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The Temple of Osiris and the Other Temples of Abydos


The Temple of Osiris

and the Other Temples of Abydos

by Jimmy Dunn writing as Peter Rome

Abydos in Middle Egypt is an ancient holy place and burial ground of the rulers of the late prehistoric proto-kingdom, as well as the first attested kings of the politically unified Egyptian state. Buildings constituting the settlement area in northern Abydos dating back to Predynastic times have been found around Kom es-Sultan, while recent excavators have found an Old Kingdom residential area to the south-east which contains a street of mudbrick houses with courtyards and a faience workshop with its kilns.


Map of North Abydos

North Abydos

This was perhaps the principal region for the worship of the god Osiris, who gained popularity to such an extent that, from the Middle Kingdom on, a ritual journey to Abydos was often depicted in private tombs from other parts of Egypt. In fact, Osiris continued to gain popularity throughout most of Egypt's ancient history. Hence, it is no surprise that a number of kings built temple in this location.

We have elsewhere examined some of the major temples and monuments of Abydos, including the mortuary temple of Seti I and the Osireion, a small temple built by Ramesses II, as well as one built by Tuthmosis III, and even a pyramid and mortuary temple of Ahmose. However, there is at least one additional major temple, and a number of minor structures that we have not really covered in any detail.

Ruins of the Osiris Temple

The Temple of Osiris

To the northwest of the Ramesses II temple in an area known as Kom es-Sultan was an ancient mudbrick temple, probably dating to the Old Kingdom, dedicated to the god Khenty-Amentiu (or Khentiamentiu) 'Foremost of the Westerners', who was a major funerary deity. Later he became associated with Osiris as god of the dead and was eventually completely synchronized with Osiris.

Evidence of Aha

Artifacts representing kings dating from the Early Dynastic Period to Graeco-Roman times have been found here but little of the structure survives today. These include a fragment of a vase of the 1st dynasty king Aha, as well as small figures of men and animals of the same period. However, most of the rulers of the Old Kingdom are attested here, as are a number of rulers of the Middle and New Kingdoms, including Amenhotep I, Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep III, who all undertook rebuilding projects here.

Some of the only stone blocks used in the temple of Osiris

Mostly what remains of this temple is its wall, which eventually became known as the enclosure of the Temple of Osiris. Little, with the exception of doorways, was constructed of stone and so most has been lost.

By the Middle Kingdom, this temple had become completely associated with Osiris, and would have been a significant nationally within Egypt, for it was almost certainly here that the annual Festival of Osiris originated. The cult statue of this god was moved in his portable barque, carried on the shoulders of priests from this temple to his supposed tomb on the mound known as Umm el Ga'ab.

In fact, it is likely that the area of Kom es-Sultan was crowded with temples by the Middle Kingdom and a new complex of private chapels developed along the escarpment overlooking the Osiris temple. By then, the pilgrimage to Abydos would have been an important part of religious life with many kings adding to the Temple of Osiris.

The Funerary Complex of Senusret III

So we find the 12th Dynasty king Senusret III adding a temple to the Abydos collection at the western edge of the desert to the southeast of Seti's temple. However, there is now little remaining above the sands, and yet, this has been called one of the best preserved temples from Egypt's Middle Kingdom.

Base of statue at the mortuary temple of Senusret III at Abydos

In 1994 Josef Wegner re-excavated and re-studied the severely damaged temple complex built for Senusret III, with important results. The temple proper had been entirely removed in antiquity, but Wegner's painstaking excavations located part of its outline, scratched by builders on the stone platform upon which the temple had stood. The temple's approximate size is now known. Moreover, the brick-built wings of the temple, identified as doorless storerooms, turned out to be interconnected chambers, integral to the temple itself. Most important of all, hundreds of decorated fragments, reflecting the temple's function and overlooked earlier, were also recovered.

Ruins of the Senusret III mortuary temple

We know know that this temple consisted of a limestone cult building sitting at the center of a larger rectangular mudbrick building. Of course, the decorative theme in painted reliefs depicts Senusret III showing his eternal association with Osiris. There were many statues made of alabaster and red quartzite that adorned the temple, which also included housing for the priests who maintained the cult of Senusret III. Peripheral to the temple were storage magazine and even a town which was associated with the temple estate.

Either the real, or cenotaph tomb of Senusret III lies further to the west. Dieter Arnold seems to believe that this structure is the actual burial place of Senusret III. In any event, this tomb is arguably the largest of any underground tomb in Egypt. The temple and the tomb together represented a funerary complex that was called "Enduring are the Places of Khakaure justified in Abydos".

Statue of Senusret III from Abydos

The Portal Temple of Ramesses II

However, we find considerable activity in this, and other locations at Abydos during the New Kingdom. A tiny temple built by Ramesses I and now destroyed, stood between the principal Ramesses II temple and Seti's temple.However, on the southwestern side of the walls of the Osiris temple Ramesses II also built a limestone 'Portal Temple' which probably represented the entrance to the ancient cemetery area. Petrie noted that the "temple" was very different from any other and it was he that suggested that it could be the terminus of a processional ritual. Unfortunately, the ruined condition of the rear section of the temple makes a complete reconstruction of its original plan or decorative theme impossible at this time.

However, excavations beneath the floor of the Ramesses II Portal Temple have also revealed a dense complex of vaulted mudbrick structures that appear to date to the Middle Kingdom. They take the form of tomb chapels, but have no burial chamber or any actual human remains. Hence, these too were probably memorial chapels or cenotaphs.

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher Reference Number

Atlas of Ancient Egypt

Baines, John; Malek, Jaromir

1980

Les Livres De France None Stated

Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, The

Wilkinson, Richard H.

2000

Thames and Hudson, Ltd ISBN 0-500-05100-3

History of Egyptian Architecture, A (The Empire (the New Kingdom) From the Eighteenth Dynasty to the End of the Twentieth Dynasty 1580-1085 B.C.

Badawy, Alexander

1968

University of California Press LCCC A5-4746

KMT A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt

Pouls, Mary Ann

Volume 8, Number 4, Winter 1997-98, Page 48

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