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Earliest Temples and Tombs - FIRST STRUCTURES., EARLY EXCAVATION., TOMBS IN SAQQARA., BURIAL Tombs and Temples at Abydos

buildings kom umm sultan


The earliest temples and tombs built in Egypt are in Abydos in Middle Egypt. Egyptologists have been aware of these structures since the late 1890s. In the roughly 100 years that Egyptologists have discussed these sites, there were differing opinions on whether they were temples, tombs, or forts. Other discussions of them suggested that some of these buildings were cenotaphs, structures built only to honor certain kings but not to house their burials. Most recently scholars have realized that these buildings represent the earliest royal tombs—located in the section of Abydos called in Arabic Umm el Gaab (“Mother of Pots”)—and the earliest cult temples dedicated to deceased kings, located in the section of Abydos called in Arabic Kom es-Sultan (“Mound of the Ruler”) about two kilometers from the tombs. Moreover, the two sets of buildings can be divided into pairs that resemble later funeral complexes consisting of a burial and a temple where the deceased king was eternally worshipped.


One of the first archaeologists to work in Egypt, the Englishman W. M. F. Petrie (1843–1942), excavated some of the earliest temples and tombs. Petrie worked all over Egypt, but during 1899–1900 and 1902–1903, he concentrated his efforts on a site in Middle Egypt called Abydos. Several villages are now resident at the site formerly known as Abydos, including the village of Kom es Sultan and the village of Umm el Gaab. Petrie worked first in the village of Umm el Gaab, then two years later at the village of Kom es Sultan. At Umm el Gaab Petrie found and identified the cemetery of kings of the First and Second Dynasties (3100–2675 B.C.E.). The underground portion of these tombs was lined with wood protected by a surrounding wall of mud brick. Some of the twelve known burials had more than one room, and some were lined with green faience tiles—an early glazed material. In later eras such tiles resembled bundles of reeds that formed the earliest sorts of temporary buildings built by the Egyptians. Many Egyptologists assume that the Egyptians used these tiles in a similar way at the Umm el Gaab burials. Builders probably intended the entire underground burial to reproduce the king’s house on earth so that he would have a home in the next world. Thus this pattern of designing the burial after houses on earth began with the very earliest royal tombs. Above ground was a platform, built of brick. The platform was marked by a stele (an upright slab of stone), that was inscribed with the king’s name. Similar but smaller tombs designed for the king’s courtiers were located around the king’s tomb. This practice marks the beginning of a tradition of including the king’s courtiers’ tombs on the same site that continued through the next thousand years.


From 1936 to 1956, the English archaeologist Walter B. Emery excavated large First-dynasty mastaba tombs at Saqqara in northern Egypt (Lower Egypt). These tombs contained many grave goods including jars labeled as the king’s property. These labels led Emery to identify these Saqqara mastabas as the real tombs of the First-dynasty kings since he believed that the tombs discovered by Petrie at Umm el Gaab were cenotaphs, memorials to the kings that never contained burials. After considerable debate, most Egyptologists believe that the Saqqara tombs belonged to high officials of the First Dynasty while the actual kings’ tombs were located in Abydos at Umm el Gaab. Even so, some books and articles written during the mid-twentieth century continue to refer to Saqqara as the burial place of First-dynasty kings.

BURIAL Tombs and Temples at Abydos

In 1899–1900 W. M. F. Petrie excavated the royal tombs of the first and second dynasties at Umm el Gaab, a section of the ancient Egyptian town called Abydos. In 1902–1903 he worked at Kom es Sultan about two kilometers from Umm el Gaab. There he found the temple enclosures that were a part of the royal funeral complexes. When he first discovered the thickly walled buildings at Kom es Sultan, however, Petrie identified them as forts and did not recognize the connections between the Umm el Gaab and Kom es Sultan buildings. Subsequent research identified the buildings that Petrie identified as forts as the first temples, gathering places for the gods. The following map shows the locations of various Abydos burial tombs with corresponding names of the kings that are buried there, along with the location of the Kom es Sultan temples.

SOURCE: Dieter Arnold, “Royal Cult Complexes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms,” in Temples of Ancient Egypt. Ed. Byron E. Shafer (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997): 40.


Petrie worked his second season at Abydos in 1902–1903 at the area known as Kom es Sultan. There he found the mud brick foundations of five buildings with huge mud brick walls. The walls were up to eleven meters (36 feet) tall and were roughly 65 by 122 meters (213 by 400 feet) long. Petrie believed that these massive walls and large enclosed spaces could only be intended as forts. These structures were built completely above ground and had no underground chambers such as were found at the tombs of Umm el Gaab. The patterned, mud brick walls were laid in what Egyptologists later came to call the “palace façade” pattern. This pattern was repeated throughout ancient Egyptian history, both in buildings and in representation in relief and on statues, and led Egyptologists to arrive at a better understanding of the function of these enclosures. The Egyptians used the walled enclosure with panels, called the palace façade motif, in hieroglyphic writing contemporary with the earliest temples discussed here. A drawing of this motif surrounded the names of buildings the Egyptians called the “fortress of the gods” in hieroglyphic writing. Egyptologists believe that this writing connects the names to the buildings found at Kom es Sultan in Abydos. The buildings were given names such as “Thrones of the Gods” and “Procession of the Gods” which suggests that the Egyptians thought of these buildings as places where the gods gathered. The Egyptians called these gods the “Followers of Horus.” Because the king himself was the incarnation of the god Horus the “Followers of Horus” were local gods from the provinces who gathered at the Fortress of the Gods to deliver taxes. The design of the surviving buildings indicates that this process would continue for the king even after he had died and gone to the next world.


It is possible to generalize about the architecture of the Fortress of the Gods from the archaeological remains at Kom es Sultan in Abydos and the hieroglyphic writings of the names of these buildings. Located on the west bank of the Nile River, the building’s entrance faced the river, suggesting that the gods arrived in boats sailing on a canal that led to the enclosure. Support for this theory comes from the discovery of boats buried along the east side of the enclosure of King Khasekhemwy (fifth king of Dynasty 2, before 2675 B.C.E.) near Abydos. The other architectural feature inside the enclosure was a mound of sand. This mound may be the remains of the platform where the king, as the god Horus, reviewed the assembled gods. These enclosures are prominent remains from the First and Second Dynasties. They diminish in importance during later periods, but still were built as late as the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E.). Scholars constructed this new interpretation of the buildings at Umm el Gaab and Kom es Sultan based on knowledge of later buildings. The pyramid complexes built by kings in the Third through Sixth Dynasties contained both a burial and either one or two temples intended for preserving the cult of the deceased king. Increased knowledge of these later structures during the early twentieth century allowed archaeologists to reexamine the buildings at Abydos. Based on knowledge of the basic functions of buildings in the later pyramid complexes, archaeologists have discovered parallel uses for the pairs of buildings that First- and Second-dynasty kings constructed in Abydos.


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