Middle East and North Africa: 10 spectacular sights off the beaten track
The Middle East and North Africa have plenty of world-famous attractions – Petra and the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and the souks of Marrakesh, the mi…
Across the Nile from Luxor, the Theban Necropolis testifies to the same obsession with death and resurrection that produced the Pyramids. Mindful of how these had failed to protect the mummies of the Old Kingdom pharaohs, later rulers opted for concealment, sinking their tombs in the arid Theban Hills while perpetuating their memory with gigantic mortuary temples on the plain below. The Necropolis straddled the border between the lands of the living and the dead, verdant flood plain giving way to boundless desert, echoing the path of the dead “going west” to meet Osiris as the sun set over the mountains and descended into the underworld.
Though stripped of its treasures over millennia, the Necropolis retains a peerless array of funerary monuments. The grandest of its tombs are in the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, but there’s also a wealth of vivid detail in the smaller Tombs of the Nobles. Equally amazing are the mortuary temples which enshrined the deceased pharaoh’s cult: among these, Deir el-Bahri is timelessly magnificent and Medinet Habu rivals Karnak for grandeur, while the shattered Ramesseum and Colossi of Memnon mock the pretensions of their founders. On a humbler level, but still executed with great artistry, are the funerary monuments of the craftsmen who built the royal tombs, and the ruins of their homes at Deir el-Medina.
Spread across wadis and hills beyond the edge of the cultivated plain, the Theban Necropolis is too diffuse and complex to take in on a single visit. Even limiting yourself to the Valley of the Kings, Deir el-Bahri and one or other of the major sites, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed by the end of the day. Most people favour a series of visits, taking into account the climate and crowds – both major factors in the enjoyment of a trip. In winter, mornings are pleasantly hot, afternoons baking but bearable, and most coach tours are scheduled accordingly, making the principal sites crowded between 9am and 2pm. As lots of people come early to beat the crowds, the royal tombs are actually emptiest in the late afternoon. In summer, it’s simply too hot throughout the afternoon, and you should get here as early as possible.
The west bank villages are incidental to most tourists visiting the Theban Necropolis, but integral to the landscape and atmosphere. Their fields stretch from the river banks to the temples on the desert’s edge; their goats root amid the Tombs of the Nobles. Though land remains paramount, almost every family is involved in tourism, renting out donkeys or making souvenirs on the west bank, commuting to hotel jobs in Luxor or sailing motorboats or feluccas on the Nile. Family and village ties bind them together and help them exploit the stream of rich visitors that flows across their land. Richard Critchfield’s Shahhat (sold in most Luxor bookshops) gives a fascinating glimpse into their lives two generations ago, before tourism really changed things.
Your first village encounter will be with GEZIRA, where public ferries disgorge villagers returning from Luxor, and tourists arrive in motorboats. The depot for private and service taxis to villages on the west bank is just inland. Traditionally Gezira’s role in tourism was to ferry tourists about or guide them on donkeys through the Necropolis, but the village now also has many hotels and flats for rent. Luxor Council tried to claim all the land along the waterfront but met fierce resistance from locals who’d built houses and hotels there, as well as from foreigners who’d bought apartments in the chic new district of Ramleh. Many only escaped demolition after the matriarch of the Khalifa family lay down in front of the bulldozers – after which Ramleh was nicknamed “Ramallah” (after the defiant town on the Israeli-occupied West Bank).
El-Tod and New Gurna
Gezira straggles to the El-Fadiya Canal, whose murky depths harbour giant monitor lizards (warran), which sometimes get sucked into farmers’ irrigation pumps, with gory results. Beyond the lackadaisical police checkpoint, EL-TOD lies across the main road from NEW GURNA, built in the 1940s with government funds to wean villagers away from Old Gurna in the hills. Designed by Hassan Fathy (1900–89), an early advocate of appropriate technology through architecture suited to local conditions, the settlement contains two superbly proportioned public buildings – the mosque and Palace of Culture – made of Fathy’s favourite material, mud brick. However, the village failed to attract many Gurnawis, and others moved in instead, to find that Fathy’s houses were too small for their extended families, obliging them to add breeze-block extensions.
Looming nearly 18m above fields of clover, the two enthroned Colossi of Memnon originally fronted the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, once the largest complex on the west bank – which later pharaohs plundered for masonry until almost nothing remained but these colossi. Both have lost their faces and crowns, and the northern one was cleaved to the waist by an earthquake in 27 BC. Subsequently, this colossus was heard to “sing” at dawn – a sound probably caused by particles breaking off as the stone expanded, or wind reverberating through the cracks.
Before the colossus ceased “singing” after repairs to the statue in 199 AD, the sound was attributed to the legendary Memnon (whom Achilles killed outside the walls of Troy) greeting his mother, Eos, the Dawn, with a sigh. The Greeks identified the colossi with Memnon in the belief that his father, Tithonus, had been an Egyptian king. Before this, the colossi had been identified with Amenhotep, Steward of Amenhotep III, whom posterity honoured as a demigod long after his royal master was forgotten.
Standing beside the barrier rope you can appreciate what details remain on the thrones and legs of the sandstone colossi. On the sides of the nearer one, the Nile-gods of Upper and Lower Egypt bind the heraldic plants of the Two Lands together. The legs of each colossus are flanked by smaller statues of Queen Tiy and the king’s mother, Mutemuia. They are covered in graffiti, including Roman epigrams, as high as you can reach.
Behind them, the long-lost Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III is being excavated to form a new archeological park and is currently off-limits to the public.
Secluded amid the bone-dry Theban Hills, removed from other parts of the Necropolis, the Valley of the Kings (Wadi el-Melouk in Arabic) was intended as the ultimate insurance policy guaranteeing life eternal. These secretive tombs of New Kingdom pharaohs were planned to preserve their mummies and funerary impedimenta for eternity. While most failed the test, their dramatic shafts and phantasmagorical murals are truly amazing, and the descent into the underworld and the fear of robbers who braved the traps is still imaginable in the less crowded, darker tombs.
Surrounded by limestone crags (the loftiest of which was believed to be the abode of Meretseger, snake-goddess of the Necropolis), the valley is a natural suntrap, hot even in winter, the heat permeating the deepest tombs, whose air is musty and humid. The tombs are like portals to another dimension, as alien as the valley itself – which today outwardly resembles a missile base on open-day, with crowds wandering from silo to silo.
The valley is approached by a serpentine road that follows the route of ancient funeral processions, with a tourist bazaar and visitors’ centre preceding the ticket office and site entrance (see Valley of the Kings). Only ten tombs are open at any one time (Luxor’s tourist office can tell you which); those of Horemheb and Seti I are permanently closed. The signposted tombs are numbered in order of their discovery, starting with the tomb of Ramses VII (known in antiquity) – #1 – and ending with the most recent discovery, #64. Egyptologists assign them the prefix KV (short for Kings Valley) to distinguish them from other numbered tombs in the Valley of the Queens.
After you’ve seen the tombs, you might enjoy hiking over the ridge to Deir el-Bahri, for a superb view of Hatshepsut’s temple.
Royal burials in the “Place of Truth” (as the Ancient Egyptians called it) date from the early XVIII to the late XX dynasties. The first to be buried here was probably Tuthmosis I (c.1504–1492 BC). Until the time of Ramses I, queens and royal children were entombed here. The tombs were hewn and decorated by skilled craftsmen (known as “Servants at the Place of Truth”) who dwelt at nearby Deir el-Medina. Work began early in a pharaoh’s reign and never exceeded six years’ duration; even so, some tombs were hastily pressed into service, or usurped by later kings.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of tombs: the convoluted, split-level ones of early XVIII Dynasty rulers such as Tuthmosis I and Amenhotep II, and the straighter, longer tombs of the XIX and XX dynasties. But there are enough exceptions to make any such generalisations risky; the past twenty years have seen the discovery of tombs consisting of over a hundred rooms, or just a single chamber. Identifying the tombs’ owners has often been difficult, thanks to tomb-robbing on a massive scale which the weak rulers of the XX Dynasty were unable to prevent. Both the governor and police chief of Thebes were implicated in the disposal of treasure during the XX Dynasty, while many of the robbers were the workmen who had built the tombs, embittered over arrears in pay. In response, the priests reburied many sarcophagi and objects in two secret caches that were only discovered in the late nineteenth century.
Tomb of Ramses VII (#1)
Set apart near the entrance to the valley, the short tomb of Ramses VII lay wide open for millennia, and is now glassed over. Greek and Roman graffiti mar its sunk-reliefs and vivid colours (red, yellow and blue on white), whose freshness is due to restoration. Amid the standard imagery are odd details like the figures entombed in cartouches on the walls of the final corridor, while the hippo-goddess Tweri is prominent in the nocturnal pantheon on the ceiling of the burial chamber, whose sarcophagus is veined with blue imagery. Other Ramessid tombs are finer, however.
Tomb of Ramses IV (#2)
The next tomb, created for Ramses IV, is more of a crowd pleaser. Its cheerful colours make amends for the inferior sunk-reliefs and abundant Greek and Coptic graffiti (notice the haloed saints on the right near the entrance). The ceiling of the burial chamber is adorned with twin figures of Nut. On the enormous pink-granite sarcophagus are magical texts and carvings of Isis and Nephthys to protect the mummy from harm. When these seemed insufficient, priests stashed Ramses in the tomb of Amenhotep II, whence the now empty sarcophagus has been returned. His mummy in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum shows him to have been a short, bald man with a long nose. He became pharaoh in his forties after the failure of a conspiracy to usurp the throne from his father, Ramses III (whose “testament” was recorded in the Great Harris Papyrus).
Tomb of Ramses IX (#6)
The tomb of Ramses IX belonged to one of the last rulers (c.1126–08 BC) of the XX Dynasty, towards the end of the New Kingdom. It’s indicative of waning majesty that the initial scenes in sunk-relief soon give way to flat paintings, akin to drawings. The walls of its stepped corridor (originally bisected by ramps, for moving the sarcophagus) depict Ramses before the gods and symbolic extracts from the Book of Caverns. Notice the solar barques bearing crocodiles, heads and other oddities, on the left-hand wall. The burial chamber is memorable for its Book of Night. Two sky-goddesses stretch back-to-back across the ceiling, encompassing voids swirling with creatures, stars and heavenly barques. While the king’s sarcophagus pit gapes empty, his resurrection is still heralded on the walls by Khepri, the scarab incarnation of the reborn sun at dawn.
Tomb of Tiy or Smenkhkare (#55)
Identifying mummies isn’t easy if the tomb was left undecorated and later looted – or the excavation was botched. The tomb designated KV55 has been a conundrum ever since Theodore Davis failed to record its contents before removing the decrepit mummy in 1907, which he attributed to Queen Tiy – the wife of Amenhotep III – due to its pelvic shape and “feminine” position (left arm bound across the chest, right arm alongside the body), and a gilded panel depicting her with Akhenaten.
Later forensic analysis identified the bones as those of a man under 26 with signs of hydrocephalus, which seemingly fitted Akhenaten, until another examination in 2000 identified a man no older than his early twenties with a skull similar to Tutankhamun’s, which many think was his mysterious predecessor, Smenkhkare. DNA analysis has confirmed a familial relationship between the mystery man and Tutankhamun, but the riddle of his identity is still unsolved.
Tomb of Tutankhamun (#62)
One of the world’s most famous tombs, the tomb of Tutankhamun is neither large nor imposing by the standards of the Valley of the Kings, reflecting Tut’s short reign, c.1336–27 BC (see Tomb of Mery-Re II (#2)) as an XVIII Dynasty boy-pharaoh. Its renown stems from its belated discovery and its amazing hoard of treasures (now mostly in the Egyptian Museum). After archeologist Howard Carter had dug in vain for five seasons, his backer, Lord Carnarvon, was on the point of giving up when the tomb was found on November 4, 1922. Fears that it had been plundered were dispelled when they broke through the second sealed door – officially on November 26, though in fact Carter and Carnarvon secretly entered the previous night, stole several items and resealed the door. Unpacking everything took nearly ten years, the whole process being recorded in more than 1800 superb photographs by Harry Burton.
In 1922, Carter found the door at the bottom of the stairway walled up and sealed with Tut’s cartouche and the seal of the Necropolis, but signs of repairs, the detritus in the corridor and another resealed door at the end indicated that robbers had penetrated the antechamber during the XX Dynasty. Most of the funerary objects now in the Egyptian Museum were crammed into the undecorated chambers. Another wall (now replaced by a barrier) enclosed the burial chamber, which was almost filled by four golden shrines packed one inside another, containing Tut’s stone sarcophagus and triple-layer mummiform coffin, of which the innermost, solid gold coffin and Tut’s mummy remain.
In 2005 the mummy was CT-scanned in situ, revealing a broken leg that might have given rise to a fatal infection, casting doubt on the theory of a head injury that some had attributed to murder. More recent DNA analysis has revealed that Tut had a hereditary bone disorder and malaria (supported by the discovery of walking sticks and medicines in his tomb), the combination of which may have proved fatal.
The tomb’s colourful murals run anticlockwise, starting with the funeral procession where nine friends and three officials drag Tut’s coffin on a sledge. Next, his successor Ay (see The Royal Tomb) performs the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and makes sacrifices to the sky-goddess Nut. The deceased king embraces Osiris, followed by his ka (in the black wig). His solar boat and sun-worshipping baboons appear on the left wall. On the hard-to-see entrance wall, Anubis and Isis escort Tutankhamun to receive life from Hathor.
Tomb of Ramses VI (#9)
One reason why Tut’s tomb stayed hidden for so long was that it lay beneath mounds of rubble from the tomb of Ramses VI (c.1143–36 BC), which has been a tourist attraction since antiquity, when the Greeks called it the “Tomb of Memnon”. The first two corridors have suffered from centuries of graffiti, but worse occurred in 1992, when the ceiling fell down and had to be glued back on in nearly one thousand pieces.
The tomb was begun by Ramses V but usurped and enlarged by his successor, whose offering of a lamp to Horus of the Horizon opens the Book of Gates, which faces other sunk-reliefs from the Book of Caverns. Its astronomical ceiling continues through a series of corridors (note the winged sun-disc over the lintel and Ramses’ cartouches on the door jambs). Where the Book of Gates reaches the Hall of Osiris, a flame-breathing snake and catfish-headed gods infest the Book of Caverns. As Re’s barque approaches the Seventh Gate, beyond which twelve gods hold a rope festooned with whips and heads, the Book of Caverns depicts a procession of ka figures. From here on, the astronomical ceiling features an attenuated sky-goddess and the Book of Day and Night.
The eighth and ninth divisions of the Book of Gates and fifth division of the Book of Caverns decorate the next chamber, originally a vestibule to the hall beyond, which marked the limits of Ramses V’s tomb. This contains the concluding sections of the Book of Gates, the seventh division of the Book of Caverns and a summary of the world’s creation. The rear wall also features a scene of Ramses VI making offerings and libations to Osiris. On the pillars, he makes offerings to Khonsu, Amun-Re, Meretseger, Ptah-Sokar, Ptah and Re-Herakhte.
The descent to the next corridor is guarded by winged serpents representing the goddesses Nekhbet and Neith, Meretseger and Selket. On the corridor walls appear the introductory and middle sections of the Book of Amduat; on the ceiling, extracts from athe Books of Re and the Book of Day and Night. Scenes in the next corridor relate the fourth and fifth and eighth to eleventh chapters of the Book of Amduat. The small vestibule beyond contains texts from the Book of Coming Forth by Day, including the “negative confession”. On the ceiling, Ramses sails the barques of Day and Night across the first register, while Osiris rises from his bier in the second.
Lovely back-to-back versions of the Book of Day and Book of Night adorn the ceiling of Ramses VI’s burial chamber, where his image makes offerings at either end of one wall. The rear and right-hand walls carry portions of the Book of Aker, named after the earth-god of the underworld who fettered the coils of Apopis, safeguarding Re’s passage. Incarnated as a ram-headed beetle, the sun-god is drawn across the heavens in his divine barque.
The king’s black granite sarcophagus was smashed open by treasure hunters in antiquity, and his mummy left so badly damaged that the priests had to pin the body to a board to provide the remains with a decent burial in another tomb.
Tomb of Merneptah (#8)
Merneptah (c.1213–03 BC), the fourteenth son of Ramses II, didn’t become pharaoh until his 50s, having outlived thirteen brothers with prior claims on the throne. On the evidence of his mummy, he was afflicted by arthritis and hardening of the arteries, and underwent dental surgery in old age. Many scholars hold, on the strength of his “Israel Stele” at Karnak and the identification of his father as the Pharaoh of the Oppression, that Merneptah was the Pharaoh of the Exodus, although this is disputed by Rohl.
Like other tombs of the XIX Dynasty, his descends in corridors, with a total length of about 80m. In the first corridor, Merneptah is welcomed by Re-Herakhte and Khepri, the Litany of Re unfolds opposite the sixteen avatars of Osiris, Re’s barque is pulled through the underworld and Nekhebkau leads his soul towards Anubis. Beyond a pit watched by Thoth and Anubis, another corridor decorated with the Book of Amduat leads to an antechamber with images of Osiris and Nephthys, and Merneptah as Imutef.
The next hall is a false burial chamber (a trick that seldom fooled robbers) decorated with hymns to Osiris and scenes from the Book of Gates. Notice the binding of the Serpents of Chaos, a tug-of-war over a “rope” of human souls and the Osirian avatars above the lintel. The final corridors are largely bare, but for the outer lid of Merneptah’s sarcophagus – left there by thieves – and the faint image of a monkey.
In the real burial chamber, the gods voyage through the night across the ceiling, while murals show the metamorphosis of Khepri into Re, encircled by bird-men requesting the deceased’s ba (soul), and Khnum piloting a boat with the pharaoh’s mummy floating above. There is a carving of the sky-goddess Nut inside Merneptah’s massive granite sarcophagus.
Tomb of Ramses III (#11)
The grandest of the Ramessid tombs is that of Ramses III. His 31-year reign (c.1184–54 BC) marked the heyday of the XX Dynasty, whose power declined under the later Ramessids. Like his temple at Medinet Habu, the tomb harks back to the earlier glories of the New Kingdom. Uniquely for royal tombs, its colourful sunk-reliefs include scenes of everyday life. From another vignette derives its popular name, the Tomb of the Harpists.
Off the entrance corridors lie ten side chambers, originally used to store funerary objects. Within the first pair are fragmentary scenes of butchery, cooking and baking and ships setting sail, those with furled sails bound downriver. Next, Hapy blesses grain-gods and propitiates snake-headed Napret, with her escort of aproned uraei. The bull of Meri and the cow of Hesi coexist with armoury scenes, while hermaphrodite deities bring offerings to a treasury. Ramses owns cattle and minerals, and from his boat inspects peasants working in the Fields of Yaru. In a famous scene, two harpists sing to Shu and Atum, while Harsomtus and Anhor greet the king; the lyrics of the song cover the entrance wall. The twelve forms of Osiris are possibly linked to the twelve divisions of the night.
The dead-end tunnel shows where diggers accidentally broke into a neighbouring tomb, at which point the original builder, Pharaoh Sethnakht, abandoned it and appropriated Tawsert’s. When construction resumed under Ramses, the tomb’s axis was shifted west. The corridor has scenes from the fourth and fifth hours of the Book of Amduat. Part of the Book of Gates specifies four races of men: Egyptians, Asiatics, Negroes and Libyans (along the bottom). On the facing wall, the pinioned serpent Apopis is forced to disgorge the heads of his victims, in the fifth chapter of the Book of Gates. In the side room are scenes from the Book of Amduat. The rest of the tomb has been barred since its ceiling fell down. Ramses III’s mummy (in the Egyptian Museum) was the model for Boris Karloff’s figure in the 1930s film The Mummy.
Tomb of Amenhotep II (#35)
One of the deepest tombs in the valley lies at the head of the wadi beyond Horemheb’s tomb. Built for Amenhotep II (c.1427–00 BC) midway through the XVIII Dynasty, it has more than ninety steps and gets hotter and stuffier with each level you descend. When the tomb was discovered in 1898, the body of the king was still in its sarcophagus and nine other royal mummies were found stashed in another chamber. The tomb’s defences included a deep pit (now bridged) and a false burial chamber to distract robbers from the lower levels (which would have been sealed up and disguised).
From a pillared vestibule, steps descend into the huge chamber. On its six square pillars, Amenhotep is embraced and offered ankhs by various gods. Beneath a star-spangled ceiling, the walls are painted pale beige and inscribed with the entire Book of Amduat, like a continuous scroll of papyrus. Notice the preliminary pen sketches to the left of the left-hand niche. When found in his quartzite sarcophagus (still in situ), the king’s mummy had a floral garland around its neck. The second chamber on the right served as a cache for the mummies of Tuthmosis IV, Merneptah, Seti II, Ramses V and VI and Queen Tiy, after their original tombs proved insecure.
In 2006 Joann Fletcher rediscovered three mummies that had been catalogued, sealed up and forgotten in 1898. She believes that one might be the mummy of Akhenaten’s queen, Nefertiti; a theory other Egyptologists dismiss as wishful thinking.
Tomb of Siptah (#47)
Siptah (c.1194–88 BC) was the only son of Seti II, born not of Queen Tawsert but of a Syrian concubine, Sutailja. Since he was only a boy, with an atrophied leg, Tawsert ruled as regent in alliance with an official named Bay (also of Syrian origin). After Siptah came of age, Tawsert married him; some believe that his death six years later was orchestrated by Tawsert and Bay. Siptah’s tomb was usurped by a later pharaoh, its contents smashed up in antiquity, and his mummy ended up in the tomb of Amenhotep II. There it was found in 1905, when it was determined that he probably had cerebral palsy or polio as an infant. However, his tomb looks impressive, with a finely dressed Siptah mingling with the gods in the Litany of Ra and floating through scenes from the Book of Amduat.
Tomb of Tawsert/Sethnakht (#14)
Located en route to Seti II’s tomb, this is unusual for having two burial chambers. It originally held the mummy of Seti’s wife, Queen Tawsert, but was usurped by Pharaoh Sethnakht (c.1186–84 BC) after his own tomb (now Ramses III’s) ran into difficulties. In the first corridor you find Sethnakht making offerings to Horus and Isis, and Osiris enshrined. Further on, a ram-headed god with a knife is followed by Anubis and Wepwawet. Texts from the Book of the Dead cover what was meant to be Tawsert’s tomb chamber beyond which steps lead down towards Sethnakht’s vault.
At the bottom of the stairs, the pharaoh’s soul attains harmony with Maat, cherishing the Papyrus and Lotus of the Two Lands, while Anubis embalms his mummy in a side chamber further on. A hall of texts from the Book of Caverns and the Opening of the Mouth ceremony precedes the burial chamber, whose pillars show the gods greeting Sethnakht, while the walls depict the resurrection of Osiris and Re’s journey through the night.
Tomb of Seti II (#15)
At the end of the wadi lies the tomb of Seti II (c.1200–1194 BC), which Arthur Mace used as a storage and restoration area during the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Its long, straight corridors are typical of the XIX Dynasty, decorated with colourful scenes. Due to Seti’s abrupt demise, however, there was only time to carve sunk-reliefs near the entrance, and the rest was hastily filled in with paintings or outline drawings. The king’s mummy was later hidden in tomb #35 and replaced by that of an anonymous dignitary, which was plundered by thieves, who left only the sarcophagus lid. His mummy indicates that he suffered from arthritis, but had good teeth, which was unusual for that time.
Tomb of Tuthmosis III (#34)
Likewise secreted in a separate wadi, high up in a cleft, the tomb of Tuthmosis III (c.1479–25 BC) is one of the oldest in the valley. Its concealment and (futile) defences make this tomb especially interesting, though some are disappointed by its artwork. Having ascended a wooden stairway to the cleft, you descend through several levels, crossing a pit by footbridge to reach a vestibule. The walls depict 741 deities as stick figures, in imitation of the format used on papyrus texts from the Middle Kingdom onwards, which was favoured for murals early in the New Kingdom. Reduced to their essentials, the ramps and shafts that led into the underworld, and Khepri’s role in pulling Re’s barque, are clearly visible.
The unusual rounded burial chamber is also decorated with outline figures and symbols. Although the yellow background simulates aged papyrus, the texts were only painted after Tuthmosis had been laid to rest; there’s a crossed-out mistake on the “instruction” fresco.
Elsewhere you’ll notice double images (as at Abu Simbel), believed by some archeologists to have been meant to suggest motion, and others to be the result of overcarving. On one of the pillars, Tuthmosis’ mother stands behind him in a barque; the register below shows three wives and a daughter, to the right of which a tree-goddess suckles the young king. By shining a torch inside the quartzite sarcophagus, you can admire a lovely carving of Nut, whose arms would have embraced his mummy before priests removed it to a safer hiding place near Deir el-Bahri.
Tomb of Ramses I (#16)
Buried next door to Seti I is his father, Ramses I, founder of the XIX Dynasty, who was not of royal blood, but the son of a commander from Avaris. During his one-year reign (c.1295–94 BC), Ramses campaigned in Asia, reopened the turquoise mines of Sinai and married Sitre, the daughter of another soldier from the eastern Delta, siring an heir to continue the dynasty. His tomb has the shortest entrance corridor of any in the valley, leading to a small, finely painted burial chamber, the colours still bright against a blue-grey background. On the left wall are nine black sarcophagi in caverns, above twelve goddesses representing the hours of the night, from the Book of Gates. Elsewhere, Ramses appears with Maat, Anubis, Ptah, Osiris and other deities. In 1999, the royal mummy was traced to the Niagara Falls Museum, where it had supposedly lain, unidentified, since it was dubiously acquired in 1850. Since being returned to Egypt in 2004, it has been in the Luxor Museum, though the SCA is not convinced that it actually is Ramses.
Tomb of Monthuhirkhopshef (#19)
Sited high up a side-wadi, this seldom-visited tomb casts light on the life of Theban princes – in this case Monthuhirkhopshef (“The Arm of Montu is Mighty”), a son of Ramses IX who died in his teens (c.1000 BC). Its corridor is adorned with life-sized reliefs of gods receiving offerings from the prince, who wears the blue-and-gold sidelock of youth, a finely pleated linen skirt and elaborate make-up. Eye make-up was worn by both sexes in Ancient Egypt; it’s thought that some of the ingredients helped to prevent eye diseases such as glaucoma.
The Western Valley
The sheer cliffs and eerie silence of the Western Valley (Biban el-Gurud) recapture the atmosphere that pervaded the Valley of the Kings before mass tourism and modernization. Though easily reached by taxi, trail-bike or walking (2hr return from the Valley of the Kings car park), the Western Valley sees few visitors and contains only four tombs (two of them royal), of which just one is open.
Halfway up the valley lies a vast tomb (#22) built by Amenhotep III, whose son Akhenaten began his own tomb here before moving his capital to Tell el-Amarna. Tutankhamun may also have intended to be buried in the Western Valley, but ended up in the Valley of the Kings, leaving an empty tomb to be exploited, farther up the wadi.
This Tomb of Ay (#23) is attributed to Tut’s successor due to the cartouches in its burial chamber (the only part to be decorated). As vizier, Ay had prepared his own tomb at Tell el-Amarna, but saw the need to associate himself with earlier kings after becoming pharaoh. Ay’s tomb is unique for depicting him hunting fishes, birds and hippopotami in the marshes (typical of nobles’ tombs, but not royalty), but is otherwise so similar to Tutankhamun’s that it’s thought that both were painted by the same artist(s).
Sun Temple of Thoth
The images (and mummified remains) of baboons found in Ay’s tomb are probably related to a remote Sun Temple of Thoth (the god of wisdom to whom baboons were sacred). Perched on a spur 400m above the Western Valley, a mud-brick structure built during the XI Dynasty overlies a stone temple from the Archaic Period – the oldest known one in Upper Egypt. This explains why the Western Valley is sometimes called the Valley of Baboons or Wadi Monkey. The Ancient Egyptians believed it was the abode of the snake-goddess Meretseger (“She who loves Silence”), the guardian of the Necropolis.
Of all the sites on the west bank, none can match the breathtaking panache of Deir el-Bahri. Set amid a vast natural amphitheatre in the Theban Hills, the temple rises in terraces, the shadowed verticals of its colonnades drawing power from the massive crags overhead. Its ramps and courts look modern in their stark simplicity, but in ancient times would have been softened and perfumed by gardens of fragrant trees. The reliefs that cover its colonnades and chapels bespeak of an extraordinary woman, one of the most successful rulers of the XVIII Dynasty.
Deir el-Bahri (Northern Monastery) is the Arabic name for the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, which she herself called Djeser Djeseru, the “Splendour of Splendours”. Unlike other royal mortuary temples, built on the flood-plain, it was never covered by sand and silt, and has always been the most prominent feature of the Theban Necropolis.
In 1997 Deir el-Bahri tragically made headlines around the world when 58 tourists and four guards were shot or stabbed to death by Islamist terrorists on the temple’s Middle Terrace. The day is still remembered on the west bank, especially by the donkey guides who witnessed the massacre from the clifftop above.
The Lower Terrace
In ancient times an avenue of sphinxes probably ran from the Nile to the temple’s Lower Terrace, which was planted with myrrh trees and cooled by fountains (the stumps of two 3500-year-old trees remain near the final barrier). At the top and bottom of the ramp to the next level were carved pairs of lions (one of each is still visible). Before ascending the ramp, check out its flanking colonnades, whose reliefs were defaced by Tuthmosis III, and later by Akhenaten. While Hatshepsut’s image remains obliterated, those of Amun were restored after the Theban counter-revolution. Behind the northern colonnade (right of the ramp) can be seen a cow-herd, wildfowl and a papyrus swamp; reliefs in the southern colonnade show the transport by river of two obelisks from Aswan – doubtless the pair that Hatshepsut erected at Karnak.
The Middle Terrace once also boasted myrrh trees, acquired from the Land of Punt in an expedition that’s depicted along one of the square-pillared colonnades flanking the central ramp to the uppermost level.
The Birth Colonnade
To the right of the ramp is the so-called Birth Colonnade, whose faint reliefs assert Hatshepsut’s divine parentage. Starting from nearest the ramp, its rear walls show Amun (in the guise of Tuthmosis I) and her mother Queen Ahmosis (seated on a couch), their knees touching. Next, bizarre deities lead the queen into the birth chamber, where the god Khnum fashions Hatshepsut and her ka (both represented as boys) on his potter’s wheel. Her birth is attended by Bes and the frog deity Heqet; goddesses nurse her, while Thoth records details of her reign. The sensitive expressions and delicate modelling convey a sincerity that transcends mere political expediency.
At the far end of the colonnade, steps lead down into a Chapel of Anubis with fluted columns and colourful murals. Tuthmosis III and a falcon-headed sun-god appear over the niche to the right; a yellow-skinned Hathor on the facing wall; offerings by Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis to Anubis on the other walls. As elsewhere, the images of Hatshepsut were defaced in the latter years of Tuthmosis III’s reign. Notice the friezes of cobras in the central, barrel-vaulted shrine.
The Punt Colonnade
On the other side of the ramp is the famous Punt Colonnade, relating Hatshepsut’s journey to that land. Though others had visited Punt to obtain precious myrrh for temple incense, Hatshepsut sought living trees to plant outside her temple. Alas, the faintness of the reliefs (behind a guard-rail) makes it difficult to follow the story as it unfolds (from left to right). The Egyptian flotilla sails from the Red Sea Coast, to be welcomed by the king of Punt and his wife. In exchange for metal axes and other goods, the Egyptians depart with myrrh trees and resin, ebony, ivory and panther skins; baboons play in the ships’ rigging. Back home, the spoils are dedicated to Amun and the precious myrrh trees bedded in the temple gardens.
The Punt Colonnade leads into a larger Chapel of Hathor, whose face and sistrum (sacred rattle) form the capitals of the square pillars. In the first, roofless, pillared chamber, the goddess appears in her bovine and human forms, and suckles Hatshepsut (whose image has not been defaced here) on the left-hand wall.
The next chamber features delicate reliefs of festival processions (still quite freshly coloured) on the right-hand wall. Peering into the gated sanctuary, you can just about make out another intact Hatshepsut worshipping the divine cow, and an alcove containing a portrait of Senenmut, which would have been hidden when the doors were open. Apocryphally, it was this humble claim to be recognized within the pharaoh’s temple that caused his downfall. After fifteen years of closeness to Hatshepsut and her daughter Neferure (evinced by a statue in the Egyptian Museum, which some regard as proof of paternity), Senenmut abruptly vanished from the records late in her reign.
When archeologists excavated the sanctuary in the early twentieth century they found it stacked with baskets full of wooden phalluses, seemingly used in fertility rituals.
The Upper Terrace
Reached by a ramp with falcon statues at the bottom, the Upper Terrace has emerged from decades of research and restoration work by Polish and Egyptian teams. Eight giant statues of Osiris front its portico and a red granite portal into a courtyard flanked by colonnades and sanctuaries. Bodyguards and oarsmen rowing the royal barque are depicted on the inside wall to the left as you enter. On the far wall are eight niches for votive statues, carved with hieroglyphs that rival the delicacy of Seti’s reliefs at Abydos.
You can peep into (but not enter) the Sanctuary of Amun, dug into the cliff aligned towards Hatshepsut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings on the other side of the mountain. In Ptolemaic times the sanctuary was extended and dedicated to Imhotep and Amenhotep, the quasi-divine counsellors of pharaohs Zoser and Amenhotep III. Beneath it lies another burial chamber for Hatshepsut, presumably favoured over her pro forma tomb in the Valley of the Kings, since it was dug at a later date.
Other temples near Deir el-Bahri
From the heights of Hatshepsut’s temple you can gaze southwards over the ruins of two similar edifices beneath the cliffs. The Mortuary Temple of Tuthmosis III was long ago destroyed by a landslide, but a painted relief excavated here can be seen in the Luxor Museum.
More remains of the far older Temple of Mentuhotpe II, the first pharaoh to choose burial in Thebes (XI Dynasty). Unlike his XVIII Dynasty imitators, Mentuhotpe was actually buried in his mortuary temple; his funerary statue is now exhibited in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
How much may still lie undiscovered is suggested by the Tomb of Montemhat, mayor of Thebes under Amenhotep II. Presently being excavated, it has a courtyard as big as a tennis court, flanked by giant carvings of heraldic plants, visible 20m beneath the desert’s surface – be careful peering over the edge of the pit. You can see a long underground ramp leading to the tomb beside the tuf-tuf terminus of Hatshepsut’s temple.
Visible en route to the Valley of the Kings and Deir el-Bahri, DRA’ ABUL NAGA is a village whose alabaster workshops produce the statues and ashtrays sold in tourist shops throughout Egypt. Many of the workshops have garishly painted facades to attract visitors, and if you’re curious to see how alabaster is worked, this is the place to look. Otherwise, the village is notable for two tombs in the vicinity.
Tombs of Roy and Shuroy
Signposted by the main road beyond Dra’ Abul Naga, both these tombs feature remarkably fresh colours. High priest Roy from the time of Horemheb has a small rectangular tomb (#255), whose scenes of wailing mourners, sacrificial bulls and funerary offerings are offset by a ceiling checkered with yellow, red, black and white crosses. His near namesake Shuroy was a brazier-bearer at Amun’s temple during the XIX Dynasty and has a larger T-shaped tomb (#13). Here, the murals are fragmentary or merely sketched in, though there’s a fine frieze of dwarfs along the top of the wall to the left inside the transverse hall.
Conspicuously sited on a low ridge overlooking the road to the Valley of the Kings, the Carter House is an evocative museum dedicated to the British Egyptologist Howard Carter (1874–1939), who lived here during his five-year search for Tutankamun’s tomb and its subsequent excavation.
Simple to modern eyes, the mud-brick house features such Edwardian comforts as a gramophone and a kitchen with a bottled-gas stove; a spare bedroom for Carter’s patron Lord Canarvon and his daughters; and a tiny photographer’s darkroom used for recording artefacts. You can see Carter’s shaving mug, sun-parasols and the magnifying glass with which he pored over excavation plans, seeking clues to the tomb’s whereabouts.
A documentary film about his discovery of the tomb may be seen if the TV (removed for safety after the Revolution) has been replaced, but the SCA’s plan to construct life-size replicas of the royal tombs nearby – starting with Tutankhamun’s and Seti I’s – has been indefinitely put on hold (see Excavating and conserving the Valley of the Kings).
The Stoppelaer House, further uphill, is another former archeological dig-house. German, Polish and French Egyptological missions each have their own houses in the Necropolis, where they live during the winter excavation season.
Temple of Seti I
While nothing remains of the temples of Tuthmosis IV, Tuthmosis II, Ay and Horemheb that once extended towards Medinet Habu, there is a substantial Temple of Seti I near Gurna Ta’rif, at the opposite end of the Necropolis. This is the only temple in Egypt where the future Ramses II is depicted as a prince, wearing a tiger-skin tunic and kneeling before his father, Seti – although its reliefs are far inferior to those in Seti’s temple at Abydos.
Midway between Deir el-Bahri and the Tombs of the Nobles lies a burial ground known as the Asasif Tombs, currently being studied by several archeological teams. While some of its 35 tomb chapels date from the XVIII Dynasty, the majority are from the Late Period (XXV–XXVI Dynasty), when Thebes was ruled by Nubian kings, and then from the Delta.
The most likely to be open is the Tomb of Pabasa (#279), the steward to a Divine Votaress of Amun during the XXVI Dynasty. His tomb reflects the Saïte Dynasty obsession with the Old Kingdom, having a similar design to tombs at Saqqara. Its massive gateway leads into a pillared court with scenes of hunting, fishing and viticulture (note the bee-keeping scene on the central column). A funeral procession and the voyage to Abydos appear in the vestibule.
Also worth noting is the Tomb of Kheru-ef (#192), a steward of Queen Tiy during the Amarna period. His scenes depict a Jubilee Festival, Tiy and Amenhotep III, musicians, dancers and playful animals – as lyrical as those in Ramose’s tomb.
Beyond the Asasif Tombs, the barren, windswept foothills are pockmarked with traces of GURNA (often spelt “Qurna” but pronounced with a “G”). For generations this ramshackle village supplied the workforce for archeological digs while quietly robbing tombs beneath its own homes. The authorities finally bulldozed the entire village in 2007 under UNESCO’s masterplan, compelling its inhabitants to move to the purpose-built settlement of Gurna Jedid.
The wasteland at the crossroads near Gurna Ta’rif is the site for the annual Moulid of Abu Qusman, commemorating a local holy man known for his outspokenness (lambasting tourists on the ferry for their immodest attire) and miracles (crossing the Nile on a hankerchief), who died in 1984. The festival is held on the 27th day of the Islamic month of Sha’ban.
The Tombs of the Nobles are a study in contrasts to their royal counterparts. Whereas royalty favoured concealed tombs in secluded valleys, Theban nobles and high officials were ostentatiously interred in the limestone foothills overlooking the great funerary temples of their masters. The pharaohs’ tombs were sealed and guarded; the nobles’ were left open for their descendants to make funerary offerings. Whereas royal tombs are filled with scenes of judgement and resurrection, the nobles’ chosen artwork dwells on earthly life and its continuation in the hereafter. Given more freedom of expression, the artists excelled themselves with vivid paintings on stucco (the inferior limestone on this side of the hills militates against carved reliefs).
The tombs’ layout marks a further evolution in funerary architecture since the Middle Kingdom tombs of Beni Hassan. Most are entered via a courtyard, with a transverse hall preceding the burial shrine with its niche containing an effigy of the deceased (or statues of his entire family). Strictly speaking, they are tomb chapels rather than tombs, since the graves themselves lie at the bottom of a shaft (usually inaccessible).
There are four clusters of tombs ranged across an area once occupied by Old Gurna, namely: Rekhmire and Sennofer; Ramose, Userhat and Khaemhat; Nakht and Menna; and Khonsu, Userhet and Benia. The first two lie furthest west and back from the road; the next trio downhill towards the Ramesseum; and the last two sets of tombs to the northeast, closer to Deir el-Bahri.
Tomb of Rekhmire (#100)
The richly decorated tomb of Rekhmire casts light on statecraft and foreign policy under Tuthmosis III and Amenhotep II, whom Rekhmire served as vizier. The badly damaged murals in its transverse hall show him collecting taxes from Upper and Lower Egypt, and inspecting temple workshops, charioteers and agricultural work. Around the corner from his ancestors, grapes are trod in large tubs and the juice is strained and stored in jars.
Along the rear wall are depicted a desert hunt and a famous scene of Rekhmire receiving tributes from foreign lands. Among the gifts shown are vases from Crete and the Aegean Islands (fourth row); a giraffe, monkeys and elephant tusks from Punt and Nubia (third row); and chariots and horses from Syria (second row).
Growing in height as it recedes towards the false door at the back, the long corridor is decorated with scenes of work and daily life. Slaves store grain in silos, whence it was later disbursed as wages to armourers, carpenters, sculptors and other state-employed craftsmen. An idealized banqueting scene with female musicians merges into an afterworld with a lake and trees. Also note Rekhmire’s funeral procession and offerings to sustain him in the afterlife.
Tomb of Sennofer (#96)
From Rekhmire’s tomb, slog 50m uphill to the left to find another colourful tomb, in better condition. Entered by a low, twisting stairway, the tomb of Sennofer is known as the “Tomb of Vines” after the grapes and vines painted on the textured ceiling of the antechamber. As mayor of Thebes and overseer of Amun’s estates under Amenhotep II, Sennofer had local viticulture among his responsibilities. The walls of the burial shrine depict his funeral procession, voyage to Abydos (back, right) and mummified sojourn with Anubis. Its square pillars bear images of Hathor, whose eyes follow you around the room. A small tree-goddess appears on the inner side of the rear left-hand pillar.
Tomb of Ramose (#55)
Down a dirt road to the southeast lies the tomb of Ramose, who was vizier and governor of Thebes immediately before and after the Amarna revolution. His spacious tomb captures the moment of transition from Amun- to Aten-worship, featuring both classical and Amarna-style reliefs, the latter unfinished since Ramose followed Akhenaten to his new capital. Besides its superb reliefs, the tomb is notable for retaining its courtyard – originally a feature of all these tombs.
Along the entrance wall of its pillared hall are lovely carvings that reflect the mellowing of classicism during the reign of Amenhotep III, Akhenaten’s father. Predictable scenes of Ramose and his wife, Amenhotep III and Queen Tiy making offerings come alive thanks to the exquisite rendering of the major figures, carried over to their feasting friends and relatives. The sinuous swaying of mourners likewise imparts lyricism to the conventional, painted funerary scene, where Ramose, wife and priests worship Osiris.
The onset of Aten-worship and the Amarna style is evident in the reliefs at the back, despite their battered condition. Those on the left were carved before Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten and espoused Aten-worship, so the pharaoh sits beneath a canopy with Maat, the goddess of truth, receiving flowers from Ramose. (At the far end, note the red grid and black outlined figures by which the artist transferred his design to the wall before relief-cutting took place.) However, the corresponding scene depicts the pharaoh as Akhenaten, standing with Nefertiti at their palace window, bathed in the Aten’s rays. Ramose is sketched in below, accepting their gift of a golden chain; his physiognomy is distinctly Amarnan, but rather less exaggerated than the royal couple’s (see Aten-worship and Amarna art).
Tomb of Userhat (#56)
Immediately south of Ramose’s tomb lies that of Userhat, a royal scribe and tutor in the reign of Amenhotep II. Although some of the figures were destroyed by early Christian hermits who occupied the shrine, what remains is freshly coloured, with unusual pink tones. The tomb is also interesting in that it’s still illuminated by means of a mirror reflecting sunlight inside, just as it was when the artists decorated the tomb.
Along the entrance wall of the antechamber are scenes of wine-making, harvesting, herding and branding cattle, collecting grain for the royal storehouse, and the customary offerings scenes. On the rear wall are reliefs of baking, assaying gold dust and – lower down – a barber trimming customers beneath a tree. The funerary feast scene was extensively damaged by hermits, particularly the female figures. The inner hall contains paintings of Userhat hunting gazelles, hares and jackals from a chariot in the desert; fowling and fishing amid the reeds; and funerary scenes. In a niche at the end is a headless statue of the deceased’s wife.
Tomb of Khaemhat (#57)
Next door is the tomb of Khaemhat, royal scribe and inspector of granaries under Amenhotep III, which is reached via a forecourt off which two other tombs, now locked, once led. Flanking its doorway outside are battered reliefs of Khaemhat worshipping Re, and the complete set of instruments for the Opening of the Mouth ceremony. In the transverse antechamber with its red and black patterned ceiling, the best reliefs are on the left as you enter. Although Renenet the snake-headed harvest-goddess has almost vanished, a scene of grain boats docking at Thebes harbour is still visible nearer the niche containing statues of Khaemhat and Imhotep. In the bottom row to the left of the door into the corridor, Hathor breastfeeds a boy-king, surrounded by sacred cows.
Fishing, fowling and family scenes decorate the right-hand wall of the corridor, leading to a triple-niched chapel containing seated statues of Khaemhat and his family.
Tomb of Nakht (#52)
Northeast of Ramose’s tomb lies the burial place of Nakht, whose antechamber contains a small museum with drawings of the reliefs (which are covered in glass) and a replica of Nakht’s funerary statue, which was lost at sea en route to America in 1917. Nakht was the overseer of Amun’s vineyards and granaries under Tuthmosis IV, and the royal astronomer, but stargazing does not feature among the activities depicted in his tomb. The only decorated section is the transverse antechamber, whose ceiling is painted to resemble woven mats, with a geometric frieze running above the brilliantly coloured murals.
To one side, Nakht supervises the harvest in a scene replete with vivid details. In the bottom register, one farmer fells a tree, while another swigs from a waterskin; of the two women gleaning in the row above, one is missing an arm. Beyond a stele relating Nakht’s life is the famous banqueting scene, where sinuous dancers and a blind harpist entertain friends of the deceased, who sits beside his wife, Tawi, with a cat scoffing a fish beneath his chair; sadly, their figures have been erased.
The defacement of Nakht’s image and Amun’s name is usually ascribed to Amarna iconoclasm, but the gouging out of his eyes and throwing sticks in the hunting scene suggests a personal animus. Happily, this has not extended to the images in the corner, where peasants tread grapes in vats, and birds are caught in clap-nets and hung for curing. The plain inner chamber has a false door painted to resemble Aswan granite, and a deep shaft leading to the (inaccessible) burial chamber.
Tomb of Menna (#69)
More scenes of rural life decorate the nearby tomb of Menna, an XVIII Dynasty inspector of estates. Accompanied by his wife and daughter, Menna worships the sun in the entrance passage. In the left wing of the first chamber, he supervises field labour (notice the two girls pulling each other’s hair, near the far end of the third row), feasts and makes offerings with his wife. Across the way they participate in ceremonies with Anubis, Osiris, Re and Hathor. Though chiefly decorated with mourning and burial scenes, the inner chamber also features a spot of hunting and fishing, vividly depicted on the right-hand wall. The niche at the end contains the legs of Menna’s votive statue.
Tombs of Khonsu, Userhet and Benia
This trio of small tombs near those of Nakht and Menna was opened to the public in 1992. The themes are standard, with scenes of offerings, hunting, fishing and funerary rites. In the tomb of Userhet (not to be confused with the Userhat in tomb #56), the guard may produce a mummified head for baksheesh.
Set apart from the others, the Khoka (or, as locals say, “Hookah”) tombs were built for a trio of New Kingdom officials. Neferonpet (or Kenro) was a treasury scribe; the tomb’s inner chamber depicts him assessing deliveries of gold and food, and the work of sculptors and weavers. The golden-yellow, red and blue murals, the brightly patterned ceilings and the votive statues of the deceased and his wives (badly disfigured) are also characteristic of the tomb of Nefersekheru, next door. Here, the wives enjoy greater prominence, flanking Nefersekheru pictorially (to the right as you enter) and sculpturally (in niches), and known to posterity as Maatmou, Sekhemui and Nefertari. Their mummies were buried in a shaft off the rear corridor, which leads into the adjacent tomb of Dhutmosi (now inaccessible).
The Ramesseum or mortuary temple of Ramses II was built to awe the pharaoh’s subjects, perpetuate his existence in the afterlife and forever link him to Amun-United-with-Eternity (one of Amun’s many avatars). Had it remained intact, the Ramesseum would doubtless match his great sun temple of Abu Simbel for monumental grandeur and unabashed self-glorification. But by siting it beside an earlier temple on land that was annually inundated, Ramses unwittingly ensured the ruination of his monument; its toppled colossi would later mock his presumption, inspiring Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias”.
Nineteenth-century writers knew the ruins as the Memnonium. Their present name only caught on late in the nineteenth century, by which time the Ramesseum had been plundered for statuary – not least the seven-ton head of one of its fallen colossi, now in the British Museum. Its devastation lends romance to the conventional architecture, infusing it with pathos.
Half an hour suffices to see the famous colossi and the best reliefs, but you may care to linger. The nearby Ramesseum Resthouse sells cold drinks and hot meals; the owner’s grandfather, Sheikh Hussein Abdul, was a teaboy at Carter’s excavation in 1922, famously photographed wearing a jewelled collar from Tut’s tomb (a copy hangs on the wall inside the resthouse).
Colossi of Ramses II
Like other mortuary temples in the Theban Necropolis, the Ramesseum faces towards the Nile and was originally entered via its First Pylon. Wrecked by the earthquake that felled the colossi, the pylon now stands marooned in the scrub beyond a depression that was once the First Court. Today, you enter the temple via its Second Court, to be confronted by the awesome fallen colossus of Ramses II. This seated megalith once towered over the stairs from the first into the second court; over 18m tall and weighing about 1000 tons, it was only surpassed by the Colossi of Memnon thanks to their pedestals. When it toppled some time after the first century AD, its upper half smashed through the Second Pylon into the court, where its head and torso lie today, measuring 7m across the shoulders; the cartouche on its bicep reads: “Ruler of Rulers”. In the lower court are other fragments, notably feet and hands.
Behind the chunky Osirian pillars rises what’s left of the Second Pylon, whose inner face bears scenes from the second Battle of Qadesh, surmounted by a register depicting the festival of the harvest-god Min.
At the far end of the second courtyard, where three stairways rise to meet a colonnaded portico, is a smaller fallen colossus of Ramses, more fragmented, though its face has suffered merely nasal damage. Originally there were two colossi here, but the other – dubbed the “Young Memnon” – was seized for Britain in 1816 by the Italian treasure-hunter Belzoni. The name “Ozymandias” arose from the Ancient Greeks’ misreading of one of the king’s many titles, User-Maat-Re.
The hypostyle halls
The core of the Ramesseum is substantially intact, with an interesting set of reliefs on the front wall of the portico, between the central and left-hand doorways. Above a bottom row depicting eleven of his sons, Ramses appears with Atum and Mont (who holds the hieroglyph for “life” to his nose), and kneels before the Theban Triad while Thoth inscribes his name on a palm frond. The top register shows him sacrificing to Ptah and making offerings to Min, whose outsize erection is decorously termed “ithyphallic” by Egyptologists.
The Great Hypostyle Hall had 48 columns, of which 29 are still standing. The taller ones flanking the central aisle have papyrus shafts and turquoise, yellow and white lotus capitals, while the lower side columns have papyrus-bud capitals. On the wall as you come in, reliefs depict Egyptian troops storming the Hittite city of Dapur, using shields to protect themselves from arrows and stones. At the back of the hall, incised reliefs show lion-headed Sekhmet (far right) presenting Ramses to an enthroned Amun, who gives him the breath of eternal life from an ankh; along the bottom are depicted some of the king’s hundred sons. Notice the names of Belzoni and his patron, the British consul Henry Salt, carved on the right-hand door jamb.
Beyond this lie two smaller hypostyle halls. The first retains its astronomical ceiling, featuring the oldest known twelve-month calendar (whether lunar or solar months is debatable). Notice the barques of Amun, Mut and Khonsu, and the scene of Ramses beneath the persea tree with Atum, Sheshat and Thoth. The ruined sanctuaries were presumably dedicated to Amun, Ramses the god and his glorious ancestors.
The whole complex is surrounded by mud-brick magazines that once covered about three times the area of the temple and included workshops, storerooms and servants’ quarters, that have survived far better than the royal palace and Temple of Tuya that once adjoined the temple, of which only stumps of walls and columns remain. Nearby, the Italian mission is excavating the remains of the Temple of Amenhotep II.
In ancient times, the Ramesseum was one of half a dozen mortuary temples ranged along the edge of the flood plain with no regard for chronological order. Built by Ramses’ thirteenth or fourteenth son (supposedly the pharaoh of the Exodus), the Temple of Merneptah intruded onto the edges of, and reused masonry from, the vast complex of Amenhotep III that once spread to the Colossi of Memnon. The site consists of fragments of the temple, placed in their original positions and supported by modern stonework; its entrance represents the original position of the first pylon.
A museum created by the Swiss Institute features plans and finds from the excavation which help you make sense of what little remains. Further in, to the left, stands a copy of the famous Israel Stele now in the Egyptian Museum, which was found here by Flinders Petrie in 1896. Visitors can also see a dozen jackal-headed sphinxes originally taken from Amenhotep’s III’s temple, and other statues pilfered from Deir el-Bahri in a covered storage area that was once the temple’s sacred lake.
Deir el-Medina, the Workers’ Village, housed the masons, painters and sculptors who created the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Because many were literate and left records on papyrus or ostraca, we know such details as who feuded with whom, their sex lives and labour disputes. As state employees, they were supposed to receive fortnightly supplies of foodstuffs and beer, but when these failed to arrive (as often happened during the ramshackle XX Dynasty), the workers downed tools, staged sit-ins at Medinet Habu, or demonstrated in Luxor.
Normally they worked an eight-hour day, sleeping in huts near the tombs during their ten-day shift before returning to their families at Deir el-Medina. In their spare time craftsmen worked for private clients or collaborated on their own tombs, built beneath man-size pyramids. Their own murals appropriated imagery from royal and noble tombs, which was parodied in the famous Satirical Papyrus, showing animals judging souls, collecting taxes and playing senet (an Ancient Egyptian board game), and humans having sex.
Tombs of Sennedjem (#1) and Ankherha (#359)
The pyramid nearest to the entrance marks the Tomb of Sennedjem (or Sennutem), whose vaulted burial chamber is reached by steep flights of steps and two antechambers. Its colourful murals feature ithyphallic baboons (right-end wall), Osiris and the Fields of Yaru, and Anubis ministering to Sennedjem’s mummy (facing wall, far left).
The Tomb of Ankherha has a similar design: on the left wall of the burial chamber, Ankherha appears with Wepwawet and Khepri; Anubis breathes life into his mummy; his wife adores Horus as a falcon; and his naked daughters make libations.
Tomb of Peshedu (#3)
In the Tomb of Peshedu one can see the deceased praying beneath the tree of regeneration, below which flow the waters of the Amuntit, the “Hidden Region” where souls were judged. Yellow, black and red are the predominant colours. Peshedu was a stonemason, who may have served as a foreman under Seti I and Ramses II.
Tombs of Iphy (#217) and Iri Nefer (#290)
Unusually for Deir el-Medina, the Tomb of Iphy, a sculptor during the reign of Ramses II, eschews ceremonial scenes and deities for tableaux from everyday life. Men fish with a net among lotus plants, as Iphy and his dog draw water from a shaduf (a counter-weighted device introduced to Egypt by its Hyksos invaders).
The nearby Tomb of Iri Nefer isn’t officially open, but might be viewable for baksheesh. Beautifully decorated with scenes on a yellow background, it features a frieze with baboons and cobras interspersed by a feather, symbol of the goddess Maat.
Near the village stands a semi-ruined Ptolemaic temple dedicated to Maat and Hathor, whose head adorns the pillars between the outer court and naos. Each of its three shrines is decorated with scenes from the Book of the Dead. Early in the Christian era, the temple and the workers’ village were occupied by monks – hence the site’s Arabic name of Deir el-Medina (Monastery of the Town).
The Valley of the Queens is something of a misnomer, as it also contains the tombs of high officials (interred long before the first queen was buried here during the XIX Dynasty) and royal children. Princes were educated by priests and scribes, taught swimming, riding and shooting by officers, and finally apprenticed to military commands around the age of 12. Less is known about the schooling of princesses, but several queens were evidently well versed in statecraft and architecture.
Originally named the “Place of Beauty”, but now known in Arabic as Biban el-Harem (Gates of the Harem), the valley contains nearly eighty tombs, most of which are basically just pits in the ground. Although the finest murals rival those in the Valley of the Kings for artistry, many have been corroded by salt deposits or badly vandalized, and the magnificent tomb of Nefertari is so fragile that it is only accessible to VIP groups.
Tomb of Amunhirkhepshef (#55)
After Nefertari’s, the best tomb in the valley belongs to Amunhirkhepshef, a son of Ramses III who accompanied his father on campaigns and perhaps died in battle at the age of 9. He is shown wearing the royal sidelock of youth, in lustrous murals where Ramses conducts him through funerary rituals, past the Keepers of the Gates, to an unfinished burial chamber containing a granite sarcophagus. A glass case displays a mummified foetus that his mother aborted through grief at Amunhirkhepshef’s death, and entombed with her son.
Tomb of Queen Titi (#52)
Sited along the well-trodden route to Amunhirkhepshef’s tomb, this cruciform structure was commissioned by Queen Titi, wife of one of the Ramessid pharaohs of the XX Dynasty. A winged Maat kneels in the corridor (where Titi appears before Thoth, Ptah and the sons of Horus) and guards the entrance to the burial chamber with Neith and Selket.
The burial chamber itself boasts jackal, lion and baboon guardians, plus three side chambers, the finest being the one to the right. Here, Hathor emerges from between the mountains of east and west in her bovine form, while the tree-goddess pours Nile water to rejuvenate Titi, who reposes on a cushion across the room. Sadly, most of these murals are faded or damaged.
Tomb of Prince Khaemweset (#44)
This colourfully painted tomb is reached via a separate path. Prince Khaemweset was one of several sons of Ramses III who died in a smallpox epidemic, and the murals in his tomb give precedence to images of Ramses, making offerings in the entrance corridor and worshipping funerary deities in the side chambers. In the second corridor, decorated with the Book of Gates, Ramses leads Khaemweset past the fearsome guardians of the Netherworld to the Fields of Yaru, bearing witness for him before Osiris and Horus in the burial chamber. Notice the four sons of Horus on the lotus blossom.
Medinet Habu (Habu’s Town) is the Arabic name for the gigantic Mortuary Temple of Ramses III, a structure second only to Karnak in size and complexity, and better preserved in its entirety. Modelled on the Ramesseum of his illustrious ancestor, Ramses II, this XX Dynasty extravaganza deserves more attention than it usually gets, being the last stop on most tourists’ itineraries.
Like Deir el-Bahri and the Ramesseum, the mortuary temple was a focus for the pharaoh’s cult, linking him to Amun-United-with-Eternity. The effigies of Amun, Mut and Khonsu paid an annual visit during the Festival of the Valley, while other deities permanently resided in its shrines, and Ramses himself often dwelt in the adjacent palace. Aside from its lack of freestanding colossi, the sandstone temple gives a good idea of how the Ramesseum must have looked before it collapsed. The complex’s massive enclosure walls sheltered the entire population of Thebes during the Libyan invasions of the late XX Dynasty and for centuries afterwards protected the Coptic town of Djeme, built within the great temple.
The Ptolemaic Pylon and Migdol Gate
The entire complex was originally surrounded by mud-brick enclosure walls, sections of which rise at intervals from the plain. Its front facade is quite asymmetrical, with a jutting Ptolemaic Pylon whose winged sun-disc glows with colour since its recent restoration, overshadowing the entrance to the temple precincts. This Migdol Gate is named after the Syrian fortress that so impressed Ramses with its lofty gatehouse that he built one for his own temple, and often relaxed with his harem in a suite above the gate (inaccessible), decorated with reliefs of dancers in slinky lingerie. Here, a secondary wife hatched a harem conspiracy to murder him during the Optet festival, so that her son could inherit – but the conspirators were discovered and forced to commit suicide. The two grey-green diorite statues of Sekhmet by the gate’s entrance may have served to transmit the prayers of pilgrims to Amun, who “dwelt” within the temple.
The Small Temple
To the north stands the Small Temple, reputedly where the primeval mound arose from the waters of Chaos, preceding the creator-god Re-Atum of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. The existing structure was built and partly decorated by Hatshepsut, whose cartouches and images were erased by Tuthmosis III. Akhenaten did likewise to those of Amun, but Horemheb and Seti replaced them. Some defaced reliefs show Tuthmosis presiding over the foundation ceremonies, “stretching the cord” before the goddess Seshat, “scattering the gypsum” and then “hacking the earth” before a priapic Min.
The Chapels of the Votaresses and Sacred Lake
Whereas the Small Temple antedates Ramses’ work by three centuries, the Chapels of the Votaresses are Late Period additions. Several date from the XXV Dynasty of Nubian kings, who appointed these high priestesses of Amun and de facto governors of Thebes. The best reliefs are in the forecourt and shrine of Amenirdis, sister of King Shabaka, whose alabaster funerary statue is now in the Cairo Museum. Ironically, these chapels remained objects of veneration long after Ramses’ temple had been abandoned. Notice the granite altars for offerings.
In the right-hand corner of the enclosure are the remains of a Sacred Lake where childless local women came to bathe at night and pray to Isis for conception.
The First Pylon
Had it not lost its cornice and one corner, the First Pylon would match Luxor Temple’s in size. For baksheesh, a guard may unlock a stairway to the top, which offers a panoramic view of the temple, Theban Hills and Nile Valley. Reliefs on the outer walls (copied from the Ramesseum) show Ramses smiting Nubians and Syrians, though he never warred with either. Those on the inner wall relate genuine campaigns with Ramessid hyperbole. An outsized Ramses scatters hordes of Libyans in his chariot. Afterwards, scribes tally the severed hands and genitals of dead foes (third row from the bottom). Individual commanders may have been rewarded according to their unit’s “body count”.
The First Court and Second Pylon
Until the nineteenth century, the ruined houses of Coptic Djeme filled the First Court, now cleared to reveal its flanking columns. Those on the right bear chunky Osiride statues of the king, attended by knee-high queens. The other side of the court abuts the royal palace (now ruined and entered from outside). In the middle of this wall was a Window of Appearances flanked by sunk-reliefs of prisoners, whence the king rewarded loyal commanders with golden collars.
Yet more scenes of triumph cover the outside of the Second Pylon, where Ramses leads three rows of prisoners to Amun and Mut (those in the lowest row are Philistines) and a long inscription lauds his victories in Asia Minor. The vultures on the ceiling of the pylon’s gateway are still coloured.
The Second Court
During Coptic times most of the Osirian pillars were removed to make room for a church, and a thick layer of mud was plastered over the reliefs in the Second Court. Now uncovered, these depict the annual festivals of Min and Sokar, with processions of priests and dancers accompanying the royal palanquin. Elsewhere, the events of Ramses’ fifth regnal year are related in a long text lower down the wall. The lotus-bud columns of the rear arcade are coloured blue, red and turquoise.
The Hypostyle Hall and sanctuaries
The now-roofless Hypostyle Hall, beyond, once had a raised central aisle like the Great Hall at Karnak, and still has some brightly coloured pillars at the back. To the right lie five chapels dedicated to Ramses, his XIX Dynasty namesake, Ptah, Osiris and Sokar. On the opposite side are several (locked) treasure chambers whose reliefs show the weighing of myrrh, gold, lapis lazuli and other valuables bestowed upon the temple – also visible on the outer walls.
Beyond this lie two smaller halls with rooms leading off. To the left of the first hall is the funerary chamber of Ramses III; notice the lion-headed deity on the right-hand wall. The other side – open to the sky – featured an altar to Re. On the lintels that once supported the roof, Ramses and several baboons worship Re’s barque. The central aisle of the next level is flanked by red granite statues of Ramses with Maat or Thoth. At the back are three sanctuaries dedicated to the Theban Triad of Mut, Amun and Khonsu.
Along the outer walls
Some of the best reliefs at Medinet Habu are on the outer walls of the temple, involving a fair slog over broken ground. As most are quite faint, they’re best viewed early or late in the day, when shadows reveal details obscured at midday. The famous battle reliefs of Ramses II run along the temple’s northern wall, starting from the back. Although you’ll encounter the last or middle scenes first, we’ve listed them in chronological order, as Ramses intended them to be seen. The first section depicts the invasion of land-hungry Libyans, early in his reign. In the vanguard of the battle are Ramses, a lion and the standard of Amun. Afterwards, scribes count limbs and genitals to assess each soldier’s reward in gold or land. Yet despite this victory, Ramses was soon beleaguered on two fronts, as the Libyans joined with the Sea Peoples (Sardinians, Philistines and Cretans) in a concerted invasion of the Nile Delta. A giant Ramses fires arrows into a melee of grappling ships, in the only Egyptian relief of a sea battle. A third invasion by the Libyans was also thwarted, but their descendants would eventually triumph and rule Egypt as the XXIII and XXIV dynasties.
On the other side of the temple, behind the First Pylon, is a dramatic relief of Ramses hunting antelopes in the desert and impaling wild bulls in a marsh, near a ruined Palace where he resided during visits. A calendar of festivals appears at the far end of the temple, which is surrounded on three sides by mud-brick storehouses, eroded into worm-like shapes.
The village of NAG LOHLAH beside Medinet Habu will be familiar to readers of Richard Critchfield’s Shahhat as the birthplace of its eponymous hero and the irascible Hagg Ali, owner of the Habou Hotel (which still exists, though Hagg Ali is deceased). Most families have one foot in tourism and the other in farming, so that one finances the other as fortune allows. While Medinet Habu brings customers to their doorsteps, few visitors realise there’s also an Amun Temple in someone’s backyard (no set hours; baksheesh expected). Though small and knocked about, its reliefs retain some of the white background that has faded in other temples.
If it’s not too hot, the Monastery of St Tawdros in the desert beyond Medinet Habu makes an interesting excursion. You can walk here from Medinat Habu in about twenty minutes, or cycle, or, even better, go riding in time for sunset. Be sure to cover your head and bring plenty of water; the unpaved track from Medinet Habu to the French House is easy going, but has no shade at all.
Roughly 200m right off the track into the desert, the monastery is easily identified by its beehive domes. Pharaonic, Greek and Roman masonry is incorporated into the low-vaulted church, whose shrines are dedicated to the Coptic martyrs Tawdros, Elkladius and Foktor. Tawdros (295–306 AD) was a leader in the Roman army before his conversion to Christianity, hence the monastery’s alternative name, El Muharrib (The Warrior). The day of his martyrdom (Jan 20) and Easter see crowds of Copts descending on the monastery, but at other times the nuns who live here receive few visitors and seem pleased if anyone rings the bell.
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