desert edge between the Sety temple and the Kom es-Sultan.

The area of Middle Abydos south of the Sety temple is the least-known area of the site because the modern town of Arabah el-Madfunah covers most of the surface of this part of Abydos. In all likelihood, this was the location of the major concentration of settlement from the New Kingdom onward. Remnants of architectural elements and inscribed temple blocks from a number of periods suggest that remnants of more cult buildings are yet to be exposed south of the Sety temple.

South Abydos.

South Abydos covers about 2 square kilometers (1.25 square miles) of low desert in a strip approximately 1 kilometer (a half mile) wide between the cultivation and high desert cliffs. In early times, the area was used for Predynastic habitation and cemeteries; however, the major development of this area of Abydos occurred in the Middle Kingdom, when the first of a series of royal cult complexes was established by Senwosret III.

Complex of Senwosret III.

Extending between the cliffs and cultivation, the Senwosret III mortuary complex consists of a massive subterranean tomb with a royal mortuary temple. It was initially examined by D. Randall-MacIver and A. Weigall of the Egypt Exploration Fund between 1899 and 1902, and renewed work during the 1990s by the University of Pennsylvania, directed by J. Wegner, has excavated the mortuary temple, which is dedicated to the deceased Senwosret III and celebrates his unification with Osiris. A large planned settlement just south of the mortuary complex is similar in scale and organization to the town at Illahun that is attached to the pyramid complex of Senwosret II. Work in 1997 identified the name of this temple–town foundation as “Enduring are the Places of Khakaure Justified in Abydos.”

Complex of Ahmose.

One-half kilometer south of the Senwosret III complex stand the remains of a series of monuments erected by the eighteenth dynasty king Ahmose, which were initially examined by A. Mace and C. T. Currelly for the Egypt Exploration Fund. A pyramid and temple situated at the edge of cultivation are associated with a subterranean tomb near the base of the desert cliffs. This was the last royal pyramid to be erected in Egypt. In 1993, S. Harvey reexamined the pyramid temple and exposed remains of a small temple stamped with the titulary of Queen Ahmose-Nefertari and possibly dedicated to her cult. Between the Ahmose pyramid and underground tomb is a small chapel dedicated to Ahmose's grandmother, Queen Tetisheri. A well-preserved stela, now in the Cairo Museum, was discovered in the Tetisheri chapel. A final monument belonging to the Ahmose complex is the terrace temple, on the lower part of the hill; it appears to be incomplete, and its function remains unclear.


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Josef W. Wegner