A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
New investigations at ancient Egypt's premier pilgrimage site
Modern visitors to the beautifully decorated temples at Abydos reenact the pilgrimage to this sacred place once made by many ancient Egyptians to fulfill their religious obligations in much the same way that Jerusalem has attracted worshipers of many faiths for the past two millennia. For more than 3,000 years, Abydos was revered as a holy center where pharaohs and commoners participated in festivals and processions in honor of the gods, especially Osiris, ruler of the Egyptian underworld. Those who could afford it memorialized their visit to Abydos, building a permanent monument in stone or brick to house a carved stone stela depicting themselves and their families. This was their way of ensuring permanent participation in the sacred rituals of the town.
During most periods of ancient Egyptian history, people settled in the fertile plain around the temples and cemeteries made Abydos a bustling place. A large portion of the population must have been involved in supporting pilgrimage and worship. Similarly, villagers who live today among the ruins of Abydos hope for plentiful tourism to supplement their income from farming and small businesses. The forebears of today's souvenir sellers might have been vendors of votive offerings, amulets, and carved stelae upon which visitors could have their name and prayers for a good afterlife carved. Others would have made a living as accountants, priests, farmers, brewers, bakers, and craftsmen supporting the daily functioning of the enormous temple complexes erected to celebrate the relationships between rulers and the gods. The stone temples, which are today the attraction for tourists, were in ancient times largely hidden from view by enormous brick enclosure walls. Temple complexes in ancient Egypt would have been surrounded by great expanses of storerooms, workshops, offices, houses, gardens, and granaries dedicated to the functioning of the cults of gods and kings. The campus of a modern university provides a good idea of the diversity of activities which went on in an ancient Egyptian temple, which extended far beyond the sacred rituals carried out in the temple's innermost recesses. Temples stood at the center of local economies as well, and we know that the temple of Seti I at Abydos received revenue from far-off ventures such as mineral rights in Nubia, water rights on the Nile, and holdings of farmland throughout Egypt far beyond Abydos itself.
Ancient pilgrims sailing west from the Nile along manmade canals would have taken in views of a large ancient city built up around the fortress-like brick enclosures of numerous royal temple complexes built along the desert's edge. The sandy expanse of desert beyond these temples would have been dotted with brick memorial structures and tombs of those who chose to be buried here, as well as by royal stone shrines and chapels built as waystations along major processional routes. Reminders of the beginnings of Egyptian history 5,000 years ago would have still been as visible 3,000 years ago as they are today. These include the brick enclosure known as Shunet es-Zebib (a later Arabic name meaning the "Storehouse of Raisins"), as well as the reddish mounds concealing the tombs of Egypt's first kings.
Explorers and archaeologists working at Abydos since the early nineteenth century have largely focused on the stone remains left behind by the ancient pilgrims, particularly the impressive buildings inscribed and decorated by kings and the high elite. Despite the wealth of objects in museums worldwide that derive from Abydos, it is really only in the past 35 years that we have any idea of the setting and context of most of this material, largely through excavation since 1967 carried out by the University of Pennsylvania-Yale University-Institute of Fine Arts, New York University Expedition to Abydos (co-directors David O'Connor and William Kelly Simpson) working closely in cooperation of the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. The Abydos Expedition has done much to place earlier discoveries in perspective, and has added volumes of new data on ancient activity at Abydos through exciting discoveries which in many cases rival those of Flinders Petrie's generation.
Each season of excavation since 1986 has seen important results that are of interest in isolation, but combined together enable a re-evaluation of one of Egypt's most important ancient centers. Clarifying the relationship between temple, town, and cemetery is a thread which connects much of the work done at Abydos in the past three decades. In a basic way, this means looking at the fugitive brick and organic remains of towns and cemeteries, and turning our attention to deriving information from careful excavation of badly destroyed ancient buildings which were often neglected by earlier archaeologists and explorers. Careful attention to traces of domestic activity, most often preserved in the architecture and trash of fallen-down brick and mud houses, is significantly fleshing out our picture of life in this ancient place.
In recent years at Abydos, re-excavation of sites that were identified and partially studied a century ago has repaid the effort. Modern approaches, techniques, and questions, as well as a more deliberate and meticulous approach, has revealed new detail about long-known parts of Abydos, and has revealed that far more remains to be found than one might expect. The discovery of battle scenes depicting Ahmose's defeat of the Hyksos is but one vivid example of the value of returning to a site thought to be long-since exhausted. Finally, entirely new and surprising discoveries await archaeologists at Abydos. Blocks of a lost temple inscribed with the distinctive art style of King Akhenaten's reign have been found in the ruins of a temple of Ramesses II at Abydos, and archaeologist David Silverman believes these perhaps indicate an as-yet undiscovered shrine to the Aten existed at Abydos. No doubt, continued work by the combined Abydos projects, as well as by the German Archaeological Institute, will continue to yield new discoveries and insights at one of ancient Egypt's most important sacred and urban centers.
Stephen P. Harvey is assistant director of the Institute of Egyptian Art & Archaeology, The University of Memphis. He received his Ph.D. in 1998 in Egyptian archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. Since 1993 he has been field director of the Ahmose and Tetisheri Project at Abydos.