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Ancient Egypt - The Theban Necropolises

By Edited May 18, 2015 0 0

Home to the site of the greatest Egyptology discovery, The Tomb of Tutankhamun, Thebes was used from 1550 BC as the prime location for burial sites for Egypts sovereigns, having abandoned the use of Pyramids both due to the evolvement of religious concepts and as protection from tomb robbers. It was during the New Kingdom period (1550 - 1075 BC) of Egypts long history,  when immense burial chambers were dug into the rock and decorated with magical and religious texts. The aim of the contents of this were to allow the deceased king to overcome the many dangers that he would encounter on his journey through the underworld before joining the sun god Ra, of whom it was believed that was a son of.


Approximately 500 kilometers south of Egypts's capital Cairo, the necropolis at Thebes was home to probably the large collection of burial tombs, some of which contained major discoveries which would change our views on how Egypt was, over 3,500 years ago.


Thebes Map

Valley of The Kings

Having left the green banks of the Nile and passed through the colourful villages, the road leads towards the rocky mountains rising behind Deir al-Bahari and enters a valley which itself branches into two further narrow and rugged valleys: Valley of the Kings to the east, also known as the East Valley, and the Valley of the Monkeys or West Valley. The West Valley is not generally included in tourist itineraries due to the restricted number of tombs (just four), with just two open to the public. The Valley of the Kings instead houses 58 tombs.

Valley of The Kings

The area of Thebes West was originally conceived and utilised as a necropolis in the Firat Intermediate Period (2152 - 1994 BC) when three sovereigns of the Theban 11th Dynasty were buried there, beyond the west bank of the Nile at Al-Tarif. In the Middle Kingdom, the pharoah Mentuhotep I had his tomb and funerary temple built in the stunning natural amphitheatre of Deir al-Bahari, the remains still being visible alongside the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. The oldest underground tombs in the Valley of the Kings are one which is specifically attributed to Thutmosis I (built for his death in 1492 BC) and another built at the request of Hatsheput for herself and her father (Thutmosis I). As you can see, archaeology of items and tombs dating back nearly 3,500 years ago can never be a truely exact science, were two rival tombs built for him? and if so why? The last pharoah to be buried in the valley appears to be Rameses XI who lived from 1104 to 1075 BC.

The tombs of the Theban valleys are all underground and of the "syringe-type" as the Greeks called them, whereby it extended deep into the rock in a relatively straight line of rooms as opposed to open areas or with rooms spread sideways. The depth, as well as the extension of the excavations into the rock varied from tomb to tomb (no two are identical). All of the rooms - stairways, corridors, halls, niches and then finally the funerary chamber - are decorated with bright colours on tinted backgrounds, according to the fashions of the period in which they were built. Some of the tombs contain almost perfect frescos, others have been restored with varying degrees of skill, while others still are badly damaged and in some cases even unfinished. These incomplete displays actually allow us to see the techniques of painting and relief sculpture used by the ancient artists and understand the stages involved with creating these magnificent displays.

Tutankhamun Burial Chamber

The internal decoration, whilst being different in each one in pictoral terms, was repetitive in the themes depicted: there are always scenes of rituals and monotonous transcripts of passages from sacred religious texts such as the Book of the Dead and the religious works of the New Kingdom. The aim of this was of assisting the deceased on his journey through the underworld. There are frequent representations of the solar barque (the ship they were thought to use for this voyage) with numerous deities overseeing the pharaoh's journey and protecting him from the evil spririts and the serpent Apophis.

In order to try to protect the tombs, the Egyptian authorities open the tombs in rotation and so the choice of which sites to vist is not entirely free. This is so as to reduce the damage caused by the humidity brought in by the visitors.

Valley of The Queens

The Valley of the Queens is approximately 2 Kilometers from the Kings Valley. Today the locality is known as Biban al-Harim but in ancient times it had the more appropriate and attractive name of Ta-set-Neferu. While the compound place-name is difficult to translate, in the ancient Egyptian language the word Neferu expressed a concept of beauty found in numerous names that are associated in our collective imagination with the perfection of queens such as Nefertiti and Nefertari.

As with the Valley of the Kings, the site chosen for the tombs was protected by the pyramidal mountain al-Qurn and, moreover, according to some authorities, the natural cavern eroded by flood waters at the bottom of the valley might have represented a divine uterus from which the deceased buried in the valley could be reborn. Evidence of around a hundred tombs have been found in this valley alone. Work on many of these commenced but were subsequently abandoned due to unstable terrain, many others were damaged by the rare but heavy rains, while still others were destroyed by religious vandals who had built a monastery in the area, the ruins of which are still visible today.

Despite the name, the valley was used for the burial not only of queens, but also the sons and daughters of the kings and some court dignitaries, while in the Roman epoch even commoners were buried here. Research in the valley began following the Franco-Tuscan expedition organised by Champollion and Rosellini in 1829, although Belzoni had enetered the valley in 1816, leaving graffiti on the entrance to the tomb of Tyti. There followed Lepsius, Brugsch and finally the expedition of 1903 led by Schiapparelli who brought to light all of the most important tombs visible today, including the tomb of Nefertari, Rameses II's great royal bride, which is considered the best in the valley and one of the greatest of all the Theban tombs, all of which in this valley are dated from the 18th to 21st Dynasties (1550 - 945 BC).

Tomb Entrance

Tomb of Nefertari

Nefertari (Nofretari-Mery-am-Mut) was the favourite wife of Rameses II: never before in Egypt had a queen been held in such high regard by a pharaoh who, in her honour, ordered the construction of a temple at Abu Simbel alongside his own and the excavation of a tomb worthy of a soveriegn. This tomb is the most beautiful and most richly decorated in the Valley of the Queens.

The origins of Nefertari are not absolutely clear. She was probably born into a noble Theban family and may have been related in some way to Ay, the successor to Tutankhamun in 1323 BC. She married Rameses II before his coronation and had five or six children from him. We also know little about Nefertari's death other than the fact that after the jubilee marking the 30th Anniversary of Rameses II's reign, her name no longer appeared in the inscriptions and thus she may have died around 1250 BC at an age of around 40 to 45 years.

The tomb was discovered by Ernesto Schiapparelli in 1904 during the first systematic search of the Valley of the Queens performed by the Italian Archaeological Mission. It was closed to the public for many years to avoid damaging the paintings with restoration work that began in 1988 and being completed in 1992. Since then the tomb has been reopened but only for a restricted number of visitors at a time which means tickets need to be booked in advance.

The plan of this tomb is more complex than those of the others in the valley and was derived from the examples in the Valley of the Kings. Following the first flight of stairs from the entrance the sequence of rooms is as follows: antechamber, vestibule and annexe, a second flight of steps leading to the burial chamber with two annexes and a cell. The ceilings are fairly low and painted a deep blue with gold stars, as seen in a number of Valley of the Kings tombs, whilst the walls are decorated with excerpts from the Book of the Dead, with texts and figures illustrating the journey of the queen's spirit as she descends to the underworld before being reborn as a deity. 

Inside Nefertari's Tomb


And finally...

If you would like to read more about Egyptology and the rich 4,000 year old history of Ancient Egypt then you can learn about the Gods of Ancient Egypt, Ancient Egypt and the Cult of the Dead, about the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza and finally about the Birth of Modern Archaeology.



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