The Valley of the Kings, also known as the Valley of the Gates of the Kings is a valley in Egypt where, for a period of nearly 500 years from the 16th to 11th century BC, rock-cut tombs were excavated for the pharaohs and powerful nobles of the New Kingdom (the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Dynasties of Ancient Egypt).
The valley stands on the west bank of the Nile, opposite Thebes (modern Luxor), within the heart of the Theban Necropolis The wadi consists of two valleys, East Valley (where the majority of the royal tombs are situated) and West Valley.
With the 2005 discovery of a new chamber and the 2008 discovery of two further tomb entrances, the valley is known to contain 64 tombs and chambers (ranging in size from KV54, a simple pit, to KV5, a complex tomb with over 120 chambers). It was the principal burial place of the major royal figures of the Egyptian New Kingdom, as well as a number of privileged nobles. The royal tombs are decorated with scenes from Egyptian mythology and give clues as to the beliefs and funerary practices of the period. Almost all of the tombs seem to have been opened and robbed in antiquity, but they still give an idea of the opulence and power of the pharaohs.
This area has been a focus of archaeological and Egyptological exploration since the end of the eighteenth century, and its tombs and burials continue to stimulate research and interest. In modern times the valley has become famous for the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun (with its rumors of the curse of the pharaohs) and is one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. In 1979, it became a World Heritage Site, along with the rest of the Theban Necropolis. Exploration, excavation, and conservation continue in the valley, and a new tourist center has recently been opened.
The official name for the site in ancient times was The Great and Majestic Necropolis of the Millions of Years of the Pharaoh, Life, Strength, Health in The West of Thebes (see below for the hieroglyphic spelling), or Ta-sekhet-ma’at (the Great Field).
In the Eighteenth Dynasty, only kings were buried within the valley in large tombs. When a non-royal person was buried, it was in a small rock-cut chamber, close to the tomb of their master, Amenhotep III’s tomb was constructed in the Western Valley, and while his son Akhenaten moved his tomb’s construction to Amarna, it is thought that the unfinished WV25 may have originally been intended for him. With the return to religious orthodoxy at the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Tutankhamun, Ay, and Horemheb returned to the royal necropolis.
The Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties saw an increase in the number of burials (both here and in the Valley of the Queens), with Ramesses II and later Ramesses III each constructing a massive tomb used for the burial of their sons (KV5 and KV3 respectively). There are some kings that are not buried within the valley or whose tomb has not been located: Thutmose II may have been buried in Dra’ Abu el-Naga’ (although his mummy was in the Deir el-Bahari tomb cache), Smenkhkare’s burial has never been located, and Ramesses VIII seems to have been buried elsewhere.
In the Pyramid Age, the pyramid tomb of a king was associated with a mortuary temple located close to the pyramid. Since the tombs of the kings in the Valley of the Kings were hidden, the kings’ mortuary temples were located away from their burial sites, closer to the cultivation facing Thebes. These mortuary temples became places visited during the various festivals held in the Theban necropolis. Most notable is the Beautiful festival of the valley, where the sacred barques of Amun-Re, his consort, Mut, and son, Khonsu, left the temple at Karnak in order to visit the funerary temples of deceased kings on the West Bank and their shrines in the Theban Necropolis
The tombs were constructed and decorated by the workers of the village of Deir el-Medina, located in a small wadi between this valley and the Valley of the Queens, facing Thebes. The workers journeyed to the tombs through various routes over the Theban hills. The daily lives of these workers are quite well known due to their being recorded in tombs and official documents. Amongst the events documented is perhaps the first recorded workers’ strike, detailed in the Turin Strike Papyrus.
Exploration of the valley
Main article: Exploration of the Valley of the Kings
View of the central East Valley, showing area around KV62
The valley has been a major focus of modern Egyptological exploration for the last two centuries. Prior to this time, it was a site for tourism in antiquity (especially during Roman times). The area illustrates the changes in the study of ancient Egypt, starting as antiquity hunting, and ending as the scientific excavation of the whole Theban Necropolis. Despite the exploration and investigation noted below, only eleven of the tombs have actually been completely recorded.
Many of the tombs have graffiti written by those ancient tourists. Jules Baillet has located over 2,100 Greek and Latin instances of graffiti, along with a smaller number in Phoenician, Cypriot, Lycian, Coptic, and other languages. The majority of the ancient graffiti is found in KV9, which contains just under a thousand of them. The earliest positively dated graffiti dates to 278 B.C.
Entrance to a royal tomb, drawn in 1821
In 1799, members of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt (especially Vivant Denon) drew maps and plans of the known tombs, and for the first time noted the Western Valley (where Prosper Jollois and Édouard de Villiers du Terrage located the tomb of Amenhotep III, WV22). The Description de l’Égypte contains two volumes (out of a total of 24) on the area around Thebes.
European exploration continued in the area around Thebes during the nineteenth century. Early in the century, the area was visited by Giovanni Belzoni, working for Henry Salt, who discovered several tombs, including those of Ay in the West Valley (WV23) in 1816 and Seti I (KV17) the following year. At the end of his visits, Belzoni declared that all of the tombs had been located and nothing of note remained to be found. Working at the same time was Bernardino Drovetti, the French Consul-General and a great rival of Belzoni and Salt. John Gardner Wilkinson, who lived in Egypt from 1821 to 1832, copied many of the inscriptions and artwork in the tombs that were open at the time. The decipherment of hieroglyphs, though still incomplete during Wilkinson’s stay in the valley, enabled him to assemble a chronology of New Kingdom rulers based on the inscriptions in the tombs. He also established the system of tomb numbering that has been in use, with additions, ever since
The second half of the century saw a more concerted effort to preserve, rather than simply gather, antiquities. Auguste Mariette’s Egyptian Antiquities Service started to explore the valley, first with Eugène Lefébure in 1883, then Jules Baillet and Georges Bénédite in early 1888, and finally Victor Loret in 1898 to 1899. Loret added a further 16 tombs to the list, and explored several tombs that had already been discovered During this time Georges Daressy explored KV9.
When Gaston Maspero was reappointed as head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, the nature of the exploration of the valley changed again. Maspero appointed English archaeologist Howard Carter as the Chief Inspector of Upper Egypt, and the young man discovered several new tombs and explored several others, clearing KV42 and KV20.
Entrance to Horemheb’s tomb, soon after its discovery in 1908
Around the start of the 20th century, American explorer Theodore M. Davis had the excavation permit for the valley. His team (led mostly by Edward R. Ayrton) discovered several royal and non-royal tombs (including KV43, KV46 and KV57). In 1907, they discovered the possible Amarna Period cache in KV55. After finding what they thought was all that remained of the burial of Tutankhamun (items recovered from KV54 and KV58), it was announced that the valley was completely explored and that no further burials were to be found. Davis’s 1912 publication, The Tombs of Harmhabi and Touatânkhamanou closes with the comment, “I fear that the Valley of Kings is now exhausted.”
After Davis’s death early in 1915, Lord Carnarvon acquired the concession to excavate the valley, and he employed Howard Carter to explore it. After a systematic search, they discovered the actual tomb of Tutankhamun (KV62) in November 1922.
Various expeditions have continued to explore the valley, adding greatly to the knowledge of the area. In 2001 the Theban Mapping Project designed new signs for the tombs, providing information and plans of the open tombs
there are special organized tours to the area