Egypt: The Valley of the Kings on the West Bank at Luxor (Ancient Thebes)

The Valley of the Kings

By Marie Parsons

Geography of the Valley

The first king of the New Kingdom

The first king of the New Kingdom, Ahmose of the 18th Dynasty, built a pyramid-like structure at Abydos, which may or may not have been his original tomb. But all the remaining rulers of the period, except for the so-called Amarna interregnum, had their tombs cut into the rocks of the West Bank at Thebes, specifically at the Valley of the Kings. From Thutmose I in the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom period, all the kings, and occasionally high officials of that period, were buried in the secluded wadi, or dry gully, which today is called Valley of the Kings.

The peak known in Arabic as el-Qurn was known in ancient times as dehent, the Horn, and was sacred to the goddesses Hathor and Meretseger, "She who loves Silence."

The Valley, known as Biban el-Muluk, "doorway or gateway of the kings," or, the Wadyein, meaning "the two valleys," is actually composed of two separate branches. The main eastern branch, called ta set aat, or "The Great Place," is where most of the royal tombs are located, and in the larger, westerly branch where only a few tombs were cut.

The Valley is hidden from sight

The Valley is hidden from sight, behind the cliffs, which form the backdrop to the temple complex of Deir el-Bahri. Though the most direct route to the valley is a rather steep climb over these cliffs, a much longer, shallower, route existed along the bottom of the valley. This was quite possibly used by funeral processions, pulling funeral equipment by sledges to the rock-cut tombs in the Valley.

With its workers village later

With its workers village later called Deir el-Medina, the valley was called the Place of Truth or Set Maat, in ancient times. The workers of Deir el-Medina, who for generations since their community was established, could reach the Valley in about 30 minutes by walking along the steep mountain paths. Today, energetic folks may spend 45 minutes to an hour climbing the paths leading from the north side of the amphitheater of Deir el-Bahri and over the mountain ridge into the Valley of the Kings. Their efforts would be rewarded by splendid views of the Theban region.

Tombs in the Valley

The Valley contains 62 tombs to-date, excavated by the Egyptologists and archaeologists from many countries. Not all of the tombs belonged to the king and royal family. Some tombs belonged to privileged nobles and were usually undecorated. Not all the tombs were discovered intact, and some were never completed.

The powerful kings of the 18th and 19th Dynasties kept the tombs under close supervision, but under the weaker rulers of the 20th Dynasty, the tombs were looted, often by the very workers or officials supposedly responsible for their creation and protection. In order to prevent further thefts, the mummies and some of their funerary objects were reburied in two secret caches, not to be re-discovered until the 19th century of the modern era.

Visitors to Egypt have often journeyed into the Valley to view the accessible tombs, including Tuts, but with the increasing tourism, urban and industrial growth, pollution, and rising groundwater, the tombs have suffered over the decades. Today their access is rotated, so that a smaller number of tombs are open at one time, and even then, many of the decorations and walls can only be seen behind glass.

According to Diodorus and Strabo, and Greek and Latin graffiti, two writers of ancient times, a few of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were known and visited by ancient tourists during Ptolemaic times. Today, only a few of the 62 known tombs are accessible and open to the public. Eleven of the tombs, including Tutankhamuns, Ramesses VI, Amenhotep II, and Seti I, have been set with electrical lighting.

Entrance to Tutankhamun's Tomb

Entrance to Tutankhamun's Tomb

The earliest king buried in the Valley was Thutmose I, the latest, Ramesses XI. In 1922, Howard Carter found the last and possibly most well-known of these tombs, that belonging to the young King Tutankhamun. It lies directly opposite the tomb of Ramesses IX. For all the amount of treasure that had been found in this tomb, the space itself is small, and all but one room was undecorated. Directly across from Tutankhamuns tomb lies KV5, where work continues to uncover what may be the last resting place of the 150 sons of Ramesses II.

Tomb of Ramesses VI

Tomb of Ramesses VI

Ramesses VI had one of the largest tombs in the valley. His tomb is decorated with scenes from the books of the underworld, and the burial chamber is dominated by the shattered remains of the kings massive granite sarcophagus.

The tomb of Ramesses I, who had a brief reign, is a single small chamber at the end of a steep corridor. It bears some similarity in its decoration with the tomb of Horemheb, while being more elaborate. The tomb of Merneptah, 13th son and successor of Ramesses II, is badly damaged but worth visiting. Psusennes I appropriated one of the sarcophagi for his own burial at Tanis.

Tuthmosis III Sarcophagu

Tuthmosis III Sarcophagus

The tomb of Thutmose III is the earliest-era tomb that can be visited. Its walls are covered with 741 different deities and its ceiling is spangled with stars. The first of the tombs usually accessible is that of Ramesses IX, listed as tomb 6, right next to Tomb 55, now inaccessible.

The tomb of Seti I is the largest and most elaborate of the royal tombs. It is often closed to visitors because of rock falls and a lack of ventilation. Giovanni Belzoni, the Patagonian Samson, first entered this tomb in 1817 and brought back the alabaster sarcophagus and canopic chest to England, where they rest in the John Soane Museum. Some large wooden statues of Seti I similar to the black and gilt statues of Tutankhamun now stand in the British Museum.

Column in tomb of Amenhotep II

Column in tomb of Amenhotep II

The tomb of Ramesses II was begun for his father, Seti I, but abandoned, because the corridor cut into the adjacent tomb of Amenmesse. Belzoni removed the cartouche-shaped sarcophagus lid and it now rests in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The box sits in the Louvre.

Situated at the southern end of another wadi is the tomb of Amenhotep II. In 1898, in its southwest chamber was found one of the caches of royal mummies. This tombs seclusion made it a good reburial place for the nine royal mummies placed here in order to protect them from further depredations. Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Siptah, and Seti II were among the re-buried. Amenhotep II was found still lying in his own sarcophagus.

Along with royal tombs, tombs belonging to officials were found more or less intact. One was Maiherpra, a Nubian prince educated at court with the royal princes, one of which became Amenhotep II. Subsequently Maiherpra held office under that king.

History of Egyptology in the Valley

The Classical Greek writers Strabo and Diodorus Siculus were able to report that the total number of Theban royal tombs was 47, of which at the time only 17 were believed to be undestroyed. Pausanias and others wrote of the pipe-like corridors of the Valley, tombs into which travelers could descend and admire the wall decorations.

Some of these travelers left their names and other marks. The earliest datable graffito in the Valley was found in the tomb of Ramesses VII, and can be dated to 278 BCE, and the latest, left by a governor of Upper Egypt was dated to 537 ACE. The French scholar Jules Baillet counted over 2000 Greek and Latin graffiti left over the Classical centuries, along with a lesser number in Phoenician, Cypriot, Lycian, Coptic, and other languages. Almost half of these were found in the tomb of Ramesses VI, who was considered to be the fabled Memnon himself.

After the Arabs came into Egypt in 641 ACE, interest in the Valley waned considerably. It was not until the end of the 16th century that once again travelers began once again to take notice. Although the location of Thebes was clearly marked on a map of 1595, in 1668 a Father Charles Francois visited "the place of the mummies" and apparently did not realize its significance. It was left to another Frenchman, Father Claude Sicard, head of the Jesuit Mission in Cairo, traveling in Egypt between 1714 and 1726, who visited in the Valley in 1708 and located 10 open tombs including that of Ramesses IV. He wrote of the extensive wall paintings and their colors.

Father Claude Sicard

Father Claude Sicard

Sicards notes for the most part were unfortunately lost, and thus the first significant published account of the Valley was left to an Englishman named Richard Pococke in 1743. He apparently noted signs of about 18 tombs, though believing that only nine of these could be entered. In 1768 a Scotsman named James Bruce visited Luxor and explored the Valley. He visited the tombs of Ramesses IV and of Ramesses III, henceforth known as "Bruces Tomb." The principal feature of the latter tomb, for Bruce, were the fresco scenes of three harps

William George Brown visited the Valley in 1792, and he left his name in the tomb of Ramesses III. He also recounted one of the few extant accounts of contemporary Arab interest and excavation at the site. Browne wrote that the site had been explored "in the last 30 years" by a certain son of a Sheikh Hamam, but it is unknown whether or not this person was successful. Browne also described several tombs to which he had access, three of which did not seem to tally with descriptions given by Richard Pococke.

After Napoleons Expedition in 1798, two Frenchmen named Prosper Jollois and Edouard de Villiers du Terrage recorded the position of 16 tombs. For the first time the existence of a western branch of the valley was recorded, including the tomb of Amenhotep III. Jollois and de Villiers were to publish their works in the 19 volume Description de lEgypte

Jean Francois Champollion

Jean Francois Champollion

One of the great names of early Egyptology has to be that of Champollion, for his work in translating the ancient hieroglyphic symbols on the Rosetta Stone and thus opening the door to a greater understanding of the lives of these people. But though this work and his beautiful drawings published in his Monuments de lEgypte et de la Nubie left a brilliant legacy for scholars who followed him, he also left a legacy of shoddy and misguided destruction. Champollion and his companion Rossellini removed two scenes from the tomb of Seti I, which they brought to the Louvre and to a museum in Florence.

Giovanni Belzoni, called the Patagonian Samson, was the first modern-era European to visit the Valley of the Kings. He was sponsored by the Englishman Henry Salt, Consul-General in Egypt in 1816. Among other treasures, Belzoni removed from Egypt the sarcophagus of Ramesses III from "Bruces Tomb," and it now lies in the Louvre and the Fitzwilliam Museums. To give him some credit, Belzoni also not only confirmed the presence of the 47 tombs known to Classical writers, but added a further 8 tombs to that list, including those of King Ay, Prince Mentuherkhepshef, and Ramesses I. Belzonis most well-known find in the Valley was the tomb of Seti I, the finest so far found.

Giovanni Belzoni

Giovanni Belzoni

After Belzonis escapades, scholars began to emphasize recording and studying what had been found in the Valley, rather than simply searching for more tombs. John Gardner Wilkinson, born in Chelsea, England in 1797 excavated in the Valley in 1824 and in his own expense. Except for the West Valley, which he numbered separately, Wilkinson physically assigned a number to each tomb entrance, still visible today. Tombs KV1-21 are marked on the map of the main valley in his Topographical Survey of Thebes of 1830.recorded in 1827 that 21 tombs were open to view, listing them in chronological order. He copied scenes and inscriptions and then published the first accurate account of the tombs, titled Topography of Thebes, in 1830.

James Burton was a contemporary of Wilkinson in Thebes

James Burton was a contemporary of Wilkinson in Thebes. He began a clearance of the tomb listed as KV20, which he had to abandon due to "bad air" and only later would be proven by Howard Carter to be the tomb of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut. Burton also began a superficial examination of the tomb later called KV5. This tomb would wait until the 20th century to prove itself as the largest tomb to-date, most probably cut to serve the family of Ramesses II. At least 50 of his children have been found so far to have been buried therein. Burton published no records of his work, though some 63 volumes of his notes and drawings were given to the British Museum upon his death in 1862.

Karl Richard Lepsius followed both examples, that of scholarly recording and that of removing artifacts from their original place of rest. In 1844, Lepsius led a Prussian-backed expedition to Egypt. After years of exploring, mapping, and drawing pyramids, tombs, and monuments, including the Valley of the King tombs, Lepsius returned and produced the twelve-volume work Denkmaler aus Agypten und Athiopien. But he also sent out of Egypt 15,000 pieces, and at one time, overthrowing a decorated column in Setis tomb merely in order to remove a portion of it, leaving the rest in wreckage on the floor.

Karl Richard Lepsius

Karl Richard Lepsius

In the latter half of the 19th century, this plundering would come to a close. Auguste Mariette laid the foundations of a national Egyptian museum and for a governmental antiquities service. It was Mariette who discovered the Serapeum, the burial place at Memphis of the sacred Apis bulls, and the intact burial of Queen Ahhotep, mother of Ahmose, the founder of the New Kingdom. But Mariettes greatest contribution to Egyptology was the formation of the Antiquities Service. As Director-General, he was responsible for awarding concessions to all excavators, monitoring all digs, and policing the export of antiquities.

When the first cache of royal mummies was discovered in 1881 at Hatshepsuts temple of Deir el Bahri, world attention was once and for all focused on the quiet valley, and the first of many new excavations began in the area. Victor Loret arrived in Luxor in 1898. Loret had been appointed as the Director-General of the Antiquities Service, established by Mariette in 1856. Only five days after he began to dig below the cliffs under the Qurn, or "Horn" mountain, his team discovered the tomb of Thutmose III. He added 16 tombs to the map of the principal Valley. He also discovered the second cache of royal mummies within the tomb of Amenhotep II.

But Loret was not well-liked, and upon his resignation Maspero was reinstated. In 1899, Maspero appointed Howard Carter to be Antiquities Inspector for Upper Egypt. His responsibilities were to maintain all the sites of Upper Egypt and to grant concessions for others to dig, rather than having the authority to dig on his own. One of Carters claims to fame in this job was that he installed the first electric lighting, handrails, staircases and running boards in the royal tombs.

Financing these improvements required the backing of investors, and one such was the American Theodore Davis. Under his patronage, Carter discovered the royal tomb of Thutmose IV, including a wonderful royal chariot, and the tomb of Hatshepsut herself, containing her sarcophagus and that of her father Thutmose I.

Howard Carter

Howard Carter

When Davis persuaded Maspero in 1903 that he could no longer work with Carter, Maspero promoted Carter to Inspector of Saqqara, but Carter resigned six weeks later and never worked for the Antiquities Service again. Maspero replaced him with James Quibell, but he too was eventually replaced, by Arthur Weigall. Weigall was the one who broke through a tomb entrance that Quibell had earlier discovered, to find the rich burial goods and mummies of Yuya, Master of the Kings Horse, and his wife Thuya, the parents of Tiye, wife of Amenhotep III and mother of Amenhotep IV, later to rename himself Akhenaten.

More archaeologists and Egyptologists would follow, and great finds would continue to be made. Many excavators would return to Egypt and add astounding discoveries in the Valley to their earlier finds. Howard Carter was one who kept on working. For all the incredible efforts and discoveries made in the Valley of the Kings, in past decades or within just the past weeks, and all the contributions to the expansion of our knowledge of the funerary practices and literature and of the kingly history of ancient Egypt, all these seem veritably overshadowed by the finds made that relate to just one burial, the tomb and riches of the young King Tutankhamun.

Other Tour Egypt References on the Valley of the Kings

Additional Tombs:

See Also:


  • Fodors Exploring Egypt

  • The Penguin Guide to Ancient Egypt by William P. Murnane

  • Cadogans Guide to Egypt by Michael Haag

  • Egypt by Robert Morkot

  • Thebes in Egypt: A guide to the tombs and temples of ancient Luxor, by Nigel and Helen Strudwick

  • World of the Pharaohs by Christine Hobson

  • The Complete Valley of the Kings by Nicholas Reeves and Richard Wilkinson

Marie Parsons is an ardent student of Egyptian archaeology, ancient history and its religion. To learn about the earliest civilization is to learn about ourselves. Marie welcomes comments to