Once called the Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaoh, or the Place of Truth, the Valley of the Kings has 63 magnificent royal tombs from the New Kingdom period (1550–1069 BC), all very different from each other. The west bank had been the site of royal burials from the First Intermediate Period (2160–2025 BC) onwards. At least three 11th-dynasty rulers built their tombs near the modern village of Taref, northeast of the Valley of the Kings. The 18th-dynasty pharaohs, however, chose the isolated valley dominated by the pyramid-shaped mountain peak of Al-Qurn (The Horn). The secluded site enclosed by steep cliffs was easy to guard and, when seen from the Theban plain, appears to be the site of the setting sun, associated with the afterlife by ancient Egyptians.
The tombs have suffered great damage from treasure hunters, floods and, in recent years, from mass tourism: carbon dioxide, friction and humidity produced by the average of 2.8g of sweat left by each visitor have affected the reliefs and the pigments of the wall paintings. The Department of Antiquities has installed dehumidifiers and glass screens in the worst-affected tombs, and introduced a rotation system for opening some tombs to the public while restoring others. Lighting in the tombs was being installed at the time of writing so visitors will be able to visit at night, thus avoiding the heat of the day. Three replica tombs are planned in the near future: the tomb of Tutankhamun, Seti I and Nefertari (in the Valley of the Queens).
The road into the Valley of the Kings is a gradual, dry, hot climb, so be prepared, especially if you are riding a bicycle. The air-conditioned visitors centre has a good model of the Valley, a movie about Carter’s discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, and toilets. Soft drinks, ice creams and snacks are available from the stalls at the tourist bazaar near the entrance. A tuf-tuf (a little electrical train) ferries visitors between the visitors centre and the tombs (it can be hot during summer). The ride costs E£10. It’s worth having a torch to illuminate badly lit areas.
Most of the tombs described here are usually open to visitors and are listed in the order that they are found when entering the site.
Tomb of Ramses VII (KV 1)
Near the main entrance is the small, unfinished tomb of Ramses VII (1136–1129 BC). Only 44.3m long – short for a royal tomb because of Ramses’ sudden death – it consists of a corridor, a burial chamber and an unfinished third chamber. His architects hastily widened what was to have been the tomb’s second corridor, making it a burial chamber, and the pharaoh was laid to rest in a pit covered with a sarcophagus lid. Niches for Canopic jars are carved into the pit’s sides, a feature unique to this tomb. Walls on the corridor leading to the chamber are decorated with fairly well preserved excerpts from the Book of Caverns and the Opening of the Mouth ritual, while the burial chamber is decorated with passages from the Book of the Earth.
Tomb of Ramses IV (KV 2)
The tomb of Ramses IV was already known in Ptolemaic times, evident from the graffiti on the walls dating back to 278 BC. Ramses IV (1153–1147 BC) died before the tomb was completed. The paintings in the burial chamber have deteriorated, but there is a wonderful image of the goddess Nut, stretched across the blue ceiling, and it is the only tomb to contain the text of the Book of Nut, with a description of the daily path taken by the sun every day. The red-granite sarcophagus, though empty, is one of the largest in the valley. The discovery of an ancient plan of the tomb on papyrus (now in the Turin Museum) shows the sarcophagus was originally enclosed by four large shrines similar to those in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The mummy of Ramses IV was later reburied in the Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35), and is now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Tomb of Ramses IX (KV 6)
Opposite Ramses II is the most visited tomb in the valley, the Tomb of Ramses IX (1126–1108 BC), with a wide entrance, a long sloping corridor, a large antechamber decorated with the animals, serpents and demons from the Book of the Dead, and then a pillared hall and short hallway before the burial chamber. On either side of the gate on the rear wall are two figures of Iunmutef priests, both dressed in priestly panther-skin robes and sporting a ceremonial side lock. The walls of the burial chamber feature the Book of Amduat, the Book of Caverns and the Book of the Earth; the Book of the Heavens is represented on the ceiling. Although it is unfinished, it was the last tomb in the valley to have so much of its decoration completed, and the paintings are relatively well preserved.
Tomb of Ramses II (KV 7)
As befits the burial place of one of Egypt’s longest-reigning pharaohs (67 years, from 1279 to 1213 BC), KV 7 is one of the biggest tombs in the valley. However, flash floods destroyed much of what must have been spectacular decoration, so it is unlikely to open anytime soon. Based on the decorative scheme in his father Seti I’s superb tomb, the walls of Ramses II’s tomb would once have been just as brightly coloured, featuring scenes from the Litany of Ra, Book of Gates, the Book of the Dead and other sacred texts. In one of the side chambers off the burial chamber is a statue of Osiris similar to one found by Dr Kent Weeks in KV 5, giving him yet more evidence for his theory that KV5 belongs to the many sons of Ramses.
Tomb of Merenptah (KV 8)
Ramses II lived for so long that 12 of his sons died before he did, so it was finally his 13th son Merenptah (1213–1203 BC) who succeeded him in his 60s. The second-largest tomb in the valley, Merenptah’s tomb has been open since antiquity and has its share of Greek and Coptic graffiti. Floods have damaged the lower part of the walls of the long tunnel-like tomb, but the upper parts have well-preserved reliefs. The corridors are decorated with the Book of the Dead, the Book of Gates and the Book of Amduat. Beyond a shaft is a false burial chamber with two pillars decorated with the Book of Gates. Although much of the decoration in the burial chamber has faded, it remains an impressive room, with a sunken floor and brick niches on the front and rear walls.
The pharaoh was originally buried inside four stone sarcophagi, three of granite (the lid of the second still in situ, with an effigy of Merenptah on top) and the fourth, innermost, sarcophagus of alabaster. In a rare mistake by ancient Egyptian engineers, the outer sarcophagus did not fit through the tomb entrance and its gates had to be hacked away.
Tomb of Tutankhamun (KV 62)
The story of the celebrated discovery of the famous tomb and all the fabulous treasures it contained far outshines its actual appearance, and it is one of the least impressive tombs in the valley. Tutankhamun’s tomb is small and bears all the signs of a rather hasty completion and inglorious burial. The son of Akhenaten and one of Akhenaten’s sisters, he ruled briefly (1336–1327 BC) and died young, with no great battles or buildings to his credit, so there was little time to build a tomb.
The Egyptologist Howard Carter slaved away for six seasons in the valley, believing that he would find the tomb of Tutankhamun intact with all its treasures. The first step was found on 4 November 1922, and on 5 November the rest of the steps and a sealed doorway came to light. Carter wired Lord Carnarvon to join him in Egypt immediately for the opening of what he believed was the completely intact Tomb of Tutankhamun.
The tomb’s priceless cache of treasures, although it had been partially robbed twice in antiquity, vindicated Carter’s dream beyond even his wildest imaginings. Four chambers were found crammed with jewellery, furniture, statues, chariots, musical instruments, weapons, boxes, jars and food. Even the later discovery that many had been stuffed haphazardly into the wrong boxes by necropolis officials ‘tidying up’ after the ancient robberies does not detract from their dazzling wealth. Some archaeologists believe that Tutankhamun was perhaps buried with all the regalia of the unpopular Amarna royal line, as some of it is inscribed with the names of his father Akhenaten and the mysterious Smenkhkare (1388–336 BC), who some Egyptologists believe was Nefertiti ruling as pharaoh.
Most of the treasure is in the Cairo Museum, a few pieces are in Luxor Museum, and only Tutankhamun’s mummy in its gilded wooden coffin is in situ. The burial chamber walls are decorated by chubby figures of the pharaoh before the gods, painted against a yellow-gold background. The wall at the foot end of the sarcophagus shows scenes of the pharaoh’s funeral; the 12 squatting apes from the Book of Amduat, representing the 12 hours of the night, are featured on the opposite wall.
Tomb of Ramses VI (KV 9)
The intactness of Tutankhamun’s tomb is largely thanks to the existence of the tomb of Ramses VI. The tomb was actually begun for the ephemeral Ramses V (1147–1143 BC) and continued by Ramses VI (1143–1136 BC), with both pharaohs apparently buried here; the names and titles of Ramses V still appear in the first half of the tomb. Following the tomb’s ransacking a mere 20 years after burial, the mummies of both Ramses V and Ramses VI were moved to Amenhotep II’s tomb where they were found in 1898 and taken to Cairo.
Although the tomb’s plastering was not finished, its fine decoration is well preserved, with an emphasis on astronomical scenes and texts. Extracts from the Book of Gates and the Book of Caverns cover the entrance corridor. These continue into the midsection of the tomb and well room, with the addition of the Book of the Heavens. Nearer the burial chamber the walls are decorated with extracts from the Book of Amduat. The burial chamber is beautifully decorated, with a superb double image of Nut framing the Book of the Day and Book of the Night on the ceiling. This nocturnal landscape in black and gold shows the sky goddess swallowing the sun each evening to give birth to it each morning in an endless cycle of new life designed to revive the souls of the dead pharaohs. The walls of the chamber are filled with fine images of Ramses VI with various deities, as well as scenes from the Book of the Earth, with scenes that show the sun god’s progress through the night, the gods who help him and the forces of darkness trying to stop him reaching the dawn; look out for the decapitated, kneeling figures of the sun god’s enemies around the base of the chamber walls and the black-coloured executioners who turn the decapitated bodies upside down to render them as helpless as possible.
Tomb of Ramses III (KV 11)
Ramses III (1184–1153 BC), the last of Egypt’s warrior pharaohs, built one of the longest tombs in the Valley of the Kings. His tomb, started but abandoned by Sethnakht (1186–1184 BC), is 125m long, much of it still beautifully decorated with colourful painted sunken reliefs featuring the traditional ritual texts (Litany of Ra, Book of Gates etc) and Ramses before the gods. Unusually here are the secular scenes, in the small side rooms of the entrance corridor, showing foreign tributes such as highly detailed pottery imported from the Aegean, the royal armoury, boats and, in the last of these side chambers, the blind harpists that gave the tomb one of its alternative names: ‘Tomb of the Harpers’.
In the chamber beyond is an aborted tunnel where ancient builders ran into the neighbouring tomb. They shifted the axis of the tomb to the west and built a corridor leading to a pillared hall, with walls decorated with scenes from the Book of Gates. There is also ancient graffiti on the rear right pillar describing the reburial of the pharaoh during the 21st dynasty (1069–945 BC). The remainder of the tomb is only partially excavated and structurally weak.
Ramses III’s sarcophagus is in the Louvre in Paris, its detailed lid is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and his mummy – found in the Deir al-Bahri cache – was the model for Boris Karloff’s character in the 1930s film The Mummy . The mummy is now in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
Tomb of Horemheb (KV 57)
This tomb was discovered filled with ransacked pieces of the royal funerary equipment, including a number of wooden figurines that were taken to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Horemheb (1323–1295 BC), a general and military strongman under Tutankhamun, brought stability after the turmoil of Akhenaten’s reign. He had already built a lavish tomb in Saqqara, but abandoned it for this tomb. The various stages of decoration in the burial chamber give a fascinating glimpse into the process of tomb decoration.
From the entrance, a steep flight of steps and an equally steep passage leads to a well shaft decorated with superb figures of Horemheb before the gods. Notice Hathor’s blue-and-black striped wig and the lotus crown of the young god Nefertum, all executed against a grey-blue background. The six-pillared burial chamber decorated with part of the Book of Gates remains partially unfinished, showing how the decoration was applied by following a grid system in red ink over which the figures were drawn in black prior to their carving and painting. The pharaoh’s empty red-granite sarcophagus carved with protective figures of goddesses with outstretched wings remains in the tomb; his mummy is missing.
Tomb of Amenhotep II (KV 35)
One of the deepest structures in the valley, this tomb has more than 90 steps down to a modern gangway, built over a deep pit designed to protect the inner, lower chambers from both thieves (which it failed to do) and the water from flash floods.
Stars cover the entire ceiling in the huge burial chamber and the walls feature, as if on a giant painted scroll, text from the Book of Amduat. While most figures are of the same sticklike proportions as in the tomb of Amenhotep’s father and predecessor Tuthmosis III, this is the first royal tomb in the valley to also show figures of more rounded proportions, as on the pillars in the burial chamber showing the pharaoh before Osiris, Hathor and Anubis. The burial chamber is also unique for its double level; the top level was filled with pillars, the bottom contained the sarcophagus.
Although thieves breached the tomb in antiquity, Amenhotep’s (1427–1400 BC) mummy was restored by the priests, put back in his sarcophagus with a garland of flowers around his neck, and buried with 13 other royal mummies in the two side rooms, including Tuthmosis IV (1400–1390 BC), Amenhotep III, Merenptah, Ramses IV, V and VI and Seti II (1200–1194 BC), most of which are now at the Egyptian Museum.
Tomb of Tuthmosis III (KV 34)
Hidden in the hills between high limestone cliffs and reached only via a steep staircase that crosses an even steeper ravine, this tomb demonstrates the lengths to which the ancient pharaohs went to thwart the cunning of the ancient thieves.
Tuthmosis III (1479–1425 BC), an innovator in many fields, and whose military exploits and stature earned him the description ‘the Napoleon of ancient Egypt’, was one of the first to build his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. As secrecy was his utmost concern, he chose the most inaccessible spot and designed his burial place with a series of passages at haphazard angles and fake doors to mislead or catch potential robbers.
The shaft, now traversed by a narrow gangway, leads to an antechamber supported by two pillars, the walls of which are adorned with a list of more than 700 gods and demigods. As the earliest tomb in the valley to be painted, the walls appear to be simply giant versions of funerary papyri, with scenes populated by stick men. The burial chamber has curved walls and is oval in shape; it contains the pharaoh’s quartzite sarcophagus that is carved in the shape of a cartouche.
Tomb of Siptah (KV 47)
Discovered in 1905, the tomb of Siptah (1194–1188 BC) was never completed but the upper corridors are nonetheless covered in fine paintings. The tomb’s entrance is decorated with the sun disc, and figures of Maat, the goddess of truth, kneel on each side of the doorway. There are further scenes from the Book of Amduat, and figures of Anubis, after which the tomb remains undecorated.
Tomb of Tawosret/Sethnakht (KV 14)
Tawosret was the wife of Seti II and after his successor Siptah died she took power herself (1188–1186 BC). Egyptologists think she began the tomb for herself and Seti II but their burials were removed by her successor, the equally short-lived Sethnakht (1186–1184 BC), who completed the tomb by adding a second burial chamber for himself. The change of ownership can be seen in the tomb’s decoration; the upper corridors show the queen, accompanied by her stepson Siptah, in the presence of the gods. Siptah’s cartouche was later replaced by Seti II’s. But in the lower corridors and burial chambers images of Tawosret have been plastered over by images or cartouches of Sethnakht.
The tomb has been open since antiquity and although the decoration has worn off in some parts, the colour and state of the burial chambers remains good, with astronomical ceiling decorations and images of Tawosret and Sethnakht with the gods. The final scene from the Book of Caverns adorning Tawosret’s burial chamber is particularly impressive, showing the sun god as a ram-headed figure stretching out his wings to emerge from the darkness of the underworld.
Tomb of Seti II (KV 15)
Adjacent to the tomb of Tawosret/Sethnakht is a smaller tomb where it seems Sethnakht buried Seti II (1200–1194 BC) after turfing him out of KV 14. Open since ancient times judging by the many examples of classical graffiti, the tomb’s entrance area has some finely carved relief scenes, although the rest was quickly finished off in paint alone. The walls have extracts from the Litany of Ra, the Book of Gates and the Book of Amduat and, unusually, on the walls of the well room, images of the type of funerary objects used in pharaohs’ tombs, such as golden statuettes of the pharaoh within a shrine.
Tomb of Ramses I (KV 16)
Ramses I (1295–1294 BC) only ruled for a year so his tomb is a very simple affair. His tomb has the shortest entrance corridor leading to a single, almost square, burial chamber, containing the pharaoh’s open pink granite sarcophagus. Only the chamber is superbly decorated, very similar to Horemheb’s tomb (KV 57), with extracts from the Book of Gates, as well as scenes of the pharaoh in the presence of the gods, eg the pharaoh kneeling between the jackal-headed ‘Soul of Nekhen’ and the falcon-headed ‘Soul of Pe’, symbolising Upper and Lower Egypt.
Tomb of Seti I (KV 17)
As befits such an important pharaoh, Seti I (1294–1279 BC), son and heir of Ramses I, has one of the longest (137m) and most beautiful tombs in the valley. Its discovery by Giovanni Belzoni in 1817 generated almost the same interest as the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb a century later. As the first royal tomb to be decorated throughout, its raised, painted relief scenes are similar to those found in the pharaoh’s beautifully decorated temple at Abydos and the quality of the work is superb. Two of its painted reliefs showing Seti with Hathor are now in the Louvre in Paris and Florence’s Archaeological Museum, while Seti’s alabaster sarcophagus was bought by Sir John Soane, and it can still be seen in the basement of his London house-turned-museum.
The tomb is indefinitely closed for restoration (ongoing since 1991), but soon there should be a replica of this tomb, including the missing parts that are now held in foreign museums.
Tomb of Montuhirkopshef (KV 19)
The tomb of Ramses IX’s son (c 1000 BC), whose name translates as ‘The Arm of Montu is Strong’, is located high up in the valley’s eastern wall. It is small and unfinished but has fine paintings and few visitors. Its entrance corridor is adorned with life-size reliefs of various gods, including Osiris, Ptah, Thoth and Khonsu, receiving offerings from the young prince, who is shown in all his finery, wearing exquisitely pleated fine linen robes and a blue-and-gold ‘sidelock of youth’ attached to his black wig – not to mention his gorgeous make-up (as worn by both men and women in ancient Egypt).
Tomb of Tuthmosis IV (KV 43)
The tomb of Tuthmosis IV (1400–1390 BC) is one of the largest and deepest tombs constructed during the 18th dynasty. It is also the first in which paint was applied over a yellow background, beginning a tradition that was continued in many tombs. It was discovered in 1903 by Howard Carter, 20 years earlier than the tomb of Tuthmosis IV’s great-grandson, Tutankhamun. It is accessed by two long flights of steps leading down and around to the burial chamber where there’s an enormous sarcophagus covered in hieroglyphs. The walls of the well shaft and antechamber are decorated with painted scenes of Tuthmosis before the gods, and the figures of the goddess Hathor are particularly fetching in a range of beautiful dresses decorated with beaded designs.
On the left (south) wall of the antechamber there is a patch of ancient Egyptian graffiti dating back to 1315 BC, written by government official Maya and his assistant Djehutymose and referring to their inspection and restoration of Tuthmosis IV’s burial on the orders of Horemheb following the first wave of robbery in the eighth year of Horemheb’s reign, some 67 years after Tuthmosis IV died.
Tomb of Ay (KV 23)
Although he succeeded Tutankhamun, Ay’s brief reign from 1327 to 1323 BC tends to be associated with the earlier Amarna period and Akhenaten (some Egyptologists have suggested he could have been the father of Akhenaten’s wife Nefertiti). Ay abandoned a grandiose tomb in Amarna and took over another in the West Valley here. The West Valley played an important part in the Amarna story, as it was chosen as a new burial ground by Amenhotep III for his own enormous tomb (KV 22, partway up the valley), and his son and successor Akhenaten also began a tomb here, before he relocated the capital at Amarna, where he was eventually buried. It seems Tutankhamun too planned to be buried in the West Valley, until his early death saw his successor Ay ‘switch’ tombs. Tutankhamun was buried in a tomb (KV 62) in the traditional section of the Valley of the Kings, while Ay himself took over the tomb Tutankhamun had begun at the head of the West Valley. The tomb is accessed by a dirt road leading off from the car park at the Valley of the Kings that winds for almost 2km up a desolate valley past sheer rock cliffs. Recapturing the atmosphere (and silence) once found in the neighbouring Valley of the Kings makes it worth the visit.
Although only the burial chamber is decorated, it is noted for its scenes of Ay hippopotamus hunting and fishing in the marshes (scenes usually found in the tombs of nobles not royalty) and for a wall featuring 12 baboons, representing the 12 hours of the night, after which the West Valley or Wadi al-Gurud (Valley of the Monkeys) is named.