Valley of the Kings

Valley of the Kings (copyright Nikola Smolens)

The Valley of the Kings (Wadi Biban el-Muluk – “Gates of the King”) is the location of the burial tombs of many of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs and wealthy nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Dynasties).

It is located on the west bank of the Nile, directly across the water from Thebes (known as Waset to the ancient Egyptians), and was the centre of the Theban Necropolis. It is composed of two distinct valleys, the East Valley (where the most of the royal tombs situated) and West Valley (where there are also non-royal tombs).

The ancient Egyptians knew the valley as “The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes” and also by the (rather shorter) name of “Ta sekhet Maat” (generally translated as “the Great Field”).

The Valley crouches beneath the natural pyramid formed by al-Qurn (known to the ancient Egyptians as “ta dehent” meaning “The Peak”). This peak was sacred to Meretseger (“she who loves silence”) and Hathor. The area was also guarded by the dedicated police force known as the “Medjay”.

Valley of the Kings: map of tombs

Ahmose I, the first pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty is thought to have constructed his tomb in the Seventeenth Dynasty necropolis of Dra Abu el-Naga. It is believed that the first pharaoh to build in the Valley of the Kings was Amenhotep I. However, it is also possible that Thuthmosis I was the first to choose this valley as his advisor, Ineni, specifically states that his pharaoh chose a tomb site in a desolate valley. As there is still dispute regarding the attribution of his tomb (possibly KV 20 or KV 38) the mystery may never be solved.

The last royal burial in the Valley of the Kings is thought to be that of Ramesses XI, but there is evidence that nobles continue to usurp tombs in the area for some time after the last pharaonic burial. As far as we know, the Valley of the Kings contains sixty-three tombs, making it one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world.

Although all of the tombs had been robbed at some point in history (even the near complete tomb of Tutankhamun – KV62) the decorations on the walls of the tombs tell us much about the lives and beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and many mummies and funerary items have been recovered from the area. In 1979, it became a World Heritage Site, (along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis).

The Valley of Kings is composed of layers of dense sedimentary rock, such as the limestone which forms the steep cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, and softer layers of marl and shale. This unstable geography forced the Egyptians to adapt their tombs to the contours of the land.

Although there is very little rain in the area, occasional flash floods would sweep the valley, depositing debris into unfinished tombs and further obscuring the entrances to completed tombs. Although the location of the tombs was known to a few high priests, the secrets were closely guarded and the information could be lost.

When this was combined with the effects of flash floods it is perhaps not surprising that builders would occasionally break into another tomb during construction. When this happened during the construction of KV 11 (the tomb of Setnakhte) the tomb was abandoned and the tomb of another (KV 14 the tomb of Tausret) was usurped!

Ramesses III chose to extend KV11 for himself rather than building a new tomb, so in the end the workers endeavor was not for nothing. It is also suggested that Ramesses II chose to construct his tomb along a bent axis in part because of the limitations of the rock and not just to reflect earlier building styles.

  • Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
  • Dodson, Aiden (2016) The Royal Tombs of Ancient Egypt
  • Bryan, Betsy M.(2000) “The Eighteenth Dynasty Before The Amarna Period”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypti> Ed I. Shaw
  • Kemp, Barry J (1991) Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation
  • Van Dijk, Jacobus (2000) “The Amarna Period and Later New Kingdom”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
  • Reeves, Nicholas and Wilkinson, Richard H. (1996) The Complete Valley of the Kings
  • Strudwick, Nigel and Helen (1999) Thebes in Egypt
  • Wilkinson, Richard and Weeks, Kent Editors (2016) The Oxford Handbook of the Valley of the Kings

Copyright J Hill 2016