I was sitting on the hotel roof terrace looking through my notes and trying to make sense of the scenes I had spent my time looking at in the tombs. It was useful to have visited the royal tombs in chronological order as I could now list the progression of the funerary art. When I first came to Egypt, like many tourists, I had assumed that the ancient Egyptians were obsessed by death, often spending much of their life building a last resting place for themselves and their families and preserving their bodies in a state of everlasting eternity. I gradually came to realise that it was not death itself that they were so engrossed in, but a complex belief system which provided a place for them in the afterlife – what we in the west would perhaps think of as Heaven. Having spent most of the past two weeks in tombs, I had begun to build up a clearer picture of this belief system, which differed quite a lot between the royal tombs, the nobles tombs and those of lesser mortals.
The earliest of the texts relating to the afterlife appear in the Old Kingdom and can be see in some of the earliest pyramids (Unas, Teti etc.) which I had not yet visited. These are known to us as the ‘Pyramid Texts’. After this period, parts of the funerary writings began to appear on private coffins, on papyri and on the walls of private tombs and these became known as ‘Coffin Texts’ and were a distillation of the ‘Pyramid Texts’. They were basically a guide book for the deceased and could have been entitled, ‘What to do When you Die’…. Sometime during the Second Intermediate Period (around 1650-1550 BC), the ‘Book of the Dead’ appeared, consisting of about 200 spells (or chapters) which were gleaned mostly from the Pyramid Texts and the Coffin Texts along with other funerary instructions and the whole collection became known as the ‘Amduat’. By the New Kingdom, most of the funerary books were virtually confined to the walls of royal tombs, just as they had decorated the pyramid walls for the pharaohs centuries before and it was these texts we had been studying in the Valley of the Kings. Following is a potted description of New Kingdom royal tomb decoration. Unfortunately there are several gaps in the chronological order as these were only the tombs that were open.
The Tomb of Tuthmose III
Here the complete stick-man version of the ‘Amduat’ was laid out in all its glory. It depicted the King’s journey from the point of death, through the twelve hours of darkness in the barque of Re, up to his rebirth in the realm of the gods. We also saw here the ‘Litany of Re’ on the pillars, which shows the King’s eventual union with the sun god and other deities.
The Tomb of Amenhotep II
This tomb was similar to that of his predecessor with the same deep blue starry ceiling and the same stick figures of the ‘Amduat’. But there was progress too, in that for the first time some of the figures were fully drawn, depicting the King performing rituals before the gods.
The Tomb of Tuthmose IV
Only parts of the well-room and antechamber here were decorated with fully-drawn figures of the King before deities. The goddesses all looked identical except for different and often beautiful and intricate designs on their dresses, so it was difficult to tell them apart without reading the hieroglyphs. Due to the hasty completion of the tomb however, the burial chamber was left undecorated and there were no funerary books we could follow.
The Tomb of Tutankhamun
I found this tomb very different to all the other royal tombs, in that the pictures in the sunken burial chamber were almost life-sized and drawn to a different proportion. (The Canon of Proportion relates to the size of the grid square used in sketching figures during different periods). The walls of the burial chamber show the King before the gods and the only passing nod to the funerary books is on the west wall which shows the baboons from the first hour of the ‘Amduat’.
The Tomb of Ay
The successor to Tutankhamun, Ay, was buried in the Western Valley. While the structure is larger than Tutankhamun’s tomb, the decoration is similar with several identical scenes, possibly done by the same artists. Again, only the burial chamber was decorated, with the same solid golden background and the baboons representing the ‘Amduat’. The main difference in this tomb is a large scene on the east wall depicting hunting and fishing in the marshes – a scene unique in royal tombs and more often encountered in private tombs.
The Tomb of Rameses I
This king had a very short reign and his tomb reflects this in its size, much smaller and simpler compared to other Ramesside tombs. Once more, only the burial chamber was decorated but had lovely saturated colours on a grey background. The predecessor of Rameses I was Horemheb (whose tomb was closed for restoration) and it was there that the ‘Book of Gates’ first appeared. The complete ‘Amduat’ had been dispensed with and the burial chamber of Rameses I displayed instead the twelve hours of the night, now referred to as the twelve ‘Gates’. The ‘Book of Gates’ was actually part of the collective ‘Amduat’. On a large scene on the west wall, the king stands before Osiris and a scarab-headed aspect of the sun god, Khepri. The placing of this scene in the burial chamber is significant, as in later tombs it usually appears at the entrance to the tomb.
The Tomb of Merenptah
We had to skip a couple of generations as the tombs of Seti I and Rameses II were not open and we were now looking at the tomb of Merenptah, son and successor to Rameses II. Extensive flooding over the centuries has destroyed much of the painting here but we could see that the tomb had been completely decorated. The first three corridors contained passages from the ‘Litany of Re’, a hymn to the sun god, as was first portrayed on the pillars in the tomb of Tuthmose III. This was followed by selected texts and images from the ‘Amduat’. In the four-pillared hall, the familiar ‘Amduat’ was replaced by scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’, which we also saw in the burial chamber. The ‘Book of Gates’ lists the magical formulae needed to enter each of the twelve gates of the underworld. A vestibule before the burial chamber was a new addition to Ramesside tomb plans and here we saw scenes from the ‘Book of the Dead’ for the first time. These texts, more accurately called the ‘Spell for Coming Forth by Day’, were a collection of spells which were first used by commoners and taken mostly from the earlier Pyramid and Coffin Texts. The best known scene from these texts is the judgement scene in which the deceased appears before Osiris and 42 assessors representing aspects of ma’at (divine order). The heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather (again representing ma’at). Questions are asked of the deceased and the answers are known as the ‘negative confession’. If the deceased is found lacking, he is gobbled up by the demon, Ammut the Devourer. Needless to say the pictures in the judgement scene always show a favourable outcome. The purpose of including the ‘Book of the Dead’ in tombs and coffins was so that the deceased would not need to memorise the correct formula for the answers to the 42 questions. Traditional ‘Amduat’ scenes in the burial chamber were replaced by solar imagery from the ‘Book of Caverns’.
The Tomb of Seti II
The first corridor in the tomb of Seti II showed the ‘Litany of Re’ in both raised and sunk relief of a superb quality, a departure in Ramesside tomb decoration so far. Going deeper into the tomb the paintings were less skilfully done but here we saw passages from the ‘Amduat’ and in the well-room, in another departure from traditional decoration there were pictures of funerary objects. The pillared hall contained the usual scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’ but on the pillars there were scenes as well as figures of the King, a style which was used in successive tomb decoration. The burial chamber contained more scenes from the ‘Book of Gates’ and had the goddess Nut with outstretched arms on the ceiling.
The Tomb of Siptah
The upper passages in the tomb of Siptah contained scenes from the ‘Litany of Re’ and the ‘Amduat’ and the ceilings were painted with flying vultures. It followed a similar plan to previous Ramesside tombs, but was a little more elaborate in architecture, even though all of the lower corridors, the well-room, antechamber and burial chamber remained undecorated.
The Tomb of Tawosret and Sethnakht
Queen Tawosret, wife of Seti II, reigned briefly as pharaoh after the death of her son Siptah. Tawosret’s tomb, next to that of her husband, was usurped and completed by the first king of he 20th Dynasty, Sethnakht. It is one of the largest tombs in the Kings Valley and its various stages of completion were reflected in its decoration, although of all the funerary texts, only the ‘Book of Gates’ and the ‘Book of Coming Forth by Day’ were represented here.
The Tomb of Rameses III
The tomb of Rameses III is another very large tomb and has some unusual and beautiful decoration. Side chambers off the upper corridors contain paintings of secular scenes including objects from the treasury, boats, various pots and vessels and the famous blind harpists. All four of the funerary books we had seen so far (‘Amduat’, ‘Litany of Re’, ‘Book of Gates’ and ‘Book of the Dead’) are represented here as well as, in the burial chamber, sections from the ‘Book of the Divine Cow’ and the ‘Book of the Earth’. The ‘Book of the Divine Cow’ is part of a collection of late New Kingdom texts known as the ‘Books of the Heavens’ which describe the sun’s passage through the daytime sky. The ‘Book of the Earth’ is a 20th Dynasty funerary text describing the sun’s nocturnal journey through the underworld.
The Tomb of Rameses IV
A less elaborately constructed tomb, but with some new elements. The wide upper corridors depict traditional scenes from the ‘Litany of Re’. The third corridor has a new text however, depicting scenes from the first and second divisions of the ‘Book of Caverns’, which is about the punishments metered out to the demons of the underworld, conquered by the sun god. An antechamber shows sections from the ‘Book of the Dead’, including the Negative Confession and in the burial chamber there are the traditional scenes from the ‘Amduat’ and ‘Book of Gates’ as well as parts of another newer text, the ‘Books of the Heavens’ on the ceiling. A short passage behind the burial chamber again contains initial scenes from the ‘Book of Caverns’ as well as images of the king (or his ushabtis) and funerary objects – a couch, a chest and canopic jars.
The Tomb of Rameses V & VI
This tomb was begun by Rameses V and completed by Rameses VI and the decoration throughout is in sunk relief with well-preserved painted scenes on a creamy background. In the upper corridors we see sections from both the ‘Book of Gates’ and the ‘Book of Caverns’ while an astronomical ceiling in the long sloping passage contains scenes from the ‘Book of Night’ and the ‘Book of Day’, which are parts of the ‘Books of the Heavens’. The lower corridors contain scenes from the ‘Amduat’ and again the ‘Books of the Heavens’ on the ceiling. In the burial chamber the ‘Book of the Earth’ occurs in a more complete form. This text (also called the ‘Book of Aker’), deals with the mystery of the creation of the solar disc and the god’s (and hence the king’s) journey out into the light. A double image of the goddess Nut on the ceiling represents her nocturnal and diurnal aspects and the part she plays in the ‘Book of the Day’ and ‘Book of the Night’.
The Tomb of Rameses VII
The decoration in the small tomb of Rameses VII follows that of Rameses VI but has only a single wide sloping corridor containing scenes from the first division of the ‘Book of Gates’ on the left. The initial scenes from the ‘Book of Caverns’ on the right, depicts divinities paying homage to the dying sun god Re. On either side the king is depicted as an Osiris, a strong theme in this tomb. The burial chamber again contains scenes from the ‘Book of the Earth’ (‘Book of Aker’) and a double-Nut ceiling.
The Tomb of Rameses IX
The final open royal tomb in the King’s Valley was that of Rameses IX and the decoration here contained scenes from many of the funerary books we had previously seen in other Ramesside tombs. The decoration in first corridor goes back to the traditional ‘Litany of Re’ (representing the resurrection of the pharaoh) for the first time since the tomb of Rameses IV, but also with parts of the ‘Book of Caverns’ too. Other corridors contain scenes from the ‘Book of the Dead’, the ‘Book of Caverns’ and the ‘Amduat’ and lovely astronomical ceilings. In the third corridor there are depictions of the King as an Osiris as well as some cryptographic details from a previously unknown funerary book. On the vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber we saw again the beautiful double representation of Nut from the ‘Books of the Heavens’ and on the walls, scenes from the ‘Book of Caverns’, ‘Book of the Earth’ and the ‘Amduat‘.
Phew… The King had quite a way to travel once he was dead and on a long arduous journey which got more complicated and convoluted as time went on. The later Ramesside tombs were very beautiful and in some, the quality of workmanship was superb. The structures themselves generally got larger and more complex too. But most of all I loved the earlier tombs for their simplicity. I felt the difference was like comparing a small country church to a huge gothic cathedral. I was overawed in the later tombs. Even more, I loved the nobles tombs scattered everywhere about the West Bank. But that’s another story!