On Sunday Mohammed Abu el-Yezid, from the Ministry of Antiquties in Egypt, came to the Essex Egyptology Group to talk to us about the Slaughter Court in Seti I’s temple at Abydos. He is the Egyptologist and site manager for the province of Sohag (which includes Abydos) and he researched the Slaughter Court for his MA from Ain Shams University where he is currently studying for his PhD.
An important part of the rituals in an Egyptian temple was the feeding of the god(s) the temple was dedicated to – with meat, as well as other foodstuffs. A temple was a place of purity, common people weren’t allowed in at all and only the High Priest or the King were permitted in the innermost sanctuary where the statue of the god lived. The priest had to purify himself before entering, performing the appropriate rituals around opening the doors and so on. And clearly any food taken into the sanctuary for the god must also be pure. The best way to ensure this is to slaughter the animals on site where the meat cannot be contaminated by anything impure – but this would then generate a lot of mess, noise and smells which would also contaminate the purity of the temple. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid’s research has looked at how the Slaughter Court in Seti I’s temple was designed to minimise this.
He began by telling us a bit about the overall temple layout – the plan above shows the L-shaped design of the temple. Previously it was thought that this was done accidentally, because when building they discovered the Osireon and had to modify the intended design. However it’s now known that the Osireon was also built by Seti I and thus the complex was designed as a cohesive whole. The top right corner (on the plan) of the temple is the most holy area with the 7 shrines for the 7 deities and the complex of Osiris (the primary deity of the temple). The top left area contains the service rooms for the temple – the Butchering Hall and other storage rooms – and is linked to the main temple by the corridor that has the famous King List on the wall.
The Slaughter Court (labelled Butchering Hall on the plan) has scenes of butchering on the walls (see above) indicating its function, but it could still be a symbolic slaughter court rather than a real one and there are other examples of both scenarios. For instance the 5th Dynasty temple of Raneferef had a functional slaughter court. It could be accessed from both inside and outside the temple, and when it was excavated butcher’s equipment and animal remains were found in the room. There was also textual evidence talking about the number of animals slaughtered daily to feed the god. On the other hand Medinet Habu has what is clearly a symbolic slaughter court. Deep inside the temple there is a small room with butchering scenes on the walls. This room is only accessible from inside the temple, and it has no windows and no ventilation. If there had ever been butchery taking place in there then the butcher wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing, and the mess would contaminate sacred areas of the temple.
Mohammed Abu el-Yezid looked at models of butchers from Middle Kingdom tombs to get a good idea of what Ancient Egyptian slaughterhouses looked like. He came up with a list of features to use to determine if a slaughter court was functional or symbolic and then examined the room at Abydos to see which possibility was more plausible. A real slaughter court should be away from the main temple axis and downwind of it so any noxious smells are blown away from the sacred areas. It must be accessible from both inside and outside the temple so that animals can be brought in without profaning the temple and meat can be taken to the god without coming into contact with the outside world again. The external entrance must be large enough for oxen to fit through, and once inside there must be enough space to manoeuvre the animals and rooms to keep them in while the work is taking place. Good hygiene practice required sunlight, ventilation, water and drainage. There should also be archaeological evidence of slaughtering and of butchering tools.
The Slaughter Court at Abydos has all of the requirements except archaeological evidence of butchery equipment. Mohammed Abu el-Yezid thinks this lack is because that area of the temple was used as a nunnery by Coptic nuns after Pharaonic times and so they cleaned it up.
As you can see on the plan there are two accesses to the Slaughter Court – one via the Kings List corridor to the inner sanctuaries, and one in the eastern wall to the outside world. The prevailing wind in the area blows from the north-eastern side of the temple so the air from the Slaughter Court would be blown out to the desert away from the temple. The Slaughter Court itself (Butcher’s Hall on the plan) is open to the sky, so is well ventilated and well lit. There is an area where water jars could be stored. The floor may once have had drainage channels on it, but Mohammed Abu el-Yezid said he hadn’t found much evidence of them. This area was used as a storage room from 1930 to 1985 and there was quite a bit of damage done to the floor.
The biggest room to the west of the Slaughter Court is the room where the slaughtered animals were butchered. This room is well designed for this task. The roof is raised compared to the surrounding rooms, and this allowed the architect to put in six windows at the tops of the walls. Three of these are on the southern side and three on the northern. This allows light in and keeps the room ventilated (and again the prevailing wind blows the smell out to the desert. The roof outside overhangs these windows and there are drainage channels to carry away water if it rains. The room is also unusual in having a sandstone floor and first course of building block. Sandstone is much less susceptible to water damage than limestone (which the rest of the temple is built from) and so this room could be washed out daily with no ill effects.
The corridor with the Kings List also has design features intended to keep the profane slaughtering area separate from the sacred temple space. At the Slaughter Court end there is a 5m stretch of corridor that is open to the sky for ventilation. There is also a screen wall at that end that prevents direct line of sight into the Slaughter Court from the corridor. This would stop the the priests accidentally seeing the animals or the butchering, which would pollute them. The screen wall is also interesting because it is the first time this particular design was seen in Egyptian temples (with a three part structure of base, body and corniche) – it becomes the standard design after this.
The Kings List corridor isn’t just functional, it also serves more than one ritual purpose. At the temple end of the corridor are scenes showing Seti I purifying meat offerings – which symbolically purify every offering carried past them. The two lists along the walls – Kings on one side and Gods on the other – are there so that they also receive the offerings being taken to the sanctuaries. (Once all the gods and kings, in the lists and in the sanctuaries, had spiritually eaten the meat (or rather the Ka of the meat) the tangible meat that was left was eaten by the priests.)
This was a very interesting talk about a subject I hadn’t really thought about before, and I was impressed how much of the practicalities of ancient temple rituals can be discovered when someone starts to research it. When J and I visited Egypt last year our group was lucky enough to be let in to see the Slaughter Court even though it’s not yet open to the public – the photos in this blog post are two that I took on that visit. And at the end of his talk Mohammed Abu el-Yezid explained that his research is part of the process of getting this area opened to the public – it needs to be published and restored before this can happen.