When we think of ancient Egypt, we think of the Pyramids or of the great Sphinx, but one temple complex is often ignored: The Osireion. This structure carries with it, one of the oldest and unresearched enigmas of ancient Egypt. Its purpose and its exact dating is, to this day, a controversial topic of debate.
Who built the Osireion in Abydos? Finely cut massive megalithic stones with a construction style that showcases engineering know-how radically different from the many sites one can visit today across Egypt. While I had been dreaming for a long time to go explore the cultural pillars of our mother-civilization, there was something quite different that was driving me to this region of Southern Egypt.
This timeless structure has been haunting me for years, and this is why had to go see this unique marvel of architecture, with my own eyes. Rest assured, I am not an archeologist, Egyptologist or historian for that matter. I am a mere pragmatist, with a curious eye. I believe we understand better when we can observe, and I discern pseudo-archeological theories from common sense. The problem, however, is that common sense is sometimes not so common in some of the official academic versions of egyptology we are confronted with. I’m afraid you won’t find any potential star-trek-like scripts here-below, but rather, some genuine observations about our flawed understanding of history.
A few days after my arrival in Luxor together with my family, I am wandering through the streets of the city, searching for a local guide that can help me reach Abydos. After a few exhausting dead-end negotiations, I finally shake hands with Ramy, a savvy middle-aged archeologist who seems to know his way around better than others. This is a time where the old city of Thebes is deserted from tourists, given the political changes brought about by the Arab springs. An inexpensive moment to explore Egypt, if you ask me.
Ramy takes care of the needed documents (simple passport copies that require an authorized stamp from local authorities) which will help us get through the military checkpoints around the city. He also organizes a taxi to drive us some 90 km north of Luxor. We follow the river Nile, on a dusty road through the desert, without seeing a single soul along the way.
Around 10.00 am we enter the small city of Abydos, through a small road where we are presented with a gruesome spectacle: children playing with plastic debris in a cemetery. Our driver drops us off in front of the temple of Abydos where Ramy, immediately takes care of some backsheesh (a form of tipping) to ensure we stay free of any undesired accompaniers.
The temple of Abydos was built by Seti I, and was later finished and embellished by his son Ramses II, the greatest and most powerful pharaoh of the New Kingdom. As we walk past the two courtyards that lead to the main entrance, I am now facing the square-columned limestone facade of the temple which seems to be welcoming me into a lost forgotten past.
The last thing that captures your attention when you enter the temple, is a mysterious hieroglyph near the ceiling on the left-hand side of a column, that somehow resembles modern machinery. This is most probably the coincidental result of the erosion from an overlayed hieroglyphic, which for many, irrefutably matches the shape and form of a spacecraft. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.
The temple houses seven different shrines (or chapels) dedicated to seven important Egyptian deities: Osiris, Isis, Horus, Amon Ra, Ra Horakhty, Ptah, and... well, Seti I himself, pictured as a deified King. The light inside the temple enters through dedicated holes, strategically built to illuminate the different rooms. Each chamber has a stele that commemorates a specific God, and most of the artwork has greatly-preserved colors that vividly depicts incredible tales.
We then start heading into one of the two hypostyle halls, and further on into a narrow decorated hall, where we face the prominent Abydos King List. This table represents the chronology of the 76 greatest Egyptian rulers (as recognized by Seti I) and their respective cartouches. Interestingly, unfit or “heretic” pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Queen Hatshepsut, have been intentionally left out.
At this point Ramy, shows us a drawing, highlighting how the Abydos temple is the only L-shaped temple in Egypt. Why this atypical layout? Did its builders bump into something older while constructing it? I can feel my heart beating with anticipation as I walk through a passage that heads back into the arid landscape outside.
As I start walking outside along a sand hill, I follow a slow-descending path that leads to the south side of the Osireion. This is because this otherworldly structure is situated at a lower depth (about 15 meters) than the Abydos temple we’ve just visited. I make my way all the way down to a set of recently-built stairs and stay in complete awe for a few minutes.
Ten central rose-colored granite columns weighing 60 tons each stand firmly into place. This type of granite is said to have been quarried more than 300 km south in the region of Aswan and has clearly not been cut into pieces to facilitate transportation. Moreover, I notice how the columns are surrounded by green-colored water. Initially, one might think the water originates from the nearby river Nile, but this is not the case as with the widespread Nilometers found near most sites. The builders diverted an underground natural spring nearby in order to fill the 15 meters deep basins surrounding these monolithic blocks. Why? Was the nearby arched tunnel part of a water pump system?
Ramy tells us that Egyptologists date the temple back to around 1290 BCE, but I silently murmur that there’s plenty of controversy in the dating methods being used to justify this date. Recently rediscovered by British archeologists Flinders Petrie and Margaret Murray in 1902, the Osireion in Abydos is attributed to the reign of Seti I (19th dynasty). Yet the style of architecture is dramatically different, and this is one of the multiple reasons for the ongoing disagreement on its true age.
Does it predate predynastic Egypt? Hard to say. There are no inscriptions or petroglyphs indicating its construction. In 2013, a new dating technique that measures the luminescence of a surface was introduced by a group of Greek researchers from the University of Aegean in Rhodes (Department of Mediterranean Studies, Laboratory of Archaeometry). In a few words, optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) measures the length of time a given stone has absorbed (alpha-beta, and gamma) radiations from deep space since the last time it was exposed to sunlight. This technique is commonly used in geology but has been repurposed for various ancient structures around the world in the last decade. The data tells us the site is older than the New Kingdom and aligns with the period of the Middle Kingdom. But that just means, that is the time it was last exposed to light.
Interestingly, Abydos has been the center of the cult of Osiris, also known as the god of the dead. Because it is one of the earliest sacred sites of all Egypt, most Egyptologists believe that the Osireion was purposely archaized by New Kingdom architects to make it appear to be ancient. While there are a lot of nonsense-theories out there on Ancient Egypt, it is hard to discern sci-fi authors from scientifically-minded researchers. Overall, the Osireion has received plenty of criticism from independent thinkers and authors (Anthony West, Graham Hancock, Robert Shock among others) given the unorthodox method, modern Egyptology uses to officialize historicity.
There is only one other place in all Egypt which, for now, strongly resembles the Osireion. The valley temple of Khafre near the Sphinx is characterized by similarly fine-cut megalithic blocks that follow the same architectural model. But there are also other archeological sites outside of Egypt that are home to these anomalous architectural styles. As I ponder on the precise tenon joints and the unusual notches on some of the stones under the burning sun, I inevitably recall the megalithic stones of the Sacred Valley in Peru. The construction style is evidently similar, and these marvel of engineering potentially alludes to a time where Egyptians or Incas, were not around yet.
As we walk back inside the temple of Abydos, Ramy walks us through some more mythological chronicles while he helps us decipher the meaning of some exquisite relief carvings. He is profiling some of the most important Gods’ role and power within the theological imagination of one of the greatest society, to have ever existed. As we finish debating on the role of Ptah, the God of craftsmen and architects, we note the almost invisible cuts of the “sections” that delimit the different pieces of stones piled up on top of each other to create a pillar. This is a common construction method used in ancient Egypt to allow and simplify the building of temples within the lifespan of the pharaoh who commissioned the works. This is the kind of observation that makes you understand, or at least think.
The Osireion continues to give researchers a huge headache to this day. The site clearly requires better research and further excavations in order to better understand who truly built this architectural wonder. If you happen to plan to visit Southern Egypt, I strongly encourage you to take a short detour to Abydos and ask yourself this same question.