Dig days: Road to Abydos

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass President Hosni Mubarak, on his recent visit to Aswan, asked why the desert highway between Assiut and Aswan was still unfinished. The head of the Roads and Bridges Authority explained that there was a problem with the antiquities authority; that because the projected highway cut across about six kilometres of the archaeological site of Abydos, concern had been voiced and contractors were hindered from proceeding with their work.

The president said that a committee should immediately be formed to discuss the matter and solve the problem. Farouk Hosni, the minister of culture, and I had first to decide who should be represented on that committee and then proceed to Abydos to inspect the area.

A 13-member committee was formed, consisting of Egyptologists, architects, engineers and road contractors, under the direction of Hazem Attia of the Faculty of Tourism and a member of the board of trustees of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

The minister studied the road plan and I told him of the importance of Abydos, that this site was the Mecca of ancient Egypt, where each Pharaoh left a temple, chapel, statue or cenotaph dedicated to the god Osiris. I explained that there was an important predynastic cemetery in the area that had not been fully excavated. I also pointed out that the Pharaohs of the first dynasty were buried at Abydos, at a site known as Umm Al-Gaab.

GŁnter Dreyer, the director of the German Institute, is currently excavating the area of Umm Al-Gaab and has made important discoveries, including evidence that the writing of hieroglyphics started some 200 years earlier than the beginning of dynastic history in about 3000 BC. Dreyer also found at the site confirmation that Djoser, the builder of the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, was the founder of the third dynasty. He came to this conclusion when he found Djoser's name inside the tomb of his father, Khasekemwy, the last Pharaoh of the second dynasty, who was buried there along with the Pharaoh Peribsen.

A few kilometres distant, David O'Connor of New York University is excavating the royal funerary enclosure known as Shunnet Al-Zebib, where 13 boat pits have been found dating from the first dynasty as well as the Pyramid complex of Sesostris II of the 20th dynasty. All this I outlined to the minister for consideration by the committee.

Abydos is a well-known tourist site, the location of the mortuary temple of Seti I, one of the most famous Pharaohs. The T- shaped temple contains seven chapels dedicated to the most important gods and decorated with reliefs considered among the finest. In the temple is the famous Abydos King List, to the rear of the temple is the so- called Osirion (containing scenes from the Book of the Dead) and, to the north of Seti's temple are the remains of the beautifully decorated temple of Ramses II.

When the committee realised that Abydos was as archaeologically rich, and even more important historically than Giza and Luxor, they deliberated and came up with three possible solutions: One was for the road to be built on agricultural land rather than the desert; the second was that it bypass the archaeological area and be constructed west of the Abydos necropolis; the third for the road to be constructed at the edge of the agricultural land where it meets the desert, below the necropolis.

The report, duly signed by all committee members, was presented to the minister who, in turn, reported to the Council of Ministers. Atef Ebeid, the prime minister, subsequently called a ministerial meeting and the third solution was recommended.

I lived in Abydos for three months when I was working with an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania. We excavated a Middle Kingdom cenotaph, and it was then that I met the English woman known as Umm Seti, the Mother of Seti, a legendary figure in her own lifetime, who is buried at Abydos in accordance with her wishes

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