The East Bank drive from Luxor to Abydos takes you north along the canals and farm roads that form the backbone of rural life in Upper Egypt. Sugarcane fields and vegetable plots bordered by date palms appear all the greener against the ochre of imposing eastern cliffs. Oxen, turbaned men, and the occasional tractor work the fields. Donkeys pull carts overburdened with the morning’s harvest or speed their gait for impatient riders. Children and goats dodge tuk-tuks in the lanes of mud-brick villages. After the route crosses the Nile to the West Bank, the road winds through neighborhoods where bulls help themselves to the shade of porches and doorways. At the end of the trip, the temple appears rather surprisingly amid a cluster of houses and shops, the desert stretching out behind them. In other words, Abydos is far enough off the beaten track to offer a break from whatever crowds there might be farther upriver.

Abydos was one of the most sacred sites in ancient Egypt, because it was the supposed burial place of Osiris, god of the netherworld. As a result, the most significant constructions here are named for or dedicated to Osiris, which can lead to some confusion. To simplify matters, it’s easier to identify the largest temple here—the one of most interest to tourists—as the Temple of Seti I; and to identify a second and smaller temple as the Temple of Ramses II. A third and separate structure, believed to be the Tomb of Osiris, is called the Osireion.

The archeological complex here covers a large area and includes several temples, tombs, and sacred animal burials dating from the predynastic period onward. Now the only parts of the site accessible to visitors are the Temple of Seti I (19th Dynasty, 1290–1279 BC) and the one erected by his son, the Temple of Ramses II. At many times of the year, the roofless Osireion can only be viewed from above—it is below ground level—because rising ground water causes it to be submerged to one degree or another.

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