The drive to Abydos is long. But if you are at all interested in pharaonic art, architecture and mythology, a day trip to Abydos and Dendera is worth the effort. They are two of the best preserved and beautiful temples in Egypt.
The most interesting aspect of Egypt, for me, is the abundance of fantastic myths and stories and its mind boggling array of gods almost rivalling those in the Hindu pantheon.
And the most intriguing of them is the myth of Osiris and Isis.
The story of the murder, dismemberment and subsequent resurrection of Osiris (long enough for sister/wife Isis, in the form of a kite, to conceive a child: the Falcon headed deity Horus) is fascinating even if improbable.
Just as fascinating is the story of the djed pillar intrinsic to the same story. When the coffin containing Osiris runs aground in Byblos (Syria), there sprouts a sacred tree that is cut and used as a pillar by the local king.
Isis eventually locates it and releases and anoints the body of Osiris from the coffin trapped within.. The resurrected Osiris earns himself the title of Lord of the Dead and the Afterlife. One of the reasons he is depicted with dark green skin.
That tree which grew around the mortal remains of Osiris is considered his symbolic backbone and signifies stability. The ceremony of Raising the Djed – represented by a wooden pillar – then becomes a symbol of the good Osiris’s triumph over evil (murderous brother) Set. Inscriptions abound of the pharaoh raising the djed pillar with the help of priests and benevolent gods.
ABYDOS AND THE OSIRIS MYTH
It is believed that Isis, in the course of her search for Osiris’s body parts after Set chops him up into several pieces (numbers vary with every telling), locates his head in Abydos. It is also believed that the hill of Umm el-Gaab in the vicinity is the tomb of Osiris, thus elevating Abydos to one of the most sacred centres of pilgrimage for well over a millennium as well as a place, quite like Varanasi, where people wished to breathe their last.
The Book of the Dead is said to contain a spell “to enter Abydos and become part of the retinue of Osiris”. So it became customary, for anyone who could afford it, to erect funerary temples, cenotaphs or stelae in this sacred town.
MEMORIAL TEMPLE OF SETI I IN ABYDOS
Of the many temples in the Abydos complex, the memorial temple of Seti I is the most important. Construction was started by Seti I himself (1318-1304 BC) and completed by his son Ramesses II.
The marked difference in the style and quality of reliefs undertaken by the two pharaohs is clear to see. Seti’s exceptionally beautiful raised bas reliefs are what UNESCO terms ‘classical purism’. Ramesses switched to sunken reliefs at some point, even converting some of the unfinished bas reliefs to sunken styles. They were quicker to execute and the prolific builder king had a great many monumental projects to complete elsewhere.
An unusual feature of the temple is the presence of seven chapels instead of the typical single sanctuary. The chapel of the great god Amun occupies the central space and is flanked by those of Osiris, Isis and Horus to one side and Ptah, Re-Harakhte and the deified pharaoh himself on the other. How do you tell the difference between Seti the pharaoh and Seti the deity? Look out for the looped Ankh in his hand, a symbol of divinity.
Many of the reliefs in the outer vestibules have been defaced by early Coptic Christians who used the temple for shelter. The art on the walls of the second hypostyle hall and some of the chapels are in better condition with exquisite reliefs – both raised and sunken and in vivid colour.
Along a long corridor beyond the second hypostyle hall is the Gallery of Kings with an entire wall covered with cartouches in relief: the famed ‘Abydos King List‘ showing names of pharaohs from Menes of the first dynasty up until Ramesses I (father of Seti I). An incredible chronological record of nearly 1760 years from 3050BC to 1290BC.
Noted exceptions, apart from a few minor kings, are the names of Hatshepsut, stepmother of Thutmose Ⅲ, Akhenaten the ‘heretic’ king whose introduction of monotheism to ancient Egypt backfired disastrously, and his three offspring – including Tutankhamen – who oversaw the end of the 18th dynasty. Tutankhamen’s military commander, Horemheb, usurped the throne from Tutankhamen’s brother Ay after the former’s mysterious death and eventually picked Ramesses I as his successor, thus ushering in the Ramesside Dynasty.
My favourite relief in this room is that of the pharaoh and his young son snaring a bull.
An arched passage leads out to a ruined sunken temple believed to be the Osireion connected with the worship of Osiris. That it was a place of pilgrimage from pre dynastic days is certified by the unearthing of offerings of ivory and gold including an ivory statue of Cheops (of the Great pyramid fame). The place is out of bounds for tourists and remains inundated most of the time.
The memorial temple of Ramesses II nearby seems to have fared even worse than his Ramesseum in Luxor. The few surviving reliefs are beautiful and might be worth a quick look if you have time to spare.
Abydos is not on the standard tourist radar and its spiritual ambience is undisturbed by noisy footfalls. The temple of Hathor in Dendera might well be more dramatic but its (relatively cruder) Ptolemaic reliefs are no match to the exquisite ancient Egyptian art of the Temple of Seti I.
ABOUT THE DAY-TRIP TO ABYDOS & DENDERA
The 172 km drive from Luxor to Abydos takes about three hours.
We clubbed it with Dendera as a long day-trip, starting at the Seti I Temple since it is farther away and then returning via Dendera. Getting from Abydos to Dendera (105 km) takes about an hour and a half. Dendera to Luxor is about the same.
You’ll need nine to ten hours for the full day trip with about two hours in each temple complex. A half day trip to Denedera alone can be done in five hours.
GETTING TO ABYDOS: The best way to get here is by booking a car and driver through a travel company. Cost for up to two persons in a private car with guide is approximately US$ 130 excluding entrance fees as of this writing. Joining a tour is a slightly cheaper option.
ABYDOS FAST FACTS
BEST TIME TO VISIT: Winter months between mid October to mid March.
HOURS: 08:00 – 17:00
ENTRANCE FEES (2019-20) : Adult: EGP 100/ Student: EGP 50
CAMERA FEE: EGP 300. Free with mobile phones.
WHERE TO EAT: You could carry packed lunch or get your driver to stop at a local restaurant on the way.
WHAT TO WEAR: Covering arms, shoulders and knees isn’t mandatory. My advice is to wear whatever you are comfortable in, but carry a light shirt or stole to throw over your shoulders when needed. I would avoid shorts everywhere. Khakis, loose cotton pants or skirts are ideal.
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