If there was one place that was continuously hoppin’ in ancient Egypt it was certainly Abydos. No they didn’t have the hippest clubs or party beaches here, this was the land of the dead for Ancient Egypt. If you were Egyptian, this is where you wanted to be buried and was a place of pilgrimage for those that could afford to make it. If one could never make it to Abydos, they would be buried with miniature boats that would sail their souls along the Nile to their final resting place here. So why was this place so special?
What was Abydos for Ancient Egypt?
Abydos was the major cult center for Osiris who was none other than the God of the Dead. According to Egyptian mythology Set, Osiris’ brother, killed Osiris and sunk him in a box in the Nile. Osiris’ wife, Isis, searched for him tirelessly, finally found him and revived Osiris so that she could impregnate him only to die after completing the mission. After Osiris’ death, she hid his body and eventually gave birth to Horus. Set would them come across Osiris’ body and in a fit of range decided to cut up his body into fourteen pieces and scatter them across the land. Upon hearing this, Isis set out to collect the pieces of Osiris, finding all but his penis which was supposedly eaten by a fish (a fish Egyptians avoided to eat). After putting the pieces together, this was supposedly the first mummy to ever be created. Impressed by her valiant efforts, the Gods then resurrected Osiris (penisless?) to become the God of the underworld.
Some origin myth right? Well the story firmly put Osiris as one of the most important Gods of Egypt as all ancient Egyptians hoped to one day share in the afterlife with Osiris. While Osiris had many cult temples throughout Egypt, Abydos came to be the place where his head was believed to reside, therefore being the most important place of worship for the God.
Abydos served as a necropolis from 4000 BCE all the way until the ancient Egyptian religion was banned by 600 CE. The necropolis spreads over a large area but only part of it is accessible today due to security restrictions. Despite this, there are two temples accessible as of 2018, the impressive Seti I temple and the smaller, less preserved Ramses II temple.
Seti I Temple
Seti I Temple is one of the masterpieces by the ancient Egyptians that has been preserved astonishingly well, only to be outdone by the much later temples at Idfu and Dendera. The temple was begun by Seti I but was completed by his son, Ramses II, dating the temple back to around 1280 BCE. The temple was built as a memorial temple to Seti I in order to commemorate the pharaoh’s reign and also to honor the main Gods of Egyptian mythology.
The outer courtyards of the temple which were completed by Ramses II lay mostly in ruins today and are of little interest to visitors. The outer columns of the temple were also constructed under Ramses II’s rule, and depict the pharaoh preparing the temple for his father.
The first and most impressive room is the second hypostyle hall, with its very well preserved columns in the shape of giant papyrus. This and everything beyond was completed while Seti I was alive. The reliefs in the hypostyle hall are stunning and in incredible shape. Much of the temple was sparred of defacement by Christians, making this one of the best temples to study ancient Egyptian art in detail.
Beyond the second hypostyle hall are seven small sanctuaries that each honor an individual God with the last one being devoted to Seti I himself. Each used to hold a statue of each God but none of them are in place today.
The most interesting of the seven halls is the sanctuary of Osiris. Remember the origin story I wrote about earlier? Well this hall takes that story and creates an actual depiction of it. On the walls you will find rather graphic depictions of Osiris with his rather large man piece being sat on by a bird which is a representation of his wife Isis. The scene is depicting the conception of the God Horus.
On the opposite wall is a rather awkward scene of Osiris clutching his own naughty bits while other Gods look on. I am still not sure what this scene is depicting.
The far left hand side of the temple has an entrance that leads to the Gallery of the Kings, which lists the lineage of Pharaohs (but excluding those Seti I did not like) in hieroglyphs. Of more interest of visitors are the reliefs that depict Seti I with his son Ramses II. Here Ramses II is depicted as a boy giving the hall a father and son bonding time feel to it.
Just outside the back of the Gallery of Kings is the Osireion which has now flooded and can only be observed from a distance due to a danger of the temple collapsing in on itself at any time. It is of little interest.
Ramses II Temple
A short walk through the small village to the northwest brings you to the Ramses II temple. The temple built by… you guessed it… Ramses II is in pretty bad shape when compared to Seti I temple. Despite this, the temple does have its moments with some very colorful scenes still surviving today. Entrance into the temple is included in your ticket to Seti I temple.
At the time of writing, you were not allowed to go any further than Ramses II temple as police stopped us from venturing any further. Some of Egypt’s oldest pharaohs are buried here but sadly the area where there tombs are is currently off limits. There was also a lot of excavation work occurring just outside Ramses II temple but we were not allowed to photograph it.
Where to Stay
As of 2018 there were only two options for those looking to stay in Abydos for the night. They are on opposite ends of the spectrum with one costing 150 EGP ($8.37) and is very basic but livable for a night if you’re not picky and a seasoned backpacker, while the other costs 1,250 EGP ($70.00) and gets you into a resort that has rooms that would fall under 3 stars in the United States. You only need one night here as you can get up early to see the temples and then check out in order to catch the afternoon train to Luxor. Security will insist on arranging a ride back to Al-balyana for you but be sure to bargain the price before they call. It should cost no more than 30 EGP for a trike and 60 for a car (hard to go lower given you are in the middle of nowhere).
Getting There and Away
The train station closest to Abydos only has a few trains that stop at the station so be sure to check with your hotel for the most recent train schedule. The train station is located in the town of Al-Balyana and after asking around, we could not find any hotels that took up foreigners there. That means if you stay overnight, your only option is to find accommodation in Abydos which is located 10 km (6 miles) away. From the station, you can hire a trike to take you there. If you want to buy fruits and vegetables, do it while you’re in Al-Balyana first as there is not much once you get to the hotels near the temples. There is a police checkpoint where they will record your passport information and document how long you plan to stay.
Most people traveling to Al-Balyana (Abydos) arrive by tour bus so the few independent tourists that come into town cause quite a scene. Locals are very curious about foreigners but don’t be alarmed as the only thing you are likely to be confronted by are smiles, giggles, and lots of selfies. Also for some reason, people are obsessed with foreigner’s sunglasses. I can’t count how many times people asked how much my sunglasses were worth through our travels in Egypt (even security at the airport gate when leaving Egypt). Anyway, as you wait for your train along with your security guard, expect a crowd to form around you as people are just curious to get to know you.
Abydos: A Dead City Worth Visiting
Abydos is a must stop destination while making your way down the Nile towards Luxor. By staying in the area overnight and visiting the temples in the morning, you miss the tour buses and could very well have the entire temple to yourself. This is a magical temple and having the place to yourself makes it just that more awesome.