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Valley of the Kings

World-renowned archaeologist Zahi Hawass recalls one of his earliest visits to the Valley of the Kings, which led him to archaeology

Zahi Hawass, Wednesday 19 Jan 2011
Zahi Hawass
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In my early years, I was sitting one day at the Sheikh Ali Abdel Rassoul Hotel on Luxor's west bank. Beside me was Sheikh Nagdy, the monuments' chief guard. This was the beginning of my life in archaeology. I said to Sheikh Nagdy, “come with me to the Valley of the Kings.” I wanted to climb the valley and go to the top.

The Valley of the Kings is a unique burial site. It was chosen by Queen Hatshepsut (c. 1473-1458 BC), amongst others, as the site of her tomb once she became queen and she had it cut deep into the rock of the cliffside. Hatshepsut’s tomb, known as KV20, may be the oldest royal tomb in the valley and is 210.32m long. It is full of bats, which, as you can imagine, makes it unpleasant and slippery to explore. I tried to enter it one day and found that after I had only gone a few meters, I had fallen on the floor! I had to use ropes to get all the way into the burial chamber, just like Howard Carter (1874-1939) did. Inside, Carter, who worked in the tomb in 1903-04, found two sarcophagi - one for Hatshepsut, now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and one for her father, Thutmosis I (c. 1504-1492 BC), now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

So far, 63 tombs have been found in the Valley of the Kings, but despite its name, only 26 of those were tombs for kings! What is amazing about them is that each one is different from the other and they were considered the homes of the kings for their afterlife. The tombs were all decorated with religious texts to help the king get past the various barriers and tests he needed to to reach the netherworld and live there for eternity. One example is the Book of Gates, which describes 12 gates guarded by snakes, who each asked the king a question that he had to answer until he eventually met Osiris and became a god too.

I began to climb the valley cliff carefully and after an hour I reached the top. This area is known as al-Qurn, the ‘horn.’ This peak has the shape of a pyramid and marks the entrance to the valley, and may be one of the reasons why this location was chosen by the Ancient Egyptian kings of the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1070 BC). They were aware of how unsecure prominent burial places, like the pyramids of the Old (c. 2649-2134 BC) and Middle Kingdoms (c. 2030-1802 BC), were and wanted a new, hidden and more easily guarded place. The presence of al-Qurn meant that they could still have tombs under the shape of a pyramid and continue the older tradition.

While I was sitting with the valley spread out below me, I fell asleep. At midnight I woke up again to the sound of Sheikh Nagdy’s voice. I had been dreaming that one day I would be excavating in the Valley of the Kings because, of the 63 tombs that have been discovered there, not one of them has been found by an Egyptian team. At that time, the last tomb that had been discovered there was that of Tutankhamun (c. 1336-1327 BC) by Howard Carter in 1922, but the valley still contains many secrets, such as the resting places of Amenhotep I (c. 1525-1504 BC), which some scholars believe is underneath Hatshepsut’s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, Thutmosis II (c. 1492-1479 BC) and Ramesses VIII (c. 1129-1126 BC). Some queens of the 18th Dynasty (c. 1550-1295 BC) were buried in the Valley of the Kings too!

At dawn I got up and climbed back down to the valley floor, dreaming that I would one day discover a tomb there too. I found Sheikh Nagdy snoring with a voice loud enough to wake the dead kings!

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