Beyond the semi-circle of rocks of Deir el-Bahari lies the valley of the kings, or Biban el-Muluk, which means the Gates of the Kings. This famous gorge, dominated by a peaked mountain called “Theban crown”, contains the necropolis of the great Egyptian sovereigns from the XVIII to the XX Dynasties.
Its history started with the sudden, unexpected decision of Thot-Mosis I to separate his tomb from the burial temple; moreover, he gave orders to bury his body not in a luxurious monument but in a secret, inaccessible place. His decision rudely interrupted a 1700 year-old tradition! His chief architect, Ineni, dug a well-tomb in a solitary valley, cutting a steep flight of steps into the rock leading to the tomb, along certain lines which were then followed by subsequent Pharaohs. It was Ineni himself who wanted to document the secrecy of his undertaking, ordering the engraving on the burial chapel wall of the phrase “I alone watched over the construction of His Majesty’s rock-tomb. No-one saw or heard anything”. The latter phrase, however, is hard to believe: it is much more likely that the workers who built it were war prisoners who were then eliminated upon termination of the work.
But, as in the case of the other sovereigns, Thot-Mosis I was destined to reign for a very short time because already in the Pharaoh age, despite the safeguarding of teams of guardians night and day, robbers systematically broke into the tomb to remove the valuable objects: one of the most sought after articles was the “scarab beetle of the heart” the amulet which placed on the heart of the mummy, enabled the dead man to save himself from the day of judgement.
But these powerful sovereigns were destined not even to find peace upon their death. In fact, it so happened that at the time of the weak reign of the Ramses, the priests of Amon had lost all their power and authority. As a sign of their devotion, to ensure their dead sovereigns a quiet life in the next world and to avoid profanation, they started transporting the royal mumies from one burial place to another and these transfers were so frequent that Ramses III was buried thrice!
Finally, they decided to secretly prepare a virtually inaccessible hiding-place: on Mount Deir el-Bahari they dug an approximately twelve-metre deep well connected by a long corridor to a large room. At night by torchlight, as furtive as tomb-robbers, the priests removed the Pharaohs from their sarcophagi in the Valley and assembled their corpses in a cave in the mountains, hanging a shield around their necks bearing their names for identification purposes. They had been dead for a few years or numerous centuries and had had short-or long-lived reigns; some of them had been the most powerful sovereigns in the entire world. And now here they all were alongside each other helter-skelter: Ahmoses, the founder of the XVIII Dynasty next to the conqueror Thot-Mosis III; the great Ramses II alongside his father SetiI. Altogether, there were forty Pharaoh’ bodies hidden in this anonymous sepulchre in the heart of the mountain for three thousand years.
It was young tomb-robber by the name of Ahmed Abd el Rasul from the village of Gurnah who came across that hiding-place in 1875; for six years he and his brothers managed to keep the secret, enriching themselves by trading the objects that they gradually sacked from the royal mummies. Then it was gradually brought to light and on the 5th July 1881, after a long interrogation, the young Arab led the vice director of Cairo Museum at the time, Emil Brugsch – brother of the famous Egyptologist heinrich – to the entrance to the well.
It is hard to imagine how the scholar felt when the uncertain light of a torch revealed the mortal remains of forty sovereigns of the ancient world! A few days later, the mummies were packed and transported to the valley, where a ship was to take them to Cairo. And then a strange, stirring event occurred: on hearing that the refound Pharaohs were leaving their century-old burial place, the peasants of the valley with their wives assembled on the banks of the Nile and, with the slow passing of the ship, paid homage to their ancient kings, the men shooting into mid-air and the women wailing and sprinkling their faces and chests with dust.
Nowadays access is gained to the valley by means of a comfortable carriage road that largely follows the old tracks of the funeral procession. The tombs have kept their ancient charm intact: the countless graffiti on the walls show that since Greek and Roman times they were the destination of visitors and pilgrims who left a souvenir of their visit in this way. One of them, the English Dean Stanley, left an account of his journeys in 1856, affirming that “he had seen the tombs of the kings and the entire religion of Egypt revealed as it appeared to the most powerful Egyptian rulers in the most salient moments of their lives”
Tomb of Ramses lV
It is the first tomb that one comes across on approaching the center of the Valley. It is small in size (66 metres long) and contains the sarcophagus of Ramses IV, sovereign of the XX Dynasty and don of Ramses III.
The plan of the tomb is traced on a papyrus kept in Turin Museum; as from the V century, the tomb was utilized as a church by a small Christian community of the Valley. In the Magnificent decoration of the tomb, texts are predominant, with scenes from the Book of the Dead, from the Book of Gates and the Book of Caves.
Tomb of Ramses lX
Unfortunately in a bad state of repair the tomb belongs t one of the last Ramses of the XX Dynasty, whose reign was distinguished by a long series of internal disorders and famine. On discovering the tomb, they found an enormous pair of runners, coming from the skid on which the Pharaoh’s coffin was transported and several hundred fragments on which workers working on the king’s sepulchre had noted the number of utensils, hours of labour and the list of supplies, etc. The tomb consists of a long flight of steps leading to a corridor connected to two rooms, one of which features four pillars and a second smaller corridor providing access to the sarcophagus room.
Tomb of Tutankamun
The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb was one of the most exciting finds of modern archaeology, enhanced by the enormous wealth of artistic heritage brought to light. n 1922 Englishman Lord Carnarvon, art collector and great traveler, had already invested about 50.000 pounds sterling in financing numerous excavations in Egypt, all of which had been fruitless.
I All hope of finding something grandiose, possibly the intact tomb of a Pharaoh, was virtually lost. His missions were directed by another Englishman, the archaeologist Howard Carter. At the time it was common belief that there was nothing left to discover in the Valley of Kings which had been combed high and low. They had still found no trace of the tomb of the heretic Akhen-Aton, who, however, was almost definitely buried at Tell-el-Amarna, and that of Tutankhamun, the Pharaoh of transition who brought back the capital to Thebes reviving the ancient cult of Amon-Ra and the other gods, changing his real name from Tutankhatun to Tutankhamun. His was a short-lived reign lasting only nine years as he died at the age of nineteen in about 1350 B.C.
Lord Carnarvon thus decided that this was to be his last mission in Egypt. The great discovery was made on the 4th November 1922: almost at the base of the tomb of Ramses VI they came across a stone step that led to a second one and so forth, until the sixteenth step stopped in front of a sealed door, walled in with slaked lime. It would appear that this tomb had been robbed, but to what extent? And did they find the mummy intact? On the 26th of the same month Carter had his day: having broken through a second door bearing intact the seals of the child-Pharaoh, the archaeologist made a small opening with an iron bar and pushed it through the hole, meeting no obstacles. He then carried out tests with a candle, not detecting any gases. He finally poked his head through the hole and as his eyes gradually adapted to the darkness, “strange animals, statues and gold – everywhere the flash of gold, emerged slowly from the darkness …”
“What marvelous things”, exclaimed Carter, his voice broken with emotion to Carnarvon who was impatiently asking him what he saw.
The marvelous things were the imposing funeral objects which, after long, difficult restoration, Carter sent to Cairo Museum.
Of all the precious objects in the sovereign’s tomb, the most impressive of all was the great sarcophagus: a single, enormous block of quarzite housed four gilt wooden containers placed one inside the other like Chinese boxes; only after 84 days of hard toil dismounting them to brings the 80 pieces composing the four catafalques to light was Carter able to admire the brilliant colours of the paintings decorating the walls of the burial chamber. The sarcophagus was of an extraordinary beauty, “worthy of containing the mortal remains of a sovereign”
On the 12th February 1924, in front of nineteen illustrious guests, a complex winch lifted the ton and a half of granite of the lid. When Carter shone his light on the interior, his first glance must have been most disappointing: only discolored linen cloths! But when the linen cloths were slowly cast aside, the king and the gold gradually appeared: a wooden sarcophagus entirely plated in gold and inlaid with glass and semiprecious stones with the Pharaoh represented as Osiris his face expressing great serenity. And yet, affirms Carter, in all that splendor, the most moving thing was a small garland of flowers, possibly laid by his young wife Ankhesanem: after thirty-two centuries, those flowers still conserved a bit of their original colour.
Almost one year later, on the 25th january 1925, Carter tried to open the sarcophagus. The lid of the first anthropoid sarcophagus (2 metres 25 centimetres long) was lifter revealing more linen bands and garlands of flowers. By examining the floral wreaths, they were able to establish the burial season of the sovereign, between mid-March and late April, because botanists also recognized corn-flowers, bittersweet’s and mandrakes which blossom during that period. Under the sheet they found a second gold-plated, wooden, anthropoid sarcophagus encrusted with cloisonnés of coloured glass and semi-precious stones. With the help of eight men, the lid of this second coffin was lifted; even if at this stage, Carter expected to find a third sarcophagus, he certainly did not expect to find a third sarcophagus, he certainly did not expect to find a 22 carat solid gold coffin weighing 1,170 kilograms! “An incredible mass of pure gold”: the material itself was priceless! Apart from his head-gear with a cobra and vulture, the king also wears a false beard and a heavy necklace in gold grains and majolica, while holding the whip and scepter, symbols of the two Egyptian kingdoms; the divinities Nekhbets and Uadjets spread their wings to protect the mummy, while Neftis and Isis are resuscitating the dead Pharaoh, One can just imagine with what awe and suppressed emotion Carter approached the content of this coffin; in fact, he knew that he would have found intact the mummy of Thutankamun. In fact, the mummy was completely covered in gold and jewels. Once again, the delicate, serene features of the nineteen-year old king appeared on the magnificent mask in gold and semiprecious stones that covered the sovereign up to his shoulders. The heavy names in blue and gold stripes with the royal symbols on his forehead, inlaid with turquoise lapislazulae and cornelians, made an impressive sight.
Three sarcophagi, four funeral chapels and kilograms of gold had managed to keep the mortal remains of the great king hidden from the eyes of the world for 132 centuries.
Tomb of Ramses Vl
Known in ancient times as the tomb of Memnon and also the “tomb of the metempsychosis” by the scholars of the archaeological expedition of the 1798, it was discovered by the Englishman James Burton. On a par with the other great tombs of the Ramses, access was gained to it about 400 meters from the bottom of the valley-exactly the opposite to the deeply dug tombs of the sovereigns of the XVIII Dynasty. The front part is the oldest and was commenced under Ramses V.
Having been enlarged, the plan is now quite linear with a corridor that leads to an anteroom, a room with pillars, a second corridor and a second anteroom preceding the sarcophagus room. The latter has an “astronomic” room that is, entirely decorated with astronomic scenes and frescoes narrating the creation of the sun. the leitmotiv is the sky goddess Nut, repeated twice, covering the eastern and western spheres. The tomb in which numerous scraps of workers’ tools were founds, has been visited since the most ancient times, as can be seen from the numerous Greek and Coptic graffiti engraved on the wall.
Tomb of Mineptah
Mineptah, fourth and last Pharaoh of the XIX Dynasty, ruled Egypt from 1235 to 1224 B.C. He was the thirteenth son of Ramses II and Isinofret and came to power at a ripe old age. If his father was considered the Pharaoh of the Jewish slavery in Egypt, his son Mineptah was considered the Pharaoh of the Exodus. In fact, under him the name of Israel appeared for the first time in a granite stele:
“Desolated Israel, that has lost its seed” The mummy of Mineptah, which was not found in this tomb but in the tomb of Amon-Ofis II was encrusted with salt upon discovery : this reinforced the belief that he was the very Pharaoh who drowned in the Red Sea while he was chasing the Jews! Apart from the legend, Mineptah was responsible for the military campaign against the “sea nations”: the ancient Lybians and their allies, the Lycians, the Achaeans, the Sards and the Etruscans. The tomb plan is simple, a long corridor in sections that descend to the room that still contain the sarcophagus. The scenes illustrated there are the usual funeral myth scenes.
Tom of Ramses lll
He was the second sovereign of the XX Dynasty and also the last of the great Pharaohs of the Middle Reign. After his reign, there was a confused period of internal struggles and disorders, and Egypt plunged deeper and deeper into chaos. He reigned from 1198 to 1188 and it would appear that he brought about an important administrative and social reform. In the eighth year of his rule, in a fierce battle on the delta, he dealt a heavy defeat to the coalition among the “sea nations” and the Libyan tribes; the battle is recalled in a relief on the temple of Madinet Habu, where some Peleseth prisoners can be seen. Subsequently, they settled in Palestine and were called Philistines. From a papyrus kept in the Egyptian Museum of Turin known as the “Legal Papyrus”, we know that during the 32nd year of his reign, Ramses III was the victim of a palace plot: the guilty were captured and sentenced according to the deeds in the papyrus. His tomb is also known as the “tomb of Bruce” from the name of its discoverer and also as the “tomb of the harpists” from the frescoes that represent – an unusual phenomenon of Egyptian art- some men playing the harp in the honor of certain gods. The Pharaoh’s sarcophagus, a magnificent block of pink granite, was taken away from the Paduan archaeologist, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, and sold to the King of France who displayed it at the Louvre. The 125 meter-long tomb drops only ten metres below valley level; this tomb was built on the site of a previous tomb belonging to Sethnakht, father of Ramses III, and one can still see some scrolls in the first corridor.
Tomb of Horemheb
Horemheb, king of Egyptian from 1340 to 1314 and the last Pharaoh of the XVIII Dynasty, did not have blue blood. He came from a family of provincial governors and he himself was the head of the archers under Amon-Ofis IV, who was a great friend of his. Once he became a general, he took the place of old Ay, denied the ancient Atonian religion and cancelled the name of his predecessor Tutankhamun, to replace it with his own. One of his most brilliant diplomatic feats was the peace stipulated with the king of the Hittites Mursili II. Right from the moment it was discovered, it was generally believed that the tomb of Horemheb was to be found in the desert near Memphis. It was the English archaeologist Edward Ayrton who found the general’s name written in hieratic writing on a tablet relating to inspections of the royal tombs in the Valley. Once it was discovered, the tomb of Horemheb appeared to be the link between the previous tombs and the simpler ones of the XVIII Dynasty and the more important ones which were to follow. In fact, the corridor no longer curves at a right angle, but after a slight initial deviation it proceeds practically in a straight line as far as the sarcophagus room. When discovered, the painted bas-reliefs illustrating the usual scenes of the funeral objects dazzled archaeologists with their perfect, bright, luminous colours, as if they had just been completed.
Tomb of Amon-Ofis ll
Son of Thot-Mosis III, Amon-Ofis II ruled Egypt from 1450 to 1425. He oppressed a Syrian revolt and made his son and successor Thot-Mosis IV marry Miteniya, daughter of the king of the Mitanni. In the burial chamber is to be found the large quarzite sarcophagus wich when discovered, contained intact the Pharaoh’s mummy, his neck surrounded by a garland of flowers. The mummy was displayed in the tomb until 1934, when it was transported to Cairo Museum.
Tomb of Ramses l
The founder of the XIX Dynasty was a military man, general and vice roy of Horemheb, whom he succeeded in 1314. He only reigned for two years but during this period – as can be seen in the bas-reliefs in the hypostyle hall of Karnak – he encroached upon Hittite territory “as far as the village of Kadesh”. He immediately put his son Seti on the throne and made Tanis capital of the Empire. His tomb, discovered by Belzoni, is very basic as the old Pharaoh evidently died suddenly, while workmen were still busy on it.
Tomb of Seti l
The tomb of Seti I is the most imposing tomb in the Valley of Kings. The Pharaoh buried there was one of the most important in his Dynasty, the XIX. Son of Ramses I, he was head of the archers and vizier when his father was still alive. He revived the expansion policy in the East, marching into Syria, as far north as Tyre; he drove back Muwatalli, head of the Hittites, and reconquered Phoenicia.
His tomb ws discovered in October 1817 by Belzoni: this is why for a long time it was referred to as the “tomb of Belzoni”. 105 metres long, a steep flight of steps leads to a much lower level. Here a corridor leads to a second flight of steps that takes one to yet another corridor connected to a hall where Belzoni found a well evidently dug to put people on the wrong track. Belzoni noted a 65-meter crack in the other wall. Having adventurously surpassed the well, the archaeologist widened the opening to discover that it provided access to the room that ancient builders wished to keep hidden. However, none of the halls contained the sarcophagus; in fact, Belzoni was only half-way there. New corridors, new flights of steps and other rooms, lastly, Led to the sarcophagus which, however, no longer contained the mummy, in fact, seventy years later, the mummy was found in Deir el-Bahari whereas nowadays this outstanding sarcophagus forms part of the Soane collection in London. The extraordinary thing is that this tomb must have been dug even more deeply into the earth. In fact, underneath the sarcophagus ran a mysterious gallery that Belzoni started excavating for about ninety meters, before having to stop due to lack of air and the extreme friability of the rock. A further thirty meters were dug during the nineteen fifties. This gallery has remained a mystery and we still have not found out what purpose it served and where it led. But ancient legend in the Valley has it that the tunnel crosses the entire mountain before it comes out in the open near the temple of Hatshepsut in Deir el-Bahari. Belzoni maintained that this was the finest tomb to be discovered in Egypt: its decoration, in fact, covered walls, columns and ceilings, with paintings and bas-reliefs rich in meaning and symbolism.
Tomb of Thot-Mosis lll
A steep iron stairway takes us up ten meters above the Valley bottom to the tomb of the Napoleon of ancient times. The illegitimate son of Thot-Mosis II and appointed Pharaoh was very young upon the death of his father; he was ousted by his aunt Hatshepsut, wife of the dead Pharaoh, who confined him to some unknown territory for twenty-two years.
Only upon the death of his aunt did Thot-Mosis manage to reconquer the throne; in order to wreak his revenge upon her, he systematically cancelled her name on all monuments, replacing it with his own and that of this father. During his reign which lasted from 1504 to 1450, the country reached the heights of its glory; with seventeen military campaigns in Asia, it was at the very peak of its power. During his eighth expedition, he disembarked in Phoenicia and crossed Syria transporting the ships he had had built in Byblos across the desert. His victories are famous: Kadesh, Megiddo (where he defeated 330 Syrian princes) karkhemish when he crossed the Euphrates and defeated the Mitanni on their own home ground.
The Egyptian empire also included “the island of the great circle” that is Crete, Cyprus and the Cyclades Islands. In about 1450, shortly before the end of his reign, Thot-Mosis III ventured as far as the fourth cataract of the Nile bringing the boundaries of Egypt from the Euphrates as far as Napata in Nubia, now known as Gebel Barkal.
His tomb, dug into a winding ravine at the southern boundary of the valley, features a simple plan; orits highlight is the decoration illustrating scenes of the sun’s journey in the world of the dead, carried out in a meticulous, almost surrealistic style.