Journal: Monday 18 October 1999
In Arabic, the Valley of the Kings is called Biban el-Maluk and means the ‘Gate of Kings’. The ancient Egyptians referred to it as ‘The Great Field’ and ‘the Beautiful Ladder of the West’. Such evocative names for this, the last resting place of many New Kingdom pharaohs, whose tombs are nestled in the high majestic cliffs surrounding a snaking network of small wadis and offshoot valleys. Overlooking and protecting the necropolis is the towering peak of el-Qurn which is a pyramid-shaped mountain where, in ancient times, the goddess Meretseger was thought to dwell.
This morning Jenny and I crossed the river and took a taxi from the West Bank ferry dock to the Kings’ Valley. Extravagant I know – but the local arabeyas don’t go that far. We left our taxi at the entrance to the Valley, telling the driver that we would find our own way back, which he wasn’t very pleased about. When I visit the Valley I try to picture this remote place as it was at the beginning of the 20th Century when many excavations were taking place and the first European ‘tourists’ came here. This isn’t always easy and now the arrival of the Tuff-Tuff makes it even harder to soak up the ancient atmosphere. The Tuff-Tuff is a recent innovation, a little train designed to carry tourists up the road to the main ticket office. Heaven forbid that we would want to walk the few hundred metres from the car park. Perhaps I’m being unfair, as for most visitors time is very limited here, but Jenny and I wanted to walk, shunning the Tuff-Tuff and its insistent driver in spite of the rising temperature. I just couldn’t bring myself to enter this magnificent necropolis on a vehicle more fitting to a theme park. Tickets are sold in blocks of three and can be used to visit any three open tombs. Jenny and I bought tickets for six tombs each. This was her first visit and it looked like we were in for a long day!
I had studied the tombs extensively in March 1998, so I won’t describe them in detail again. Jenny and I began our tour today by climbing the steep wooden staircase to the tomb of Tuthmose III (KV34), the earliest open tomb and probably my favourite because of its simplicity and its stick-figure paintings. Standing outside the tomb entrance Jenny looked up at the mountain and suggested that we walk back that way to Deir-el-Bahri later. I was non-committal and replied that we should see how we feel at the end of the day. I knew from past experience that doing six tombs in this heat can be quite exhausting. When we came back out of the tomb, leg muscles screaming after the steep climb, we went down the steps and found that the tomb of Amenhotep II (KV35) was newly opened. This is the next king in the chronology and the successor to Tuthmose III.
This was exciting because I hadn’t been into this tomb before. It is similar in plan to that of his predecessor, and to my delight I found it to be one of the most beautiful tombs in the Valley. The discovery in 1898 by Victor Loret was rather spectacular because not only did it contain the burial of the king and his son Webensenu, but also another 17 burials in a cache probably deposited here during the reorganisation of the royal necropolis during the time of Pinudjem I of Dynasty XXI. Nine royal coffins were found with the mummies of Tuthmose IV, Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Seti II, Siptah, Sethnakht and Rameses IV, V and VI. One of the tomb’s innovations is in the decoration of the pillars, the faces of which show the king being offered the ankh, the sign of life, from Osiris, Anubis and Hathor, which became a feature in the decoration of subsequent tombs. For the first time the figures are fully-drawn rather than stick-figures. The king’s yellow quartzite sarcophagus (perhaps a replacement) was found in the crypt-like burial chamber and at the time of discovery it contained the pharaoh’s mummy with an ancient garland of flowers still around his neck. On the sides of the sarcophagus base, still in situ, two protective udjat-eyes can be seen between figures of the king and the god Anubis with a jackal-head. This visit made my day!
The other tombs we visited together were those of Siptah, Rameses III, and Rameses IV & V. By this time I was flagging and I gave Jenny my last ticket so that she could go into two more tombs on her own, while I went to wait in the rest house to shelter from the blazing sun. The main Wadi is deep and narrow and the high cliffs contain the radiating heat which by mid-day makes it feel like an oven. Inside the deeper tombs it is even hotter, the air becoming stale and humid the further you go in. Most of the tour groups were gone by this time and the place had once more become quite peaceful. I wandered off for a while up a side-valley and sat on a shady rock to contemplate the pharaohs who were buried there. I can spend hours just looking at the rocks, imagining all sorts of shapes and faces watching me. The Valley is a timeless place and when it is quiet the weight of centuries can be felt all around.
By 4.0pm we were back on the ferry crossing the river to Luxor. I had declined to walk the mountain path, leaving it for another day. This is an activity best done in the cool of the early morning. Arriving at the car park at the entrance to the King’s Valley I met my old friend and taxi driver Tayib, who had just dropped someone off and kindly offered to give us a lift back to the ferry landing.