Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 August 2008
Issue No. 909
Heritage
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Rest in peace, Seti

A programme is in place to protect the sacred site of Abydos, as Nevine El-Aref finds out

Click to view caption
From top: the façade of Seti I temple; the hypostal hall of the temple; the Osirian temple; Al-Araba Al-Madfuna; a relief featuring King Seti I before ancient Egyptian gods

On the western side of the Nile, on the edge of the low desert, the ancient Upper Egyptian town of Abydos spreads on a site of over eight square kilometres. The atmosphere is agreeable, embracing magnificent monuments within a great natural environment.

As the city sacred to god Osiris where, according to legend, his head is buried, and coupled with the ancient Egyptian belief that the horizon west of Abydos was the gateway to the afterlife, Abydos was a favoured burial place for ancient Egyptians who wished to be buried near their legendary ancestor. Hence many cult structures were dedicated to Osiris and vast cemetery fields were developed there, incorporating not only the regional population but non-local people who also chose to build tombs and commemorative monuments in Abydos.

During the prehistoric and early dynastic periods, Abydos was a satellite funerary centre for the nome capital of Thinis, which is now located in the vicinity of the modern town of Gerga of Balliana on the edge of the Nile. The significance of the city then exceeded a provincial burial centre to become the burial place of the first kings of the first and second dynasties. Later on, during the Old and Middle Kingdoms, Abydos evolved into a religious centre of great importance.

The most outstanding monuments at Abydos are the Second-Dynasty funerary enclosure of King Khasekhemwi, the Kom Al-Sultan enclosure wall which was the location of the early town and the main temple dedicated to the god Osiris, and the two New Kingdom temples of Pharaoh Seti I, founder of the 19th Dynasty, and his son Ramses II. The greater part of the site remains concealed beneath the sand, a fact recognised in the Arabic name of the modern town, Al-Araba Al-Madfuna, or "the buried Araba".

The most famous of all the monuments is the well- preserved temple of Seti I, which has some of the finest reliefs of any period to be found in the Nile Valley. It has seven separate sanctuaries, dedicated to Seti I himself and to Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amun, Mut and Khonsu. Their entrances are delicately carved in bas-relief, and they still retain their original colour.

This is the temple which contains a Kings' List, a roll of gods and kings engraved in royal cartouches. More than 70 Pharaohs preceded Seti I, starting with Mena, founder of the First Dynasty. For political reasons the names of the monotheist Pharaoh Akhenaten and Queen Hatshepsut were not included in the list.

Several tales were told about the temple, the most interesting being that of the British archaeologist who married an Egyptian and was much respected by the locals, who called her Um Seti (mother of Seti). She would treat the temple as a sacred place, and would remove her shoes before entering. She was very devoted to the memory of the Pharaoh Seti, and believed that she had lived at his court in a previous life. She devoted her life to studying the reliefs and transcribing the texts of the temple. When she died she was buried beside her divine god-king Seti.

Local women believed they could enhance their fertility by immersing themselves in the water of what is known as the Osirian, a temple behind the temple of Seti I, which floods from time to time.

Over the decades, however, spontaneous urban and agricultural development around Abydos has affected the monuments. The city's inhabitants have encroached on the area in the vicinity of Seti I's temple. Some have cultivated the triangle in front of temple, leading to the leakage of drainage water into the temple, while others have constructed residential mud-brick and concrete houses around the temple walls and along the road leading to Ramses II's temple, which in its turn affects the scenery of the whole site.

The Cairo-Aswan highway was another threat to the archaeological site. The highway, a the mega-project for the government, was meant to strengthen domestic transport routes as a way of promoting tourism and boosting trade between the governorates; it was the ground of a major debate between three ministries: housing, agriculture and culture. The controversy was sparked when construction began on the section of the road linking Assiut to Aswan. Archaeologists from the SCA argued that the road would cause irrevocable damage to the major archaeological sites at Abydos, the primary pilgrimage destination for ancient Egyptians, through which it runs. According to Sabri Abdel-Aziz, who heads the SCA's Ancient Egypt Department, the Temple of Osiris, the royal cemetery of the first and second dynasties, the ramp of Senusert III's chapel and his funerary complex, as well as the ramp of Ahmos's Pyramid, and the famous Seti I Temple with its list of Egypt's ancient kings and queens, would all be in danger of destruction.

As a result, two committees -- comprising representatives from the ministries of culture, housing and agriculture, as well as Sohag governorate and transport authorities -- inspected the section of the road in question in an attempt to revise the route and reach a compromise.

Four suggestions were made. The first proposed detouring the route towards the agricultural land east of the archaeological site, thereby destroying 65 feddans of Sohag's most fertile land. The second would link the road via the desert behind the Abydos mountains at an additional cost of LE150 million.

The remaining two suggestions involved paving the area parallel to the Qasr canal, resulting in a 25-kilometre longer route that could end up necessitating the demolition of a number of rural houses, and, finally, an alternate route through an agricultural area, as well as an archaeological zone which must first be excavated prior to construction.

During the debate, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni said his ministry would not stand in the way of development projects meant to benefit the general public. However, he also said, the ministry was very serious about preventing the destruction of monuments. He said no new construction would be taking place until the newly-organised ministerial committee made its final decision. For his part, SCA Secretary- General Zahi Hawass suggested that the SCA was perfectly willing to help construct the proposed detours if that meant preserving Egypt's heritage.

After several meetings and inspection tours, the controversial parties agreed on the rerouting of the road and that the LE15 million which would be used for recompensing the residents would be provided by the three ministries concerned -- each would pay LE5 million. So far the SCA has paid three million, and when the construction of the new houses starts it will pay the rest.

The problem of water in Abydos is becoming serious. Abdel-Aziz told Al-Ahram Weekly that he counted three direct causes; namely the cultivation around the temple zone, the lack of a proper drainage system in the shanty housing areas near both temples, and the heightened level of the Nile in July and August, which in its turn augmented the level of water inside the Osirian.

Now, he continued, in collaboration with the Subterranean Water Research Centre and the Tarek Wali engineering bureau, the SCA was carrying out a comprehensive project to reduce the rate of subterranean water inside the Osirian. The triangle cultivated in front of the Seti I Temple had also been removed in an attempt to return it to its original feature.

"Abydos is archaeologically rich, and even more important historically than Giza and Luxor," Hawass said. "It was also a sacred pilgrimage site for Osiris, and almost every king in Ancient Egypt built a cenotaph or a chapel dedicated to the god of the afterlife." He said an LE20 million development project was now under implementation in order to end the problems Abydos is suffering from and to develop the whole site in a way that matches its archaeological and historical importance. According to the project, which will be implemented over the next six years, Abydos will regain its original scenic position.

In an attempt to protect the archaeological site of Abydos from any further encroachment, a wall will surround it and the 92 houses located along the road between both temples will be demolished. Residents will be moved to other houses now under construction by the Ministry of Housing in a nearby area after it has been archaeologically investigated. A high-tech visitor centre will be set up un front of the temple of Seti I, replacing the cultivated triangle, along with a cafeteria and a bookshop. "A sound and light show for the archaeological sites of Abydos is now under study as another tourist attraction," Hawass says.

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