Halima Ali explores the tombs of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs
There’s a hive of activity all around us as we make our way along the main road into the ancient city of Luxor, once the site of ancient Thebes and the pharaohs’ capital at the height of their power.
Cars, minibuses and motorbikes whizz past tooting their horns, sometimes with a family of three or four squeezed onto the tiny frame. A row of small schoolchildren, each weighed down by a backpack, hold hands as they make their way home, while men work at the side of the road in the baking afternoon heat.
On either side of the thoroughfare, however, there’s only calm and serenity, as we get our first glimpses of the glorious river Nile and the surrounding lush, green fields of sugar cane.
While the pharaohs of the old kingdom had tombs on the Nile delta and at the Pyramids of Giza, the latter-day, New Kingdom pharaohs (16 to 11BC), built their crypts in Luxor. The valley on the west bank of the city acts as a royal burial ground for rulers such as the infamous Tutankhamun, Seti I, and Ramses II.
As the road winds, Tamer, our guide, explains the valley was chosen precisely because it’s located away from the city and, being positioned between two mountains, is difficult to get to.
He also delves into the pharaohs’ beliefs. “Ancient Egyptians believed in life after death, and that your soul goes on a journey for 12 hours before the final judgement. These 12 hours are very long and there are many tests during that time. If you were a good king, you would pass the judgement and your soul would pass through and look for your body – which is why they’d mummify it,” he says.
“During mummification, they first removed the brain through the nose.” I squirm in my seat. “Then, they made a 6cm cut and removed the heart, lungs and intestines…”
We venture first into the tomb of Ramesses III, regarded as the last great pharaoh, a burial place that’s 3,500 years old. Tomb KV11, as it’s known, is one of the largest in the Valley of the Kings, and while the pink granite sarcophagus has been removed (it’s in the Louvre in Paris), the remaining chamber is beautifully decorated with depictions of ancient Egyptian life.
Next there’s the tomb of Amenmesse. He succeeded Merneptah and is generally considered to be the fifth ruler of Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, though most Egyptologists believe he wasn’t the legitimate heir to the throne, which is why he only ruled for three to four years. Instead, it’s believed that Merneptah’s son, Prince Seti-Merneptah should have ascended the throne on his father’s death and various theories exist about why he didn’t.
Nevertheless, Seti-Merneptah (who was most likely King Seti II) did rule after Amenmesse and set about erasing all signs of his predecessor. In the tomb identified as KV10, all texts and scenes relating to Amenmesse were either removed or usurped by Seti II’s agents.
And while the remains of three mummies were found in this tomb — two women and one man — it’s uncertain if any of these remains belong to Amenmesse as it’s thought that Seti II had desecrated his remains.
Still, at Merneptah’s final resting place, we carefully walk down a very steep wooden walkway in single file, taking care not to trip over the wooden ridges beneath our feet. Before us lie two tombs – a large grey box and a stone sarcophagus.
Another visitor, at the urging of an old, robe-clad Egyptian – for a little money, of course – has climbed over the protective barrier for a closer inspection and is now edging precariously along a tiny ledge. Her husband, rooted to the spot on the correct side of the barrier, isn’t pleased and offers her some choice words.
As we leave the Valley at dusk, moving away from the rolling, gold-coloured mountains, we make a stop at the Colossi of Memnon, the two imposing 60ft-high statues of Amenhotep III, which once guarded a mortuary temple in Thebes built by the former ruler.
On departing the city, we drive along the Avenue of Sphinxes, which is currently being excavated. Built by the 30th-Dynasty King Nectanebo I, the path is lined with a number of statues in the shape of human-headed sphinxes. Tamer tells us that visitors will be able to walk the 3km along the avenue from Luxor Temple to Karnak Temple once the project is complete.
Meanwhile, countless tombs in the Valley remain undiscovered and the true number is simply not known. It seems that even now, history is still continuing to seep out of every corner of this historic city in Upper Egypt.
For the latest FCO advice on travel to Egypt, visit gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/egypt