The Pharaohs exchanged the Pyramids for the Valley of the Kings

Far from the imposing buildings that the monarchs of the Ancient Kingdom erected in northern Egypt, those of the New Kingdom had their graves dug in a valley west of Thebes.

On November 26, 1922, the English Egyptologist Howard Carter eagerly peered through a small hole that he had opened minutes before in that intact door. Behind her was the antechamber in which the objects of King Tutankhamun’s grave goods were piled. To the anxious question of Lord Carnarvon, his companion and patron, if he could see something in the dim light of the candle, Carter only went so far as to say: “Yes, wonderful things.”

Three days later, the official opening of the tomb took place before famous figures, privileged witnesses of what many already described as the most important archaeological discovery of the century. The discovery of the young king’s grave, just as Lord Carnarvon had decided to end the funding, confirmed Carter’s instinct that the Valley of the Kings still held secrets within.

The place that had served as a dwelling place of eternity for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom was once again regaining its leading role in history. The necropolis was excavated on the mountainous slopes of the western bank of the Nile, opposite present-day Luxor. The ancient Egyptians called this space “the place of the gods west of Thebes.”

Howard Carter analizando el tercer y último ataúd antropomorfo de oro macizo, en cuyo interior se encontraba la momia de Tutankhamón.
Howard Carter analyzing the third and last solid gold anthropomorphic coffin, inside which was Tutankhamen’s mummy. (Public domain)

Inaugurated by the kings of the 18th dynasty, it remained active until the end of the 20th dynasty. Its origin, its expansion and its definitive abandonment were a reflection of some funerary customs developed throughout one of the most splendid periods of Egypt. The location, architecture and decoration of the tombs are charged with an important magical-religious symbolism.

In search of eternity

The tomb was the most important work in the life of the ancient Egyptian, in which he invested all his efforts. It was not only the place that was going to house his remains, but it was conceived as a sacred space from which to achieve his survival in the afterlife. This belief was based on the idea of overcoming death as a continuous and eternal rebirth.

However, the destiny reserved for the king of Egypt was very different from that which the rest of the mortals were going to enjoy. While for them the afterlife was an idyllic reproduction of earthly Egypt, which they accessed after passing favorably the Judgment of Osiris, the fate of the pharaoh was in heaven, along with the gods.

The entrance of the deceased king in his tomb is the entrance to the underworld dominated by Osiris

The king’s death was only the beginning of his regeneration, and the tomb was the architectural framework in which it would take place. The deceased king would ascend to heaven and merge with the solar disk.

The monarch of the New Kingdom was strongly assimilated to the god Osiris. This, king of the gods, was assassinated and brought back to life thanks to the magic of his wife Isis, thus becoming the sovereign of the kingdom of the dead. The entrance of the deceased king in his tomb is the entrance to the underworld dominated by Osiris, from which he will emerge regenerated like the sun at dawn. The delicate balance between the solar and osiriac elements will characterize the Valley tombs.

The Valley is born

Work on the tomb of a king was undertaken immediately after his coronation, under the orders of a high official or the vizier. After the death of the monarch, only 70 days were available, after the embalming process was completed, to finalize the details of the transfer of the mummy and to install the funerary trousseau.

The kings who inaugurated the 18th dynasty chose as their burial place an area of the Theban mountain dominated by a spectacular pyramid-shaped peak sculpted by erosion. The choice of the place was determined by its proximity to the city of Thebes, named the new capital of Egypt. Throughout the New Kingdom, the Theban area rose as a great sacred space where the two banks were closely related.

Representación de un grupo de trabajadores.
Representation of a group of workers. (Public domain)

The eastern one hosted the Templar complexes of Karnak and Luxor. Meanwhile, in the west, the most important necropolises of the period were excavated: the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens and the Valley of the Nobles. The funerary temples, where the cult of the deceased king was celebrated, were separated from the tomb for the first time and were built on the same shore, but in the plain area.

The royalty had chosen to dig their graves in the prehistoric valleys of the desert, sheltered by the two goddesses who protected the place: Hathor, “the lady of the west”, and Meretseget, “the one who loves silence”. The steep slopes and high cliffs were the perfect setting to recreate the new funerary conceptions that would be put into practice throughout the New Kingdom.

The kings ordered the work of their graves to specialized workers. This was the origin of the artisan village of the “Place of Truth”, the current Deir el-Medina, a few kilometres from the Valley. They were excellent stonemasons, specialists in cutting the limestone strata and looking for solutions to unexpected problems. Tombs like Hatsheput’s show how the direction of the tunnels must have been altered by the rock.

Landscapes from beyond

The decorative program was adapted to the architecture of the tomb and was rigorously fixed. In the 18th dynasty the decoration only affected the rooms, while in the Ramesis era it was extended to all surfaces.

The decoration on the walls illustrated Ra’s night journey through the underworld. This daily journey of the sun was understood by the Egyptians as a journey by boat through an underground river in imitation of the journey through the Nile. In this journey, the god Ra is accompanied by other gods who assist him in his daily victory.

Detalle de la tumba de Ramsés III.
Detail of the tomb of Ramses III. (Peter J. Bubenik (1995) / CC BY-SA-2.0)

The themes of the scenes are extracted from compositions expressly created for the king. These funerary “books” constituted a detailed map of the geography of the underground world and an essential “guide” to learn how to successfully overcome the obstacles that arose along the way. The key was to know all the secrets: the names, the enchantments … to defeat the enemies.

The weakness of the royal authority exercised by Ramses XI allowed the High Priest of the god Amun in Thebes to authorize the free looting of the Theban necropolis to finance the expenses of the temple. This instability ended with a political division that would give way to another stage in the history of Egypt: the Third Intermediate Period.

The north was left to the XXI dynasty, which built its own necropolis in the new capital of Tanis. Thebes and southern Egypt came under the control of the High Priests. The Valley of the Kings was abandoned by the pharaohs, being reused only occasionally for non-royal burials. With the lack of work, the community of Deir el-Medina evicted the city.

Amon’s clergy began a slow dismantling of the royal tombs, tracing the Valley in a contradictory performance: the pious restoration of the royal mummies and the unbridled search for the gold they contained.

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