The Osirion at Abydos is one of the most intriguing structures surviving from ancient Egypt. It is located behind the famous Temple of Sety I at Abydos, to the north of modern Luxor. When Flinders Petrie was working at Abydos in 1901/02, the area behind the temple appeared to be plain desert. However Petrie’s eye was drawn to several mounds of mud-brick – these turned out to be the remains of a large temenos wall surrounding the temple.
In the 1902/03 season, Margaret Murray led the work to uncover the entrance archway through the temenos wall (marked as A in the plan, opposite top left), the entrance corridor (marked B) and the antechamber (C). The floor level was around thirteen metres below ground level, so a huge amount of sand and rubble had to be removed to clear the passageway. But Murray had no idea that the passageway led to a large Central Hall – this was still covered by sand. The scale of the work necessary to complete the clearance was beyond the resources of the Egyptian Research Account (Petrie’s organisation in Egypt), so further work was put on hold.
In the 1912/13 season, Edouard Naville resumed the work, clearing the sloping corridor (marked D and 1 in the plans opposite, top left and right) and the Transverse Chamber (2). In 1914 the Central Hall (3) began to be cleared, and when the season came to an end in March 1914, Naville was confident that he could finish the work the following season. Unfortunately the First World War prevented any further work for several years. Finally in 1925/26, Henri Frankfort completed the clearance work for the Egypt Exploration Society and published his findings.
The Osirion is built to resemble an Eighteenth Dynasty royal tomb, as seen in the Valley of the Kings at Luxor. Such tombs are underground, so the Osirion was designed to be totally subterranean. We look down into it today, with the Central Hall open to the sky (see opposite), but must envisage it being a dark tomb-chamber.
The Osirion begins with an entrance archway passing through the temenos wall (see centre right). The bricks of the archway are stamped with the cartouche of Sety I, suggesting that he originally built it. Today the archway is nearly engulfed in sand, but the future plan is to clear away this sand and allow visitors to enter through this archway on purchase of a separate ticket.
On entering through the archway, the entrance corridor stretches beyond (see bottom right). The right-hand wall as you enter is decorated with a complete set of the Book of Gates, a funerary work popular in royal tombs of the period. Each of the twelve hours of the night is depicted, with the sun making its perilous journey through the underworld before rising again at dawn the following morning. At the twelfth hour the god Nun lifts up the solar boat out of the primaeval waters (top left); the sun-god has become the scarab-beetle god of the morning sun, Khepri – he pushes the disk of the sun up, where it is received by the sky-goddess Nut. She is shown upside-down to indicate that the sun’s direction is changing. Through the perils of the night it travelled from west to east. Now at dawn it will travel from east to west.
The left-hand wall is decorated with a complete set of the Book of Caverns, another funerary text of the New Kingdom. Again, the theme is the sun god’s nightly journey through the underworld, but this book comprises six separate sections rather than dividing the night up into its twelve hours. The lower register shows the damned and their eternal suffering in the underworld – for example, in the second section of the book they are shown upside-down with their hands tied behind them, and upside-down with their hearts ripped out (centre left).
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