Kings and Queens and tombs

Luxor Temple

The city of Luxor was the ancient city of Thebes, if you want to place our modern trip into context. This morning we got an early start to head out to the Valley of the Kings after breakfast, and spotted Luxor Temple in daylight.

Looking past the entrance into the Valley of Kings

The Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor is a remote, desolate place with no vegetation. On the bus on the way over, Hossam told us a creation legend from ancient Egypt which holds that in the beginning the world was all water except for an island in the shape of a pyramid, and upon that island was the source of all life. As we walked from the parking lot up the hill toward the tombs, Tara pointed up to the peak. Rising above the area is the Qurn (“horn”), a mountain that many regard as a natural pyramid shape, presiding over the entire cemetery. Hossam confirmed that this peak was commonly believed by the ancients to be the island pyramid.

Tomb of Rameses IX on left and Tutankhamon center

(thanks to for the images of the tombs) The Valley of the Kings was awesome, though we went quickly through it. I could have spent 4 hours slowly walking through the fantastic tunnels. Sadly, we were required to leave our cameras on the buses.

Omnipresent security guarding the gates

We began with Rameses IX (KV 6 – the identifier used by archaeologists). We formed a single-file line and entered a narrow tunnel that was only wide enough to allow exiting tourists to pass on their way out. Floor-to-ceiling plexiglass protected the walls from us, which was appropriate, because I wanted so desperately to touch the work of ancient artists only inches from my face.

Stars on the ceilings

Hossam had already told me that if I liked seeing the colours as I claimed, then I would like the Valley of the Kings. It’s tremendous – the colours inside the tombs. Stunning. They are so bright, detailed, intricate…it’s awe-inspiring. After three thousand years, we can see the different shades of similar colors. For example: white, cream, light yellow, dark yellow, and orange, all layered in one place, showing the folds or decorations in fabric, for example. Then there are the reds, the black, green, turquoise, and the startlingly brilliant cobalt blue. Especially on the ceilings…covered in a darker shade of cobalt, and sprayed with gold stars to represent the night sky. It’s so beautiful.

Inside tomb of TaWsret & Nakhet

Unfortunately, the insides of the tombs smelled awful because of all the smelly tourists crowding through. It truly was crowded and hot inside them all. The temperature was in the 80s outside, perhaps 90 degrees. We were dying: especially the women, who had to be covered up. I was pleased to find that everyone in our group stayed covered up: bus 1 and bus 2. Other tourists who wore backless tank tops with miniskirts embarrassed me. Today was a good day to find out who would break the social mores. One woman removed her outer shirt and had a sleeveless shirt on, but otherwise remained covered. Some women rolled their pant legs up to their calves. I thought we remained a respectable group. Often, often, we women talked of how unbearable it would be to have to wear the full burqua in such dreadful heat – especially when they are nearly always heat-absorbing black.

Tomb entrances in the mountains, as spotted from the bus

After Ramses IX, we visited the tomb of Ta Wsret and Nakhat (KV 14), followed by Seti II (KV 15). Each one was extraordinary, but KV14 was the best tomb of the whole trip, in my opinion. (Forgive me if I’m getting the owners of the tombs mixed up. Also, I found that Hossam spelled the names for me differently than I’ve seen them spelled on the Internet.) The story with KV14 is that it was originally built for Queen TaWsret (or Tausert), but before she died, her son with Seti II died. So it became Nakhat’s tomb (or Setnahkt).

God Horus in Hatshepsut’s temple

At the places closer to the entrance, hieroglyphics show TaWsret honoring the gods, and as one goes deeper, her image has been covered and repainted with Nakhat, even though they are scenes that are appropriate for queens, not kings/princes. In the deepest sections, there is only Nakhat. We walked through tunnels that opened up into a large room with inner columns, then another tunnel, then another room with columns. There is an unexpected magical atmosphere created when a dark, musty cave is illuminated to reveal columns, anterooms, paths, ramps, tunnels, doorways, and altars underground and illustrated on every square inch.

The order of construction is that first the walls of the tomb were built, and then the kings and queens (while still alive) had artists paint onto papyrus classic scenes and new scenes depicting the gods, the king doing his great deeds, and historical and stories from religious texts such as the “Book of Gates,” which explains how to get through all the steps one must go through to successfully arrive at the gates of the afterlife. At the last gate, one’s heart is weighed on a scale. A light heart gets you into the afterlife with the gods and your ancestors. A heavy heart will be eaten by the monster standing nearby. The papyrus would then go to artists who painted a draft in red onto the stone. A senior artist would review and correct the paintings in black. Then carvers would create sunken relief (deeply carved images) and raised relief (higher quality, more difficult illustration of raised images where the negative areas are ground away) into the limestone cave walls of which the structure was built. When that was done, artists would then come and paint them. The figures on the walls with non-human heads are gods (including pharaohs/kings who are believed to be gods). Commonly seen gods are Horus with the falcon head, Osirus with a red sun disk, Anubis with the head of a jackal, and Hathor with a cow head, cow ears, or cow horns.

The most recently discovered tomb, and the only tomb found intact by scientists, is that of King Tut-Ankh-Amon. Hossam offered to get us into the king’s tomb if we wanted to, but it was extra money and he talked us all out of it by saying that it’s not much different than the other tombs, and all the treasure is at the Museum of Antiquities anyway. We let him sway us, and we didn’t buy extra tickets to see a fourth tomb.

Surreal view of Pharoah Hatshepsut’s temple

We were able to take our cameras to Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s temple, who ruled from about 1475 to 1455 BC. This was a high point for Tara, who studied Queen Hatshepsut in school last year. One of the few female pharaohs, Hatshepsut was a powerful one. Tired of hearing that women can’t be kings, she ordered herself to be called King Hatshepsut, and images of her sported the long beard of a king. She may have even worn a beard in real life, since kings always shaved their chins clean and wore a fake beard strapped on anyway.

Queen with the double crown and beard

Her temple was remarkable. It is set into a cliff face, three stories high, and looks out across a low slope into the valley (wadi, in Arabic). From the parking lot, the huge temple dominated our view during our walk up to it. There remain the stumps of two frankincense trees at the entrance, which Pharaoh Hatshepsut brought back from her travels in Africa. Her temple is in poor shape mainly because her nephew/stepson Thutmosis III was her successor. He hated her and went to great lengths to destroy her works all over the Nile valley. Where he couldn’t break an image, Thutmosis III had any references to Hatshepsut chiseled off the walls.

Inside Hatshepsut’s temple

Next we went to the Valley of the Queens. It’s a similar group of tombs beneath mountain peaks, in a valley south of the Valley of the Kings, and still on the west bank of the Nile. Egyptians typically had their tombs on the west bank because of the setting sun, and their main living areas were on the East bank because that is where the sun rises.

All I can remember about the Valley of the Queens is Nefertari’s tomb. Again, cameras were not allowed. (thanks to Swarthmore for the images) It was a heartbreak not to capture on my own camera the images Nefertari left for us.

Inside Nefertari’s tomb
Inside Nefertari’s tomb

I was stunned to wordless- ness (yes, I know, hard to believe!), but I’ll try to put something down for you. Here we saw the most pristinely preserved hieroglyphics yet. The colours were incredible; the detail awe- inspiring. I could not believe the quality of preservation of the painting! It looked as though the artists were in there last month. In five minutes I identified a dozen different birds in hieroglyphics, each with amazing detail of colour variation and individual feathers painted. Women had straight, wavy, curly, and kinky hair, with earrings and painted fingernails. I could count the scales on the fish. It was truly humbling. The ceilings we saw in every tomb and temple had a blue background with stylized gold stars painted in a pattern. I’ll recognize that design forever.

Goddess Hathor (left) and Nefertari

The level of detail itself is impressive, but I think the most amazing thing for me is the sharpness of the detail after so much time. It’s hard to believe that the crisp edges of tiny carved scarab legs and feelers are clearly evident, and that the individual feathers of the dozens of types of birds are illuminated to such precise degree that I’m sure the species of the birds could be identified and compared to modern birds to determine whether any evolutionary changes had occurred since 1500 BC. But it’s not only birds. I wish I could explain better – trillions of images walls, columns, statues, tablets and sarcophagi inside. The sarcophagi and statues inside were often granite, so the detail was not as good – though still inspiring.

Grinding an alabaster vase, buried in the ground
Finished vases

It was noon and we were so hungry, but before lunch we went to an alabaster factory. It was interesting to me that vases and bowls are actually carved from stone by patiently grinding a hollow into them, and then grinding and polishing till smooth. We saw a demonstration in which the alabaster was buried to the lip in the dirt on the floor of the workshop. Differently-shaped carving tools (think router bits) were inserted into the hollow, and with a long handle attached, a man twisted around and around, continuing to carve and shape the inside of the bowl.

The alabaster showroom
The Colossi of Memnon

After alabaster, we saw the Colossi of Memnon. Amenhotep III erected these two 1000-ton statues. Due to an earthquake in 27 BC, the crumbling statues would sometimes make a tone with the movement of air through them. This is how they were granted the nickname of Memnon, the grandson of Eos, goddess of dawn. To be granted a song meant that you had earned the goddesses’ favor. A good deed went wrong when Roman emperor Septimius Severus repaired the statues in 199 AD. The song has never been heard again.

Rameses II statue in Karnak Temple

Our lovely crew had lunch waiting for us on the MS Neptune. In better spirits, we went for an afternoon tour at Karnak Temple on the north end of Luxor. For over 1000 years, and obviously through the reign of many pharaohs, this temple was continuously built upon and enlarged. It encompasses three main temples and additional small temples, both inside and outside the main structure. Covering almost 250 acres of land, this is the largest temple complex in the world. We were granted a generous amount of time to wander and explore this gigantic place, while avoiding men in gallabiyas eager to show us a new path to follow, for baksheesh. At Karnak, Hatshepsut had twin obelisks erected, at the time the tallest in the world. One still stands, as the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth; the other has broken in two and toppled, perhaps by Thutmosis III?

The best, best part of Karnak is the Hypostyle Hall, a gigantic (I’m running out of adjectives that mean “big.”) hall filled with columns, for columns’ sake. They are all in the design of papyrus reeds and flowers, with many representing the closed bud of a flower, and the central, monolithic columns topped with open papyrus blossoms. A total of 134 columns fill the hall, and the 12 in the center are certainly the largest columns I could ever imagine. These are the sequoia sempervirens of columns, 70 feet high and big enough around that 100 men can stand together on the top of one of them. Not that this has actually happened, but Hossam said it was possible.

Columns in the style of open papyrus blossoms

We walked counterclockwise circles seven times around a gargantuan granite scarab on a pedestal. Apparently that brings on pregnancy, marriage, or just good luck. I hope we get to choose which one. At Karnak we saw an example of hieroglyphics carved excessively deep into the stone. Hossam explained that with a history of the new king coming in and having the last king’s name and good deeds scratched off the stone, some of them got wise and had their stuff carved so deeply that it would discourage vandals.

At the base of the Hipostyle Hall. See the person?
detail from above

Before we left, we snapped photos of the sphinxes in the setting sun. This is also where my WordPress profile photo was taken.

Rams head sphinx

Next we stopped at a perfume factory. Since scented oil was an extremely valuable commodity in Ancient Egypt, I consider this a relevant stop. But I’m not a big fan of scents. We had a demonstration of glass-blowing, while an artist created a delicate vessel in which to hold oils and a glass stopper with which to dab on oils.

Me posing with the sphinxes at Karnak Temple

Tara and I were all shopped out, and were grateful for the free toilet and hassle free browsing time. I stopped at the doorway to purchase some of the cheapie papyrus bookmarks being sold by hoards of children, and whipped out my dollar quickly to make the trade for a fistful of bookmarks before I was surrounded. Too slow, because another child showed up quickly enough to make a claim on the dollar. I backed away from the pushing fight that broke out after I put the dollar into the hands of the first child I saw, and watched their plight in helpless pain.

Avenue of Rams Head Sphinxes
Glassblower at the perfume shop
Flirtatious young Egyptian who was very interested in my daughter
towel monkey

Each time we return to our cabins, the cabin boys have done something amazing with our towels. they use all the clean towels, plus other things in the room, to sculpt something for us. We had a lotus flower flanked by two swans, a crocodile eating the remote control, and a monkey hanging from the ceiling with a strip of toilet paper for a tail. It’s a riot. The guys stand at the end of the hall and wait to see our reactions when we open the door. I wish I could hand them each a $100 bill for the fabulous service and fun they have provided us.

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