Photo © copyright Richard Wilkinson, The
Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, p. 148.
Strabo visited the Osireion in the first century B.C. He wrote:
Above this city [Ptolema´s] lies Abydus, where is the Memnonium, a royal building, which is a remarkable structure built of solid stone, and of the same workmanship as that which I ascribed to the Labyrinth, though not multiplex; and also a fountain which lies at a great depth, so that one descends to it down vaulted galleries made of monoliths of surprising size and workmanship. [Geography, 17.1.42]
Strabo identified the builder as Ismandes, or Mandes (Amenemhet III), under whom the Labyrinth was constructed. Naville, who excavated the site in 1913-14, saw similarities between Khafre's Valley Temple at Giza and the Osireion, and concluded that they were of the same Old Kingdom era. Both are stark and megalithic, and the style of the Osireion is noticeably different than that of the Temple of Seti I. It is also situated some fifty feet lower and thus generally flooded with water.
In time, more clues were discovered. Frankfort found the cartouche of Seti I in a granite dovetail joint. Another tenon bearing the king's cartouche was exposed when part of the sandstone wall blocks broke away (blocks that were once clad in granite), indicating its presence in the original construction. There are astronomical scenes, also made by Seti, on the ceiling of the northern transverse chamber. Other decorations were made by the king's grandson, Merenptah. Sandstone was used in the original construction (for central court wall-cladding and for the base of the island), a material used mainly beginning in the 11th Dynasty.
Some authors pay particular attention to the layout of the Temple of Seti II. In The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, John Anthony West wrote, "The curious and unique L shape of the main temple could well be explained as a result of initial groundwork in Seti's time uncovering the hitherto buried older temple, necessitating a change of plan." (p. 391) The problem with this scenario is that the location of the Osireion is fully integrated into the plan of the temple complex as a whole (see plan below). The axis of the Osireion is north-northeast, matching exactly the axis of the temple complex. Such uniformity could hardly be accidental. It becomes clear, then, that the site is comprised of a mortuary temple in front of the tomb (or in this case, cenotaph, dedicated to Osiris) in the classical arrangement.
Plan of the cenotaph temple of Seti I, Abydos.
Abydos had been the center of the cult of Osiris since predynastic times. It is the ideal location for a tomb dedicated to that god (many "tombs of Osiris" exist throughout Egypt). Of temple site placement, Richard Wilkinson wrote:
The location of the Osireion in the Temple of Sethos I at Abydos, for example, is due to the proximity of a natural spring. This seems to have been used to provide a pool of water around the subterranean 'grave' in order to make it a model of the mythical mound of creation which the Egyptians believed rose from the primeval waters. [The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt, p. 36]
As to its monolithic style, most Egyptologists believe that the Osireion was purposely archaized by New Kingdom architects to make it appear to be ancient. Such a design would be appropriate for the tomb of an ancient god. Any resemblance to Khafre's Valley Temple, then, would be purely intentional.
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