The Valley of the Kings in Egypt

Many of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs ruled between the 16th and 11th centuries BC, during the ‘New Kingdom’, the country’s most dynamic period and when Thebes (now Luxor) was frequently the capital. On their deaths, they would be interred in the Valley of the Kings, on the west bank of the Nile and in the center of the Theban Necropolis, which also includes the Valley of the Queens directly to the south (where the pharaohs’ wives and families were buried) and the Colossi of Memnon.

The pharaohs’ tombs were dug into the rock, at the end of descending corridors. They ranged in size and complexity – that of Ramses II is considered one of the most impressive while Tutankhamun’s was quite small, and they would be adjacent to other chambers where items that the pharaohs would need on the other side were stacked. These included weaponry, furniture, clothing, jewellery, food, wine and beer – everything your well-dressed, well-fed pharaoh needs for a happy and comfortable afterlife. By the New Kingdom however, the practice of burying favourite servants, pets and harems alongside the pharaohs had ended – no doubt a development that servants, pets and harems considered a happy sign of progress.
Underground tombs were considered safer from grave robbers – wrongly of course. After the royal mummy had been placed in his sarcophagus, his possessions would usually be plundered quite rapidly, sometimes by or with the help of those that had dug the tomb in the first place. The tombs were excavated by skilled craftsmen, commonly living in the nearby village of Deir el-Medina, which is now a significant archaeological site in Luxor – and they would likely know what treasures had been put where.
In fact, of the 60 or so tombs so far uncovered in the Valley of the Kings, only around 20 or so actually contained kings – the rest housed Egyptian nobles. The walls of the tombs were often decorated with scenes of Egyptian mythology, and quite amusingly with graffiti left by tourists of antiquity, many from the Roman era, having their say. Unfortunately, due to the poor airflow, humidity has damaged many of the wall paintings and as a consequence some of the tombs have had screens and dehumidifiers fitted. Limiting the damage from repeated tourist footfall is one of the reasons that different tombs are available on each day.
The Valley of the Kings is often referred to as ‘the world’s greatest open air museum’ and that’s certainly no understatement. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where work continues to explore these underground mausoleums and perhaps uncover more. It’s believed there are several royal tombs as yet not located, and these may one day yield priceless treasures. No wonder Luxor and the Valley of the Kings continue to hold such fascination…

Secrets of King Tut

The ‘Boy King’ Tutankhamun sat on the throne from boyhood in the 14th century BC. His was a short, not particularly compelling reign, yet he has become one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs of all. The reason is that when his tomb was discovered by the renowned Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922, its contents were almost entirely intact. It took some 10 years to catalogue them all: trumpets, archery equipment, sandals, linen underwear, a solid gold sarcophagus and a dagger thought to have a blade carved from a meteorite.

King Tut’s exciting reappearance after more than 3,000 years, a global tour of his personal effects (to this day the British Museum’s most-visited exhibit), and a legendary ‘curse’ said to befall anyone that entered his tomb, ignited a flame under the Egyptian and Luxor tourism industry that has never since been extinguished.

Thieving Thebans

Practically every royal tomb in the Valley of the Kings had been well and truly ransacked before they were discovered in the modern era, in most case many centuries previously. Egyptians of the lower classes didn’t always hold favourable opinions towards their rulers of course, and many resented the fact that pharaohs were buried alongside fabulous treasures while they themselves could barely afford two sheets of papyrus to rub together. So, driven either by jealousy or revenge against rulers they saw as inept, greedy or cruel, they would be digging away before the glue on the mummy’s bandages was dry.
And it wasn’t just the lower classes at it either. Ancient Egyptian nobility had no shame about having a plunder, and even other pharaohs would thieve from their predecessors – it was believed that all pharaohs were incarnations of the god Horus, so essentially they were only stealing from themselves anyway. The latter would no doubt have got away with it easily enough if caught red-handed with a golden shield that appeared to have fallen off the back of an ox, but woe betide you if you didn’t have money or power to swing things your way: the punishment for grave robbery was usually being decapitated, burned alive, or impaled on something very sharp indeed.

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Exploring the Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings is one of the must-see destinations when in Luxor. It’s just across the Nile from the city, and can be reached either by boat, or road across the bridge upriver. Guided tours will usually take in three tombs on one ticket, and sometimes that of Tutankhamun as well. To protect the wall paintings photography is limited to those that have paid for a permit, and using a flash is banned. Not all of the tombs are open to visitors, but of those that are, several of them are wheelchair accessible.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Blueshade] [Ramses tomb heiroglyphs: Chuck Siefke] [Tutankhamun tomb: Chuck Siefke] [Exploring: S J Pinkney]