one of ancient Egypt's most sacred sites, located in the eighth Upper Egyptian nome, or province (26°11′ N, 31°55′ E). Archaeological survey indicates that along with This (Thinis) it was one of two prominent towns within this administrative district. Initially, Khentiamentiu, a protector of cemeteries, was the local god, but by the late Old Kingdom (c. 2350 BCE), he had been syncretized with Osiris, the powerful god of the underworld. Most likely, Osiris came to be associated with Abydos because the ancient Egyptians believed the underworld's entrance was there. By the twelfth dynasty (c. 1991–1783 BCE), annual rites included a procession from the temple at the edge of the flood plain to Osiris's supposed tomb at Umm el-Qa'ab, the Early Dynastic royal cemetery at the foot of the high desert escarpment.
In ancient Egypt the name Abydos applied only to the town in which the Osiris temple was located. Today the designation Abydos refers to the town as well as a number of settlements, cemeteries, and monuments located along a narrow 4 km (2.5 mi.) stretch of low desert. Additionally, several other Abydos cemeteries, including Umm el-Qa'ab, are found beyond this zone, into the low desert along a small wadi whose mouth was located behind the town of Abydos.
The first person to excavate at Abydos was Auguste Mariette around 1858–1859. He focused on the necropoleis, labeling the largest ones the North, Middle, and South Cemeteries. He was principally interested in acquiring funerary stelae, (commemorative tablets), although he undertook a substantial amount of excavation in the northwest corner of Kom es-Sultan (the modern name for the ancient town site), searching for the “tomb of Osiris.” The ancient Egyptians believed that Abydos was the burial place of Osiris, hence Mariette's search for that tomb.
Between 1895 and 1897, Émile Amélineau conducted the first excavations at Umm el-Qa'ab, uncovering tombs of early kings. A considerable body of early archaeological work was conducted under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund (EEF) of London. William Matthew Flinders Petrie was responsible for the largest and most systematic body of early EEF excavations. Although Amélineau had already dug at Umm el-Qa'ab, Petrie's more detailed research on the tombs and Amélineau's dumps allowed him to outline the Early Dynastic period. Also he excavated the Osiris temple, some of the early town, as well as the Middle Cemetery; much of this work has yet to be improved upon. Other archaeologists worked there as well: T. Eric Peet and Henri Frankfort (Middle Cemetery); E. R. Ayrton and C. T. Currelly (South Abydos); and Arthur C. Mace (North Cemetery). John Garstang dug in the North and Middle Cemeteries as well but published little.
Abydos continues to be a rich source of data. Since 1979, the Pennsylvania–Yale Expedition to Abydos has regularly and systematically explored the ancient town and nearby funerary remains, especially Middle Kingdom cenotaphs of private persons and the mud-brick funerary enclosures of the first and second dynasties. At the latter, numerous mudbrick structures have been discovered that house wooden boats. Recent work at Cemetery U near Umm el-Qa'ab by the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo has uncovered tombs belonging to high-ranking individuals, possibly kings, whose remains date prior to Narmer of Dynasty 0 (c. 3150 BCE).
The earliest predynastic remains date to the late Naqada I and early Naqada II periods (Cemeteries ϕ/C, E, U, and S/Salmani and a settlement east of the Ahmose cenotaph). Numerous cemeteries (χ/B, E, U, and S/Salmani) and several small settlements (west of the Osireion [elaborate centoptah built by Seti I] and under Cemetery D) have been assigned to the subsequent late Naqada II and III periods. The stratigraphic remains from Kom es-Sultan suggest that the town was occupied by the end of the Predynastic period, but the earliest stratified levels in the Osiris temple cannot be documented prior to the late Old Kingdom. Caches of objects and several burials within the town site (M series), generally agreed to be principally of Early Dynastic date, suggest, however, that the temple flourished earlier.
The ten royal tombs at Umm el-Qa'ab and their funerary enclosures in the Middle Cemetery are the most significant early dynastic remains. The Old Kingdom is represented by tombs (most in Mariette's North and Middle cemeteries), temple architecture, and a settlement (both in Kom es-Sultan). The increasing importance of Abydos to the Middle Kingdom Egyptians can be seen in the growth of the cemetery zone. In addition to traditional burials, cenotaphs (or more precisely, memorial chapels) became fashionable. The private cenotaphs are located in the easternmost portion of the North Cemetery, but large royal cenotaph-temples, such as those of Senwosret (Sesostris) III and Ahmose, were built farther south (now known as South Abydos). Particularly well known are the nineteenth-dynasty structures, including one dedicated to Rameses I, the large, well-preserved example built by Seti I, and the small Rameses II temple.
The North and Middle Cemeteries were used extensively from the New Kingdom through the Roman period, and the south cemetery is certainly of a late date. As of the Ptolemaic period, the wadi bed, previously taboo for burial purposes, became a heavily exploited cemetery zone. The cemeteries for animals—predominantly ibis, dog, and hawk—date to the Late period and subsequent phases of Egyptian history.
The Osiris temple was expanded in the Middle Kingdom, and in the later New Kingdom, it was leveled and rebuilt. Numerous rulers of the New Kingdom (eighteenth–twentieth dynasties) decorated and added onto the revamped temple. Rameses II built a new temple, the portal, to the west. Finds of private and royal statuary, dating through the end of the twenty-sixth dynasty, testify to the Osiris temple's continued use. Fragments bore a dedication to Nectanebo, suggesting that building continued in the thirtieth Dynasty, and the same structure was probably used in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods.
- Dreyer, Günter. “Recent Discoveries at Abydos Cemetery U.” In The Nile Delta in Transition: 4th–3rd Millennium B.C., edited by Edwin C. M. van den Brink, pp. 293–299. Tel Aviv, 1992. Brief summary of the newly discovered burials of the earliest rulers.
- Kees, Hermann. Ancient Egypt: A Cultural Topography. Translated by Ian F. D. Morrow. edited by T. G. H. James. LondonL, 1961. Chapter 9 is devoted to a very readable discussion of the significance of Abydos in ancient Egyptian culture.
- Kemp, Barry J. “The Egyptian 1st Dynasty Royal Cemetery.” Antiquity 41 (1967): 22–32. Important discussion of the evidence that leads most scholars to accept the structures of Umm el-Qa'ab as the tombs of Egypt's first kings not cenotaphs.
- Kemp, Barry J. “Abydos.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, vol. 1, cols. 28–41. Wiesbaden, 1972. Excellent summary of the archaeological remains at Abydos.
- Kemp, Barry J. “Abydos.” In Excavating in Egypt: The Egypt Exploration Society, 1882–1982, edited by T. G. H. James, pp. 71–88. London, 1982. Summarizes the archaeological excavations conducted at Abydos under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Society.
- O'Connor, David. “The ‘Cenotaphs’ of the Middle Kingdom at Abydos.” In Mélanges Gamal Eddin Mokhtar, vol. 2, pp. 161–177. Cairo, 1985. Clear, detailed discussion of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition's excavations of private cenotaphs of the Middle Kingdom.
- O'Connor, David. “The Earliest Pharaohs and The University Museum.” Expedition 29.1 (1987): 27–39. Excellent summary of known Early Dynastic sites at Abydos, with information about the personalities of the individuals responsible for some of the archaeological excavations there at the turn of the century.
- O'Connor, David. “Boat Graves and Pyramid Origins: New Discoveries at Abydos, Egypt.” Expedition 33.3 (1992): 5–17. O'Connor discusses his most recent find of boats in the vicinity of an Early Dynastic funerary enclosure.
Diana Craig Patch