Exploring the Tombs of the Valley of Kings

A historic walk through the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, Egypt By: Skye Mayring
The Valley of the Kings contains 60 pharaonic tombs from Egypt’s New Kingdom period. // © 2010 Dan
The Valley of the Kings contains 60 pharaonic tombs from Egypt’s New Kingdom period. // © 2010 Dan

The Details

Egyptian Tourist Authority

Nowadays, just about everyone seems to have a bucket list of places to visit and experiences to have within a lifetime. A trip to Cairo, Egypt, to marvel at the Great Sphinx and ride a camel in front the Pyramids of Giza was on my personal checklist, but it’s the morning I spent walking through the Valley of the Kings that I won’t soon forget.

For a period of approximately 500 years, the Valley of the Kings in the Nile Valley of Luxor was the royal burial place of Egypt’s New Kingdom period (1550-1069 B.C.), and each of its 60 tombs has its own distinct story to tell. A $12 ticket will give visitors access to three tombs of their choosing, which are labeled with the letters “KV” for “King’s Valley” and a sequential number corresponding to its order of modern day discovery.

While my tour guide advised me to skip King Tutankhamun’s tomb (KV 62) and, subsequently, the extra cost of a $17 entry fee, I found myself too intrigued to pass up the opportunity. After all, this was the tomb that, in 1923, famously brought archeologists closer than ever to understanding the burial ceremonies of Ancient Egypt. Other uncovered tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been pillaged by tomb robbers, but KV 62 was, somehow, relatively undisturbed for thousands of years. Unmatched in its quality and quantity of artifacts, the tomb beheld approximately 5,000 precious relics, including a solid gold coffin weighing nearly 250 pounds, a large statue depicting the jackal-headed funerary god (Anubis), gold sandals, jars made of alabaster, bottles of wine and baskets of produce to be consumed in the afterlife, King Tut’s iconic gold and semi-precious stone funerary mask, chariots, ornate jewelry and two mummified fetuses that might have been the king’s daughters.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo houses most of these valuable treasures, but the Valley of the Kings still lays claim to King Tut’s mummy, which was found in too poor of a condition to be exhibited elsewhere. Despite the abundance of wealth unearthed from his final resting place (even the nails binding his tomb were made of pure gold), the king’s mummified remains are presented beneath a modest white sheet and a glass encasement. His head and tiny feet are in plain view at a distance suggesting a diminutive stature. The display, for me, was startlingly sparse. Devoid of ornament, it seemed to discredit the Boy King rather than celebrate his brief reign.

In the burial chamber across the hall sits a brown quartzite sarcophagus with goddesses carved in high relief on each corner, their wings outstretched in protection of the mummy and three coffins that had been preserved inside for more than 3,000 years.

Only the walls of one room, the burial chamber, are painted, and experts have said that the job was completed in haste. Regardless, I still found the hieroglyphics and artistic representations of the king’s life fascinating and would definitely recommend a visit to this tomb.

A very different burial place and one of the most visited in the Valley of the Kings is the tomb of Rameses III (KV 11). Unlike King Tut’s tomb, KV 11 is covered with brightly painted images, symbols and hieroglyphics. The ceiling of the corridor, for example, represents the starry night sky against a vibrant navy backdrop. Unusual for a royal tomb, scenes of common people, such as butchers and leatherworkers, line the walls of one of the side chambers. On the opposite wall, parts of the Litany of Ra, a standard New Kingdom text that honors the sun god, can be seen along with depictions of Ra’s 74 manifestations.

The burial place of Rameses III, however, was not originally intended for him. Rather, it was created for his father, Setnakht, the first king of Dynasty 20. During the construction of the tomb, workers accidentally knocked down an adjoining wall belonging to Amenmesses’ tomb — an error that can still be seen by visitors. For whatever reason, perhaps a time constraint, the work was left temporarily unfinished and Setnakht was buried elsewhere. Rameses III later took interest in the tomb and had workers resume its construction on his behalf.

I learned that the impressive tomb of Siptah (KV 47) has an even more convoluted history. KV 47 is thought to be the burial place of both Siptah, son of Seti II, and Tiaa, who might have been his mother.

After Siptah’s burial, the king’s identifying cartouches were mysteriously erased — probably for political or religious reasons — then restored with paint at a later date. Although many details are still unclear, evidence shows that the tomb was reused, and Siptah’s mummy was eventually discovered with a number of other mummified pharaohs in the tomb of Amenhotep II.

Highlights of Siptah’s tomb include his red granite sarcophagus and a corridor painting of an elaborately dressed Siptah standing vis-a-vis the falcon-headed god, Ra, against a golden yellow background.

Photography isn’t allowed in the tombs for fear that the ancient paintings would lose their brilliance due to a barrage of camera flashes, but vendors sell sets of 20 or so photographs for about $7. The photographs, though, don’t quite capture the experience of exploring the underground corridors of the Valley of the Kings in person — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime adventure not to be missed.

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