Seti I is one of the lesser-known pharaohs of the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. However, his temple in Abydos is among the most famous, cited by many as the most impressive religious structure still standing in Egypt.
Seti I’s place in history was overshadowed by that of his son, Ramesses II , arguably one of the greatest pharaohs in Egyptian history. Yet, Seti was an important character in his own right, as he was one of the pharaohs who had to bring order back to Egypt and re-establish Egyptian sovereignty over its eastern neighbors (Syria and the Levant) following the social disruption caused of Akhenaten’s religious reforms.
Seti was also responsible for commissioning the construction of a grand temple in Abydos, often referred to as the Temple of Seti I or the Great Temple of Abydos.
Seti I’s Temple on Osiris’ Sacred Lands
Abydos has a special place in the sacred landscape of ancient Egypt, as it was believed to be the place where Osiris was buried. Thus, Abydos was an important cult center for Osiris. A number of temples dedicated to Osiris, all of which were located in one area, were built prior to Seti I’s reign. The Temple of Seti, however, was built on new ground to the south of said temples.
Seti’s temple was mainly built of limestone, though parts of it were constructed with sandstone. Although work began under Seti, the temple was only completed during the reign of his son, Ramesses II. This is visible in some of the temple’s reliefs depicting Ramesses slaying Asiatics and worshipping Osiris.
Although Ramesses II completed the temple, most scholars believe that the best artwork at the site was created during Seti I’s lifetime. Seti had artist’s depict him with many of the gods presented in the temple and Ramesses added in some scenes with him and his father as well as representations of his successful military campaigns .
Like the temples of his predecessors, Seti’s temple was dedicated to Osiris, and consisted of a pylon, two open courts, two hypostyle halls, seven shrines, each to an important Egyptian deity ( Horus, Isis, Osiris, Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah) and one to Seti himself, a chapel dedicated to the different forms of the god Osiris, and several chambers to the south.
In addition to the main temple, there was also an Osireion at the back of it. Various additions to the temple were made by later pharaohs, including those from the Late, Ptolemaic, and Roman periods.
A Declaration of Legitimacy to the Throne
The Temple of Seti played an important role in his family’s claim as a legitimate royal household. Prior to the ascension to the throne by Seti’s father, Ramesses I, Seti’s ancestors were merely warriors, generals at most. Without royal blood in his veins, Seti had to consolidate his position, and one of the ways to do so was to build temples.
In addition to the worship of Egypt’s traditional gods, Seti’s temple had another feature that made his rule legitimate. This was the Abydos King List , which was found carved on a wall of the temple. The Abydos King List contains the names of 76 kings of ancient Egypt, predecessors whom Seti acknowledged to be legitimate pharaohs.
On the other hand, earlier rulers who were considered illegitimate, such as Hatshepsut and Akhenaten, were conveniently omitted from the List. The Abydos King List was arranged in three rows, each containing 38 cartouches. While the first two rows consisted of the names of his predecessors, the third row is just a repetition of Seti’s throne name and praenomen (personal name).
As Akhenaten’s religious reforms did away will the old gods, Seti’s dedication of his temple to Osiris and other important Egyptian deities symbolized a return to the traditional way of life, thus allowing himself to be seen as a restorer of order.
Apart from being an important legitimizing tool for Seti’s dynasty, the Abydos King List was also an incredibly important document for our understanding of the kings of ancient Egypt, especially those from the Old Kingdom and the First Intermediate Period . Although the List provides the order of the Old Kingdom rulers, it is far more valuable for the fact that it is the only known source for the names of many of the kings from the first two dynasties of the First Intermediate Period (Dynasties 7 and 8).
The Temple of Seti at Abydos was a strategic building project on the part of Seti I in order to bolster his family’s claim to the Egyptian throne . This desire for legitimacy has also indirectly benefitted us today, as Seti I left behind a list of kings that helped patch some holes in the history of Egyptian kingship, as well as a spectacular monument that continues to be visited by thousands of people every year.