Objective Art


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Mortuary Temple of Seti I at Abydos - 19th Dynasty Egypt

Satellite view, taken in 2006, of the Mortuary Temple of Seti I at Abydos; structure at the upper right is the Osireion with its access corridor. (Google Maps)


Facade of the Temple of Seti I

Interior Columns of the Temple of Seti I King List from the Temple of Seti I Ruins of the Osireion at Abydos


Seti I, the second Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty, was the father of Egypt's most famous ruler, Ramesses II.  However, Seti was, in his own right, also a great leader.  His birth name is Seti Mery-en-ptah, meaning "He of the god Seth, beloved of Ptah.  To the Greeks, he was Sethos I, and his throne name was Men-maat-re, meaning "Eternal is the Justice of Re".  He ruled Egypt for about 11 years (some Egyptologists assign him a reign of 15 years) from 1290 to 1279 B.C.  In order to rectify the social and political instability caused by the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten (1352-1336 B.C.), he vigorously pursued a policy of major domestic building projects and a foreign policy dedicated to the recovery of Egypt's Asiatic empire, which had been lost due to Akhenaton's neglect.

Seti was the son of Ramesses I (1292-1290 B.C.) and his queen, Sitre. He probably ruled as co-regent with his elderly father.  Seti married into his own military caste. His first wife was Tuya, who was the daughter of a lieutenant of charioteers. His first son died young, but his second son became Ramesses II.  There was also a daughter, Tia, and a second daughter named Henutmire, who would become a minor queen of Ramesses II.

Seti's reign was a truly great period in Egypt with respect to art and culture. In the building projects that Seti I undertook, the quality of architectural design, relief sculpture and painting were probably never surpassed by later rulers.  His building projects at Abydos are particularly noteworthy.

The city of Abydos flourished from pre-dynastic times (ca. 4000 B.C.) down to the early Christian era (about 400 A.D.). The site has many tombs of the early rulers of ancient Egypt, including the 1st and 2nd Dynasties.  The area grew in religious importance as a cult center for Osiris, during the latter part of the Old Kingdom.  Osiris, a pre-dynastic mythological god-king of the Egyptians, had been dismembered by his brother Set and the body parts buried in various locations throughout Egypt.  Purportedly, the head of Osiris had been buried at Abydos. This emphasis upon Osiris caused the city to become a pilgrimage site, as well as a desired place for either direct burial or for the erection of cenotaphs (monuments erected in honor of a dead person whose bodily remains lie elsewhere). Festivals and passion plays concerning Osiris's life and death were performed here from about the 12th Dynasty (1985-1795 B.C.) until well into the Christian era.


Temple of Seti I

The Mortuary Temple of Seti I is the largest and by far the most impressive of the Abydos temples.  It was constructed of limestone and sandstone blocks in a highly unusual L-shaped configuration (see satellite photo at the top of this page). The temple was originally about 550 feet long and 350 feet wide, including the wing at the upper left side.  Most of the temple was completed during Seti's reign; however, the decoration of the courtyards and first hypostyle hall were completed by his Seti's son, Ramesses II.   A very unusual aspect of the temple is that it has seven sanctuaries, dedicated to Seti himself, Ptah, Re-Harakhte, Amun-Re, Osiris, Isis and Horus.  The left wing of the temple contains a corridor that is now called the "Hall of Records" or the "Gallery of Lists." Along the wall is a beautifully executed relief carving that depicts Seti and his son (later Pharaoh Ramesses II) standing before the official cartouches of 76 pharaohs beginning with the Meni (first King of the 1st Dynasty) and concluding with Seti I himself.  However, the names of the three Amarna pharaohs (Akhenaten, Smenkhare, and Tutankhamen) are deliberately omitted; the list jumps from Amenhotep III directly to Horemheb, the last King of the 18th Dynasty.




Behind Seti's temple at Abydos is another remarkable structure known as the Osireion.  It is situated about 50 feet below the ground level of the Seti Temple and was accessed by a long tunnel decorated with painted scenes from the "Book of Gates."  The Osireion, apparently a cenotaph of the god Osiris, is stylistically quite different from the Seti Temple.  The Osireion contains enormous pillars of red Aswan granite (up to 100 tons) and equally massive lintels. It's structure is very similar to the valley temple near the Great Sphinx at Giza -- plain megalithic blocks with simple square columns, totally devoid of decoration. The floor of the Osireion is below the current level of the water table, which floods the bottom of the temple. It is estimated that the water table is twenty or more feet higher today than it was in New Kingdom times.   In the center of the temple is a raised area, which is barely seen underneath the water. It is surrounded by a moat that was apparently meant to be filled with water. Many Egyptologists believe that the raised area was meant to symbolize the primordial mound emerging from the primordial sea.

The Osireion is built on the same axis as the Temple of Seti. Or, as some believe, the Temple of Seti was built on the axis of the much earlier Osiris cenotaph. There is some question as to whether Seti built the temple from scratch or perhaps only refurbished an earlier Old Kingdom structure. Stylistically, the Osireion is so different from New Kingdom temples that it is almost an aberration. If Seti built it, he was breaking with the architectural canon of his time.


Egyptologist's Description of the Temple of Seti I (Sethos I) and the Osireion:

Egyptologist Rosalie David, in her book entitled Discovering Ancient Egypt (published 1993, at pages 75-76), describes Seti's Temple and the nearby Osireion as follows:

Temple of Sethos I

Started in the reign of Sethos I, the temple was completed by Ramesses II and Merneptah. Built to a unique design, it is L-shaped rather than rectangular; it has seven chapels in the sanctuary area which are dedicated to six gods and to the dead, deified Sethos, instead of only one main sanctuary; and at the rear of the temple there is a special set of chambers dedicated to the Osiris Mysteries.

The wall scenes in the sanctuary preserve a more complete version of the Daily Temple Ritual than those found in any other temple, and the quality of the reliefs throughout the parts of the building completed during Sethos I’s reign probably surpasses anything found at any other New Kingdom site.

After Granger’s visit in the 18th century, the temple remained full of sand until Mariette cleared and excavated it in 1857-9 at the expense of the Khedive Said. Various travelers record knowledge of Abydos, including Nestor l’Hôte, Bonomi, Hay and Lepsius, and studies were also made by Capart and Caulfield, but the definitive publication of most of the temple was produced by Amice Calverley (1896-1959). She was a Canadian artist who, in 1927-49, under­took the task of copying the scenes on the walls and columns for a series of volumes produced by the Egypt Exploration Society, with funds provided by Rockefeller.

The Osireion

This unique building, lying at the rear of the Temple of Sethos, was discovered by Margaret Murray in 1903, and was excavated and examined further by Naville and Frankfort for the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1911-26. It was designed as the cenotaph of Osiris, and imitated a royal tomb; it incorporates an island surrounded by water, symbolizing the primeval mound where creation was believed to have taken place. This building is closely associated with the main temple, and there have been different opinions regarding its date. It has been suggested that it was built during the reign of Sethos I but completed under Merneptah (the reliefs decorating some of the chambers date to his reign), although others would date it completely to Merneptah’s period. In style, it reflects the simplicity of the Old Kingdom pyramid temples at Giza. 

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