VALLEY OF THE KINGS
Once called the Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh, or the Place of Truth, the Valley of the Kings (Wadi Biban al-Muluk) has 63 magnificent royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BC), all very different from each other. The West Bank had been the site of royal burials from the First Intermediate Period (2181–2055 BC) onwards. At least three 11th-dynasty rulers built their tombs near the modern village of Taref, northeast of the Valley of the Kings. The 18th-dynasty pharaohs, however, chose the isolated valley dominated by the pyramid shaped mountain peak of al-Qurn (The Horn). The secluded site enclosed by steep cliffs was easy to guard and, when seen from the Theban plain, appears to be the site of the setting sun, associated with the afterlife by ancient Egyptians.
The tombs have suffered great damage from treasure hunters, floods and, in recent years, from mass tourism: carbon dioxide, friction and humidity produced by the average of 2.8g of sweat left by each visitor have affected the reliefs and the pigments of the wall paintings. The Department of Antiquities has since installed dehumidifiers and glass screens in the worst affected tombs, and introduced a rotation system for opening some tombs to the public while restoring others. Each tomb has a number that represents the order in which it was discovered. KV (short for Kings Valley) 1 belongs to Ramses VII; it has been open since Greek and Roman times, and was mentioned in the Description de l’Egypte, dating from the late 18th century. KV 62 – Tutankhamun’s famous tomb, which was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922 – was until recently the last one to be discovered, but in 2006 KV 63 was discovered, with a few empty sarcophagus, so it is not clear if this was a royal tomb or a chamber for the mummification process.
The large car park leads to a new visitors centre, where guides explain the history of the site and show a silicon model of the Valley to their groups in an air-conditioned room, and where individual visitors can get information on a set of computers. A movie about Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun is also shown. Newly erected signs and maps make navigating the site far easier than before. Tomb plans and histories have also been upgraded to help visitors better understand what they’re seeing. This is all part of the sitemanagement plan Dr Kent Weeks and his Theban Mapping Project are developing to improve the experience of visitors and ensure protection of the tombs. It’s worth having a torch to illuminate badly l it areas.
The road into the Valley of the Kings is a gradual, dry, hot climb, so be prepared if you are riding a bicycle. A rest house is being built near the visitors centre, but mineral water, soft drinks, ice creams and snacks are available from the stalls at the tourist bazaar near the entrance. A tuf-tuf – a little electrical train – ferries visitors between the visitors centre and the tombs (it can be hot during summer).
Most of the tombs described here are usually open to visitors and are listed in the order that they are found when entering the site. If you want to avoid the inevitable crowds that tour buses bring to the tombs, head for those outside the entrance area.
The Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62), somehow the least impressive of all the royal tombs but famous for its treasury now mostly in Cairo Museum, has been deemed worth a ticket on its own and this can be bought at a second ticket office where the tuf-tuf arrives. The tomb of Ay (KV 23) also has its own ticket, available from the main ticket office.
TOMB BUILDING DR JOANN FLETCHER
Tombs were initially created to differentiate the burials of the elite from the majority of people whose bodies continued to be placed directly into the desert. By about 3100 BC the mound of sand heaped over these elite graves was replaced by a more permanent structure of mud brick, whose characteristic bench shape is known as a ‘mastaba’ after the Arabic word for bench.
As stone replaced mud-brick, the addition of further levels to increase height gave birth to the pyramid, whose first incarnation at Saqqara is also the world’s oldest monumental structure. Its stepped sides soon evolved into the more familiar smooth-sided structure, of which the Pyramids of Giza are the most famous examples.
It was only when the power of the monarchy broke down at the end of the Old Kingdom that the afterlife became increasingly accessible to those outside the royal family, and as officials became increasingly independent they began to opt for burial in their home towns. Yet the narrow stretches of fertile land that make up much of the Nile Valley generally left little room for grand superstructures, so an alternative type of tomb developed, cut tunnel-fashion into the cliffs that border the valley and which also proved more resilient against robbery. Most were built on the west side of the river, the traditional place of burial where the sun was seen to sink down into the underworld each evening.
These simple rock-cut tombs consisting of a single chamber gradually developed into more elaborate structures complete with an open courtyard, offering chapel and entrance façade carved out of the rock with a shaft leading down into an undecorated burial chamber. The most impressive rock-cut tombs were those built for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1550–1069 BC), who relocated the royal burial ground south to the remote valley now known as the Valley of the Kings. New evidence suggests that the first tomb in the valley may have been built for Amenhotep I (1525–1504 BC; KV 39). The tomb intended for his successor, Tuthmosis I (KV 20), demonstrated a radical departure from tradition: the offering chapel that was once part of the tomb’s layout was built as a separate structure some distance away in an attempt to preserve the tomb’s secret location. The tombs themselves were designed to resemble the underworld, with a long, inclined rock-hewn corridor descending into either an antechamber or a series of sometimes pillared halls, and ending in the burial chamber.
The tomb builders lived in their own village of Deir al-Medina and worked in relays. The duration of the ancient week was 10 days (eight days on, two days off) and the men tended to spend the nights of their working week at a small camp located on the pass leading from Deir al-Medina to the eastern part of the Valley of the Kings. Then they spent their two days off at home with their families.
Once the tomb walls were created, decoration could then be added; this dealt almost exclusively with the afterlife and the pharaoh’s existence in it. Many of the colourful paintings and reliefs were extracts taken from ancient theological compositions, now known as ‘books’, and were incorporated in the tomb to assist the deceased into the next life. Texts were taken from the Book of the Dead, the collective modern name for a range of works, all of which deal with the sun god’s nightly journey through the darkness of the underworld, the realm of Osiris and home of the dead.
The Egyptians believed that the underworld was traversed each night by Ra, and it was the aim of the dead to secure passage on his sacred barque to travel with him for eternity. Since knowledge was power in the Egyptian afterlife, the texts give ‘Knowledge of the power of those in the underworld and knowledge of their actions, knowing the sacred rituals of Ra, knowing the hours and the gods and the gates and paths where the great god passes’.
TOMB OF RAMSES VII (KV 1)
Up a small wadi near the main entrance is the small, unfinished tomb of Ramses VII (1136– 1129 BC). Only 44.3m long, short for a royal tomb because of Ramses’ sudden death, it consists of a corridor, a burial chamber and an unfinished third chamber. His architects hastily widened what was to have been the tomb’s second corridor, making it a burial chamber, and the pharaoh was laid to rest in a pit covered with a sarcophagus lid. Niches for Canopic jars are carved into the pit’s sides, a feature unique to this tomb. Walls on the corridor leading to the chamber are decorated with fairly well preserved excerpts from the Book of the Caverns and the Opening of the Mouth ritual, while the burial chamber is decorated with passages from the Book of the Earth. Although it has only recently reopened to the public, the Greek, demotic, Coptic and 19th-century graffiti show that it has been open since antiquity – at one stage it was even inhabited by Coptic hermits.
TOMB OF RAMSES IV (KV 2)
This is the second tomb on the right as you enter the Valley of the Kings. Its whereabouts were already known by Ptolemaic times, as is evident from the graffiti on the walls dating back to 278 BC. Ramses IV (1153–1147 BC) died before the tomb was completed and its pillared hall had to be hastily turned into a burial chamber. The paintings in the burial chamber have deteriorated, but there is a wonderful image of the goddess Nut, stretched across the blue ceiling, and it is the only tomb in the valley to contain the text of the Book of Nut, with a description of the daily path taken by the sun every day. The red granite sarcophagus, though empty, is one of the largest in the valley. The discovery of an ancient plan of the tomb on papyrus (now in the Turin Museum) shows the sarcophagus was originally enclosed by four large shrines similar to those in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Following the robbery of the tomb in antiquity, the mummy of Ramses IV was one of those reburied in the Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35), and is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
TOMB OF RAMSES IX (KV 6)
Opposite Ramses II is the most visited tomb in the valley, the Tomb of Ramses IX (1126– 1108 BC), with a wide entrance, a long sloping corridor, a large antechamber decorated with the animals, serpents and demons from the Book of the Dead – then a pillared hall and short hallway before the burial chamber. Here as well graffiti indicates that the tomb has been open since antiquity. In the chamber just before the staircase to the burial chamber are the cartouche symbols of Ramses IX. On either side of the gate on the rear wall are two figures of Iunmutef priests, both dressed in priestly panther-skin robes and sporting a ceremonial side lock. The walls of the burial chamber feature the Book of Amduat, the Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth; the Book of the Heavens is represented on the ceiling. Although unfinished it was the last tomb in the valley to have so much of its decoration completed, and the paintings are relatively well preserved. A number of wooden statues of the pharaoh and the gods were salvaged and taken to the British Museum in the 19th century, although the pharaoh’s mummy had already been removed in antiquity and reburied as part of the Deir al-Bahri cache.
TOMB OF MERNEPTAH (KV 8)
Ramses II lived for so long that 12 of his sons died before he did, so it was finally his 13th son Merneptah (1213–1203 BC) who succeeded him in his 60s. The secondlargest tomb in the valley, Merneptah’s tomb has been open since antiquity and has its share of Greek and Coptic graffiti. Floods have damaged the lower part of the walls of the long tunnel-like tomb, but the upper parts have well-preserved reliefs. As you enter the first long corridor, on the left is a striking relief of Merneptah with the god Ra-Horakhty followed by the Litany of Ra. Further down, the corridors are decorated with the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates and the Book of Amduat. Beyond a shaft is a false burial chamber with two pillars decorated with the Book of Gates. Although much of the decoration in the burial chamber has faded, it remains an impressive room, with a sunken floor and brick niches on the front and r ear walls.
The pharaoh was originally buried inside four stone sarcophagi, three of granite (the lid of the second still in situ, with an effigy of Merneptah on top) and the fourth, innermost, sarcophagus of alabaster. In a rare mistake by ancient Egyptian engineers, the outer sarcophagus did not fit through the tomb entrance and its gates had to be hacked away. Merneptah’s mummy was removed in antiquity and was found in Amenhotep II’s tomb (KV 35); it’s now displayed in the Egyptian Museum.
TOMB OF RAMSES VI (KV 9)
The intactness of Tutankhamun’s tomb is largely thanks to the existence of the tomb of Ramses VI. Tons of rock chippings thrown outside during its construction completely covered the tomb of Tutankhamun. The tomb was actually begun for the ephemeral Ramses V (1147–1143 BC) and continued by Ramses VI (1143–1136 BC), with both pharaohs apparently buried here; the names and titles of Ramses V still appear in the first half of the tomb. Following the tomb’s ransacking a mere 20 years after burial, the mummies of both Ramses V and Ramses VI were moved to Amenhotep II’s tomb where they were found in 1898 and taken to Cairo. Although the tomb’s plastering was not finished, its fine decoration is well preserved, with an emphasis on astronomical scenes and texts. Extracts from the Book of Gates and the Book of Caverns cover the entrance corridor. These continue into the midsection of the tomb and well room, with the addition of the Book of the Heavens. Nearer the burial chamber the walls are decorated with extracts from the Book of Amduat. The burial chamber is beautifully decorated, with a superb double image of Nut framing the books of the day and of the night on the ceiling. This nocturnal landscape in black and gold shows the sky goddess swallowing the sun each evening to give birth to it each morning in an endless cycle of new life designed to revive the souls of the dead pharaohs. The walls of the chamber are filled with fine images of Ramses VI with various deities, as well as scenes from the Book of the Earth, with scenes that show the sun god’s progress through the night, the gods who help him and the forces of darkness trying to stop him reaching the dawn; look out for the decapitated, kneeling figures of the sun god’s enemies around the base of the chamber walls and the black-coloured executioners who turn the decapitated bodies upside down to render them as helpless as possible. On the beautifully decorated right wall of the burial chamber also try to pick out the ithyphallic figure (the one with a noticeable erection); the lines and symbols surrounding him represent a water clock. Plenty of Greek graffiti, from around AD 150, can be seen on the upper portions of the chamber.
TOMB OF RAMSES III (KV 11)
Ramses III (1184–1153 BC), the last of Egypt’s warrior pharaohs, built one of the longest tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The tomb started but abandoned by Sethnakht (1186–1184 BC), is 125m long, much of it still beautifully decorated with colourful painted sunken reliefs featuring the traditional ritual texts (Litany of Ra, Book of Gates etc) and Ramses before the gods. Unusually here are the secular scenes, in the small side rooms of the entrance corridor, showing foreign tribute such as highly detailed pottery imported from the Aegean, the royal armoury, boats and, in the last of these side chambers, the blind harpists that gave the tomb one of its alternative names: ‘Tomb of the Harpers’.