Tuesday morning we left the hotel at 6:30 am to ferry across the to the West Bank for a visit to the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings and the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut (Deir el Bahri).
We hooked up with a lovely, chatty taxi driver from Gurna (the settlement that was on tip of the ancient Theban cemeteries for centuries) who was very knowledgeable about village life on the West Bank.
The first part of the trip is scenic and quite green, with agricultural fields tucked alongside ancient temple ruins. Then you cross that magic line between the Black Land (fertile land) and the Red Land(the desert) and the landscape becomes spectacular in a different way.
We’ve visited the VOK several times, but this visit was special because we had tickets to visit the spectacular tomb of Seti 1. I have drooled over this tomb from afar for decades: It is the longest, most beautifully decorated tomb in the entire Valley and it has been closed for most of my lifetime because of issues with flooding and instability. After years of restoration, it reopened to visitors in 2016 – for a hefty fee, at least by Egyptian standards, and it’s worth every penny.
Below is a plan of the tomb from the Theban Mapping Project, the same folks who opened the community library we visited yesterday. Since 1978, this team has been patiently mapping every singe tomb and features in the Valley and surrounding wadis, producing accurate plan views and linking their work to pictures and other resources explaining the excavation history of each tomb. It is an amazing resource.
Before descending that looong stairway into then tomb, here’s a bit of history about Seti 1 and an introduction to his afterlife journey as reflected in the tomb’s architecture and decoration.
Seti 1’s family came to power about 1292 BCE, at the end of the 18th Dynasty, following the tumultuous years of the Amarna Revolution, Tutankhamen’s reinstatement of the cult of Amen, Tut’s early death without heirs, and the ascent of the General Horemheb to throne. In Egyptian records, Horemheb backdated his rule to erase Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen from history (along with several other short-lived rulers), then appointed his favorite General as heir.
That General was Ramses 1, who already had two strong, healthy male heirs to back up his claim to the throne: Ramses 1 (whose tomb we visited next) and Ramses’ son, Seti 1. Ramses 1 was an old man and only ruled for a year or two. Seti 1 came to the throne about 1290 BCE, and ruled for ~ 11 years. During his years on the throne, Seti 1 sponsored many exquisite works of art across Egypt, most notably in his temple at Abydos and here, in his tomb. Ramses 1 was succeeded by his bombastic son Ramses 2, who favored revisionist history, quality over quantity, and lived so long that he was able to usurp most of the temples in Egypt. Ramses 2 is most famous in popular culture for the enormous monument to himself at Abu Simbel. But I digress…
For ancient Egyptians, their tomb was the gateway and passage to the afterlife. At this period of history, Egyptians believed that the sun (the god Ra) died each night and was reborn each dawn following a perilous journey through the realms of the dead. Their greatest hope was that their Sah (essentially one of several parts of their soul) would accompany Ra on this journey to be reborn with him into eternal life (reuniting all of their spiritual and bodily parts). Ra and the Sah were protected on the journey by a number of gods, including Osiris, and by various deceased souls. Each hour the night presented its own dangers, and the travelers had to pass through a gate to survive into the next hour, until finally emerging at dawn into the light of day and the eternal afterlife.
The walls of these tombs are painted with magical rituals designed to protect and defend the travelers against all the dangers faces along the way – kind of a combination guidebook to the afterlife and a handbook to survival. Several versions of magical guidebooks from this period have been found and named by Egyptologists as the Book of Gates, Book of the Dead (or The Book of Coming Forth by Day, in Egyptian parlance), the Book of the Heavens, and the Book of the Celestial Cow, Seti 1 hedged his bets by including bits and pieces of all in his tomb.
The theology is confusing and very unclear, but the journey makes for a terrific action adventure story. In the blog post on Saqqara, I mentioned that my sister and I attended the National Geographic’s “Immersive King Tut” exhibit when it visited Denver, which I thought was a really creative way to immerse viewers in the ancient Egyptian’s belief system. This immersive program was built around the journey of the Sah as described in the these Books of the Dead, so I thought it would be fun to intersperse clips from the immersive experience with images from Seti 1’s tomb. Here we go!
For the ancient Egyptians, souls needed nourishment to survive in the afterlife. Mortuary temples functioned as houses for those parts of the soul that remained on earth, which were capable of receiving nourishment, and dedicated locations for the living to provide offerings to nourish the dead. In this period, royal mortuary temples were separate from the tombs, scattered all along the West Bank of the Nile, and they would have looked something like this.
This ceiling image represents the most important constellations in the Night sky, which the Egyptians used to track the hours of the night.
And so the journey begins…
Snakes figure prominently in these adventures (understandably, since snakes were everywhere in ancient Egypt) and there are good snakes and bad snakes. Good snakes guard the gates for each hour, allowing the barque carrying gods and the Sah to pass, while keeping out all those bad elements from the previous hour. These snakes have names like The Guardian of the Desert (1st hour); the Stinger, who stands on its tail next to nine gods who are wrapped like mummies (3rd hour); the Eye of Fire (4th hour) and the Face of Flames (7th hour).
There are also bad snakes, and the BADDEST is the Great Snake Apep (Apophis) who tries to swallow the sun each night. Apep emerges in the 9th hour and dominates the battle until dawn.
Finally, after successfully navigating through all the Gates and slicing Apep up into little bits (which promptly regenerate to return next night) Ra and the deceased reach the point of rebirth and emerge into the dawn.
Wasn’t that fun? Now here are some pictures from the tomb just to give you a sense of the place. Sadly, only phone photography is allowed in the tomb and my iPhone was not up to the task of photo documentation.
The Tomb of Seti 1 was discovered by circus strongman-cum-“Egyptologist” Giovanni Belzoni in 1817. Belzoni and his early counterparts apparently felt compelled to leave “kilroy was here” graffiti on the ceiling of this tomb. Belzoni ran rampant over Egyptian sites for several years in the 19th century, and sold many very large artifacts to European collectors and museums – including Seti 1’s sarcophagus, which we visited several days later in London.
Seti 1’s tomb was robbed in antiquity, along with all but 1 of the other tombs in the Valley. About 200 years after his death, Seti 1’s mummy (along with ~ 50 other royal corpses) was moved for safekeeping into the tomb of a high priest of Amen located near Deir el Bahri (the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut). These mummies slumbered quietly in their borrowed tomb for nearly 3000 years until the cache was discovered by a local family of notorious tomb robbers. They pilfered artifacts and sold several mummies before being caught, including the mummy of Seti’s farther, Ramses 1. Those mummies not sold – including Seti 1 and Ramses 2 – were transported to the Egyptian Museum in 1881 where they remained until recently. In 2021, Seti and the other royal mummies from the Deir el Bahri cache were transported amidst great pomp and circumstance to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization where they are receiving visitors and offerings today.
The mummy of Ramses 1 was removed fro the cache before the thieves were caught and sold to private collector. He transported the mummy to Ontario, where it was displayed it in the Niagara Falls Museum and Daredevil Hall of Fame for 150 years. In 1999, the Niagara Falls Museum’s Egyptian artifacts were sold to a museum associated with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Medical experts at the museum identified the mummy as Ramses 1 and it was returned to Egypt in 2003. Today, Ramses 1 is receiving ring offerings in Luxor at the Luxor Museum.
The Tomb of Ramses 1 is right next door to Seti 1. It is much smaller, and the walls are painted, not carved. But the artwork is extremely high quality and in amazingly well preserved.
Our timing in the VOK was excellent – we left just as the packs of buses from Hurghada arrived, disgorging hundreds of tourists. (Hurghada is a Red Sea resort 4 hours drive from Luxor. These crazy people make the trip from Hurghada to Luxor in one day, to spend a New York minute at the major sites. Pazzo, as they say in Italian.)
Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el Bahri is located on the eastern side of the desert ridge that marks the western edge of the many wadis that form the Valley of the Kings.
Twenty years ago, when I was younger and fitter, I climbed this escarpment with a friend, from Deir el Medina (the worker’s village) on the east, across the ridge above Hatshepsut’s temple, and down into the Valley of the kings. This is the route taken weekly by the artists who created those stupendous carvings and paintings in the royal tombs (including Ramses 1 and Seti 1).
Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled as pharaoh in her own right – and is possibly the most maligned figure in Egyptology. Scholars in the 19th and 20th century could not fathom the notion that a woman could rule Egypt (even though at least six women rulers are documented and several others are likely). Traditional Egyptological histories protracted Hatshepsut as a scheming usurper who illegally kept her nephew, the Great Warrior Pharaoh Thutomose 3 (emphasis theirs), from his rightful place on the throne and was subsequently erased from history by a her vengeful nephew. Modern scholarships paints a more complicated picture of an effective ruler who saved her dynasty – and Thutmose 3’s place in the succession and appears to have co-ruled peacefully with him for many years. Egyptologist Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King is an excellent and highly readable biography of Hatshepsut. Her follow-up book, Women Who Ruled The World: Six Queens of Egypt, delves more deeply into the complex factors that enabled women to rule in ancient Egypt’s highly patriarchal governing structure. (Cooney is never boring, I promise.)
The The temple is an architectural masterpiece,
The temple is an architectural masterpiece, nestled into the curve of the ridge and rising from the valley floor as if the gods created it. This temple took its inspiration from a temple built about 500 years earlier (circa 2000 BCE) by a renowned ruler, Mentuhotep 2. One of the ways the Hatshepsut legitimized her rule was to mirror the works and activities of renowned forebears.
These temples are aligned directly across the Nile from the gigantic Temple of Karnak, and both featured prominently in the Beautiful Feast of the Valley, an annual ritual celebrating those who has passed into the afterlife (sort of like today’s Day of the Dead). The sacred barques bearing images of the gods were taken out of their hidden sanctuaries at Karnak, ferried across the Nile and carried to the Deir el Bahri temple where offerings were made as the gods made a ritual visit to the afterlife, and Egyptians made their own offerings at the tombs of beloved ancestors and family members. The sacred barques were then hauled back across the Nile and everyone enjoyed a rollicking holiday with feasting and lots of beer.
Visitors approach the temple up a long walk that was originally paralleled by myrrh trees brought back from the Land of Punt by one of Hatshepsut’s trading expeditions. The second floor terrace was originally lined with statues of Hatshepsut, some of which have been restored. A shrine to the goddess Hathor is on the left, and a shrine to the god Anubis on the right. The third floor holds a solar court and offering spaces for the mortuary cults of Hatshepsut and Thutmose 3.