Fieldwork on the Edge of Forever: An Update on the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II at Abydos, Part One / by Wendy Doyon

By Wendy Doyon & Matthew Douglas Adams / Field Diary 2019.6 © Abydos Archaeology

How do archaeologists get ancient ruins to give up their secrets? Slowly. Carefully. Very, very patiently. And by working together over many generations to observe the fallen and scattered remains of a place like this one: the footprint of a small temple built by Ramses II at the northern boundary where the ancient town of Abydos and its chief Temple of Osiris opened onto the desert necropolis, a crowded suburb of the dead lingering on the edge of mythic time at the western horizon (Fig. 1). One archaeologist observes certain details — a hieroglyph, a fragment of paint, the color of stone — and writes them down. Another comes along and sees these things in a new way, adding fresh insights. Perhaps another, and then another, each building on the observations made before them to leave a record of the past more whole than the one they started with.

Fig. 1. Remains of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II in the foreground, looking southwest. In the distance, beyond the Expedition’s field house (at left), lies the necropolis of Egypt’s first kings, Umm el-Qa‘ab, in the shadow of the western cliffs. Photo: Greg Maka © North Abydos Expedition 2009

Fig. 1. Remains of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II in the foreground, looking southwest. In the distance, beyond the Expedition’s field house (at left), lies the necropolis of Egypt’s first kings, Umm el-Qa‘ab, in the shadow of the western cliffs. Photo: Greg Maka © North Abydos Expedition 2009

Fig. 2. Standing in front of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II looking east through the ancient enclosure wall of the town and Temple of Osiris, which today frames the modern architecture of Beni Mansour just beyond. It was from this spot that generations of ancient pilgrims at Abydos set out on the festival procession of Osiris each year. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 2. Standing in front of the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II looking east through the ancient enclosure wall of the town and Temple of Osiris, which today frames the modern architecture of Beni Mansour just beyond. It was from this spot that generations of ancient pilgrims at Abydos set out on the festival procession of Osiris each year. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II, a ruined jumble of tantalizing clues about the great king’s building activity in the sacred land of his royal ancestors at Abydos, has long been one of the site’s more puzzling monuments. It sits at a critical point in the sacred topography of ancient Abydos, the point where an invisible curtain was drawn between the world of the living and the land of the dead (Fig. 2). The curtain that separated the human from the mythic realm at Abydos was already ancient by the time Ramses II’s father, Seti I, laid the first stone of what would become a completed temple during his son’s reign (Adams 2019). Did its New Kingdom builders intend the temple to serve as an actual gateway for the festival procession of Osiris — an expression of their royal patronage of this ancient Mecca, by which they, masters of both the human and divine realms, raised the curtain on the festival’s performance each year? Perhaps. After all, it was from this spot that generations of ancient pilgrims at Abydos had long begun the annual festival procession, starting out from the edge of the desert and winding their way south and west along the processional route as it snaked its way through the necropolis, linking the Temple of Osiris to what was thought to be his tomb at Umm el-Qa‘ab, the necropolis of Egypt’s earliest kings. And after its construction in the 13thCentury BCE (c. 1290-1213), the new monument itself became a focal point of ritual life at the site during the late New Kingdom and beyond (O’Connor 2009).

Fig. 3. The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II and the archaeological landscape of North Abydos during Flinders Petrie’s excavations for the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1902-03. Photo courtesy of the  Egypt Exploration Society .

Fig. 3. The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II and the archaeological landscape of North Abydos during Flinders Petrie’s excavations for the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1902-03. Photo courtesy of the Egypt Exploration Society.

British archaeologist Flinders Petrie had a different reason for calling it a “Portal” temple during his explorations here in 1902-03 (Fig. 3). In Petrie’s time, the back part of the temple remained buried leaving only the stumps of once-great stone pillars and a few patches of bricks visible at the front of the building, with traces of an inner passageway leading toward the west into the necropolis (Petrie 1916). The temple is actually situated directly on the ancient processional route, facing east into town, at a rise in the road where it crosses the boundary of the town’s enclosure wall and emerges onto the western desert. Although Petrie noted the odd fact that the temple’s passageway did not align precisely with the preexisting road from the ancient town, he nevertheless speculated that “this Portal was the official entrance for burials.” He was suggesting, in other words, that the passageway through the temple was intended to serve as a sort of ceremonial gateway and chapel for funeral processions on their way into the cemetery. Observing only the façade of the temple, he made a wild guess as to its original purpose, and as with so many other things Petrie touched, the name stuck. What Petrie failed to see, as it lay still buried under the spoil heaps of earlier excavations nearby, was the body of the temple — the inner rooms and corridors that were the real blood and guts of its history.

Fig. 4. The Penn-Yale excavations, directed by David O’Connor and William Kelly Simpson, at the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II during the Expedition’s first season at Abydos in 1967. The excavated stockpile of ballista ammunition probably dating to the Theban revolt c. 199 BCE is visible in the foreground. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 4. The Penn-Yale excavations, directed by David O’Connor and William Kelly Simpson, at the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II during the Expedition’s first season at Abydos in 1967. The excavated stockpile of ballista ammunition probably dating to the Theban revolt c. 199 BCE is visible in the foreground. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 5. View of the Penn-Yale excavations at the “Portal” Temple in 1967, looking east toward the ancient enclosure wall. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

Fig. 5. View of the Penn-Yale excavations at the “Portal” Temple in 1967, looking east toward the ancient enclosure wall. Photo: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

And when we say the blood and guts of its history, we mean actual blood and guts! Centuries after its original New Kingdom construction, the temple appears to have played a role in a dramatic military siege at Abydos during the Theban revolt against Egypt’s Ptolemaic rulers c. 199 BCE (Kraemer 2013). Evidence for its bloody afterlife surfaced during the first systematic excavations of the temple in 1967-69 (Figs. 4,5), when archaeologist David O’Connor discovered, among the more than 800 objects found in situ, a stockpile of ballista ammunition as well as a considerable number of bronze arrowheads in and around the temple (O’Connor 1967, 1968, 1969, 1979, 2014).

Fig. 6. This colossal head of Ramses II, one of the most powerful kings in history, was among the first finds of the first season of Penn-Yale excavations at Abydos in 1967. Today, it cuts an impressive figure in the Egyptian galleries of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2018

Fig. 6. This colossal head of Ramses II, one of the most powerful kings in history, was among the first finds of the first season of Penn-Yale excavations at Abydos in 1967. Today, it cuts an impressive figure in the Egyptian galleries of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2018

In the course of these excavations for the brand new Penn-Yale Expedition to Egypt, O’Connor also uncovered the remains of a colossal statue of Ramses II that had once decorated the front of the temple, vivid bits of paint still hugging its stony body and the faintest hint of a smile underlining its god-like eyes, cast in eternal scrutiny of the human drama below (Figs. 6-10). Surely, if slowly, the ruined stones of this ancient place were beginning to tell their tale.

By 1979, the Penn-Yale Expedition’s last season at the temple, O’Connor’s visionary research had already brought us a long way from the earliest published notes on these temple ruins, first dated to the reign of Ramses II by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette in the nineteenth century, and later described by Petrie’s keener, but still fleeting look at the exposed front columns. Now, with proper excavation, there were the remains of a whole temple to consider, albeit a badly damaged one, including many parts of its foundations and lower walls, decorated limestone blocks, royal statues, an entirely unprecedented area of offering chapels once filled with votive stelae, as well as ostraca, shabtis, votive figures, and, of course, pottery (Simpson 1995).

ANC67 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg
ANC67 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg
ANC67 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg
ANC67 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg

Figs. 7-10. Details of the colossal statue of Ramses II in situ at the “Portal” Temple in North Abydos. Photos: David O’Connor © North Abydos Expedition (formerly Penn-Yale-IFA), courtesy of the Penn Museum.

In the forty intervening years between then and now, primary sponsorship of the Expedition’s fieldwork had moved with David O’Connor to the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, and the focus of research has since broadened into a multi-faceted investigation of the whole of ancient North Abydos. Following his retirement in 2017, the Expedition, now co-sponsored by the Institute of Fine Arts and Princeton University, has continued to build on O’Connor’s vision and legacy. Our work at the “Portal” Temple this season picks up where the Penn-Yale excavations left off in 1979 (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11. The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II as it stands today, with the modern Coptic Christian community of Deir Sitt Damiana behind it to the northwest. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 11. The “Portal” Temple of Ramses II as it stands today, with the modern Coptic Christian community of Deir Sitt Damiana behind it to the northwest. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 12. Detail of a relief block pried out of the northern wall of the central passageway along the temple’s main axis, where it lay discarded by vandals until it could be moved into secure storage in 2018, now awaiting its future restoration to the wall. Photo: Matthew Adams © North Abydos Expedition 2018

Fig. 12. Detail of a relief block pried out of the northern wall of the central passageway along the temple’s main axis, where it lay discarded by vandals until it could be moved into secure storage in 2018, now awaiting its future restoration to the wall. Photo: Matthew Adams © North Abydos Expedition 2018

In spite of years of work in the area, in which the most detailed attention was given to the offering chapels discovered under the temple, the surviving architecture of the temple proper had never been systematically documented or analyzed. In the aftermath of the uprising in Egypt in 2011, the temple was subjected to considerable vandalism (Figs. 12,13). The longstanding need for comprehensive documentation has now been made quite urgent, and in response the Expedition has initiated a program of documentation, condition assessment, and architectural conservation (Fig. 14). The first steps in this program were undertaken in the 2019 season.

Fig. 13. Recent tunneling by vandals into the bottom corner of the southern wall of the temple passageway, opposite the wall pictured in Fig. 12. Photo: Greg Maka © North Abydos Expedition 2011

Fig. 13. Recent tunneling by vandals into the bottom corner of the southern wall of the temple passageway, opposite the wall pictured in Fig. 12. Photo: Greg Maka © North Abydos Expedition 2011

First was a more detailed and accurate map of the footprint of the existing architecture (Fig. 15). This was followed by systematic photographic and photogrammetric documentation of the surviving stone and brick architecture, which will serve as the basis of a detailed condition assessment (Fig. 16). In addition, a systematic examination of all stone fragments on the surface in the vicinity of the temple was completed, which aimed to identify all decorated fragments (Fig. 17). These will be integrated into the eventual analysis of the inscriptional and decorative program of the temple, and some may ultimately be physically integrated back into the monument itself as part of the conservation work.

Fig. 14. Senior conservator Hiroko Kariya (left), archaeologist and photographer Ayman Damarany (center), and archaeologist Jo Young (right) setting the reference points for photo elevations along the inner, transverse columned hall of the temple. Photo: Logan Dean © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 14. Senior conservator Hiroko Kariya (left), archaeologist and photographer Ayman Damarany (center), and archaeologist Jo Young (right) setting the reference points for photo elevations along the inner, transverse columned hall of the temple. Photo: Logan Dean © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 15. Archaeologist Jo Young mapping the footprint of the temple’s walls using GPS. Photo: Ayman Damarany © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 15. Archaeologist Jo Young mapping the footprint of the temple’s walls using GPS. Photo: Ayman Damarany © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 16. Ayman Damarany photographing the temple. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 16. Ayman Damarany photographing the temple. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 17. Sorting limestone fragments collected on the surface of the temple area. Photo: Ayman Damarany © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 17. Sorting limestone fragments collected on the surface of the temple area. Photo: Ayman Damarany © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 18. Section of the new footpath guiding visitors through the ancient enclosure wall, around the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II, and on into the funerary landscape beyond. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

Fig. 18. Section of the new footpath guiding visitors through the ancient enclosure wall, around the “Portal” Temple of Ramses II, and on into the funerary landscape beyond. Photo: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

A final aspect of the renewed work at the temple has to do with site management and presentation. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities aims to develop many previously off-limits parts of Abydos for visitors. The Expedition is especially pleased to be working closely with our colleagues in the Ministry, in particular Mr. Ashraf Okasha, Director General of Baliana Antiquities, in support of that effort. Already in 2019, a new visitors’ pathway at the temple was created, which will be complemented by interpretive signage and eventually greater access to the conserved remains of the temple itself (Fig. 18). The walking path that was put in place this season also orients the temple on the ancient landscape by connecting it to the nearby town and temple site of Kom el-Sultan, where the Temple of Osiris once stood, as well as west across the North Cemetery to the Shunet el-Zebib. It is the first step toward providing a more integrated experience for visitors to North Abydos.

Like the ancient rock from which its stones were carved, the facts surrounding this temple’s construction and original purpose have formed slowly over many generations. Here the stones have sat, stubbornly withstanding the siege of time, holding onto their secrets in the hidden stratigraphy of the desert (Figs. 19-21). Learning to speak the language of such stones takes more than one lifetime. Archaeologists have to learn to speak to each other across the same curtain that once separated the pilgrims of Abydos from their sleeping ancestors on the Terrace of the Great God. We now understand that this temple of Ramses II was much more than the stone Portal Petrie first saw leading into the city of the dead. But perhaps, in a sense, it is still appropriate to think of it this way — as the gateway through which his successors, in particular David O’Connor, have led us into a fuller knowledge of the history and cultural landscape of ancient Egypt’s most sacred place, the heart of its religious life, the land where Osiris conquered death.

ANCSP19 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg
ANCSP19 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg
ANCSP19 © North Abydos Expedition.jpg

Figs. 19-21. Stone details from among the ruins of the “Portal” Temple. Photos: Wendy Doyon © North Abydos Expedition 2019

References Cited

Adams, Matthew Douglas. “The Origins of Sacredness at Abydos.” In Abydos: The Sacred Land at the Western Horizon, edited by I. Regulski. British Museum Publications on Egypt and Sudan, 8. Leuven: Peeters, 2019, in press.

Kraemer, Bryan. “Abydos circa 199 BCE: A Temple’s Administrative Center and a Siege during the First Theban Revolt.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Research Center in Egypt, Chicago, April 19, 2013.

O’Connor, David. “Abydos: A Preliminary Report of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition, 1967.” Expedition 10.1 (1967): 10-23.

---. “Field Work in Egypt.” Expedition 11.1 (1968): 27-30.

---. “Abydos and the University Museum: 1898-1969.” Expedition 12.1 (1969): 28-39.

---. “Abydos: The University Museum-Yale University Expedition.” Expedition 21.2 (1979): 46-49.

---. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009.

---. “The Last Partage: Dividing Finds from the 1960s Excavations.”Expedition 56.1 (2014): 54-56.

Petrie, W. M. F. “A Cemetery Portal.” Ancient Egypt(1916): 174-180.

Simpson, William Kelly. Inscribed Material from the Pennsylvania-Yale Excavations at Abydos. Publications of the Pennsylvania-Yale Expedition to Egypt, 6. New Haven and Philadelphia: The Peabody Museum of Natural History of Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1995.