Abydos: Egyptian Tombs & Cult of Osiris

Located in Upper Egypt about six miles (10 km) from the Nile River, the site of Abydos played a pivotal role in ancient Egyptian religious life.

The earliest kings of Egypt, including those from the first dynasty of Egypt’s history (3000-2890 B.C.), appear to have been buried at Abydos. Their tombs and funerary enclosures may have been a first step on an ancient architectural journey that would see the Great Pyramids constructed centuries later.

Site of Abydos in Egypt. (Image credit: Rikko / Shutterstock)

In later times, Abydos would become a cult center for Osiris, god of the underworld. A temple dedicated to him flourished at Abydos, and every year a great procession was held that would see an image of Osiris carried from his temple to a tomb the Egyptians believed to be his (it actually belonged to a first dynasty king named Djer), and back, to great fanfare.

"There's a really neat reference on some of the Middle Kingdom (4,000 to 3,600 years ago) material to hearing the sound of jubilation," archaeologist Mary-Ann Pouls Wegner told LiveScience in an interview on new discoveries at the site. Her team excavates in an area the ancient Egyptians called the “Terrace of the Great God,” which contains a series of private and royal chapels that were built lining this processional route.

Archaeologist Josef Wegner, in an article written in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2001) estimates that Abydos covers about 5 square miles (8 square km). He notes that while many discoveries have been made, much of the site is still unexplored. “The greater part of the site, however, remains concealedbeneath the sand, a fact recognized in the Arabic name of the modern town: Arabah el-Madfunah (‘the buried Arabah’).”

Early tombs – Umm el Qa’ab

Archaeologists know that the kings of Egypt’s first dynasty (3000-2890 B.C.) and the last two of the second dynasty (ended 2686 B.C.) had tombs at Abydos and were likely buried there.

In addition to a burial chamber for their bodies, the rulers were provided with provisions for the afterlife. “First dynasty tombs were provided with large-scale and multi-chambered storage facilities, sometimes in or around the burial chamber, sometimes separate,” writes archaeologist David O’Connor in his book Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris (Thames and Hudson, 2009).

O’Connor also notes that the first dynasty tombs were provided with “subsidiary burials” (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) of people who may have been sacrificed.

Just to the north of the royal tombs are cemeteries B and U, which hold tombs that predate the first dynasty, a period referred to as the “pre-dynastic” by Egyptologists. It’s been argued that some of the pre-dynastic tombs at Abydos are those of “proto-kings” who controlled all or a large part of Egypt.

How Egypt became unified, and when, is a matter of debate among Egyptologists, and O’Connor notes that it is difficult to determine which of these tombs at Abydos were for kings and which were for elite members of society. One tomb that would appear to be for a ruler is referred to by researchers as “Uj” and was excavated by Günter Dreyer. Excavators found evidence for a wooden shrine above the burial chamber and a small ivory scepter, which could have been a symbol of royalty. Inscribed objects found at the tomb show early examples of Egyptian writing (there is a debate over exactly how to read them).

Surrounding the burial chamber was a storage complex that, O’Connor notes, would have held “hundreds of pots filled with foods and drinks,” leaving the person buried there, like the later first dynasty kings, well-provisioned for the afterlife.  

“[T]hree of the chambers in fact had once been filled with wine jars – locally made imitations of pottery typical of Southern Canaan or Palestine, equivalent to some 4,500 liters,” O’Connor writes, “indeed a royal send off!”

Enclosures and grave boats

About one mile (1.5 km) to the north of the royal tombs is an enigmatic series of mud brick enclosures dedicated to kings (and in one case a queen) believed buried at Abydos. Oriented northwest to southeast, each enclosure is surrounded by massive walls and contains a chapel.

A bas relief of a sacred barque boat used to travel to the afterlife. (Image credit: BasPhoto / Shutterstock)

What the enclosure monuments were used for is a mystery. O’Connor notes that eight of the enclosures belong to rulers from the first dynasty (three of which belong to king “Aha” and one to queen Merneith) with an additional pair belonging to the later two kings of the second dynasty. He argues that there are likely more enclosures waiting to be discovered.

O’Connor also notes that, like the tombs, the first dynasty enclosures were also provided with burials of people who may have been sacrificed. They too sometimes number in the hundreds. 

The largest enclosure belongs to King Khasekhemwy of the second dynasty (it didn’t have sacrifices). O’Connor notes that the structure is about 438 feet (134 meters) by 255 feet (78 meters) with its walls originally rising 36 feet (11 meters) high with entranceways on all four sides. In modern times Khasekhemwy’s enclosure has been given the name “Shunet el-Zebib,” which means “raisin magazine” or “storehouse of raisins” (although that was not its original purpose).

When O’Connor’s team examined Khasekhemwy’s chapel, located within the enclosure, they found that the southwest portion contained a “labyrinthine complex of chambers” and there was a small room where “traces of incense burning and libations” were found.

Northeast of Khasekhemwy’s enclosure, at a junction between King Djer’s enclosure and the “western mastaba,” are a series of 12 “boat graves” each of which contain a full-size wooden boat that would have served a ritual purpose. O’Connor notes that some of them have an “irregularly shaped rock” that may have functioned as an anchor. The boats would have been deposited at the same time but it’s not known which king built them.

Boats played an important role in Egyptian religion and full-size examples have also been found at the Great Pyramids among other mortuary sites. “Verbal and visual imagery in Egyptian mortuary contexts often involves boats and ships, which in toto comprise a vast flotilla in which deities, long-dead kings and deceased Egyptians sail through eternity,” O’Connor writes.

Temple of Osiris

Starting in the Middle Kingdom (4,000 to 3,600 years ago), Abydos became a cult center for Osiris, the god of the underworld. A series of temples were built for him near the “Terrace of the Great God.”

Inside the Temple of Osiris at Abydos. (Image credit: BasPhoto / Shutterstock)

Archaeologists have had a difficult time identifying the exact location of the temple site. Between 2002 and 2004, researchers from the Yale-Pennsylvania Institute of Fine Arts expedition discovered two architectural layers from buildings that date from the reigns of kings Nectanebo I and II (about 2,400 years ago) and from the 18th dynasty (around 3,500 years ago). The ceiling of the Nectanebo temple appears to have been decorated with stars carved in relief.

“Although not fully excavated, work at the site indicates that perhaps earlier temples might lie below the two phases already discovered,” writes researcher Michelle Marlar in her 2009 doctoral thesis. 

The last royal pyramid

About 3,500 years ago the last royal pyramid built by the Egyptians was constructed at Abydos by Ahmose, the founder of Egypt’s 18th dynasty. A warrior king, he was known for driving the Hyksos, a group originally from Canaan, out of Egypt.

His pyramid, perhaps never completed, is now a 32-foot-tall (10 meters) ruin. Even today, at its reduced height, you still get an excellent view while standing on top of it.

“The vista from the top of Ahmose’s pyramid is a commanding one, as it surveys the nearby cultivated fields at the edge of the Nile floodplain, as well as the limestone cliffs a kilometer away that mark the start of the plateau of the Sahara desert,” writes archaeologist Stephen Harvey, who leads a project exploring the pyramid and nearby structures, in a 2003 University of Chicago Oriental Institute report.

Researcher Mark Lehner estimates that the pyramid originally measured 172 feet (53 meters) square in antiquity, relatively small compared to the Great Pyramids. “Two intact courses of casing stone survived at the eastern base when explored by Arthur Mace at the turn of the century, from which he estimated its angle as 60 (degrees)” writes Lehner in his book The Complete Pyramids (Thames and Hudson, 1997).

Ancient Egyptian god Horus with Seti and Isis and golden fly-whisk. Interior wall of the Temple of Osiris at Abydos, Egypt. (Image credit: BasPhoto / Shutterstock)

A pyramid temple nearby has yielded the fragments of decoration including scenes showing the king defeating the Hyksos. To the south an inscribed stela indicates that a pyramid with enclosure was built for Queen Tetisheri, the king’s grandmother. A magnetometry survey carried out by Harvey’s team backs this ancient account up revealing that there is a 300-by-230-foot (90 by 70 meters) “enclosure wall of brick” lying under the desert, waiting to be explored.

Temple of Seti I

Abydos has many monuments and the Temple of Seti I (known to the Egyptians as a “house of millions of years”) is one of the best preserved. Built about 3,200 years ago, Seti I (also spelled Sety) was a king who fought campaigns in the Levant, flexing Egypt’s military muscle. 

Archaeologist Dieter Arnold writes in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Egyptian Architecture (I.B. Tauris, 2003) that the main temple building, constructed of limestone, measures 183 by 515 feet (56 by 157 meters) and is located within a brick enclosure.

“The temple rises in terraces along the slope of the desert. On the bottom terrace is a man-made lake with a quay, behind which stands the first pylon with royal statue pillars at its rear,” writes Arnold.

After passing through two hypostyle halls the visitor comes across seven barque (boat) shrines. One is dedicated to the king Seti I and the others to the gods Ptah, Re-Horakhty, Amun-Re, Osiris, Isis and Horus. O’Connor estimates that each chapel is 135 square feet (12.6 square meters), with a vaulted ceiling 19 feet (5.8 meters) above the ground.

“In each chapel was originally housed a boat-shaped palanquin used, as elsewhere, to carry an image of the relevant deity during the processional rituals,” O’Connor writes.

One of the most enigmatic structures at Abydos, known to us as the Osireion, is located behind the temple. The main room, as it survives today, has a rocky megalithic look and Arnold notes that a 420-foot (128 meters) passageway leads up to it. It may have served as a tomb for “Osiris-Seti,” a depiction of Seti as Osiris. 

“The structure of the main hall is fantastical and consists of an island surrounded by a deep moat upon which rested the (now lost) sarcophagus of Osiris-Sety,” writes Arnold. The ceiling of the room was 23 feet (7 meters) across and was “supported on two rows of five granite pillars, weighing 55 tonnes each.”

It was a truly massive structure located in an ancient site that incorporates thousands of years of ancient Egyptian history and religious tradition.

Owen Jarus, LiveScience Contributor

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.