Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Valley of the Kings: Gateway to the Egyptian afterlife

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Taking photos in the Valley of the Kings is not allowed. This image is of Hatshepsut Temple, a mortuary temple that lies just over the mountains from the valley. Photo / Jill Worrall
Taking photos in the Valley of the Kings is not allowed. This image is of Hatshepsut Temple, a mortuary temple that lies just over the mountains from the valley. Photo / Jill Worrall

If the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were looking down on the scenes that unfold each day in the Valley of the Kings in the Nile Valley, I wonder what they might think?

Every day, thousands of visitors queue to shuffle their way deep underground and visit the lasting resting places of the mummified remains of the rulers of Egypt from at least 3500 years ago.

The pharaohs, of course, never believed that they would be forever locked in these remote, underground tombs.

For them, burial was just a step on their final journey to the afterlife. To help them on their way they were entombed with food, furniture, even miniature statuettes of servants who would serve them after death.

Only the most exquisite and most expensive of offerings were buried with the kings so even thousands of years ago, their tombs were a magnet for grave robbers.

But 3500 years ago, Tuthmosis I came up with a way to thwart the thieves. Rather than be buried at his clearly visible funerary temple he decided to have a tomb dug deep under the rugged, barren Theban Hills beside the Nile.

Sadly his plan failed and his grave, along with almost all the other 61 here, were eventually discovered and ransacked.

The most notable exception was that of the boy king Tutankhamun, whose almost intact tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922.

Although the grave robbers managed to remove almost all the other treasures (luckily many of the actual mummies were left behind) they could not touch the incredible paintings that adorn the long corridors, and antechambers that honeycomb the hillsides.

I was thankful I visited in the Egyptian winter because even then, in what passes for cooler weather in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, the sun was heating up the parched ground and bouncing off the craggy valley sides.

Every day only a handful of tombs are open on a rotation system for visitors in an attempt to lessen their impact on the delicate frescoes.

Our entry ticket gave us access to three tombs. One was the tomb of Ramses IV, reached by a long, gently sloping underground ramp. The entry corridor was covered with symbolic paintings but the highlight is the chamber itself which has a blue starry ceiling with the Goddess Nut stretching her long arms over and above the sarcophagi to protect the king.

The colours are startlingly vivid ... bright lapis and turquoise blues, deep ochres and golds, jet blacks and snowy whites. None of the paintings have been retouched - they remain just as the painters created them three millennia ago.

Surrounded by the babel of a dozen languages and fighting back the claustrophobia that comes from being in such a crush of sweaty bodies it's an effort to block out the present and step back in time. But it is still possible to find a corner out of the flow of humanity and become acquainted with the panoply of Egyptian gods and goddesses - falcon headed Horus, the sun god Ra, Osiris and Isis and the god of mummification himself, Anubis.

It costs extra to visit the tomb of Tutankhamun but I was astonished to find that instead of joining maybe a few dozen in his tomb, there was only me, my companion and the guard.

Tutankhamun's burial chamber is much less richly painted than many of his fellow royals, hence some visitors regard it as not worth the entrance fee.

But, there's something especially eerie and rather poignant about being able to stand in silence beside the actual mummified body of the young pharaoh.

His body was returned to his tomb about two years ago and lies with just head and feet exposed under a simple white shroud. He looks small, delicate - he does not exude power (as even the stone coffin that houses Tamerlane does for me in Samarkand) but rather a feeling of shared humanity.

In the chamber opposite is the sarcophagus of quartzite in which Carter found the first of two inlaid gold plated wooden sarcophagi. Inside the smaller of the two he was astonished to discover a 110kg solid gold coffin, inside which was the mummy, smothered in gold and jewels. This entire ensemble was itself enclosed in four gilded wooden containers, one inside the other.

On the wall behind the sarcophagus is a wall painting depicting the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony; just before the deceased was buried their mouth was opened to reactive their senses in the afterlife.

When we emerged into the blinding Theban sunlight we stood away from the crowds for a little longer and surveyed the mountains around us.

Are there still tombs to be discovered here? Were we being fanciful in wondering what might still lie under our feet, or more realistically under the hillsides further off the beaten trails?

Strangely just a few days ago there appeared a news report that the Amarna Royal Tombs Project research using ground penetrating radar had found eight unexplained "anomalies" that could be previously unknown tombs.

Maybe we weren't being so far-fetched after all.

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