In my previous post, I talked about the technological methods utilized in Abydos this season. Another major part of my season at Abydos was to do a preliminary investigation of the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple. The remnants of this sacred lake, known now as the Malih or the Salty, survived into the 20th Century until it was filled in and covered by houses. Even though a few scholars from the 19th and 20th Centuries recognized the Malih as the remnants of a sacred lake, it appears that modern scholars have forgotten this sacred lake and its association with the Osiris temple and the annual Osiris procession. The goal of this research on the sacred lake is to bring it back into modern scholarship and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos.
The identification of the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple has to do with its location at the eastern edge of the Osiris temple within the ancient settlement of the Kom es-Sultan. Textual evidence from two Middle Kingdom officials supports the idea of the close proximity between temples and lakes at Abydos as they indicate the building of temples involved the construction of a lake nearby. According to an official named Meri, the building of a temple to Senwosret I included the construction of a lake that connected it to the Nile River. Another official named Mentuhotep built a temple to a god at Abydos, presumably Osiris, and constructed a lake nearby. These sources help to support the idea that building temples at Abydos involved the construction of a lake in close proximity. If this is the case, then the Malih most likely represents the remnants of a sacred lake constructed for the Osiris temple.
The close proximity between the Osiris temple and the Malih indicates that the temple and sacred lake had a close relationship. As with similar sacred lakes at sites like Karnak, Dendera and Tanis, the sacred lake at Abydos served as a place for rituals conducted by the priests at the Osiris temple. The sacred lake of the Osiris temple had a specific purpose during the annual Osiris procession, which was a religious occasion when the image of Osiris was taken from the temple in the Kom es-Sultan and led south through the naturally occurring wadi to Osiris’ symbolic tomb at Umm el-Qaab. This procession included many stops and rituals along its route, but one of the first rituals and stops involved some sort of water element in which the image of Osiris crossed a lake at night in his boat called the Neschmet bark. Even though what happened on the lake is not known, accounts by a 12th Dynasty official named Ikhernofret and the 13th Dynasty King Neferhotep, both relate accounts of each acting as Horus and repelling Osiris’ enemies from the Neschmet bark. The close proximity of the Malih to the Osiris temple and the need for a lake during the Osiris procession, gives weight to the idea that the Malih is the sacred lake associated to the Osiris temple and is the lake Osiris’s golden Neschmet bark glided over.
The use of the sacred lake for the Osiris temple and Osiris procession indicates that it was a prominent feature of the Abydos landscape until the 19th to 20th Centuries when its silted-up remnants consisted of two ponds that covered a roughly 200 by 400 meter area and it became known as the Malih or Salty. Some 19th Century scholars identified the Malih as the sacred lake associated with the Osiris temple and others included its outline on their maps of Abydos, but the last account of the Malih as a sacred lake came from Dorothy Eady, better known as Omm Sety, in the early 1970’s. She commented on the Malih as a sacred lake, its use in the Osiris procession and stories from locals who say they saw a golden boat floating on the Malih. She also gives the only account of the Malih’s fate as the standing water in the ponds caused a malaria epidemic, which led local officials to fill it in during the early 1950’s. It is as if the Malih’s dwindling prominence and eventual disappearance under houses caused scholars to forget about its identification as a sacred lake and relationship to the landscape of Abydos.
In order to re-introduce the Malih to modern scholarship, my advisor Dr. Joe Wegner and I undertook a project to investigate the Malih during the 2014 summer season at Abydos. The first steps of this project involved researching the Malih while at Penn and then visiting the area while at Abydos. Upon arriving at Abydos, we walked to the Kom es-Sultan, where I began to take pictures of the Malih to document its current appearance. From the Malih’s western side, which borders the Kom es-Sultan, one can see the houses built into the depression of the lake that still gives the general outline of the Malih. Any visible boundary of the lake at the northern or eastern edges is not easy to see since houses completely cover it and there are no noticeable depressions marking an edge like on the western and southern sides. The chance to investigate the northern and eastern boundaries of the Malih was possible through attending a local wedding within Beni Mansour. Attending the wedding was a fun experience, but it also gave me the chance to realize that unless you had knowledge of the area as the Malih, you would not be able to tell that it was once two ponds, let alone an ancient sacred lake. I will admit that it was not until I started this project that I finally looked at the area of Malih as a body of water rather than just a part of a modern town. Investigating the Malih not only occurred from the ground, but also through satellite images gathered by Joe. By combining what we learned from ground exploration and these images, we gained a better understanding of the Malih’s overall size along with its relation to the Osiris temple and the sacred processional way.
The culmination of this summer’s research on the Malih/sacred lake occurred in Prague when Joe and I presented our current findings at the Profane Landscapes, Sacred Places Conference held by the Czech Institute for Egyptology on June 26th and June 27th. The conference’s topic of sacred landscape and places in ancient Egypt offered a great opportunity for us to present our current research as well as receive feedback. We were not the only lake people at the conference, other presenters talked about lakes at Giza and Abusir, which provided comparable research and some new ideas concerning the investigation of lakes in the ancient Egyptian landscape. Joe and I co-presented on the Malih/sacred lake the second day of the conference to a well-receiving group of Egyptologists who provided valuable comments and ideas. Overall, the conference was an important experience and concluded with some well-deserved Czech Pilsner.
Now that Joe and I are back from Abydos and Prague, we are discussing the next steps of the sacred lake project. Listening to other conference presenters gave us the chance to figure out how to answer some questions we already had and develop new questions, with two questions that stand out in particular. What was the original size of the sacred lake? Was the water source that filled the sacred lake from the Nile River or a desert source? Answering the first question will involve sediment core drillings across Beni Mansour, which will allow us to look at the sediment pattern of different areas, like the desert and floodplain, as well as distinguish the boundaries of a sediment pattern typical for a lake that could indicate the sacred lake’s original size. Answering the second question will involve learning more about the hydrology of the floodplain and desert, along with looking at studies done on the Osireion and its water source. Another part of this project is to interview locals and record any stories related to the Malih before it was covered. We hoped to find stories like those recorded by Omm Sety, such as the nightly visit of a golden boat on the Malih. These stories might provide some useful details about the Malih as well as preserve some interesting and colorful stories.
In the upcoming seasons, it will be exciting to see more information about the sacred lake come to light as we continue to conduct research and answer more questions. I hope this research will re-introduce the Malih as the sacred lake of the Osiris temple and show its importance to the landscape of Abydos. In the future, the knowledge gained from this project can contribute to other questions about the changing boundary of the floodplain and desert at Abydos as well as discover additional lakes that once dotted the Abydos landscape.