The Valley of the Kings, located near Luxor, Egypt, sits in the stunning Nile Valley. Once known as Thebes, it was the Egyptian people’s royal capital and contains some 63 tombs of royalty from several early dynasties, offering a fantastic look into mankind’s earliest recorded history.
My much anticipated trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site was everything I expected it to be, and more. I’ve long been hypnotized by hieroglyphs and drawn down to underground sites, be it caves to spelunk or archaeological tombs to explore. Seeing mankind’s early history in richly carved form was worth the wait.
My recommendation is to include this visit as part of a Nile River cruise, which adds a cooling and humid element to an otherwise very dry, dusty climate that usually ranges from 100-108 F (37-43 C). This is an expansive desert zone, after all. Travelling with a group also deters sellers and touts a bit on-site, and this can help to shield single women from this constant push of purveyors.
You can also take Egyptair flights with return from Cairo to Luxor, or go by daytime air-conditioned (A/C) train with express seating; overnight A/C express train with sleeper; or, the same, but with deluxe sleeper.
After this leg, you have several options to get to the Valley, only a 7 km (4.4 mile) trip – all involve taking the ferry across the Nile. Minibuses abound, but taxis, our choice, are quite popular. Some might like to rent a motorcycle or bicycle – if so, helmets are suggested. These latter modes usually require leaving a passport as deposit.
Into the Valley
Once known alternately as the ‘Place of Truth’ or the ‘Great Necropolis of Millions of Years of Pharaohs,’ the Valley of the Kings is actually two valleys, as I soon discovered. Leaders from the New Kingdom period (1550-1069 BC) are buried in one area, with tomb placement based upon the time of their reign. Howard Carter’s 1922 opening of the tombs here made news around the world.
Over 50 royal figures’ remains were recently discovered in a chamber unearthed at a depression in the ground. Anthropologists are still examining bones, textiles, death masks, wooden coffins and other items discovered in the tomb. The University of Basel, Switzerland, and Egyptian government pros worked in tandem on the project, according to Mohamed Ibrahim, Egypt’s Antiquities Minister.
Visit the west bank to see tombs of kings’ burials from the First Intermediate Period (2160-2025 BC) onwards. Pharaohs from the 18th-dynasty era selected burial in a more hidden, west-facing valley overshadowed by the thrusting peak of Al-Qurn (‘The Horn’). Tombs here were easier to guard from above and saw the setting sun’s rays – believed to be good in the afterlife.
Test of Time
As with most antiquities sites, time’s ravages (including entrance-blocking floods) and robbers have taken their toll. The tombs, each now designated by a ‘KV number’ denoting its size and other information, have had many treasures stolen from them for centuries. However, many items have also been recovered and can be viewed in Cairo’ museums, as well as in other cities around the world.
I’ll confess to readying for the hot cross-valley trip at the visitor centre, by lapping up cold soft drinks and ice cream. Take loads of liquids along, to face the heat of the wadi (valley) in midday. Though I spent some time walking in the heat to prepare for this tour, I still decided to take the low-cost tuf-tuf, a small electric train, from the centre to the tombs. (probably a must during summer months!)
My habit of hitting tourist sites early matched that of a lovely Maltese couple, Manuel and Arisa, whom I met on the cruise and accompanied on the Valley tour. Arriving earlier (entry hours: 6 AM-4 PM in winter, 5 PM in summer), we beat at least some of the heat and crowds. It’s cool in the darkened tombs, sometimes even ‘chilling’ with the sense one gets from descending into these honorary burial chambers.
Tops in Tombs
What I found most appealing about visiting the Egyptian tombs (i.e., the open ones, some are closed for restoration or safety reasons), is that they differ a great deal in style of decoration. My favourites were the tombs of Ramses V and VI. The walls are elaborately decorated with forms from several ancient Books: Gates; the Dead; the Night; the Day; Caverns; and, Imydwat. Coptic, Latin and Greek graffiti look a bit eerie, but also spectacular. carved over the painted walls.
Splendid detailed designs grace the burial chamber ceiling: images in gold and black from the Book of Day and Night depict the life cycle of the sky goddess, reviving the pharaohs’ souls. Ramses’ tomb, like those of Tutankhamen and Ay, are must-sees.
Hatshepsut’s Temple is an amazing part of the Valley, with its long, ascending ramp of stairs and a series of columns and towering pharaonic statues on the second level. Though Tutankamen’s tomb is one of the most popular of all Egyptian sites, I was a tad let down by the relatively sparse ‘King Tut’ chamber. However, you can see the rich contents of this tomb at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, definitely worth a stop.
I’d also suggest seeing the White, Alabaster and Red chapels of the Karnak Open Air Museum, which requires a separate ticket, as do most features. Entered through the Karnak Temple, the museum is increasingly being filled with quality inventory, stored on plinths throughout the grounds. Breathtaking in terms of their age and beauty, they’re mostly made of sandstone quartz.
We loved seeing Luxor’s Temple at night: the rich spotlighting of the stone walls and columns is very impressive as they soar up to about 18 m (60 ft). Carved glyphs stand out on the columns and the golden lighting creates nice shadows missed in the glaring sunshine.
Plans are in place, at this writing, to also light tombs for night visits, mainly to protect them from visitors’ perspiration, which dulls the pigments in paintings and reliefs – lighting was being erected during our tour. Note that picture taking is not allowed in the tombs, primarily to avoid pigment-killing flashes. If you cannot resist taking photos (not recommended), keep a bribe handy if you get caught. This can be touchy and you can be ejected from the site. Also bring a torch (flashlight), as guides often balk at using theirs, showing the dark side of the tombs in another way, greed.
Hot Tips for a Hot Trip
A trip to the desert requires planning, and even when your destination is a world famous and much visited tourist site it’s important to carry the right supplies and have your wits about you. Here are some hot tips for a hot trip.
- Take lots of small bills for tips, bribes and keeping attendants happy. Giving out a few 1LE bills is the price of being a tourist in Egypt. It can readily open ‘closed’ tombs, add stunning perks, or simply get rid of a frightfully bothersome tout.
- Water can be purchased outside most of the sites but not always inside – and you’ve been warned about being warmed.
- Study up on the Theban Mapping Project in advance of the trip. It’s an on-going and most informative database of the whole Thebes area, begun in 1978. It will inform you and definitely add to your tomb tours.
- Avoid letting guards in the tombs take your picture (it’s against the rules) for a bribe. Once they have your camera, they can take any type of picture, and report you to the authorities, creating a major problem.
- Camera check-in is just after the entrance point, so taking pictures outside of the tombs is not allowed either. If you want to take outdoor photos, be sure to use caution in doing so.