The Theban Necropolis
The Theban necropolis is the most popular archaeological site in Upper Egypt and one of the main attractions of a holiday in Luxor. Guided tours will take the visitor on a brief trip around the main monuments which usually include the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens, perhaps entering three tombs in each area. Occasionally there may also be time to see two or three Nobles tombs, but these usually necessitate a separate visit to the West Bank.
The Valley of the Kings was in ancient times known as ‘Ta-sekhet-aat’ which means ‘The Great Field’. This is a deceptive name for the bleak majestic wadi hollowed out of scorching cliffs of the Theban mountain in which the New Kingdom pharaohs chose to hide their tombs. The peak of the mountain is locally known as el-Qurn, meaning ‘the Horn’ but it was perhaps its evocative pyramid-shape which decided the location of the royal burial place. The mountain actually forks into two wadis, the main branch forming the Valley of the Kings and the secondary branch the Western Valley, which contains the tombs of only two known kings, Amenhotep III (WV22) and Ay (WV23). The main Valley contains sixty-two known tombs (numbered KV1-62) but only twenty-four of them contained royal burials, many others being empty or undecorated, or belonging to privileged high-status officials of Thebes. The time-scale of the royal necropolis covers the whole of the New Kingdom.
The majority of the tombs are not open to visitors due to their poor state of preservation, so I have only listed tombs currently open and those which may have been open recently or are due to open in the future. The accessibility does vary from time to time. It is difficult to know who was the earliest pharaoh to be buried in the Valley, but it is currently thought to be Tuthmose I (KV38) the father of Queen Hatshepsut. There is also speculation that a tomb (KV39) was built for an earlier king Amenhotep I. The design of each tomb varies throughout the period in which they were built and it is interesting to see the progression of shape and decoration from the earliest ones to the later Ramesside tombs.
Many of the queens of the New Kingdom were buried in a separate valley at the southern end of the Theban necropolis. This was begun in Dynasty XVIII with the burials of royal princes and princesses as well as important members of the royal court. It was not until the reign of Rameses II that the ladies who held the title ‘King’s Wife’ were interred here. The ancient Egyptians called the Valley of the Queens ‘Ta-set-neferu’ which may have actually referred to the king’s children rather than ‘Place of Beauty’ which is the usual interpretation. More than sixty of the tombs in the Queen’s Valley are simple funerary shafts which mostly date back to Dynasty XVIII, with larger more complex structures dating to the Ramesside kings. Only two queens’ tombs and two tombs of royal princes are currently open to visitors.
The private or ‘Nobles’ tombs are scattered along the eastern slopes of the Theban mountain between the Queen’s Valley and the King’s Valley. These belonged to those members of society who were powerful or wealthy enough to have a tomb built for themselves and their families. The more humble population were buried in simple graves in the sand. There are around five hundred private tombs, some very simple and others more complex and beautifully decorated. The changes in decoration can be seen through Dynasty XVIII to XX, but they are generally much more colourful and lively than the kings’ tombs and many of them give us a glimpse into the everyday lives and beliefs of the inhabitants of Thebes during these periods. Only twenty-three are currently open to visitors although many others are under excavation and restoration. They are generally grouped into areas, Deir el-Medina, Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna, Khokha and Asasif, and Dra ‘Abu el-Naga and tickets will usually allow admittance into two or three tombs in a particular area. I have only listed those which are currently open. The private tombs are listed in the relevant areas starting at Deir el-Medina at the southern end of the necropolis.
At the northern end of the necropolis in the village of el-Tarif there are Saff tombs of Dynasty XI kings, Inyotef I, II and III. These are low mounds with carved entrances but there is little to see of the remains which are near the modern Muslim cemetery and difficult to access. Two Old Kingdom mudbrick mastaba tombs were also excavated at el-Tarif by the German Archaeological Institute in the 1970s. The only decoration was a primitive offering niche on the south-eastern sides dating them to the early part of the Old Kingdom. They have since been backfilled to preserve them.
For further information on the Theban tombs see the Theban Mapping Project website.
See the Nicholas Reeves website for excavation diaries and other information of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project.
How to get there
To get to the West Bank you can either take a taxi from Luxor which will take the long route across the new Nile bridge, or take the passenger ferry from Luxor Corniche to el-Gezira. The ferry crosses the river constantly until late evening when it becomes less frequent. You can also cross the river by private motor boat and there are always taxis waiting at the ferry terminal to take visitors around the monuments. There is also the ‘arabaya’ or local bus service which will drop you off anywhere on the circuit, but doesn’t go into the King’s Valley. Bicycles can be hired in Luxor or at el-Gezira. Tickets must be purchased at the main ticket office (the ‘taftish’ is around 6 kilometres from the ferry, just past the Colossi of Memnon) before going to the tombs, but tickets for the Kings Valley and Queens Valley should be bought at the gates. Most sites are open from 6.00am to 4.00pm in the winter season and a little longer in the summer.