Many people are convinced that the ancient Egyptians were an extremely advanced civilization possessing all sorts of technology that would not be seen again until modern times. Imagined technologies range from remarkably sophisticated machinery to nuclear capabilities. I have no problem whatsoever conceding that the ancient Egyptians were an advanced civilization, but the proper context must be observed. What exactly is meant by “advanced”? To be sure the Egyptians were masterful builders, engineers, and artisans, but all this means is that they were advanced for a mostly Bronze Age people. Facts need to be separated from whimsical fiction.
The image above is notorious for just this thing. You’ll see it all over the internet on half-baked websites; very few authors of websites have bothered to analyze it properly. You can’t help notice that at the right end of the image is a collection of what seems to be flying machines: a helicopter, jet, flying saucer. I concede the unusual coincidence is there, but that’s all it is: a coincidence. Here’s a closer look:
What’s actually going on here? First, when encountering such a thing, one must approach the analysis of it with logic and reason. Where does it appear? What’s its context? What other explanations are there? A common failing of the fringe is to rush to judgement, accept coincidences at face value, and abandon any further attempt at evaluation. “Yes, that thing looks like a helicopter, so it has to be a helicopter!” Well, no, of course it doesn’t. Let’s dig deeper. Below is a wider shot of the actual context for the image:
The image is part of the decoration plan of an architrave, an architectural beam resting atop columns. It can be found in the temple built by Seti I in honor of the god Osiris, ruler of the underworld. This temple is wonderfully preserved and stands in Abydos, one of the most ancient necropoli of pharaonic Egypt and the primary cult center for the veneration of Osiris. Here is the facade of the temple as it stands today:
A true architectural masterpiece. The plan of the temple (below) shows that it is quite large, and is indeed one of the largest temples in the Abydos necropolis. It was commissioned by Seti I (1296-1279 BCE), second king of Dynasty 19 and one of the most powerful monarchs of the New Kingdom, the Egyptian period of empire. He died before the Abydos temple was finished, so it was completed by his son and successor, Ramesses II (1279-1212 BCE). That Ramesses II stepped in to finish his father’s temple is significant to the nature of the odd image which is the subject of this article, so we shall return to that in a while.
A king’s most important monument was his tomb. Seti I was buried in the Valley of the Kings in the tomb designated KV17 (also known as “Belzoni’s tomb” in honor of its discover, the charismatic Giovanni Belzoni). Of next importance, one might argue, was the king’s mortuary temple. This is where his soul would be venerated and serviced in perpetuity. As with almost all of the other many New Kingdom pharaohs interred in the Valley of the Kings, the mortuary temple of Seti I was located to the east of the valley, on the other side of the ridge and near the cultivation bordering the River Nile. Beyond that, a king might commission any number of monuments, depending on his longevity, the stability and wealth of the kingdom when he happened to be on the throne, and his overall status. The Abydos temple was one of these ancillary temples of Seti I, and a very important one for his own ideology and status.
The Abydos temple honored numerous deities, including Isis, Horus, Set, Amun-Re, Re-Horakhty, and Ptah. But the deity who received the focus of veneration was the great god Osiris, for while in life the king was regarded as a deity like Horus or Amun-Re, in death he was recognized as none other than Osiris. The formal name for the temple was “Menmaatre Happy in Abydos” (Menmaatre was Seti’s throne name), although it was also called “The conclave of deities which resides in Seti’s temple” in honor of the above-named deities (O’Connor 2009: 45).
The beautiful decoration plan of the Abydos temple makes its overriding purpose quite clear: it was meant to present Seti I in the guise of Seti-as-Osiris. The temple complemented Seti’s tomb and mortuary temple at Thebes in the further assurance that he would not only reach the afterlife but would become one with Osiris, forever (ibid: 43).
So that’s the background for the temple of Seti I at Abydos, as well as the proper context for the odd image that seems to show flying machines. As I mentioned earlier, Seti’s son and successor, Ramesses II, finished the temple where Seti I himself had been unable to. The sections completed by Ramesses were in particular the outer pylons and courts as well as the first hypostyle hall. By all appearances, Ramesses II was in a hurry to finish the temple; in fact, numerous doorways were filled in and closed off, indicating an abbreviation of the original temple plan. And significantly, the portions finished by Ramesses II were only hurriedly decorated (Wilkinson 2000: 146). The architrave in question belongs in one of the areas finished off by Ramesses II.
The architrave itself is a good example of a palimpsest, which is a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed. This was commonly done in pharaonic times for reasons of cost or expediency, the latter of which was more the case for Ramesses II. This king reigned for 67 years and was an enthusiastic builder, but archaeologists like to call Ramesses “the Chiseler” due to his penchant for helping himself to other, older monuments. The fact that the Abydos temple belonged to his father is immaterial: as long as Ramesses II was taking the time to finish it, he was going to leave his presence there.
Below is a color-coded image showing how glyphs were superimposed on the architrave when Ramesses II commissioned its reinscription (credit):
Also at play is erosion, which has obliterated portions of the original inscription, so together with the over-writing, that part commissioned by Seti I is very difficult to read and is not fully translatable. But along with the rest of the architrave the portion over-written by Ramesses is simple enough to translate, and it’s a fairly ordinary royal titulary. It begins Nbty mk kmt waf xAswt…, meaning “The two mistress, he who protects Egypt and repels the foreign lands…” To the left of that are the standard epithets “He of the Sedge and Bee, Lord of the Two Lands,” followed by the cartouche containing the throne name of Ramesses II, Usermaatre Setepen-re, which over-writes the original name of Seti I (see the image at the top of the article).
This is actual explanation for the “flying machines” of the Abydos temple. There are no flying machines, of course. They are merely the eroded glyphs of a palimpsest. Anyone familiar with the workings of hieroglyphs understands that they represent a fully developed written script guided by grammar and syntax, just like any written language, so it would be illogical in the first place to suppose that the Egyptians were tossing random images of flying machines onto this architrave. The context would not make sense. Nor would such images have anything to do with the purpose of the temple itself, in its intent to unite the deceased Seti I with the great god Osiris.
That is, unless Seti-as-Osiris was hoping to bop around the afterlife in helicopters, jets, and flying saucers. I think not.
O’Connor, David. Abydos: Egypt’s First Pharaohs the the Cult of Osiris. 2009.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. 2000.