Valley of the Kings – Egypt, Africa
The Valley of the Kings, less often called the Valley of the Gates of the Kings, is a valley in Egypt where, for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, tombswere constructed for the Pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt). The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes (modern Luxor), within the heart of the Theban Necropolis. The wadi consists of two valleys, East Valley (where the majority of the royal tombs are situated) and West Valley.
With the 2006 discovery of a new chamber (KV63), and the 2008 discovery of 2 further tomb entrances, the valley is known to contain 63 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers). It was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, together with those of a number of privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues to the beliefs and funerary rituals of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the rulers of this time.
This area has been a focus of archaeological and egyptological exploration since the end of the eighteenth century, and its tombs and burials continue to stimulate research and interest. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tombof Tutankhamun (with its rumours of the Curse of the Pharaohs), and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. In 1979, it became a World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis. Exploration, excavation and conservation continues in the valley, and a new tourist centre has recently been opened.
The types of soil where the Valley of the Kings is located are an alternating sandwich of dense limestone and other sedimentary rock (which form the cliffs in the valley and the nearby Deir el-Bahri) and soft layers of marl. The sedimentary rock was originally deposited between 35–56 million years ago during a time when the precursor to the Mediterranean Sea covered an area that extended much further inland than today. During the Pleistocene the valley was carved out of the plateau by steady rains. There is currently little year-round rain in this part of Egypt, but there are occasional flash floods that hit the valley, dumping tons of debris into the open tombs.
The quality of the rock in the Valley is inconsistent, ranging from finely-grained to coarse stone, the latter with the potential to be structurally unsound. The occasional layer of shale also caused construction and conservation difficulties, as this rock expands in the presence of water, forcing apart the stone surrounding it. It is thought that some tombs were altered in shape and size depending on the types of rock the builders encountered.
Builders took advantage of available geological features when constructing the tombs. Some tombs were quarried out of existing limestone clefts, others behind slopes of scree, or were at the edge of rock spurs created by ancient flood channels.
The problems of tomb construction can be seen with tombs of Ramesses III and his father Setnakhte. Setnakhte started to excavateKV11 but broke into the tomb of Amenmesse, so construction was abandoned and he instead usurped the tomb of Twosret, KV14. When looking for a tomb, Ramesses III extended the part-excavated tomb started by his father. The tomb of Ramesses II returned to an early style, with a bent axis, probably due to the quality of the rock being excavated (following the Esna shale).
Between 1998 and 2002 the Amarna Royal Tombs Project investigated the valley floor using ground-penetrating radar and found that, below the modern surface, the Valley’s cliffs descend beneath the scree in a series of abrupt, natural “shelves”, arranged one below the other, descending several metres down to the bedrock in the valley floor.
The area of the Theban hills is subject to infrequent violent thunder storms, causing flash floods in the valley. Recent studies have shown that there are at least 7 active flood stream beds, leading down into the central area of the valley. This central area appears to have been flooded at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty and buried several tombs under metres of debris. The tombs KV63, KV62 and KV55 are dug into the actual wadi bedrock rather the debris, showing that the then level of the valley was 5 m below its present level. After this event later dynasties leveled the floor of the valley, making the floods deposit their load further down the valley, and the buried tombs were forgotten and only discovered in the early 20th century. This was the area that was the subject of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project ground scanning radar investigation, which showed several anomalies, one of which was proved to be KV63.
The Theban Hills are dominated by the peak of al-Qurn, known to the Ancient Egyptians as ta dehent, or ‘The Peak’. It has a pyramid shaped appearance, and it is probable that this echoed the pyramids of the Old Kingdom, more than a thousand years prior to the first royal burials carved here. Its isolated position also resulted in reduced access, and special tomb police (the Medjay) were able to guard the necropolis.
While the iconic pyramid complexes of the Giza plateau have come to symbolize ancient Egypt, the majority of tombs were cut into rock. Most pyramids and mastabas contain sections which are cut into ground level, and there are full rock-cut tombs in Egypt that date back to the Old Kingdom.
After the defeat of the Hyksos and the reunification of Egypt under Ahmose I, the Theban rulers began to construct elaborate tombs that would reflect their newfound power. The tombs of Ahmose and his son Amenhotep I (their exact location remains unknown) were probably in the Seventeenth Dynasty necropolis of Dra’ Abu el-Naga’. The first royal tombs in the valley were those of Amenhotep I (although this identification is also disputed), and Thutmose I, whose advisor Ineni notes in his tomb that he advised his king to place his tomb in the desolate valley (the identity of this actual tomb is unclear, but it is probablyKV20 or KV38)
The Valley was used for primary burials from approximately 1539 BC to 1075 BC, and contains at least 63 tombs, beginning with Thutmose I (or possibly earlier, during the reign ofAmenhotep I), and ending with Ramesses X or XI, although non-Royal burials continued in usurped tombs.
Despite the name, the Valley of the Kings also contains the tombs of favorite nobles as well as the wives and children of both nobles and pharaohs, meaning that only about 20 of the tombs actually contain the burials of kings; the burials of nobles and the royal family, together with unmarked pits and embalming caches make up the rest. Around the time ofRamesses I (ca. 1301 BC) construction commenced in the separate Valley of the Queens.
The official name for the site in ancient times was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes (see below for the hieroglyphic spelling), or more usually, Ta-sekhet-ma’at (the Great Field).
At the start of the Eighteenth Dynasty, only the kings were buried within the valley in large tombs; when a non-royal was buried, it was in a small rock cut chamber, close to the tomb of their master. Amenhotep III’s tomb was constructed in the Western Valley, and while his son Akhenaten moved his tomb’s construction to Amarna, it is thought that the unfinished WV25 may have originally been intended for him. With the return to religious orthodoxy at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Tutankhamun, Ay and then Horemheb returned to the royal necropolis.
The Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties saw an increase in the number of burials (both here and in the Valley of the Queens), with Ramesses II and later Ramesses III constructing a massive tomb that was used for the burial of his sons (KV5 and KV3 respectively). There are some kings that are not buried within the valley or whose tomb has not been located:Thutmose II may have been buried in Dra’ Abu el-Naga’ (although his mummy was in the Deir el-Bahri tomb cache), Smenkhkare’s burial has never been located, and Ramesses VIIIseems to have been buried elsewhere.
In the Pyramid Age the tomb of the king was associated with a mortuary temple located close to the pyramid. As the tomb of the king was hidden, this mortuary temple was located away from the burial, closer to the cultivation facing towards Thebes. These mortuary temples became places visited during the various festivals held in the Theban necropolis, most notably the Beautiful festival of the valley, where the sacred barques of Amun-Re, his consort Mut and son Khonsu left the temple at Karnak in order to visit the funerary temples of deceased kings on the West Bank and their shrines in the Theban Necropolis.
The tombs were constructed and decorated by the workers of the village of Deir el-Medina, located in a small wadi between this valley and the Valley of the Queens, facing Thebes. The workers journeyed to the tombs via routes over the Theban hills. The daily lives of these workers are quite well known, recorded in tombs and official documents. Amongst the events document is perhaps the first recorded worker’s strike, detailed in the Turin strike papyrus.
The area has been a major area of modern Egyptological exploration for the last two centuries. Before this the area was a site for tourism in antiquity (especially during Roman times). This area illustrates the changes in the study of ancient Egypt, starting as antiquity hunting, and ending as scientific excavation of the whole Theban Necropolis. Despite the exploration and investigation noted below, only eleven of the tombs have actually been completely recorded.
Many of the tombs have graffiti written by these ancient tourists. Jules Baillet located over 2100 Greek and Latin graffiti, along with a smaller number in Phoenician, Cypriot, Lycian, Coptic, and other languages. The majority of the ancient graffiti are found in KV9, which contains just under a thousand of them. The earliest positively dated graffiti dates to 278 B.C.
In 1799, Napoleon’s expedition (especially Dominique Vivant) drew maps and plans of the known tombs, and for the first time noted the Western Valley (where Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage located the tomb of Amenhotep III, WV22). The Description de l’Égypte contains two volumes (out a total of 24) on the area around Thebes.
European exploration continued in the area around Thebes during the nineteenth century, boosted by Champollion’s translation of hieroglyphs early in the century. Early in the century, the area was visited by Belzoni, working for Henry Salt, who discovered several tombs, including those of Ay in the West Valley (WV23) in 1816 and Seti I (KV17) the next year. At the end of his visits, Belzoni declared that all of the tombs had been found and nothing of note remained to be found. Working at the same time (and a great rival of Belzoni and Salt) was Bernardino Drovetti, the French Consul-General.
When Gaston Maspero was reappointed to head the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the nature of the exploration of the valley changed again. Maspero appointed Howard Carter as the Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt and the young man discovered several new tombs and explored several others, clearing KV42 and KV20.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the American Theodore M. Davis had the excavation permit in the valley, and his team (led mostly by Edward R. Ayrton) discovered several royal and non-royal tombs (including KV43, KV46 and KV57). In 1907 they discovered the possible Amarna Period cache in KV55. After finding what they thought was all that remained of the burial of Tutankhamun (items recovered from KV54 and KV58), it was announced that the valley was completely explored and no further burials were to be found, in Davis’s 1912 publication, The Tombs of Harmhabi and Touatânkhamanou; the book closes with the comment, “I fear that the Valley of Kings is now exhausted”.
After Davis’s death early in 1915 Lord Carnarvon acquired the concession to excavate the valley and he employed Carter to explore it. After a systematic search they discovered the actual tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) in November 1922.
Various expeditions have continued to explore the valley, adding greatly to the knowledge of the area. In 2001 the Theban Mapping Project designed new signs for the tombs, providing information and plans of the open tombs.
Most of the tombs are not open to the public (18 of the tombs can be opened, but they are rarely open at the same time), and officials occasionally close those that are open for restoration work. The number of visitors to KV62 has led to a separate charge for entry into the tomb. The West Valley has only one open tomb—that of Ay—and a separate ticket is needed to visit this tomb. The tour guides are no longer allowed to lecture inside the tombs and visitors are expected to proceed quietly and in single file through the tombs. This is to minimize time in the tombs and prevent the crowds from damaging the surfaces of the decoration. Photography is no longer allowed in the tombs.
In 1997, 58 tourists and 4 Egyptians were massacred at nearby Deir el-Bahri by Islamist militants from Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. This led to an overall drop in tourism in the area.
On most days of the week an average of four to five thousand tourists visit the main valley. On the days that the Nile Cruises arrive the number can rise to over nine thousand. These levels are expected to rise to 25,000 by 2015. The West Valley is much less visited, as there is only one tomb that is open to the public.