From Giza to Luxor, about 650 km / 400 mi to the south, we reach the Valley of the Kings. It’s here that we get to see amazing colorful art and hieroglyphs.

The rulers of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties of Egypt’s prosperous New Kingdom (c.1550–1069 BC) were buried in a desolate dry river valley across the river from the ancient city of Thebes (modern Luxor), hence its modern name of the Valley of the Kings… In all, the Valley of the Kings includes over sixty tombs and an additional twenty unfinished ones that are little more than pits.

[The] location [of the royal burial ground] on … the west side of the Nile is significant… Because the sun god set (died) in the western horizon in order to be reborn, rejuvenated, in the eastern horizon, the west thus came to have funerary associations. Ancient Egyptian cemeteries were generally situated on the west bank of the Nile for this reason….

The isolated nature of this valley was yet another reason for its selection as the final resting place of the pharaoh. Tomb robberies occurred even in ancient times. The Egyptians were aware of this, having seen the a fate of the Old and Middle Kingdom pyramids, so they opted for hidden, underground tombs in a secluded desert valley. The first New Kingdom ruler that is confirmed to have been buried in the Valley of the Kings was Thutmose I (c.1504–1492 BC), the third king of the Eighteenth Dynasty. According to Ineni, the high official who was in charge of the digging of his tomb: “I oversaw the excavation of the cliff-tomb of his Person [the king] in privacy; none seeing, none hearing.” (source)

To access the Valley of the Kings, you leave the verdant Nile River banks and head into the desert. You can see how this landscape is both otherworldly and a perfect place to hide tombs and treasures.

Most of the tombs were carved out below the surface of the desert rock. There’s a wonderful translucent model of the valley in the entry pavilion to the valley. Underneath the surface topology, you can see how far down builders excavated the tombs. 

We visited the tombs of Ramses III and Ramses IX. In both cases, we trundled along with the crowd of fellow travelers. Outside it was about 35 degrees C / 95 degrees F. Out of the sun and as we descended into the earth, the temperature fell a bit; but the throng of breathing bodies raised the humidity (and viral count?) and fought the coolness of the rock around us.

Down into the earth…

Who were these pharaohs?

Ramses III
Historians consider King Ramses III the last of the great pharaohs to rule Egypt with significant power. As the second pharaoh of the 20th Dynasty, Ramses III held power during the decline of Egypt….
Despite a long rule, little is known of the royal family in the house of Ramses III. He had many wives, including Isis, Titi and Tiy. He had at least 10 sons and one daughter….
The Harem Conspiracy: During the 29th year of rule, a conspiracy against King Ramses was formed by his wife Queen Tiy and several other assassins. The motive was to place Tiy’s son, Pentewere, on the Egyptian throne. At least 40 people were implicated and tried together as a group. The Harem Conspiracy Papers reveal the assassins to be harem officials close the king. They planned to start a revolt outside of the palace during the Opet Festival at Thebes in order to kill the king and set off a coup. The conspiracy failed. All involved were found guilty during a trial by jury, including the Queen and her son. They were forced to commit suicide either in prison or in front of the court. (source)

Ramses IX
Ramesses IX is considered the most successful of all the Ramesside kings in helping return some stability and power to Egypt. He did many things to return wealth and prosperity to the country. He also opened trade routes by traveling to Asia and Nubia and reinvigorated state-sponsored building by contributing to construction of the Temple at Karnak and Heliopolis. (source)

Every surface in the tombs is covered with colorful art, figures, and writing. In many cases, the painted colors from thousands of years ago remain. When we pushed our noses up close to the figures, we could even see the brush strokes. We were standing there with artists 3500 years ago. That’s the wonder of these tombs — or, at least, one of the many wonders of these tombs.

Now, what are all these hieroglyphs and figures here to tell us — or, for that matter, for whom have they been etched and painted?

First, the audience, and therefore the real purpose:

Tomb art was considered the point of contact between the land of the living and the land of the dead. If certain formulas for the creation of art were followed and the right gods supplicated, all Egyptians from the wealthy to the poor could look forward to completing their earthly life, successfully navigating the dangerous underworld and traversing to the blessed, eternal afterlife. Egyptian tombs were like secret art galleries that were never meant to be viewed. Instead, these amazing examples of artistic craftsmanship spoke only to an elite group of visitors – the gods. (source)

What do we see on the walls and ceilings of these tombs? Absolutely every figure, scene and hieroglyph means something. Some examples from the tomb of Ramses III:

In the tomb of Ramses III, text and figures illustrate: 

  • The Book of Gates: The passage of a newly deceased soul into the next world, corresponding to the journey of the sun through the underworld during the hours of the night. (source)
  • The Book of Amduat: The “Book of What is in the Underworld;” the story of Ra, the Egyptian sun god who travels through the underworld, from the time when the sun sets in the west and rises again in the east. It is said that the dead Pharaoh is taking this same journey, ultimately to become one with Ra and live forever. (source)
  • The Book of the Dead: Consisting of a number of magic spells intended to assist the dead person’s journey through the Duat, or underworld. (source)

The following image shows Isis (on the left) and Osiris, two of the most significant Egyptian gods. To the right, out of this image, Ramses is making an offering to Isis and Osiris.

There’s a famous and influential story about Isis and Osiris; you can dig into it here if you’d like. In essence, Osiris’ jealous brother, Seth, murders Osiris and cuts up his body into lots of pieces, all to gain the throne. Isis, Osiris’ wife and, well, sister, puts all his parts back together, and we mean ALL of his parts, gets pregnant, and gives birth to Horus. Horus, once grown up, takes revenge and vanquishes Seth. He takes his rightful place on the throne as successor to Osiris. Lots of melodrama, including impregnation by a reconstituted corpse. 

This myth, however, is integral to ancient Egyptian conceptions of kingship and succession, conflict between order and disorder, and especially death and the afterlife. So, it was natural that Ramses would represent himself giving offerings to Osiris and Isis to help ensure his own successful and royal passage into the afterlife.

For almost all depictions of pharaohs and gods, their crowns reveal their roles and significance. They are like subtitles, but on their heads.

In the image of Osiris and Isis, above, the Atef crown identifies the right-hand figure as the god Osiris. His crown combines the white crown of Upper Egypt with curly ostrich feathers of the Osiris cult. Isis wears the cow-horns crown, consisting of head horns in which a sun disk is set, bracketed by a stylized cobra symbol. This is also the crown of Hathor, a goddess of, among other things, love, sexuality and maternal care. The creative material facet is why Isis wears this crown; she brought Osiris back to life. In addition, Isis’ dramatic enveloping wings represent both power, mourning, and resurrection since Isis used her wings to give breath back to Osiris. (sources: 1 2 3)

In the next image, Ramses III, carrying a Sekhem scepter (a ritual scepter that is a symbol of authority), makes a libation to Anubis. Anubis was an extremely ancient deity whose name appears in the oldest mastabas (pre-pyramid tombs) of the Old Kingdom and the Pyramid Texts as a guardian and protector of the dead. He was originally a god of the underworld, but became associated specifically with the embalming process and funeral rites. Again, it was natural that Ramses supplicated before any and all gods to help him live forever. (source)

In the tomb of Ramses IX, we find once again illustrations of the Book of the Dead and the Book of Amduat. In addition, we discover:

  • The Book of Caverns:  A vision of the underworld as a series of six pits, or caverns over which the sun god passes. (source)
  • The Opening of the Mouth ritual: The ritual that would bring sensory life back to the deceased’s form, enabling it to see, smell, breathe, hear, and eat, and thus partake of the offering foods and drinks brought to the tomb each day. (source)
The ceiling shows a celestial procession into the afterlife.

Some more interesting details out of thousands:

Circumpolar constellations, and star clocks or calendars with kneeling “target” figures. The tables represent the motions of selected stars (decans and hour stars) throughout the Egyptian civil year. Apparently no one knows definitively why these depictions of the sky are included in the tomb. Perhaps it is a way to connect the afterlife with the movements of the living world. (source)
Part of the Litany of Ra. Not clear who and why these figures are lying in cartouches.
Bodies on beds, part of a procession, unusually excited. The Egyptian Amduat: The Book of the Hidden Chamber
Not clear what upside-down figures in sun circles mean
The scarab: symbol of renewal and rebirth. Eye of Horus: swell-being, healing, and protection. The snake: royalty, divinity, and protection. And the boat takes you from this world to the next.

You might be asking, “Where is King Tut? He was buried here, right?” Yes, indeed he was. But we were told that the tomb itself is rather modest, and all the goodies that Howard Carter found are off in the Cairo Museum (more about him in a moment). So we went to the Cairo Museum to see some of King Tut’s tomb’s contents.

First, even though we all have heard about King Tutankhamun (thank you, Steve Martin), he was actually a minor pharaoh. He died very young, at 19. The reason we think of him as significant is that the contents of his tomb remained hidden and intact until 1922, for about 3300 years. Most of the known tombs in the Valley of the Kings were plundered long ago, many even within only years or decades after their completion. To find an intact tomb full of artifacts was an extraordinary event.

There’s a satisfying tale of colonial hubris about the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun:

It seems natural today that we would go to the Cairo Museum to see artifacts from the tomb of King Tutankhamen. But with a bit less arrogance, prejudice and greed in 1922, many of the artifacts would probably be in British museums today.

At the time of Carter’s excavations in the Valley of the Kings, the foreign treasure hunters were permitted to keep half of any treasure they found – as long as they notified the Egyptian authorities before they unsealed the tomb. 

Carter’s patron was the 5th Earl of Carnarvon. Anything that Carter found and was allowed to keep would belong to Carnarvon. Carnarvon was an indebted aristocrat who desperately needed revenue from discovered Egyptian gold and artifacts. 

When Carter realized that he had come upon a sealed tomb, he sent word to Carnarvon, who rushed from Britain to Egypt. Carnarvon excitedly ordered Carter to punch a small hole in the doorway into the tomb right away: “After we peek into the tomb, we can seal the door again, and no one will know!” 

Carter didn’t agree, but proceeded with Carnarvon’s plan anyway. After Carnarvon and Carter saw that the tomb was indeed intact, and filled with objects, they plugged the entry hole they’d punched, and summoned the Egyptian authorities. 

The authorities immediately recognized the concealed entry hole. Without ambiguity, they told Carnarvon that he had broken the law and therefore had forfeited his 50% of the treasures. 

And that’s why all of King Tut’s tomb treasure resides to this day not in Britain but in the Cairo Museum. 

In the museum, you aren’t allowed to photograph the most prized artefacts from King Tut’s tomb, such as his golden funerary mask; but you can see some of them here. However, there are still some remarkable and beautiful artefacts available for us to photograph.

The golden throne that shows Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun.
The side panel of a painted wooden box found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. It has depictions of hunting scenes on it.
The lid of canopic jars found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. Each jar contained one of Tut’s four most important internal organs — lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach — which had been removed during the mummification process.

One of the lesser-known treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb is a mannequin used to help choose, adjust and store the king’s wardrobe and jewelry. “Tut was, of course, a very snappy dresser with a huge wardrobe, both for his life and afterlife,” Laura Ranieri Roy(opens in new tab), founder and director of Ancient Egypt Alive, an educational organization, told Live Science in an email.

“There were hundreds of garments — 12 sumptuous robes, dozens of sandals, underwear, socks, even Tut’s baby clothes” that British archaeologist Howard Carter found in Tut’s tomb, Ranieri Roy noted. “It makes sense for such a ‘clothes horse’ to need a mannequin on which to hang, display ornate robes and jewelry, even perhaps for his wardrobe attendants to make and prepare outfits and make adjustments to the king’s vestments.” (source)

Looking at you…

Leave a Reply