The capital of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt (approximately 1550-1070 BCE) was Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt, about 300 miles south of Cairo. Southern Egypt is called Upper Egypt because it’s upriver from northern (Lower) Egypt. The Nile is one of the rare rivers that flows northward, from central Africa to the Mediterranean Sea. The 18th, 19th and 20th dynasties ruled during the New Kingdom.
It was the golden age of ancient Egypt, with expanded territory and increased political stability, wealth and power. The pharaohs of the New Kingdom used the resources they might otherwise spend on warring to build massive temples, colossal statues and obelisks. They also began to hide their tombs rather than advertise them with pyramids.
A valley deep within the mountains on the west bank of the Nile across from Thebes was chosen as the burial grounds of New Kingdom pharaohs, their families and members of the nobility. In general, burial places were located on the west bank of the Nile, where the sun “died” each day and temples on the east bank, where the sun rose. To date, 62 tombs have been discovered in the Valley of the Kings, ranging in size from a single chamber to sprawling networks of passageways with over 100 chambers.
Ancient Egyptians believed they would live on after death in an idealized version of the life they had known. They were buried with all the furnishings and fixtures of their life because they would need them. (That is, if they made it through the rigorous tests of character that led from death to the afterlife, but that’s a subject for another post.) Tomb robbing was quite an industry in those days. In the New Kingdom period, even common people took their worldly goods to the grave but, of course, the pharaoh had the best goods of all and royal tombs were hunted with singular focus by smart and daring thieves. The remoteness of the Valley of Kings was part of its security system. As a further precaution, the tombs were cut deep into the mountains and then constructed in complicated layouts, with the valuables stashed in the deepest, most out-of-the-way crevice. Despite all that, very few tombs survived unmolested into the modern age and most were pillaged within a few years of being sealed.
The tomb of Tutankhamun is the most famous intact tomb discovered. King Tut’s tomb can be visited in the Valley of the Kings and the tomb treasures can be seen at the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.
Not all tombs in the Valley of the Kings are open to visitors and those that are open rotate to protect them from the impact of the thousands of tourists that come through every day. Admission tickets include three tombs. The admission to King Tut’s tomb is not included in the general admission to the Valley of the Kings.
What you’ll find in the tombs are intricately painted corridors and rooms. Walls and ceilings are covered in scenes from the life of the pharaoh, happy experiences that he would like to carry with him into the afterlife, as well as prayers and spells to help ensure that he reached his destination. The way to the afterlife was treacherous and tomb paintings envisioned a successful passage, with the help of various gods.
Click here to see tours to Egypt that include a visit to the Valley of the Kings.
In Ancient Egypt, the New Year, Wepet Renpet (literally – the opening of the year), was based on the annual flooding of the Nile River, an earthly cycle which usually coincided with a heavenly cycle as well. In July, priests would watch for the reappearance of the star Sirius after a 70-day absence from view. The star’s return heralded the coming flood and reset the calendar for a new year. Ancients attributed flooding to the gods, but in reality it was due to heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands.
The New Year was marked with community feasting and a mix of hope and fear. The annual flood left behind rich deposits of silt, which fertilized crops to feed the entire country. Just the right amount of flooding assured a fruitful harvest; too little could mean famine; too much could mean destruction. Flood levels varied from south to north, with higher levels in the south. On average, the river rose about 36 feet. Waters were fully receded in October; then planting began. Since the completion of the Aswan High Dam in 1970, the Nile in Egypt no longer floods.
Is there a reader on your Christmas list who is fascinated with ancient Egypt?
How about you? Here are three page-turners, full of real, historical intrigue and well-drawn, relatable characters – Michelle Moran’s historical fiction novels about three of ancient Egypt’s most famous women:
Nerfertiti was the wife of the iconoclastic pharaoh Akhenaten, best known for his monotheism. He worshiped the sun god Aten, to the exclusion of the many other Egyptian gods. Nefertiti is popularly known for her great beauty, based on the bust pictured above. There is no question she was at the center of one of ancient Egypt’s most interesting periods.
The Heretic Queen
This is the story of Nefertari, queen of Ramesses II (the Great), who reigned for 66 years and is widely considered Egypt’s most powerful pharaoh and possibly the pharaoh, Moses’ adopted brother, who refused to set the Hebrew slaves free in the Exodus story. Ramesses II’s love and respect for Nefertari is exemplified in the temple he built for her at Abu Simbel. Not only is it one of the few temples built in the name of a queen but it’s the only known instance in ancient Egyptian art where a queen is portrayed equal in size to the pharaoh. Nefertari’s tomb is spectacular, the most beautiful of all the royal tombs discovered in Egypt.
Cleopatra was the last pharaoh of Egypt, although she was actually Greek and didn’t even speak Egyptian. She was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt from the conquest of Alexander the Great to that of Rome. Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene II and her twin brother Alexander Helios were the products of Cleopatra’s affair with the Roman officer Mark Antony. This book tells the story of Cleopatra Selena II after the death of her parents, when she was taken to Rome by her parents’ rival, Octavian, the future Roman Emperor Augustus.