Ancient Egyptians preserved the bodies of their dead because they believed the soul would need the body in the afterlife. After death, the soul would encounter a series of tests. If it passed, it would go on to eternal life, an idyllic version of the life they had before death, complete with their well-preserved body and all the comforts of the objects they had loved in life, which were buried with them.
The mummification process varied some over many centuries; for example, sometimes the brain was removed, sometimes not. When it was removed, a hook was inserted up the nasal passage and the brain was pulled out bit by bit through the nose.
The lungs, liver, intestines and stomach were removed and packed in natron, a kind of salt, which pulled the moisture out. The heart was considered the seat of the soul and intelligence, so was left in place.
The removed organs were stored in canopic jars and buried with the mummy or packed back into the body after being dried. Even when the organs were returned to the body, the canopic jars went into the tomb to protect them. The god Imsety, with the head of a man, protected the heart. Hapy, the baboon-headed god, protected the lungs. Duamutef, the jackel-headed god, protected the stomach. Qebehsenuef, the falcon-headed god, protected the intestines.
The body was packed in natron and left for 45 days. Then it was oiled and wrapped in linen strips, which were coated in resin for a tight seal. Amulets were placed around the body inside the wrapping to aid in the passage to the afterlife. The well-wrapped body was placed in one or more coffins, usually more, which were then placed in a sarcophagus.
The whole process was very sacred and performed by priests, with prayers and incantations throughout. For the most part, only royalty and the upper classes could afford to be mummified. The poor person’s mummification happened naturally in the super-dry climate of Egypt.
Visit the Mummy Room at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo to see royal mummies from the New Kingdom, when the mummification process was most advanced.
This morning we flew from Cairo to Luxor for a 4-night Nile cruise. Flight time was exactly one hour.
Luxor airport is pretty low-key. We had our bags and were on our way within about 15 minutes of landing. The drive from the airport to the center of Luxor, where our boat was docked, is less than 5 miles.
Although some of the cruise boats were double parked so cruisers had to walk through a boat or two to reach their vessel, we were lucky to find ours parked right alongside the dock. We were cruising on the deluxe 5-star Amarco, in a junior suite.
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.
About 25 miles south of Cairo, Dahshur is a necropolis of ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom and site of some of the very first pyramids in Egypt. The so-called Bent Pyramid was the first try at a smooth-sided pyramid in the evolution from the Step Pyramid to the true pyramid form that we are familiar with. For reasons not entirely clear, construction of the Bent Pyramid began at a 52-degree angle of inclination but changed partway up to a more gradual 43-degree incline. Structural and foundation issues were most likely the reason for that. Whatever the reason, the Bent Pyramid preserves evidence of the development of architecture and engineering in ancient Egypt.
Despite the angle miscalculation, builders of the Bent Pyramid successfully encased the monument in polished limestone, a major step forward in pyramid construction and a standard element in later pyramids. More than four thousand years later, it is the only pyramid in Egypt with most of its outer limestone casing intact.
The Bent Pyramid was built for the pharaoh Sneferu, but it is doubtful he was buried there. He was reportedly not pleased with the imperfection and ordered another pyramid nearby. Now known as the Red Pyramid, it is the first known true pyramid.
Between the two pyramids, it’s more likely he was buried in the latter, but there’s no conclusive evidence either way. The chambers of both pyramids are empty, surely looted by grave robbers thousands of years ago. Sneferu was the first pharaoh of the 4th Dynasty and father of Khufu, for whom the Great Pyramid at Giza was built.