This low-lying temple (1306–1290 BC), modestly stretching across the desert nestled amid a group of shops and houses, is one of the jewels of ancient Egypt. It is filled with exquisitely carved and colored reliefs that delight the eye and stir the soul. Seti I had initiated construction of the temple complex but died before its completion, which left Ramses II to finish it.
After passing the ticket booth, walk up to the ruined first pylon, which leads into the almost completely destroyed first courtyard built by Ramses II. This first court contains two wells, and only the lower level of the court's enclosure wall survives. These remaining walls are decorated with scenes of Ramses killing the enemies of Egypt and making offerings to the gods. A ramp leads to the second court, which is similarly decorated. Beyond this are a portico and the entrance to the temple proper. The portico is carved and painted with scenes of Ramses II making offerings to the gods and being granted a very
long and prosperous reign in exchange.
From the portico, enter the first hypostyle hall, which was begun by Seti I and completed by Ramses II. (A hypostyle hall is one in which interior columns support a roof; in most temples the ancient roofs caved in long ago, but the ceiling is intact here.) The hall consists of 12 pairs of papyrus-style columns aligned to create seven aisles that lead to seven chapels set in the back wall of the second hypostyle hall. The walls are decorated with scenes showing the pharaoh offering to Amun-Ra (the sun god), preparing and dedicating the temple building and making offerings to Thoth (god of writing and knowledge).
The next room, the second hypostyle hall, was built and decorated—with its decoration scheme almost completed—by Seti I. The exquisite quality of the relief carvings here stands in stark contrast to the cruder work commissioned by Ramses II. Scenes include dedicatory texts of Seti I and show the pharaoh making offerings before various gods and receiving their blessings. A continuous row of fertility figures with nome (provinces of ancient Egypt) standards above their heads runs along below the main scenes.
The seven chapels off the rear wall are dedicated to various deities and are a rare feature in Egyptian temples. From left to right (east to west), they are dedicated to Seti I, Ptah (a creator god), Ra Harakhte, Amun-Ra, Osiris, Isis (goddess of magic), and Horus (the god associated with kingship). Each chapel is decorated with scenes showing the daily temple ritual, which involved offerings, libations, and censing. The Osiris chapel leads to the Osiris complex, which has depictions of Seti making offerings of wine, bread, incense, vases, and so forth to various deities. The last rooms in the Osiris complex are mostly reconstructed. This is where the mysteries of Osiris were performed; their exact nature remains, of course, mysterious—in other words to modern scholarship.
Beyond the chapels, to the east, is a hall with two back rooms dedicated to Nefertum and Ptah-Sokar. The one on the right (west) is remarkable for its scenes showing the conception of Horus: as the story goes, Seth (who became the god of storms and deserts) had his brother Osiris, the king, killed and chopped up into pieces. Isis, Osiris's wife and a great magician, traveled throughout Egypt gathering the bits of her husband to remake him with magic. She found and reconstructed all of him, save his genitalia. These she fashioned out of mud, stuck them onto him, made them viable with magic, and, changing herself into a kite (a small hawk)—no one is absolutely certain why this bird is her animal counterpart—placed herself on his member and thus conceived Horus (who is often portrayed with the head of a falcon). Later, Horus avenged his father's death and became king, and Osiris became king of the netherworld. (Seth was exiled to distant places.)
The Gallery of Lists leads left from the portico before the seven chapels out to the Osireion. On its walls is a list of gods and kings that is one of the cornerstones of Egyptian history. This king list notes the divine and semidivine (i.e., pharaonic) Egyptian rulers in the order of their reigns. The list, though incomplete, has been of great importance in helping to retrace the chronology of the pharaohs. Other rooms (a sacrificial butchery court, a hall of ritual barques, or ships), all of which are closed, lead off this passage. Another corridor, known as the corridor of the bulls, was named for a scene showing Ramses II and one of his sons lassoing a bull before a god. A curious boat associated with Sokar, a god of the dead, is also carved on the wall.
Directly behind the Temple of Seti I lies the Osireion. Built of sandstone and granite, the monument was considered to be the Tomb of Osiris. The architectural style and massive quality of the building is reminiscent of Old Kingdom (2625–2134 BC) construction, and it was rebuilt during the reign of Seti I, who left the only decoration. The Osireion includes built-in pools of different shapes—an unusual feature—that might represent the primeval chaotic ocean of Nun. Most of the chambers off the central room are inaccessible because they are filled with water (a little poetic irony). At the far end of the central room is a transversal chamber, its ceiling adorned with a representation of the god Shu upholding the goddess Mut, the nocturnal journey of the sun, and a list of the constellations.
South of the Osireion is an extension, the long passage, added by Merneptah, Ramses II's successor. This is decorated with scenes from various books, such as the Book of Gates, the Book of Caverns, and the Book of What Is in the Underworld, containing spells to ensure a safe passage to the afterworld.