On November 26, 1922, the English Egyptologist Howard Carter peered anxiously through a small hole he had made minutes before in that intact door.
Behind it was the antechamber in which the objects of the funerary trousseau of King Tutankhamun were piled up. To the anxious question of Lord Carnarvon, his companion and patron, if he could see anything in the dim light of the candle, Carter only said: “Yes, wonderful things.”
Three days later, the official opening of the tomb took place before illustrious personalities, privileged witnesses of what many already described as the most important archaeological discovery of the century.
The place that had served as an eternity abode for the pharaohs of the New Kingdom was regaining its leading role in history.
The necropolis was carved out of the mountainous slopes of the west bank of the Nile, facing present-day Luxor. The ancient Egyptians called this space “the place of the gods west of Thebes”.
Inaugurated by the kings of the 18th dynasty, it remained active until the end of the 20th dynasty. Its origin, its expansion and its final abandonment were a reflection of funerary customs developed throughout one of the most splendid periods of Egypt.
The location, architecture and decoration of the tombs are loaded with 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 would 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 the one that the rest of the mortals were going to enjoy.
While for these the afterlife was an idyllic reproduction of earthly Egypt, which they entered after successfully passing the Judgment of Osiris, the pharaoh’s destiny was in heaven, together with the gods.
The king’s death was only the beginning of his regeneration, and the tomb was the architectural setting in which it would take place. The deceased king would ascend to heaven and merge with the sun disk.
The New Kingdom monarch was strongly assimilated to the god Osiris. This, king of the gods, was killed and brought back to life thanks to the magic of his wife Isis, then becoming the sovereign of the kingdom of the dead.
The entrance of the deceased king into 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 tombs of the Valley.
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. Once the death of the monarch had occurred, there were only 70 days, once the embalming process had been 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 arose as a great sacred space where both shores were closely related.
The eastern one housed the Temples 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 for the first time from the tomb and were built on the same shore, but in the plain area.
The royalty had chosen to excavate their tombs in the prehistoric valleys of the desert, sheltered by the two goddesses who protected the place: Hathor, “the lady of the west”, and Meretseger, “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 of ancient Egypt.
The kings ordered the work of their tombs to specialized workers. This was the origin of the artisan village of the “Place of Truth”, the current Deir el-Medina, a few kilometers from the Valley.
They were excellent stonemasons, specialists in cutting limestone strata and finding solutions to unexpected problems. Tombs like Hatshepsut’s show how they must have altered the direction of the tunnels because of the rock.
The frenetic activity in the Valley forced a strong organization of the workers, who organized themselves into two teams of 70 men each, working 10 days for one party.
The royal tomb underwent constant evolution throughout the New Kingdom, paralleling the religious development imposed by each dynasty.
This evolution was carried out according to the location and the design was simplified, but the size was enlarged and the decoration was increased.
The paths of the sun
On the occasion of the pharaoh’s death, the funeral procession transported the king from the eastern bank of Thebes to the western one.
As the sun sank below the horizon, the royal mummy reached the mountain and descended into the Valley of the Kings, making the same circuit as the setting sun.
Thus began the search for the regeneration of the deceased king linked to the destiny of the sun god Ra. The royal tomb became the architectural space that reproduced Ra’s journey through the underworld of Osiris.
That is why the type of tomb chosen was also underground, excavated in the rock, something that the kings of the Seventeenth Dynasty had already experienced for the first time. The type of pyramid tomb inspired solely by solar conceptions was definitively abandoned.
From the entrance of the tomb to the chamber of the sarcophagus, the pharaoh would follow the same path as the sun. Crossing the threshold, there was a sequence of corridors and stairs that reproduced the daily course of the sun during the day and night.
Each corridor was called the path of the sun (“first path of the sun, second path of the sun”…).
The first tombs of the 18th dynasty accentuated Osiris’ symbolism. They were conceived as entrances to the depths of the underworld, carving out steeply sloping corridors into the heart of the mountain.
The tomb of Queen Hatshepsut, the longest in the Valley with its more than two hundred meters, acquires a drop of almost one hundred. It was designed with the shaft bent into the characteristic “L” shape.
Later, the Ramesside tombs reinterpreted this idea and opted for a rectilinear east-west axis that underlined the solar character by representing the trajectory of the star.
The blue ceilings, sprinkled with stars, reproduced the diurnal journey of the sun , showing its transformation from a resplendent yellow disc in the form of a scarab to its entry into the night as an aged god with a ram’s head.
At the other end of the tomb was the chamber that would house the royal sarcophagus. Supported by four pillars, it was rectangular (occasionally it was cartridge-shaped).
It was called the “Room of Gold” because it was the place where the definitive regeneration of the king would take place.
In some tombs, such as that of Tutankhamun, the walls were painted yellow in clear allusion to their solar appearance. The sarcophagus was placed transversely in the chamber, but in the 20th dynasty it was symbolically aligned with the rectilinear solar axis. The ceiling simulated the celestial vault.
An astronomical ceiling with the representation of constellations and parts of the calendar is found for the first time in the tomb of Seti I.
When in 1817 Giovanni B. Belzoni, one of the great adventurers of the Valley, discovered the tomb, he already described it as one of the jewels of the necropolis.
landscapes of the 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 Ramesside period it was extended to all surfaces.
The wall decorations illustrated Ra’s nocturnal journey through the underworld. This daily journey of the sun was understood by the Egyptians as a journey by boat on an underground river in imitation of the journey through the Nile.
On this journey, the god Ra is accompanied by other gods who assist him in his daily victory.
The themes of the scenes are drawn 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 know how to successfully overcome the obstacles that appeared along the way.
The key was to know all the secrets: the names, the charms… to defeat the enemies.
Thus, one of the most repeated episodes is the formulas for the annihilation of the serpent Apophis “Apep”, incarnation of the forces of chaos and eternal adversary of Ra. Every night it was dismembered to be reborn the next day.
The main composition represented what the Egyptians called “what is in the Lower World”, or Book of the Amduat. It described the sun’s journey through the 12 night hours, which corresponded to 12 regions of the underground world.
In the last hour the sun was reborn over the horizon in the shape of a snake. The sarcophagus chamber will become the reserved space at the twelfth hour.
On the basis of the Book of the Amduat , another of the great compositions was elaborated: The Book of the Doors.
Each of the 12 hours was now separated by a gate defended by jinn and fire-breathing serpents. The vision of a different subterranean world, conceived as a succession of caverns and holes that the sun had to pass through, was described in the Book of Caverns.
Other texts such as the Litany of Ra or the Book of Heaven were widely developed in the Ramesside period, and imagined an increasingly complex afterlife for the king.
The closure of the tomb
The burial of the pharaoh was carried out by the successor king, since it was understood as an act of legitimation. Thus, King Ay was in charge of organizing the tomb of Tutankhamun and directing the funerals.
In the burial chamber he was represented performing the rite of “opening the mouth” of the young monarch’s mummy, the purpose of which was to restore the physical faculties of speaking or eating.
The funerary equipment of the pharaoh was made up of objects that were useful to him in the afterlife, such as food offerings, furniture, jewelry or ritual figures. All of them with an inherent magical-religious charge.
But without a doubt the main piece was the sarcophagus. The mummy was placed inside a wooden coffin which, in turn, was inserted into several coffins.
A rectangular stone sarcophagus enclosed the complex. Most of the sarcophagi were opened as a result of looting and transfers. Only Thutmose I and Thutmose III kept their original coffin.
Near the sarcophagus the canopic jars were placed, which contained the organs extracted in the mummification.
Once the sarcophagus was placed in the chamber, and a ritual banquet was held, the successive corridors and rooms were sealed with large stone slabs.
Decline and abandonment
Although the arrival of the Ramessides to the throne meant the transfer of the capital to Memphis, Thebes remained as a religious capital and tombs continued to be built in its necropolis.
In fact, the latest burial discovered in the Valley is that of Ramses XI, although it was never finished.
At the end of the New Kingdom, the Valley of the Kings witnessed its most convulsive period, the result of the political instability and economic crisis that marked the last reigns of the 20th dynasty.
Surveillance in the necropolis decreased, and uncontrolled grave robbing proliferated. Looting networks often acted with the complicity of workers from Deir el-Medina.
The discontent among the artisans had led to several protests that even led, as in the 29th year of Ramses III, to a general strike.
From the beginning of the New Kingdom the violability of the necropolis was already evident. Tutankhamun’s tomb was desecrated on several occasions shortly after its closure. Some were looted before being occupied, as happened with Seti II.
The scandal would break out during the reign of Ramses IX, who ordered the opening of numerous legal proceedings against offenders. Various papyri recorded the trials and convictions, exposing the corruption of high-ranking Theban officials.
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 necropolises 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 in the hands of the Twenty-first 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 on occasion for non-royal burials. With the lack of work, the Deir el-Medina community evacuated the city.
The clergy of Amun began a slow dismantling of the royal tombs, scouring the Valley in a contradictory performance: The pious restoration of the royal mummies and the unrestrained search for the gold they contained.