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The lost tombs of Thebes - Heritage - Al-Ahram Weekly - Ahram Online

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The lost tombs of Thebes

Zahi Hawass
Tuesday 19 Jul 2022

East of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings are the tombs of the officials, courtiers, and even workmen who once served the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, writes Zahi Hawass

People are always eager to hear more about the mysteries of the Valley of the Kings.

News from this hidden canyon where the Pharaohs of Egypt were buried during the New Kingdom (ca. 1550-1100 BCE) is reported enthusiastically by the media and devoured avidly by the public.

The spectacular discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922 is, of course, to a large degree responsible for the fascination that the valley holds for the general public. But many people do not know that the foothills of the Theban massif just east of the royal tombs are also filled with unique tombs belonging to the people who served the Pharaohs.

Buried here are viziers, officials, courtiers, and even the workmen who carved and decorated the tombs. To date, approximately 800 tombs have been unearthed, and many more surely remain hidden in the rocky hills.

Some of the Theban tombs are well-known and contain familiar scenes. Others have been lost almost completely to the eyes of the world. Many are accessible but are closed to the public and visited only sporadically by scholars. Others have been hidden under villages built above them over the past centuries.

Of these modern villages, the most famous is Al-Qurna just west of the Ramesseum, where local people began to construct houses soon after foreign adventurers came to the Luxor area and began to rediscover the royal and private tombs. A number of the more notorious inhabitants of Al-Qurna have been well-known antiquities dealers, since one of the reasons that houses were built on top of the tombs was so that they could be robbed in secret.

Some years ago, we went with the police to one of the houses in this village and found that the owner had built it over the beautifully decorated tomb of Amenhotep Huy, viceroy of Nubia under Tutankhamun. Another person had dug a tunnel from his house to a nearby private tomb so that he could use it to store stolen antiquities. Others use the tombs beneath their houses as animal pens.

In 2007, the construction of a modern village called Al-Tarif to the north of the Valley of the Kings was finished. The villagers from Al-Qurna were moved to new homes here and their old houses were torn down, with 25 left as testimony to the unique history of this area. It should come as no surprise to learn that when the old houses were removed a number of tombs were discovered beneath them.

EGYPT'S GOLDEN AGE: Comprising dynasties 18 to 20, the New Kingdom, beginning in around 1550 BCE and lasting for four centuries, was a golden age for ancient Egypt.

It began when the Theban prince Ahmose succeeded in driving out the Hyksos, foreign princes who had occupied much of Egypt for the previous century, and founded the 18th Dynasty. He began what was to be several centuries of foreign wars by chasing the invaders into their homeland to the northeast and beginning to claim the Nubian lands to the south of Egypt, once controlled by the monarchs of the Middle Kingdom.

Ahmose was followed on the throne by his son Amenhotep I, who continued his father's expansionist policies. These early pharaohs also began what was to be a tradition for the next four centuries of building monuments in the Theban area to honour their ancestral god Amun.

Merged with the sun god Re, Amun-Re became the head of the Egyptian pantheon. Each king made offerings to the cult of this god in thanks for their victories abroad, and the power and wealth of the Amun priesthood eventually came to rival that of the monarchy.

Thebes remained for most of the New Kingdom the religious capital and one of the key political and administrative centres of the country. The kings were buried in the Theban hills surrounded by their families, their courtiers, and their high officials.

After Amenhotep I, the direct line died out and the reins of power were passed to Thutmose I, an army general who is believed to have been married to an Ahmosid princess. Thutmose I marched the armies of Egypt all the way to the Euphrates in the northeast and to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the south.

Many illustrious Pharaohs ruled during the 18th Dynasty. Some of the most famous are Hatshepsut, who held power for two decades, and her stepson Thutmose Ill, remembered as one of Egypt's greatest warriors.

Thutmose Ill's great-grandson was Amenhotep Ill, the "Sun King", who in turn engendered the "heretic Pharaoh" Akhenaten. The reign of this latter king is the most vigorously debated period of ancient Egyptian history. Ruling with his beautiful queen Nefertiti beside him, Akhenaten overturned the traditional religion of Egypt in favour of the Aten, the immanent disc of the sun.

Akhenaten was in all likelihood the father of Egypt's most famous monarch, the boy-king Tutankhamun. Most people know only of this king's fabulous treasure, but before his death and burial he ruled for almost 10 years during a period of great change in Egypt and chaos in the Near East. Populations were on the move, and Egypt's golden empire was under pressure from the new superpowers that were on the rise. Tutankhamun and his two successors all died without issue, and the 18th Dynasty came to an end.

The first Pharaoh of the 19th Dynasty was an army general named Paramesses, who became Ramses I. He was succeeded by his son Seti I, and then his grandson Ramses II, known to posterity as Ramses the Great. Under this long-lived and charismatic king, Egypt succeeded in retaining much of its original empire and made peace with its most powerful foes to the northeast, the Hittites.

After five more reigns (including that of one queen-regnant), power passed to a new line, the 20th Dynasty. The most famous king of this era is Ramses III, best known for having driven back a coalition of displaced marauders known as the "People of the Sea" who had allied themselves with Libyan tribes from the west.

Succeeding Ramses III were eight more kings named Ramses (IV through XI), and then the New Kingdom came to an end.

 

THE THEBAN NECROPOLIS: Built to serve as the eternal homes of the officials and nobles who were buried within them, the New Kingdom private tombs at Thebes span an area from north to south at the edge of the Western Desert.

Modern scholars have divided this swath of rocky land into five cemeteries. Farthest north is Al-Tarif, where most of the tombs date to the Middle Kingdom and early Second Intermediate Period. Just south of Al-Tarif is Dra Abu Naga. This was the burial place of the princes of the 17th Dynasty, the royal line that culminated in Ahmose. There are approximately 80 tombs here, dating from the 17th through to the 20th dynasties.

To the south and west, near the great memorial temple of Hatshepsut at Deir Al-Bahari is the Assasif, where about 40 tombs from the New Kingdom and later have been discovered to date. South of the Assassif is Al-Khokha. This cemetery was first used during the Old Kingdom and is also home to over 50 tombs from the 18th and 19th dynasties.

The necropolis that lies west of Al-Khokha is called Sheikh Abdel-Qurna. It contains more than 140 tombs, primarily dating to the 18th Dynasty. The southernmost Theban private cemetery is Qurnet Murai, where 17 tombs, mainly from the Ramesside period, have been excavated.

The rock-cut tombs of the New Kingdom elite all follow a basic plan consisting of cult chapel above and burial chambers below. Within these sacred spaces, the deceased were transformed into blessed spirits, able to live eternally in an ideal land beyond the earth.

While the cults were active, the relatives of the deceased could come to make offerings and say prayers to their honoured ancestors, and the tombs thus also served as liminal zones where the worlds of the living and the dead came together.

 

VALLEY OF THE NOBLES: The tombs cover the full span of the New Kingdom and include the final resting places of many of the most important players in the cosmopolitan world of the Pharaohs.

They exemplify the various architectural styles and developments of this period, and their superb decoration illuminates the various themes chosen by the tomb owners to commemorate their lives on earth and guarantee themselves a blessed afterlife. Both well-known and "lost" tombs illuminate the history of this fascinating era and the magical functions of these miniature temples to the cult of the dead.  

The decoration of the Theban private tombs covers the walls of each tomb, most often the upper chapel but in some cases also of the burial suites. It was planned and executed carefully, designed to serve both to honour and preserve the memory of the deceased among those still living and to guarantee his or her transition to and eternal existence in the afterlife.

As a result, the scenes and texts within these tombs, which vary somewhat over time and from tomb to tomb within a specific period, provide us with important information about both life on earth and the religious beliefs of the ancient Egyptians. Some might say that these scenes can even help us write the history of Egypt.

 Although these types of scenes serve specific magical functions within the context of the death and resurrection of the tomb owner, they also provide a window to the daily and official lives of the nobles and their families. Many tomb scenes show the deceased in relationship to the Pharaoh and also depict the activities for which the official was responsible during life.

For example, a granary official might show scenes of agriculture, so that the process of preparing the soil, planting the grain, and harvesting the crops would be eternally under his competent supervision. A vizier might choose a scene of foreign tribute, providing us with information about the physical features, clothing, and typical trade goods of neighbours to the south, north, northeast, and west of Egypt.

From the tomb of a military official might come scenes of army parades. For very special service to the king, an official could receive collars of gold in a public ceremony; this would certainly be depicted on the walls of his tomb, to be repeated in perpetuity.

Other scenes show sporting activities, such as hunting in the desert and fishing and fowling in the marshes, which carry significant ritual overtones, representing at one level the triumph of the proper order of the Egyptian world over the chaos that was believed to surround and threaten it.

Scenes connected directly to religious and cult activities include images connected with mummification and funerals, including the rituals carried out in front of the tomb itself. Among the other scene types are images of purification rites, pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Abydos, and the deceased with the gods.

A major theme that falls into this category is the offering scene, essential for making sure that the deceased is provided with a perpetual supply of food and equipment. At the centre of these images are the tomb owner and his family seated at tables piled high with fabulous food. Surrounding these core icons, which date back to the beginning of Egyptian history, can be seen rows and rows of offering bearers and relatives performing the cult.

Finally, there are images from religious texts such as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, commonly known as the Book of the Dead.

Although both ancient and modern tomb robbers have taken away the vast majority of the equipment buried with the New Kingdom elite at Thebes, enough remains to give Egyptologists a good idea of the important items that the ancient Egyptians considered they needed for the afterlife.

The nobles' tombs, like the burials of the kings, were robbed in antiquity, and almost every tomb that was not robbed in ancient times has been violated in the modern era. Only a few tombs have survived to be excavated by archaeologists, although even the robbed tombs have stories to tell the expert eye.

Modern pressures and external factors such as tourism and neglect threaten these tombs today, and without a major campaign to save the Valley of the Nobles, many of the tombs will be destroyed within the next century or less.

 The New Kingdom tombs of the nobles are a rich source of imagery and information, but only a few of the hundreds of these spectacular tombs are known to the public. Selected scenes from these tombs, exquisite ones to be sure, are used over and over again to illustrate particular scene types or to represent this group of tombs as a whole.

Many beautiful and interesting tombs are often overlooked. In addition, such scenes are generally shown out of context, without reference to the purpose they were meant to serve.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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