Located in southern Egypt along the western banks of the Nile, the site of Abydos was the final resting place for ancient Egypt’s earliest kings. The oldest graves in the site date as far back as 4000 BCE, 850 years before Abydos would be established as a significant site for burial and religious worship in the predynastic and early dynastic periods. The kings who dominated this early period in ancient Egyptian history were responsible for unifying Egypt into a single state, creating the geopolitical foundations that would allow expansive development in later dynasties. The early kings buried in Abydos also built colossal mudbrick temples there, the towering remains of which still cast shadows across the site’s Northern Cemetery.
Speaking on the American Research Center in Egypt’s longstanding presence excavating and documenting the archaeological remains in Abydos, Louise Bertini, Egypt Director, highlighted, “At Abydos we currently have four research supporting member projects, which is more than any single site in Egypt. It’s very important that there is this much interest and involvement in this site because it’s incredibly significant both historically and archaeologically speaking, and much of this is activity is owed to the longstanding and established American presence that has focused on excavation and documentation in Abydos for many years now.”
Bertini added, “We have Josef Wegner of the University of Pennsylvania working in South Abydos on the mortuary complex of Senworset III, a twelfth-dynasty Pharaoh, Matthew Adams of New York University directing digs in the North Cemetery, Ogden Goelet and Sameh Iskander of New York University documenting wall scenes from the tomb of Rameses II, and Janet Richards of the University of Michigan excavating in the Middle Cemetery.”
These ARCE partner projects run the gamut of Abydos’s archaeological history, the earliest remains of which consist of two structures that date back to the Early Dynastic period and are known as the royal cult enclosures of Khasekhemwy and Qaa. The most impressive of the two is that of Khasekhemwy, first excavated by renowned Egyptian archaeologist and Egyptologist Flinder Petrie in 1902. The site retains architectural aspects of its palace-style exterior walls. Later excavations directed by Australian Egyptologist D. O’Connor in the late 1980s also uncovered 12 funerary boats along the east wall of Khasekhemwy. Another remnant of the earliest years of Abydos is the royal cemetery located in an area of the site known as Um el Gaab (Arabic for “mother of pots,” owing to the number of fragmented pottery that was once scattered across the site), where kings from the first and second dynasties, as well as their predecessors from dynasty “0” were buried.
The ancient Egyptian god of the dead, Osiris, was believed to be buried at Um el Gaab in Abydos. The desire to be associated with the resting place of what were effectively the forefathers of ancient Egyptian civilization and the highly revered god of the netherworld drove later Egyptian kings to also choose to be buried in Abydos or construct impressive temples to the cult of Osiris there. This dynamic combination of religious fervor and veneration for the earliest years of ancient Egyptian kingship is what ultimately drove Abydos to become the singular archaeological site in Egypt that contains five millennia worth of remains from every period of ancient Egyptian civilization.
During the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 BCE) until the early Roman period (30 BCE-395 CE), the cult of Osiris experienced a huge surge in popularity, catalyzing the construction of temples and other religious monuments in Abydos. A sizable temple to Osiris was the focal point of an annual procession in his honor, which ended at his tomb – in reality the tomb of first-dynasty King Djer – and included a reenactment of Osiris’s murder by Seth, Osiris’s brother and the ancient Egyptian god of chaos. The Osireion, a symbolic tomb of Osiris built in the style of the fourth dynasty, still stands today as one of the most impressive archaeological remains built to honor the Egyptian god. Located behind the sprawling temple of Seti I, the subterranean site is partially filled with lime-green water containing algae, giving it a visually striking appearance against the stark backdrop of the desert.
Of the other impressive existing remains from later periods is the religious complex of King Ahmose, the founder of Egypt’s 18 dynasty, or the first dynasty of the New Kingdom period (during which King Tutankhamun also ruled). Best known for driving the Hyksos from Egypt and expanding the Egyptian empire into Palestine and Nubia, King Ahmose’s complex in Abydos contains the remains of a royal pyramid and accompanying temple, a secondary pyramid for his grandmother Queen Tetisheri, and a small urban settlement and cemetery for the priests and workers that lived and operated inside the complex. Despite being a descendant of the Theban royal line, no tomb or other structures belonging to King Ahmose have ever been found in Thebes, making his commissioned remains in Abydos all the more significant. The built remains of King Ahmose have also been extensively documented by Stephen Harvey of University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, another ARCE research supporting partner.
More recently, an ARCE project in partnership with the University of California, Berkeley, and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has also been initiated to address a more modern aspect of Abydos’s impressive past. In 2013, thousands of early records and documents from the Egyptian Antiquities Service were discovered in a sealed chamber in the slaughterhouse area of Seti I’s Grand Temple. These documents, some of which date as far back as the 1820’s were written by employees of the Antiquities Authority, and are primarily concerned with surveying, mapping and excavation work in the site of Abydos and its surrounding landscape. In 2017, over a three-month period, the documents were sorted, numbered and photographed. Following their treatment and cleaning by two experienced paper conservators, the documents were translated to English and photographed again for a database. Upcoming seasons of the project and more detailed information about the Abydos Temple Paper Archive can be accessed here.