THE OSIRION AT ABYDOS
Ancient Egypt|March / April 2021
Geoffrey Lenox-Smith investigates the enigmatic cenotaph built for King Sety I.
Geoffrey Lenox-Smith

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.

Subterranean Structure

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.

Entrance Corridor

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).

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM ANCIENT EGYPTView All

THE OSIRION AT ABYDOS

Geoffrey Lenox-Smith investigates the enigmatic cenotaph built for King Sety I.

8 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

GEBEL EL-SILSILA THROUGHOUT THE AGES:PART 7 – LATE PERIOD TO GRAECO-ROMAN ERA

Continuing their chronological survey, Maria Nilsson and John Ward now focus on Gebel el-Silsila in the post-Ramesside era.

10+ mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

Highlights of the Manchester Museum 27: A Faience Bowl from Gurob

Campbell Price describes an object in Manchester Museum’s collection depicting an everyday scene that can still be witnessed today in Egypt.

2 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

ASWAN DISCOVERIES

An Egyptian mission in Aswan has uncovered the remains of a Ptolemaic temple, a Roman fort and an early Coptic church (see oveleaf, top left).

1 min read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

Old And New Kingdom Discoveries At Saqqara

An Egyptian team working on a Sixth Dynasty pyramid complex near the Teti pyramid at Saqqara has made a series of important discoveries.

1 min read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

Map Of Egypt

What’s in a name? It is easy for us to forget that the names we associate with the pyramids – such as the Meidum Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid or the Black Pyramid – would have been meaningless to their builders.

3 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

Per Mesut: For Younger Readers: Women And Marriage

Wisdom Literature provided advice on how to live life well, beginning with the foundation of a household.

5 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

A Boat And Horse In The Desert

Barbara Tratsaert investigates two interesting finds at the Wadi Bakariya gold mining settlement in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.

7 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

Egypt And The Kingdom Of Kush

in the first of a series of articles on ancient Nubia, Stanley M. Burstein outlines the history of Egypt’s southern neighbour and the relationship between the two countries throughout the pharaonic period.

9 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021

The Ancient Names Of The Pyramids

We know Egypt’s pyramids by names such as the ‘Bent Pyramid’, ‘Red Pyramid’ and ‘Meidum Pyramid’ but their ancient names are far more poetic, as revealed by Andrew Fulton.

10 mins read
Ancient Egypt
March / April 2021