While Egypt’s Old Kingdom poured resources into building the Giza Pyramids and tombs in the Nile Delta, New Kingdom pharaohs, searched for a southern location closer to their dynastic roots in the south. Eventually, inspired by Hatshepsut’s magnificent mortuary temple, they elected to build their tombs in the hills of a barren, waterless valley network west of Luxor. Today we know this area as the Valley of the Kings. For the ancient Egyptians, the tombs concealed in this valley formed a “Gateway to the Afterlife” and provides Egyptologists with a fascinating window onto the past.
During Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539 – 1075 B.C.), the valley became Egypt’s most famed collection of elaborate tombs for pharaohs such as Ramses II, Seti I and Tutankhamun together with queens, high priests, members of the nobility and other elites from the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties.
The valley consists of two distinct arms the East Valley and the West Valley with most of the tombs found in the East Valley. Tombs in the Valley of the Kings were built and decorated by skilled artisans from the neighbouring village of Deir el-Medina. These tombs have drawn tourists for thousands of years and inscriptions left by ancient Greeks and Romans can still be seen in several tombs, especially the tomb of Ramses VI (KV9), which contains over 1,000 examples of ancient graffiti.
During the time of Strabo I the 1st century BCE, Greek travellers reported being able to visit 40 of the tombs. Later, Coptic monks were found to have reused several of the tombs, judging by the inscriptions on their walls.
The Valley of the Kings is one of archaeology’s earliest examples of a necropolis, or a ‘city of the dead.’ Thanks to the well-preserved inscriptions and decorations in the network of tombs, the Valley of the Kings remains a rich source of Ancient Egyptian history.
These decorations include illustrated passages taken from various magical texts including the “Book of Day” and the “Book of Night,” the “Book of Gates” and the “Book of That Which Is In the Underworld.”
In antiquity, the complex was known as ‘The Great Field’ or Ta-sekhet-ma’at in Coptic and ancient Egyptian, the Wadi al Muluk, or the Wadi Abwab al Muluk in Egyptian Arabic and formally ‘The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in the West of Thebes.’
In 1979 the Valley of the Kings was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Table of Contents
- Facts About The Valley Of The Kings
- Valley Of The Kings Chronology
- Prevailing Climate
- Geology Of The Valley Of The Kings
- Repurposing Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple
- Re-Discovering Ancient Egypt’s Royal Tombs
- Tomb Architecture And Design
- Ramses VI KV9
- Tuthmose III KV34
- Tutankhamun KV62
- Ramses II KV7
- Merneptah KV8
- Seti I KV17
- Reflecting On The Past
Facts About The Valley Of The Kings
- The Valley of the Kings became the principal royal burial site during Egypt’s New Kingdom
- Images inscribed and painted on the elaborate tomb walls provide an insight into the lives and beliefs of members of the royal family during this time
- The Valley of the Kings was chosen for the “halo” factor of its proximity to Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple and to be closer to the New Kingdom’s dynastic roots in the south
- In 1979 the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site
- The Valley of the Kings is set on the West bank of the Nile River, opposite Luxor
- The site consists of two valleys, the Eastern and Western Valleys,
- The site was in use prior to being restricted to tombs for the pharaohs.
- Many tombs belonged to royal household members, wives, advisers, nobles, and even some commoners
- An elite order of guards known as the Medjay protected the Valley of the Kings, watching over the tombs to keep out grave robbers and ensure commoners did not attempt to inter their dead in the Valley
- Ancient Egyptians commonly inscribed curses over their tombs to ‘safeguard’ them from superstitious grave robbers
- Only eighteen tombs are currently open to the public, and these rotate so not all of them are open at the same time
Valley Of The Kings Chronology
The earliest tombs found to date in the Valley of the Kings exploited naturally occurring faults and clefts in the valley’s limestone cliffs. These fault lines in the eroded limestone provided concealment while the softer stone could be chipped away to fashion entryways for the tombs.
In later times, natural tunnels and caverns together with deeper chambers were used as ready-made crypts for Egypt’s nobility and members of the royal family.
After 1500 B.C. when Egypt’s pharaohs had ceased building pyramids, The Valley of the Kings replaced pyramids as the location of choice for royal tombs. The Valley of the Kings had been in use as a gravesite for several hundred years prior to the construction of the series of elaborate royal tombs.
Egyptologists believe the pharaohs adopted the valley with the rise to power of Ahmose I (1539–1514 BC) following the defeat of the Hyskos People. The first tomb cut out of the rock belonged to the pharaoh Thutmose I with the final royal tomb to be fashioned in the Valley belonging to Rameses XI.
For over five hundred years (1539 to 1075 BC), Egyptian royalty buried their dead in the Valley of the Kings. Many tombs belonged to influential people including royal household members, royal wives, nobles, trusted advisers, and even a dusting of commoners.
Only with the coming of the Eighteenth Dynasty was attempts made to reserve the Valley exclusivity for royal burials. A Royal Necropolis was created for the sole purpose. This paved the way for the complex and highly ornate tombs that have come down to us today.
The Valley of the Kings is set on the Nile River’s west bank, opposite modern-day Luxor. In ancient Egyptian times, it was part of the expansive Thebes complex. The Valley of the Kings lies within the sprawling Theban necropolis and comprises two valleys, the Western Valley and the Eastern Valley. Thanks to its secluded location, the Valley of the Kings made an ideal burial place for ancient Egypt’s royalty, nobility, and socially elite families able to afford the cost of carving out a tomb from the rock.
The landscape surrounding the Valley is dominated by its inhospitable climate. Furnace-hot days followed by freezing cold evenings are not uncommon, making the area unsuitable for settlement and regular habitation. These climatic conditions also formed another layer of security for the site discouraging visits by grave robbers.
The Valley of the Kings’ inhospitable temperatures also assisted with the mummification practice, which dominated ancient Egypt’s religious beliefs.
Geology Of The Valley Of The Kings
The geology of the Valley of the Kings comprises mixed-soil conditions. The necropolis itself is located in a wadi. This is formed from different concentrations of hard, almost impregnable limestone mixed with layers of softer marl.
The Valley’s limestone bluffs play host to a network of natural cave formations and tunnels, together with natural ‘shelves’ in the rock formations that descend below an extensive scree field leading to a bedrock floor.
This labyrinth of natural caves preceded the flowering of Egyptian architecture. The shelving discovery was made by the efforts of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, which explored the Valley’s complex natural structures from 1998 to 2002.
Repurposing Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple
Hatshepsut constructed one of ancient Egypt’s finest examples of colossal architecture when she commissioned her Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahri. The splendour of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple inspired the first royal burials in the nearby Valley of the Kings.
During the early 21st Dynasty the mummies of more than 50 kings, queens, and members of the nobility were relocated to Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple from the Valley of the Kings by the priests. This was part of a concerted effort to protect and preserve these mummies from the depredations of grave robbers who desecrated and looted their tombs. The mummies of the priests who moved the mummies of the pharaohs and nobility were later discovered nearby.
A local family discovered Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple and looted the remaining artifacts and sold off several mummys until the Egyptians authorities uncovered the scheme and halted it in 1881.
Re-Discovering Ancient Egypt’s Royal Tombs
During his 1798 invasion of Egypt Napoleon commissioned detailed maps of the Valley of the Kings identifying the positions of all its known tombs. Fresh tombs continued to be discovered throughout the 19th century. In 1912 American archaeologist Theodore M. Davis famously declared the Valley had been fully excavated. In 1922 British archaeologist Howard Carter proved him wrong when he led the expedition that found Tutankhamun’s tomb. The treasure trove of riches found in the unlooted 18th Dynasty tomb dazzled Egyptologists and the public alike, catapulting Carter to international fame and making Tutankhamun’s tomb one of the world’s most famous archaeological discoveries.
To date, 64 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings. Many of these tombs were small, lacking Tutankhamun’s scale or the rich grave goods, which accompanied him into the afterlife.
Sadly, for archaeologists, most of these tombs and network of chambers had been pillaged in antiquity by grave robbers. Happily, the exquisite inscriptions and brightly painted scenes of the tomb walls were reasonably intact. These depictions of ancient Egyptians have provided researchers with a glimpse into the lives of the Pharaohs, nobles and other important people buried there.
Excavations are still in progress even today, through the Amarna Royal Tombs Project (ARTP). This archaeological expedition was established in the late 1990s to revisit the sites of early tomb discoveries that were not thoroughly excavated initially
The new excavations employ of state-of-the-art archaeological methodologies and technologies in the search for new insights at both older tomb sites, and at locations within The Valley of The Kings that have yet to be fully explored.
Tomb Architecture And Design
The ancient Egyptian architects demonstrated remarkably advanced planning and design skills, considering the tools available to them. They exploited natural cracks and caverns within the valley, to carve out tombs and chambers accessed via elaborate passageways. All these stupendous tomb complexes were carved out of the rock without having access to modern tools or mechanisation. Ancient Egyptian builders and engineers only had basic tools such as hammers, chisels, shovels and picks, fashioned from stone, copper, wood, ivory, and bone.
No grand central design is common across The Valley of The Kings’ network of tombs. Moreover, there was no one layout used in digging out the tombs. Each pharaoh looked to surpass the tombs of his predecessors in terms of their elaborate design while the variable quality of the valley’s limestone formations further got in the way of conformity.
Most tombs consisted of a downward sloping corridor interspersed with deep shafts intended to frustrate tomb robbers and by vestibules and pillared chambers. A burial chamber with a stone sarcophagus containing the royal mummy was positioned at the far end of the corridor. Store chambers led off the corridor holding household goods such as furniture and weapons and equipment were stacked for the king’s use in his next life.
Inscriptions and paintings covered the walls of the tomb. These featured scenes showing the dead king appearing before deities, particularly the gods of the underworld and in everyday scenes from life such as hunting expeditions and receiving foreign dignitaries. Inscriptions from magical texts such as the Book of the Dead also adorned the walls intended to help the pharaoh on his journey through the underworld.
In the Valley’s later, stages, the construction process for larger tombs adopted a more common layout. Each tomb featured three corridors followed by an antechamber and a ‘secure’ and occasionally concealed sunken sarcophagus chamber set in the lower levels of the tomb. With the addition of further safeguards for the sarcophagus chamber, the degree of standardization had its limits.
To date, a significantly larger number of tombs have been found in the East Valley than in the West Valley, which holds only four known tombs. Each tomb is numbered in order of its discovery. The first tomb discovered belonged to Ramses VII. Hence it was given the label KV1. KV stands for “Kings’ Valley”. Not all of the sites discovered had been used as tombs; some were used to store supplies, while others were empty.
Ramses VI KV9
This tomb is one of the Valley’s largest and most sophisticated tombs. Its detailed decorations depicting the complete text of the underworld Book of Caverns are rightly famous.
Tuthmose III KV34
This is the oldest tomb in the Valley open to visitors. It dates back to around c.1450 BC. A mural in its vestibule portrays 741 Egyptian gods and goddesses, while Tuthmose’s burial chamber is home to a beautifully inscribed sarcophagus carved from red quartzite.
In 1922 in the East Valley, Howard Carter made his stupendous discovery, which reverberated around the world. KV62 held the intact tomb of the pharaoh Tutankhamun. While many of the tombs and chambers previously found in the area had been ransacked by thieves in antiquity, this tomb was not only intact but was stockpiled full of priceless treasures. The Pharaoh’s chariot, jewellery, weapons and statues proved to be valuable finds. However, the crème de la crème was the magnificently decorated sarcophagus, holding the intact remains of the young king.
KV62 was the last substantial discovery until early 2006 when KV63 was found. Once excavated, it was shown to be a storage chamber. None of its seven coffins holds mummies. They contained clay pots used during the mummification process.
KV64 was located using advanced ground-penetrating radar technology, although KV64 has yet to be excavated.
Ramses II KV7
The Pharaoh Ramses II or Ramses The Great lived a long full life. Recognised as one of Egypt’s greatest kings, his legacy endured for generations. Ramses II commissioned monumental building projects such as the temples at Abu Simbel. Naturally, Ramses II’s tomb is in keeping with his status. It is one of the largest tombs yet discovered in the Valley of the Kings. It features a deep sloping entrance corridor, leading to a grand pillared chamber. The corridors then lead into a burial chamber awash with evocative decorations. Several side chambers run off the burial chamber. Ramses II’s tomb is one of the most impressive examples of ancient engineering in the Valley of the Kings.
A XIX Dynasty tomb, its designs featured a steeply descending corridor. Its entrance is decorated with images of Nephthys and Isis worshipping a solar disc. Inscriptions taken from the “Book of the Gates” decorate its corridors. The outer sarcophagus’ immense granite lid was found in an antechamber, while the inner sarcophagus’ lid was found down yet more steps in a pillared hall. The figure of Merneptah carved in the image of Osiris decorates the inner sarcophagus’ pink granite lid.
Seti I KV17
At 100 metres, this is the Valley’s longest tomb. The tomb contains beautifully preserved reliefs throughout all of its eleven chambers and side rooms. One of the rear chambers is decorated with images depicting the Ritual of the Opening of the Mouth, which affirmed the mummy’s eating and drinking organs were functioning properly. This was an important ritual as the ancient Egyptians believed the body needed to function normally to serve its owner in the afterlife.
Reflecting On The Past
The Valley of the Kings richly decorated network of tombs offers a dazzling insight into the religious beliefs and practices and lives of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs, queens and nobility.
Header image courtesy: Nikola Smolenski [CC BY-SA 3.0 rs], via Wikimedia Commons