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May 30, 1914

by Edouard Naville

The excavations made during this winter at Abydos by the Egypt Exploration Fund, under the direction of the present writer, assisted by Professor Whittemore, from Boston, Mr. Wainwright and Mr. Gibson, have given quite unexpected results. They have led to the discovery of a building which at present is unique in its kind, and which probably is one of the most ancient constructions preserved in Egypt: a great pool with porches and the tomb of Osiris.

It is situated behind the western wall of the temple built by Seti I, which is the chief attraction at Abydos for travellers. It was entirely subterranean, at a depth of more than thirty feet below the temple, and nothing revealed its existence....

This year's work required a considerable number of men. It was begun with 450; at the end there were 639, four-fifths of whom were boys carrying baskets. The sides of the building had to be traced, and tons of rubbish and loose sand had to be removed from the middle; at the end of eleven weeks the whole structure had been laid bare.

It consists of a rectangle, the inside of which is about a hundred feet long and sixty wide. The two long sides are north and south; east is the side of the temple of Seti; west the doorway with the lintel, fifteen feet long, which had been discovered in 1912. The enclosure wall is twenty feet thick. It consists of two casings: the outer one is limestone rather roughly worked; the inner one is in beautiful masonry of red quartzite sandstone. The joints are very fine; there is only a very thin stratum of mortar, which is hardly perceptible. Here and there the thick knob has been left which was used for moving the stones. The blocks are very large - a length of fifteen feet is by no means rare; and the whole structure has decidedly the character of the primitive constructions which in Greece are called cyclopean, and an Egyptian example of which is at Ghizeh, the so-called temple of the Sphinx.

This colossal character is even more striking in the inner part. It is divided into three naves or aisles of unequal size - the middle one being wider. These naves are separated by two colonnades of square monolithic pillars about fifteen feet high and eight and a half feet square. There are five of them in each colonnade. They supported architraves in proportion with them, their height being more than six feet. These architraves and the enclosure wall supported a ceiling, also of granite monoliths, which was not made of slabs, but of blocks, like the architraves more than six feet thick. It had been calculated that one of the few of them remaining weighs more than thirty tons. Unfortunately, in one corner only has the ceiling been preserved. The whole building has been turned into a quarry, especially the inside, which was entirely granite. Pillars, architraves, ceiling, everything has been broken and split with wedges, traces of which are seen everywhere, in order to make millstones of various sizes. Several of them weighing seven or eight tons, have been left.

The side aisles only, about ten feet wide, had ceilings. It is doubtful whether the middle nave was roofed. It was, perhaps, only covered at the end over the entrance to the "tomb of Osiris". When the work reached the lower layer of the enclosure wall, a very extraordinary discovery was made. In this wall, all round the structure are cells about six feet high and wide, all exactly alike, without any ornament or decoration. They had doors, probably made of wood, with a single leaf; one can see the holes where they turned. Such cells are not seen in any other Egyptian construction.

What was still more surprising is that they do not open on to a floor, but on to a narrow ledge which ran on both sides of the nave. There was no floor in those aisles; under the ledge, which is slightly projecting, the beautiful masonry goes on, and at a depth of twelve feet water was reached. It is at the level of the infiltration water in the cultivated land, though the structure is in the desert. This year the Nile is lower than it is known to have been for more than fifty years.

Were the river at abnormal height, the water would reach the ledge, which is below the cultivated land. Thus the two aisles and the two ends of the middle nave form a continuous rectangular pool, the sides of which are very fine masonry on large blocks.....

The middle nave is a block of masonry also made of enormous stones, which goes down as deep as the water, and on which rest the pillars of the colonnades. The floor is at the same level as that of the cells and of the ledge. This platform is an island; it could be reached only with a small boat or by a wooden bridge; there is water on four sides. Even in front of the doorway, there is only the ledge; there is no pathway of any kind leading to it. On both sides - east and west - there are two staircases leading from the platform to the water. The last step is about three feet above the present level of the water. In a normal year the two or three last steps would be covered....

This showed that there was behind the wall something of a funerary character, the tomb of Osiris, perhaps. Osiris, although he was a god, was supposed to have been torn to pieces by his enemy, Set of Typhon, and his limbs had been scattered among the chief cities of Egypt. Abydos being the residence of the god, its share had been the head, which was buried in his tomb. That tomb was very famous, and various excavators have been searching for it for years. When the lower part of the end wall of the nave was cleared, there appeared the door of a cell quite similar to the other ones. The back wall of this cell had been broken through in order to make an opening, a door which had been blocked afterwards with stones. It gave access to a large subterranean chamber, wider than the whole construction, very well preserved, with a ceiling consisting of two slabs leaning against each other. On the ceiling and on the side walls are funerary representations like those of the tombs of the kings. It is evidently a tomb and the sculptures show it to be what was regarded as the tomb of Osiris. The chamber was quite empty except ofr a heap of sand in one of the corners. When this had been removed, it was found that the sand came through a hole used by robbers. There was no sarcophagus or object of any kind. It is not to be supposed that anything of that sort can be found in a construction used for centuries as a quarry.

The tomb of Osiris is of a later date than the pool with its cells.... As for the pool, it is probably one of the most ancient constructions which have been preserved in Egypt. It is exactly in the style of the so-called temple of the Sphinx, which is a work of the IV Dynasty, and one of the characteristic features of which is the total absence of any inscription or ornament. But the pool is even more colossal. In the temple of the Sphinx the pillars are 4 feet square; here they are 8 1/2 feet. It is impossible, in spite of the havoc made, not to be struck by the majestic simplicity of the structure, chiefly in the corner where the ceiling has remained.