The Valley of the Kings

Before the Valley of the Kings

The earliest Kings of Ancient Egypt were buried in simple underground tombs covered by mud-brick structures which we call mastabas. The first King of Egypt to have a stone structure over his tomb was called Djozer - he reigned from 2630 - 2611 (BCE of course! - all dates in Ancient Egypt are BCE so we do not need to say so). We call this structure the Step Pyramid, and for more than a thousand years almost all Pharaohs who came after Djozer were buried in or under pyramids. There are altogether more than ninety pyramids in Egypt.

To read more about the pyramids of Egypt please click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

Each pyramid was actually only a part of what is called the funerary complex, almost a small town containing temples and storehouses and lots of other buildings. Long after the body of the King had been sealed into his tomb inside the pyramid people would come to the funerary complex to make the offerings needed to ensure his well-being (and through him, theirs) in the Realm of the Dead. To read more about this please click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

This created problems, because not only did everyone know where the pyramid was, they all had good reasons for coming close to it. As a result every tomb in every pyramid was very quickly broken into and looted (everything in it stolen).

The Valley of the Kings

Tuthmosis I, the third King of the New Kingdom who reigned from 1504 - 1429, resolved to do something different. He sent out his architect Imeni on a secret mission, no one seeing, no one hearing, to find a safe and secret place for his tomb.

To read about the New Kingdom please click here scarab

Imeni found the ideal spot: a set of steep and narrow limestone valleys well hidden in the hills on the West Bank of the River Nile, opposite Thebes (modern Luxor) For much of the length of these valleys the sides are high and vertical or near-vertical cliffs. At the end of these valleys was a pyramid-shaped mountain called Meretseger, which means She who loves peace and tranquillity.

Tuthmosis decided that this was where he would make his tomb, a series of underground chambers carved out of the solid rock. This would be a secret place; he would build his Temple of Millions of Years (what we now call his mortuary temple, where the people would bring the offerings to ensure his well-being in the Realm of the Dead) in a completely different place.

And this is what he did. And for the next five hundred years almost all the Kings of the New Kingdom were buried in the Valley of the Kings, as we now call it - not very accurately, because it is actually a series of interconnected valleys, all containing Royal Tombs. So far more than eighty tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, but there is one part of the Valley that has still not been excavated properly and we think there may still be some more tombs to be discovered here.

To house the workers who were to build the tombs and their families, a new village was built on the West Bank of the River Nile, close to but not in the Valley of the Kings. We now call the site of this village Deir el Medina. The Egyptians had a working week of ten days, and during this time the workers would live in simple huts inside the Valley, only going back to their village at the end of the week. This fact is relevant to the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Some tombs were cut out from the rock near the bottom of the Valley. First a narrow shaft was driven at an angle into the hillside, and then when it was long enough a door was made, and then a horizontal or only slightly sloping passage was dug leading further into the solid rock. When this was long enough a second door was made, and behind this the chambers of the tomb itself were carved out of the rock. The number of chambers varied. Tutankhamen's tomb has four chambers, but some have many more - the tomb known by Egyptologists (people who study Ancient Egypt) as KV5 has at least one hundred!. (To find out more about KV5 please see the note at the end of this page.) Remember that the workers had only very simple copper tools and once they were inside the tomb only lamps burning animal fat to see by.

The entrances to some tombs were made not near the floor of the valley but high up in the sides. Even with today's modern hi-tech climbing aids reaching these tombs is no mean feat: it must have been very difficult indeed for the Ancient Egyptian workers (and tomb robbers!).

When the King died his body was prepared for burial. Mummification took place in a tent or a specially constructed building (the Pure Place) in the open air because of the smell. The materials left over were put into jars and stored separately but not put into the tomb itself. Once the King's body had been placed in the tomb with all the other funerary goods the tomb was sealed and the entrance shaft filled in. Then the funeral banquet was held near the entrance to the tomb, and the remains of this were also stored - both of these facts are important when we consider the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb.

Individual tombs were not guarded - after all their position was supposed to be a secret! - but the only entrance to the Valley of the Kings was always guarded by soldiers, while other soldiers patrolled all the individual valleys continuously.

Even so most tombs were robbed within a few weeks or months of the mummy being buried.

After the Valley of the Kings

The last King to be buried in the Valley of the Kings was Ramesses XI (1100 - 1070), the last King of the New Kingdom. By this time law and order in the Valley of the Kings was collapsing and stealing from the Royal Tombs was not being punished by the authorities. Almost all known tombs in the Valley of the Kings were emptied of everything of value at this time - the mummies themselves were robbed of all their jewellery and then just discarded as of no further value. But a few faithful priests gathered up all the royal mummies they could find and reburied them secretly all together in a number of huge pits - these pits then remained undiscovered for nearly two thousand years until the end of the nineteenth century (CE), and almost all the New Kingdom royal mummies still in existance were recovered from these pits.

For reasons described in the page on Tutankhamen and his tomb, by this time Tutankhamen's tomb had been quite forgotten about and so neither the robbers nor the priests touched it - to read about this please click here scarab.gif - 472 bytes

After Ramesses XI and the end of the New Kingdom the Kings of Egypt were buried in other places, not in the Valley of the Kings. We think that many of these later royal tombs have not yet been discovered and that some may even have never been robbed.

Tomb KV5

Archaeologists have found thousand of tombs in Egypt from the time of the Pharaohs, although of course most of them were robbed of all the treasure in them within a few years of them being built. Because there are so many tombs they are all given numbers. Tombs in the Valley of the Kings have numbers preceded by KV - the numbers usually refer to their position in the Valley not the order in which they were originally built. Tutankhamen's tomb is KV62.

The tomb known as KV5 is probably, after Tutankhamen's, the most important tomb to be discovered this century. It was built by Ramesses II for those of his sons that died before him. As he reigned for sixty seven years and fathered more than one hundred children it is very large...

It was first discovered in 1825 but then forgotten about, and only rediscovered in 1994. It is still being excavated and books about it go out of date very quickly: the best way to find out about it is to visit its own web site scarab This is a fascinating site for everybody, adults and children, with a serious interest in Ancient Egypt

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Barry Gray August 2001