Located approximately 2.5 hours north of Luxor by car, and around 6 miles west of the Nile river, the temple of Seti I at Abydos is simultaneously one of the most important, yet often one of the most overlooked temples in all of Egypt due to it’s somewhat out of the way locale.
I mean, just to put things in perspective here for a moment, so we can all wrap our heads around just HOW BIG OF A DEAL this temple site was to the ancient Egyptians, if the Muslim people have Mecca – the ancient Egyptians had Abydos.
It was a really really really big deal.
And while the temple, dedicated to the God Osiris, commissioned by Seti I, later completed and added onto by his son Ramses II (look for all the sneaky places he threw himself onto the temple reliefs instead of his dad), was constructed on the site toward the middle of the 13th century BC, Abydos’ story can be traced all the way back to the first dynasty, when the earliest pharaohs of Egypt chose to be buried here. Believing it to be the location that the god Osiris himself was buried.
Spreading across roughly 5 square miles of land, Archaeologists have really only just begun to explore the site, the greater part of which is still buried beneath eons of sand.
The largest structure currently excavated at the site is the temple of Seti I. Which is renown for its incredibly well preserved temple reliefs, many of which can be seen with their original vivid colors still in tact!
Constructed mainly of limestone and measuring 183ft x 515ft, the temple complex, featured a pylon, two open courts, two hypostyle (columned) halls and seven small antechambers. Each chamber would have functioned as a sort of chapel to a different Egyptian God, Ptah, Ra-Horakhty, Amun-Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horus and finally one for Seti I himself.
In addition to the colorful reliefs, each of these anti chambers would also have originally housed a boat-shaped palanquin on which a statue of the deity relevant to that room would have been placed.
Of all the pristine murals in the temple however, one stands above the rest for its importance to modern archeologists and our understanding of ancient Egyptian history. Often referred to as the “Abydos Kings List”, the carving features a chronological list of all 76 pharaohs who ruled Egypt prior to Seti I. Well, most of them anyway… we’ll go into more of the details on that at the end of this article.
Behind the temple of Seti I is a structure known to us as the Osireion. Ironically this structure had little to do with Osiris, and was constructed as a cenotaph (a sort of symbolic faux tomb to honor a person buried elsewhere) for Seti I. Now half-buried and mostly inaccessible from stagnant water, this structure would have once featured an enclosed room covered by an artificial mound surrounded by a moat and trees.
A short walk away from the Temple of Seti I is what remains of the Temple of Ramesses II. And although obviously not as well persevered as the larger temple on site, this smaller temple still features some incredibly well preserved painted relief carvings.
As I mentioned earlier, Abydos was an incredibly important religious site for the ancient Egyptians, many of whom would do whatever it took to make the long pilgrimage there from their homes at least once in their lives. And if they weren’t able to make it during their lifetime, many would make the trip posthumously having relatives bring their bodies to Abydos for burial, or at the very least by having them embellish their tombs with scenes of them making the journey there.
Because of this, the ground at Abydos is almost completely COVERED in pottery shards. Walking from one place to another at the site you can’t help but trod on dozens of broken bits and pieces of old vessels that would have once contained offerings, food, water, etc for the visiting pilgrims.
If you have the chance, pick up a few off the ground to examine, chances are you’ll find several pieces featuring beautifully carved patterns or details.
What You Need To Know
Getting to and from Abydos is a bit of a chore as it’s not really next to anything resembling a beaten path. However, there are several companies that offer day trips to the site from Luxor, or some Nile cruises like the one we were on include a stop here on their itinerary. Be aware that depending on the unrest in the area at the time of your visit, you may be required by the tourism police to have a police escort to and from the site. This was the case for our group when visiting in 2018. According to my research it appears that it is possible to also take a train up to the town of al-Balyana from Luxor. From there, the tourist police or a police-escorted taxi will then take you to the site.
THE ABYDOS KINGS LIST
One of the problems Seti I faced during his reign was working to legitimize his claim to the throne after the whole Akhenaton/Tutankamun debacle of the 18th dynasty, which essentially ended the royal line of succession.
Prior to his ascension to the thrown, Seti’s father Ramesses I, Seti’s ancestors were really just warriors, with the occasional general thrown in. So he needed a way to persuade the Egyptian people that he, without a drop of royal blood in his veins, was the legitimate pharaoh of Egypt.
He decided to take a two fold approach. One, he would build an impressive temple to the traditional gods, showing himself pictured among them in the reliefs and paintings on the wall at one of their most holy sites. And two, he would carve a Pharaohs List on the wall of said temple, that contained the names of all 76 of his predecessors (well most of them anyway, you won’t find Hatshepsut, Akhenaten or Tutankhamun on there for instance) starting with Menes of Dynasty I and continuing through to Seti I of Dynasty XIX.
The pharaohs omitted from the list were not simply an oversight, but instead a very deliberate attempt to rewrite and scrub history of any predecessors Seti I deemed illegitimate or undesirable.
The pharaohs omitted from the list were not simply an oversight, but instead a very deliberate attempt to rewrite and scrub history of any predecessors Seti I deemed illegitimate or undesirable. This included all the kings of the Second Intermediate, Queen Hatshepsut and the four kings of the controversial Amarna Period (Akhenaten, Smenkhkara, Tutankhamun and Ay).
However, even with these omissions, this incredibly detailed chronological list upon it’s discovery by modern day archeologists, instantly became one of the most important documents discovered for bettering our understanding of the kings of ancient Egypt, especially those from the earlier Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period. In fact, it is the ONLY known source for the names of many of the kings from the first two dynasties of the First Intermediate Period. You can explore a detailed breakdown of the list and learn more HERE! And if you want to get really geeky I enjoyed this article HERE.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF OMM SETY
Dorothy Louise Eady was born in 1904 London to a lower-middle-class Irish family. At the age of three, she fell down a flight of stairs, was knocked unconscious and declared dead by the family doctor. An hour later, when the doctor returned to take away her body for funeral preparations, he was understandable startled to find her sitting up in bed happily playing.
After her accident, family and teachers noticed she had suddenly started to exhibit strange new behaviors, including an onset of foreign accent syndrome, recurring dreams of life in a huge columned building, and an incessant begging to “go home”.
At the age of 4, Dorothy’s parents took her on an outing to visit the British Museum. The moment the family entered the Egyptian exhibit, Dorothy became noticeably exited, running wildly through the hall, kissing statues and, after observing a photograph of the temple of Seti I at Abydos in the New Kingdom temple exhibit, loudly exclaiming, “There is my home! But where are the trees? Where are the gardens?”.
After that fateful visit, Dorothy took every excuse she could find to visit the museum. It was there she met E.A. Wallis Budge who, intrigued by her enthusiastic study of Egyptian history, encouraged her in the study of hieroglyphs. Eventually, after years of studying whatever Egyptological texts she could get her hands on and collecting as many Egyptian antiquities as she could afford, Dorthy too a job working in London with an Egyptian public relations magazine. It was there, at the age 27 she met Eman Abdel Meguid, an Egyptian student studying for a short time in London.
After Eman returned to Egypt, the two continued their friendship, corresponding whenever they could. Then in 1931, after Eman had become a teacher of English, he asked Dorothy to marry him. Upon arriving in Egypt Dorothy ran off the boat, kissed the ground and excitedly announced that she had finally “come home to stay!” The two settled in Cairo and had a son whom they named Seti. And it was from this she gained her now infamous title of Omm Sety (mother of Seti).
But the marriage was troubled from the start. To begin with, since Dorthy was 16 she had begun to experience what she called nightly visitations by a spirit named Hor-Ra, who told her that she was the reincarnation of a priestess of the temple of Seti I at Abydos named Bentreshyt. Over a period of 12 months, the spirit Hor-Ra had slowly revealed to her the story of her previous life.
since Dorthy was 16 she had begun to experience what she called nightly visitations by a spirit named Hor-Ra, who told her that she was the reincarnation of a priestess of the temple of Seti I at Abydos named Bentreshyt.
The daughter of a vegetable seller and soldier, she had been given to the cult of Isis as a young child and trained as a temple priestess. Eventually coming to serve as a consecrated virgin in the temple of Seti I. However, after a fateful meeting with the Pharaoh, the two had begun an affair together, breaking her vows of chastity. When she found herself pregnant, the distraught Bentreshyt decided to commit suicide rather than suffer the horrific deal that would await her should the High Priest discover her.
Dorthy chronicled this entire account in her journals, entirely in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Her repeated visitations, out-of-body experiences, and claims of reincarnation proved to be too much for the upper-middle-class family she had married into. And in the end the two parted ways in 1935, when Eman got a teaching job in Iraq and she refused to leave her beloved Egypt.
Husbandless and alone in Cairo, Dorthy moved to Giza in order to be closer to the pyramids, and it is here that she met archeologist Selim Hassan, who, impressed by her in depth knowledge of hieroglyphics and ancient Egyptian history, offered to help her secure a job at the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. The first woman to ever do so.
Dorthy quickly gained a reputation during this time by many famous Egyptologists excavating in the region for being an invaluable research assistant, advisor, draftsperson, illustrator with great artistic abilities, and her extensive knowledge of hieroglyphs and Egyptian history.
But she was still Dorothy. Locals would often see her venturing out at night to spend the evening inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, performing strange rituals, offering up payers, or making offerings to Horus at the Great Sphinx.
In 1956, after 25 years in Cairo/Giza, Dorthy found herself unemployed when the latest research project she had been commissioned for was terminated. She was given a choice. Either stay in Cairo and take a well paying job in the Cairo Records Office, or take a poorly paid position in Abydos as a draughtswomen. You can guess which she chose.
So at 52 years of age, Dorothy was finally off to return home to Abydos, where the locals soon began calling her by her nickname Omm Sety.
At the site Omm Sety’s main job was to record and translate blocks within the ruins, copy down various inscriptions within the structure and draw up architectural renderings of the building, always being sure to remove her shoes before entering the temple each day.
She was good a her job. Maybe a little too good. In fact, she began demonstrating a knowledge of the temple of Seti I at Abydos above and beyond what any lay person could possibly have know simply from reading articles, books or even research papers on the subject.
One story goes that after hearing dozens of reports regarding Omm Sety’s uncanny knowledge of the temple, the director of the Department of Antiquities decided to put her to the test. Standing in total darkness near a series of wall paintings, she was asked to located and identify each one based on her supposed memories alone. Like clockwork she located, identified and described each one in detail, even though she had never seen them before and none of the paintings, nor their exact location had ever been published.
In the following weeks, months and years Omm Sety continued to display an unnerving ability to locate important archeological finds at the site, vehemently insisting these finds were due to her memories and not to any sort of research. In one such instance, Omm Sety said she remembered there being a garden at the temple and told the archaeologists where dig in order to find it. And there, buried under the sand, and to their total shock and amazement, they found the remains of an ancient temple garden.
Each morning, and each evening Omm Sety would make her way to the temple to recite the prayers for the day. Locals would often find her observing ancient ritual food abstentions, bringing offerings of beer, wine, bread and tea biscuits to the Chapel of Osiris, or jumping into the waters of the Osireion fully clothed. At one point, much to the chagrin of the temple guards she even befriended a cobra whom she would feed on a regular basis.
Omm Sety was forced to retire in 1969 at the age of 65, choosing to stay in Abydos, living on her $30/month pension. Supplemented by needlework she would sell to friends and tourists. To make ends meet, she worked as a part-time consultant for the Antiquities Department, guiding tourists around the temple and explaining eh symbolism of the painted wall scenes.
Then, in 1918, at the age of 77, Omm Sety passed away. Knowing that the local muslims and christians would refuse to bury her in their graveyards, she had commissioned the construction of an underground tomb, decorated with a false door so that her Ka would be able to travel between this word and the next. However, after her death the local health authority refused to allow her to be buried in the tomb, and instead interred her in an unmarked grave, facing west, in the desert outside a Coptic cemetery.
Omm Sety’s passing left the world with a question. Who was she? Was she simply Dorothy Eady, or an ancient Egyptian priestess named Bentreshyt? And how had a relatively uneducated young woman come to possess her depth of knowledge of ancient Egypt? Was it all from the memories acquired from another lifetime, or simply the result of years of self guided study and intense interest of the subject, to a point at which her knowledge rivaled that of even the most respected scholars on the subject? How had she know where to find all those hidden artifacts?
Whatever the answers to these questions may be. What we know, and what no one can doubt, is the immeasurable contributions Omm Sety made to the field of Egyptology during her full and somewhat colorful lifetime.
THE CULT OF OSIRIS
From the beginning of Egyptian history, Abydos was believed to be the location in which the god Osiris was buried.
Speaking of whom, If you have not read it yet, I highly recommend checking out the bottom of this article here, where I try and make sense of the Horus, Osiris and Seth legend. These festivals will make a bit more sense after some context.
But if you don’t have time for the full story, here’s the TLDR version: Osiris was the main God King, his brother Seth was jealous, so he killed him, chopped him up into little pieces and hiding them all over Egypt. Osiris’ wife Isis was upset by this so she went about finding and gathering up all the pieces, putting him back together and then used magic to bring him back to life. After that, Osiris became the God of the underworld and came to symbolize death, resurrection, and fertility.
To honor Osiris, there were several great festivals every year at Abydos. The largest of which was known as the “Great Going Forth,” which celebrated the search for and discovery of his remains by Isis.
To begin the festival, the priest would bring Osiris’s sacred barque out of the temple, where it would be ceremoniously attack and Osiris would be murdered by Seth and his partisans (played by priests and important community members).
From there the priests would take the barque through the town in a great funerary procession, observers and festival attendees cheering them on.
Then, it is believed that the procession would come to the consecrated lake of Abydos (whose location remains unknown), and they would then cross over the water, symbolizing the passage between the two worlds.
Finally the high ranking priests would set out into the desert with the barque to lay the god to rest in his tomb, where they would perform the secret funerary rights and rebirth rituals.
Finally the procession would return to Abydos, Osiris resurrected paraded in front of a jubilant and rejoicing crowd where he would be triumphantly returned to his temple, and a great banquet would be served in his honor.