Friday, 9 August 2013

Preview: The Valley of the Kings

Famously, the Egyptian pyramids were the tombs of kings. Stupendous feats of man-management and technical prowess, they were packed full of riches to glorify the god-kings entombed for eternity. But they came with one small hitch: come the revolution, the pyramids became the biggest adverts in the world. "Lots of gold and wealth here!" they screamed, and the raiders and thieves and pillagers duly came and did their shopping. Revolution, or at least the general breakdown of society, happened on more than one occasion. By the time the 18th Dynasty and the beginning of the New Kingdom came around, there had been a Middle Kingdom and two chaotic Intermediate Periods, and it's safe to say that the mummified pharaohs of the pyramids had not exactly been allowed to rest in peace. Pyramids were clearly out of vogue, but the pharaohs of the New Kingdom still wanted to be buried in a lavish and prestigious manner, fitting of their exalted position. The solution - secret burial underground in a valley beneath a pyramid-like hill: the Valley of the Kings.

The Valley of the Kings or, as it was once snappily known, "The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in the West of Thebes", (just "Great Field" was fine if you had other plans for the day), was the semi-secret graveyard of kings. For around 500 years, spanning the duration of the New Kingdom and very slightly beyond, it was the burial place of around 25 kings, plus their family members and even pets. Over 80 tombs and pits were excavated from the rock and filled with treasure, to create an underworld that was concealed and safe - so it was hoped - from the troubles of the real world. Did it work? In all but one case - of course not.

Tuthmosis I, near the start of the 18th Dynasty, got things going, although it was perhaps his grandson Tuthmosis III who actually did the work, as objects from his reign have been found in his grandfather's tomb. The location chosen was far from arbitrary. It was fairly close to the capital, Thebes, and was on the other side of the Nile, the western side and so associated with the setting sun and the afterlife. The rocky valley chosen was one of numerous valleys of a mountain chain, and so on a practical level was remote with only narrow access and thus easily guarded. The Egyptians loved their symbolism, and the valley happened to be below a pyramid-like peak sacred to Hathor, a goddess who welcomed the dead to the next world. In a sense, the kings were still being buried within a pyramid, just this time it was a naturally occurring one.

Initially, careful concealment was important for the tombs, and some of the 18th Dynasty tombs are built quite high up into the sides of cliffs. Although guards were employed to patrol the area, the kings were aware that it wasn't so long ago that the country had been in chaos. Given that the bodies were to be buried with a hell of a lot of gold and other precious items, it was just good sense to ensure the job of the tomb raider wasn't made too easy. But times changed. As the 18th Dynasty turned into the 19th, then the 20th, the kings became more relaxed. The country was stable, nobody was going to rob their mummified bodies or their tombs, and so later on a little bit of showmanship and grandeur crept back in, with the tombs given visible and impressive entrances. This may seem like a remarkable lack of foresight, given the reason for choosing this valley in the first place, but you have to remember that the New Kingdom lasted 500 years. By comparison, here in the UK, we've had peace and stability for no more than 70 years, since the end of the Second World War. Yet, we feel pretty safe. It doesn't seem as though the fabric of society is about to fall down around us. So by the 20th Dynasty, Egyptian stability had lasted a period equivalent to when King Henry VIII had ruled in England. The kings felt they could relax.

So, what happened? There is a popular image of furtive tomb raiding, prizing open stone doors by cover of darkness, and thieves sneaking into the depths of these underground tombs, amidst untold riches. Indeed, this would have happened, but a pretty jaw-dropping discovery in 1881 sheds light on the real reason most of the tombs are now stripped of wealth. Back then, precious artefacts had been appearing on the local black market for some time and the authorities became suspicious. They were traced back to a goat herder and his family. It turned out that some years ago one of his goats had fallen into a pit; upon rescuing it, he discovered the pit contained some very old bodies and items. The goat herder was canny - he knew people would pay good money for these old things, so slowly he began taking and selling them. Eventually he got caught out.

The archaeologists moved in. And it became quickly apparent that this was not just any old tomb. The tomb - remote from the majority of the tombs and accessed via an obscure hole in the rock - contained a lot of mummified bodies. And not just any old mummified bodies - it contained most of the great kings of Egypt. Most of the bodies missing from from their own tombs in the Valley of the Kings were here, or in another subsequently found but similar cache. Ramesses II, Hatspehsut, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis III, and around forty other royal mummies were there, some in better condition than others, but nonetheless it was an incredible discovery and an incredible piece of luck. The Egyptian pharaohs were lifted from the realm of near-legend to actual reality.

What it revealed was that towards to end of the 20th Dynasty, society was beginning to break down. Centuries of stability was eroding. Robbers had already plundered a lot of the tombs and the kings were choosing to not be buried in a robbery hotspot. This put much of the local workforce out of a job, further making the Valley of the Kings even harder to police. The authorities had to act, and decided to cut their losses. Whenever a tomb was raided and thus the sanctity of the king's body compromised, they would go in a rebury him in a secure place, usually in the same obscure tomb in the cliffs. Then they went back to the original tomb and stripped it down for profit. Win-win: the body was safe and some decent money had been made. It worked so well that, very likely, it spilled over into preemptive reburials, and some handy bonuses for the treasury - better with the authorities than with the robbers.

The notable exception to this was Tutankhamun's tomb as it was so well concealed that after a few hundred years everyone had forgotten where it was. It managed another 3000 years and a lot of dedicated searching before Howard Carter made his famous discovery on 4th November 1922. A relatively minor king, Tutankhamun's more-or-less intact tomb was packed with more gold and treasure than we would expect for the greatest kings of most civilisations. It remains one of the most priceless discoveries of all time. We can only imagine what the likes of Ramesses II and Tuthmosis III would have originally been buried with.

From my own experience, I know that the Valley of the Kings is a terrific place to visit. I guess there are many ways to do it, but when I visited in 2001 I cycled around the area. The main Valley of the Kings is a dry and dusty cul-de-sac, with tombs dotted around. Not all are open to the public, but there's plenty of variety with the ones that are. It has a proper sense of adventure, entering into the side of a rock, descending through corridors and chambers until finding the burial chamber, often with the large stone sarcophagus still in place. Some tombs are pretty bare now, but some have the painting and decoration still in good condition.

Additionally, many of the kings weren't satisfied with an anonymous underground tomb, and on the plains of the Nile's west bank - a natural part of a day's cycle - there are numerous mortuary temples. Many are immense, and Ramesses II is behind many of them. The most famous though is Hatshepsut's temple on the side of the mountain.

As a Wonder, the Valley of the Kings is an ensemble effort, a sum of its parts. Temples and tombs dedicated to ancient kings, the place has a near-mythical feel. It was built for the dead, and as such suits the kind of silence that being a tourist attraction doesn't always afford. Fortunately, the whole area is the perfect size for a leisurely cycle, and if one temple is filled with tour groups, the next will be quiet. If one tomb is packed with old people talking loudly, the next will be empty. The Valley of the Kings still has some moments for a quiet rest in peace. I hope.

I'll be visiting the Valley of the Kings at the end of this year, or the start of next, which is both a cooler time of year in terms of desert temperature and tourist numbers. Hopefully this will allow favourable conditions to explore these ancient tombs, and I'll give a fuller account of them and their history, as well as my own impressions then.

"The Complete Valley of the Kings" Nicholas Reeves, Richard H Wilkinson
"Egypt" Joyce Tyldesley
"Guide to the Valley of the Kings" Alberto Siletti
"Art and History: Luxor" Giovanni Magi


  1. Very interesting article!

    A few thoughts:

    1. It's funny to think that, because Pharaohs craved immortality, Tutankahmon has achieved just that (in the sense of that we all know who he is thousands of years later). As you say, he didn't achieve much during his reign and unless I'm mistaken he was only a teenager when he died. The crux of it is, he's famous because his tomb wasn't pillaged. I wonder if in 3000 years time future archeologists will solemnly pronounce that (say) Millwall FC were the powerhouse of European football because they found a couple of the only remaining match tickets or something.

    2. Sometimes the fact that there is no real tomb is what makes it famous. A local example here in Marseille is a man who was guillotined in the 1930s, and buried in an anonymous grave (the procedure at the time). His family scratched his name into the wall next to where he is buried and because of this, his burial place is mentioned in a book about interesting and quirky aspects of local history. Had he not been buried in these circumstances, it wouldn't have.

  2. Actually, as I mentioned the guillotine in my earlier post I hope you don't mind if I go a bit off course on this thread and add a few points about this kind of method of execution (I like to think of myself as an amateur unqualified historian!).

    - the guillotine was the official method of execution in France until the (relatively late) abolishment of the death penalty in France in 1981.

    - the last person to be executed by this - or any - method in France was in my hometown of Marseille in 1977 (by that time there was only one guillotine, which was dismantled and transported to wherever it was needed; also, there was only one executioner).

    - unlike in the United States for example, those condemned to death didn't spend decades waiting to be executed. Once the judgment was passed, there was a short period of a few weeks/months in order to lodge an appeal. If the initial judgment was retained, they were guillotined within a matter of weeks.

    - no official date was set. The prisoner only knew when he would be guillotined the (early) morning when he would be woken up and prepared for execution within the next hour or so (last breakfast, priest, etc.).

    - as a final indignity, the head would not be placed in the coffin by the neck but between the legs at the bottom of the box, despite the coffin being normal sized.

    - graves were generally left unmarked in a specific area of the cemetary. Burial would take place without the family.

    As an interesting final point, where I live is just about 200m from where the guillotine was set up in Marseille during the Reign of Terror, in a small square (after that executions took place within prisons).

    I'm only in my 30s yet I find it hard to believe that I was born during a period when this was the way things were done.

  3. These are more facts that I may liberally borrow for my 3000-page opus (I can relate them to Versailles). Not telling the prisoner when they would be guillotined sounds like psychological torture. I'm not sure if languishing on Death Row for decades is better or worse.

    Although being guillotined clearly wouldn't be much fun, it may still be one of my preferred options of execution, should I be given the choice. If anything, it would be interesting to see how long I kept consciousness for. I reckon, if I really concentrated, I could manage 5 minutes and a short conversation (whispered, of course, as I'd be unconnected to my lungs).